Perhaps the only way to challenge World of Warcraft's subscription numbers is to produce a game made by a respected, fan favorite developer (BioWare) combined with one of the most popular franchises in geekdom (Star Wars) and backed by one of the biggest game producers known to man (EA) . It seems like a can't miss combination: talented developer, popular intellectual property, and gobs of money to make it happen. It worked once for BioWare with their very successful Knights of the Old Republic franchise; so why not print money by making it an MMOG? Sure, BioWare has never made an MMOG, but they seem to have all the right ideas. If you're interested in what some of those ideas are feel free to check out an older article of mine. It also lists detailed reasons why I think this game might be the next big thing.
So we've got a killer IP, a fan favorite developer, and a big name publisher. What's the next crucial element to surpassing WoW in subscription numbers? How about the subscription model itself? In a study by Parks Associates, most gamers, especially casual gamers, were more open to playing a free to play MMOG with microtransactions than a subscription based MMOG. Only gamers who described themselves as "power gamers" were more accepting of a subscription based model. Based on the results of their study, "Micro transaction models have the best potential to grow the U.S. MMORPG audience."
I don't know if EA or BioWare took that study into account when making a decision about their own business model, but generally speaking, it makes sense. Aside from the initial cost of the game, that means any WoW, LoTRO, EQ or other current MMOG subscriber can check out a new game and play it without making another ongoing monetary commitment. Once the gamer is hooked to the content (the first one's always free) and invested in his character, they can choose to further invest by making micropayments for additional content. How can that plan fail? That all depends on the implementation of the microtransaction model. As we all know by now, the details of that model have yet to be disclosed.
Since we don't know the details yet, all we can do is speculate. Based on my own thoughts and the reactions of many message board posters around the Intertubes, here's a short list of my ideal Dos and Don'ts when it comes to microtransactions. Feel free to add to this in the comments section.
Don't restrict the available classes.
People naturally assume we'll only be paying for specialty items and gear. But practically anything in the game could be set up as a microtransaction. Maybe we can all start out as peons in the Rebel or Imperial army, but to become Jedi we've got to pay a couple bucks to unlock the class or a new character slot (like Guild Wars). This would create a horrible, resentment filled, class-based system where rich gamers get to play the cool classes and the poor gamers play the drone classes. I can't imagine BioWare doing this, but you never know. Let's hope they don't.
Don't restrict our progression.
We should never reach a point, say, ten levels into the game, where we have to basically insert a quarter to continue playing the game. Don't leave us at a cliffhanger moment with no resolution. Expansion packs, even smaller, chapter-based ones are acceptable, but charging us to level up or to finish the primary storyline of the game just seems wrong. Likewise, we shouldn't be restricted to certain areas or questlines within the game.
Don't charge us for competitive gear
One of the biggest concerns probably centers around uber loot. If we have to pay for the best gear in the game in order to compete with each other, the freebie players will quit. It's really that simple. If the expensive gear always trumps the standard gear then what's the point of investing time acquiring standard gear? It's not a game of skill or devotion at that point, but a battle of who bought the most toys.
Offer us expansion packs.
Many single player games are getting smaller and cheaper by offering gamers chapter based series. This works well for games like Sam and Max and I could see it working for an MMOG. Essentially the developer would be offering us small chunks of the game for small fees that would help pay for the additional development cost associated with the expansions. As long as the prices are reasonable and they don't make use cheap cliffhangers to sell them, chapter-based content could work. With subscription based MMOGs, we expect "free" content and constant updates and events. In a free to play game, I doubt we'll be able to count on major patches that aren't bug fixes.
Offer us swag.
There are plenty of opportunities in the Star Wars universe to offer us special collectible items or other little goodies. I can see people spending real dollars on vanity pets, starships, lightsabers, and housing. As long as those vanity items don't give players an unfair advantage over those without; no harm done.
Offer us cosmetic enhancements.
As evidenced by Blizzard's decision to charge gamers for making gender, skin tone, and other cosmetic changes, people are willing to pay to customize their characters. Making special clothing, hairstyles, tattoos, jewelry and other tweaks to our avatars can be fun and wouldn't impact core gameplay mechanics.
I think one of the biggest fears with microtransactions is that the gamers willing to spend the most money will dominate the gamers who play for free. But if that was truly the case, why would anyone bother to play? BioWare and EA are smart. I'm sure they know that if they piss off their playerbase by creating an environment of haves and have nots, they'll soon see their players mass migrate back to their former MMOGs. While I'm not a big fan of microtransactions (I don't like the potential for hidden costs), it won't be the end of the world as long as they're handled intelligently. As long as we all get the same basic game experience and the same opportunities, SWTOR could still be the next big thing. For the sake of the Star Wars license, I hope the Force is strong with BioWare.
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.