Life in a Free World
It’s official: WildStar’s going Free to Play this fall. Following significant rumors these last few weeks, Carbine Studios confirmed the news earlier, outlining some early details of what players can expect following the transition. There’s also word on what the studio calls ‘Player Appreciation Awards,’ rewarding those who stay subscribed until the switch happens.
For seasoned MMO watchers, this all feels rather inevitable. WildStar may have held out longer than most, but now seems to be following the same route taken by almost every other recent launch. That said, the Megaserver consolidation and regular updates have certainly helped the sci-fi-themed action-fest, with Drop 5: INVASION adding a considerable chunk of content and quality of life improvements.
But just how much do we know about the planned business model change? In this week’s column, I’ll be examining what a free-to-play WildStar might actually look like. I’ll also be reviewing some of the more serious clangers the studio must avoid in order to make sure the switch is a success. But before all that, let me quickly recap what we know about Carbine’s plans for the business model change.
I love WildStar. Yet in the months before and after launch, there’s one question that still bothers me: why on Earth did Carbine decide to launch with a subscription. Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that a fresh IP by an unknown studio would struggle to have the pulling power that a subscription required, and would be better off forging a free to play path. Even the buy-to-play approach used by NCSoft stablemate ArenaNet in Guild Wars 2 could have worked.
Even with the EVE Online-style wrinkle that allowed players to swap cash for tradable CREDD subscription tokens, it simply wasn’t enough to combat the significant retention problems that WildStar suffered from at launch. Almost a year on and numerous improvements later, the MMO finally feels like a game ready for primetime. At this point, dropping the subscription and bringing in large swathes of new players is absolutely the best action for the studio.
That doesn’t mean WildStar’s subscription is heading to the history books. The ‘Signature Service’ optional membership sounds a lot like RIFT’s Patron system or TERA’s Elite Status, bundling bonuses to XP, loot, and crafting, if you’re familiar with those systems. I’m also hoping that Carbine avoids some of the draconian (and in some cases ludicrous) lockdowns that accompanied SWTOR’s free to play switch in an attempt to crowbar open as many wallets as possible.
CREDD will also still have a role to play, as the token will instead provide 30 days of Signature Service. It feels like the right approach, granting time-rich players the opportunity to get all of those premium perks without reaching for the credit card. I’m also hoping that this fiscal flexibility extends to the other aspect of Carbine’s plans: microtransactions.
Opening a New Storefront
Besides switching the subscription from mandatory to optional, WildStar will also include an in-game store. We’ve seen this type of thing before, with Guild Wars 2 being a particularly fine example of offering a mix of cosmetic and convenience items. But, while I secretly hope that Carbine’s is ‘Powered by Protostar,’ I also hope that the studio avoids some of the more significant pitfalls.
Firstly, if there’s the merest whiff of pay to win, I think most players will quit in response. If Carbine can’t resist the pressure – either from market forces or senior investors – then it should instead consider switching off the servers and calling time on the Nexus Project. While it’s true that Western gamers have moved away from subscription-MMOs in a big way, we’re also hugely against games that can turn cash into instant power.
But it’s also got to be open to all. The store will use NCoin, which can be bought for real money, and Carbine has stated that most items can be bought through a time investment instead. What I’d really like to see though is some form of NCoin trading, a bit like RIFT’s REX tokens or Guild Wars 2’s Gems, or maybe even a way to convert CREDD to NCoin in the way EVE Online’s PLEX can be swapped for Aurum. I find that markets work best when everyone is encouraged to participate, regardless of how they fund it.
The Old and the New
Now that the cat is out of the free to play bag, Carbine Studios faces the real risk that players will unsubscribe until that as-yet unknown date in the fall. To counter this, the firm is offering player Rewards – and yes, that capital letter is deserved. For each current subscriber that keeps it in place until the switch, they’ll be rewarded with the ‘DJ Caretaker’ housing item, a Disco Snoglug pet, a title, and 4 months of Signature Service. However, if you’ve been subscribing since launch (and I’m one of them), Carbine will also throw in an extra title and Ikthian Crawler mount!
Every content update has seen the studio respond to player feedback, from the substantial PvE overhaul in Drop 1, through to the holo-wardrobe added in Drop 5. With the switch to free to play, Carbine will be cranking up the test servers once again, giving us the chance to provide vital feedback and help influence the final implementation of WildStar’s new business model. If you’re at all interested in the final health of the game, I’d strongly encourage you to clock up some hours on the PTR
While WildStar can handle the current volume of players in most scenarios (with the exception of some open-world contracts), I’d strongly suggest that Carbine also looks at making sure their systems actually hold up to a surge of new players. That might involve Overflow servers (again, as Guild Wars 2) or channel instances (as SWTOR), but helps to limit the number of players in a particular region. I’d also suggest improving the LFG tool, and sorting out the chat interface to include global defaults (and have more fine-tuning options).
To reinvigorate the addon community ahead of the free to play launch, I’d also look at starting an Addon Bounty program, offering NCoin rewards to addon authors that create up-to-date, popular addons. That way, new players will find a range of fresh addons that are known to work with the latest client, instead of a large list of outdated or broken code.
From the Frying Pan
I’ve said it before – WildStar has had a tough ride over the past twelve months. But they’re turning a corner, focusing on the important stuff, and delivering updates that are winning over fans. After the more recent updates, I feel like WildStar is finally in the position it needed to be at launch, and can only get better from here on out. With other planned changes like unlocking all AMP slots and reviewing existing early, open-world and dungeon content, it’s clear that the business model change isn’t the only thing on the studio’s mind.
But it needs to be done with care, and with the player experience at the forefront of developers’ minds. Microtransactions should mean just that – a $5 pet, not a $75 chandelier for your housing plot. Dyes, pets, and costumes should be one-off account purchases, not something to repeat on every character. Boom Boxes should make a return as a reward for testing and other menial tasks.
More than this though, Carbine needs to reward long-term loyalty, not with a one-off gift, but with regular rewards from here on out. RIFT does this well through a loyalty program that rewards extending your subscription or buying item store credits. EVE Online has a mechanism that rewards recruiting new players to New Eden. WildStar has an armada of fans that evangelize the game, and the studio could do more to benefit from it and reward them in turn.
In many eyes, the free to play switch represents an opportunity to relaunch WildStar and get a second bite of the apple. For Carbine Studios, through hard work and strong updates, it has managed to pull itself out of the frying pan. I just have my fingers crossed that the sci-fi MMO doesn’t land in the fire as a result.