The Burden of Freedom
Quem deus vult, perdere, dementat prius.
Sometimes misattributed to Euripedes, this quote means, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” I felt this was fitting, considering today's Devil's Advocate is more of a Consumer Advocate than anything else. The message of today's Consumer’s (not Devil’s) Advocate is simple: if you want to play the free-to-play version of Star Wars: The Old Republic, make sure you know what you're getting into.
My Checkered History
Before anything else, let me offer a background on why the things you will read below weigh heavily on me as someone who writes about issues regarding gaming and social media. My history with SWTOR is a little unique, in that the pitch I sent in to MMORPG.com for a shot at a job was all about SWTOR's regional restrictions. Suffice it to say that three weeks from now, I will be celebrating a year of writing for MMORPG.com.
While I owe the success of my application in part to SWTOR and its divisive, yet debatable, policies, it does not mean I will blindly support the through thick and thin. As you can probably expect, I will Electronic Arts to task in this piece.
One other funny thing about my history with SWTOR is that EA was one of the first distributors for The Secret World, a game I maintain a column on here. This write-up is tough love of the potentially bridge-burning kind. While it needs to be said, I sometimes fear what I write will affect businesses beyond the ones I am talking about in this piece. Still, I will press onward.
To Drive Insane
Quite a bit has been said about the free-to-play transition of SWTOR. In my opinion, the most notable thoughts about the transition have come from two sources: Josh Tolentino of Destructoid and Japanator, and Teddy Papes of Kill Screen.
Describing his impression of SWTOR on Twitter, Tolentino mentioned that compared against what is stereotypically described as “Asian” free-to-play, SWTOR has even more restrictions and is more heavily monetized. In a follow-up tweet, he says, “It's not so much 'pay to win' but 'pay to actually have something resembling a valid play experience.'
Papes sums up the very issue of SWTOR's free-to-play mechanism very well in a paragraph on his article. He writes,
“...EA is, at nearly every corner, trying to frustrate me into paying for this game. The best aspect of SWTOR is the divergent plot, which is already available for free. In essence, EA is trying to get me to pay for the ease at which I access this plot, but it won’t work because I am a stubborn free-to-play-er and because I have total access to the story, just at an inconvenience.”
The Inconvenient Truth
That's the problem right there, I suppose. Free-to-play is about convenience, and instead of monetizing convenience, SWTOR monetizes the removal of inconveniences they've purposely added to drive otherwise rational-thinking folk insane.
The positive way to go about free-to-play is being able to play a game at your own pace. It requires game developers to add on to the fruitful experience of play by getting people interested in things that augment their enjoyment of their personal journey. Any inconveniences are minor compared to the experience of play, because ultimately, what's important is that people enjoy the game they're playing.
I will be unkind in saying it takes the most inhuman effort to see profit in the discomfort of other people. Yet of all the games I've played and deconstructed in my head, SWTOR has few rivals in terms of how it practices its craft.
Truth be told, there are many free-to-play-games, all with different ways of presenting the same ideas on making you want to spend money on things. The following criteria should make it easy for you to determine if a game is treating you decently. While some of the following criteria are actually done in part by some companies, Star Wars: The Old Republic does all of the following things you should not do.
You Do Not...
In a decent free-to-play game, you do not make it difficult for people to find your free-to-play matrix. If your user privilege matrix is not noticeable on the front page, or if it takes more than two clicks, a minute, or a pair of reading glasses to find the actual link to it, you have failed consumers.
In a decent free-to-play game, you do not make it difficult to understand the user privilege matrix. These matrices should give people all the information they need as prospective players to make an informed decision AT A GLANCE. If you can make them printable, do that too! If it requires users to mouse over every single icon to find out what they gets or don't get as free players because someone in marketing wants to get cute with iconography, you have failed consumers.
In a decent free-to-play game, you do not take the loyalty of a player hostage. If someone in the company was smart enough to assign cash shop currency to the number of months you played a game, the person who was not as mentally agile should not be given the go-ahead to create a rewards program that holds these rewards for loyalty hostage behind a time-sensitive subscription requirement. If you hide the entire rotten deal as a rewards program because you think a PR spin will soften the blow, you have failed consumers.
In a decent free-to-play game, you do not lock the rewards for quests behind a subscription requirement. While this is debatable with dungeon and raid rewards, if someone worked their butt off to earn a bloody quest reward, he should have access to it. If you lock a player out of a reward, then hide it behind a US$15 paywall, you have failed consumers.
In a decent free-to-play game, you do not hinder the base mechanic that allows a person to play. You can make him look fugly by not giving him the option to remove his headgear. You can make fast travel a pain in the rear. You can even hinder his ability to craft behind the pay-wall. You can do all that, and someone will grudgingly pay you for the chance to lift those restrictions. If you, by some stroke of demonic discord, decide to lock a player's ability to place his skills on a skill bar by limiting the number of skill bars he can use behind a pay-wall, you have... actually, it's obvious that you're greedier than a Ferengi on Deep Space Nine... and that's not even a gods-be-damned Star Wars reference.
The Bottom Line
The point I make is simple. If you work for BioWare or EA, I feel for you. You're probably not very popular in gaming circles at the moment. More to the point, you've already launched your free-to-play initiative, and it's insane. You've made freedom more burdensome than paying a price upfront and it shows a marked disbelief in the ability of your product to draw a crowd.
If you can weather the trouble ahead, all well and good, but the people with far less patience than I will more readily state their allegiance to a Mon Calamari rebel leader named Ackbar. Moreover, they'll tell prospective players of SWTOR the same obvious realization Admiral Ackbar came to when he found out enemy ships were in sector 47.