Last week, after first hearing about the F2P news, I sent in some questions to our PR contact at Cryptic to get a few answers that are less about fact-finding and more about the process. Ivan was able to answer them for us.

Massively: With STO gaining new members every day, how did the team decide that this was the right time to change the subscription model to include F2P?

Ivan: Great question! Also a great opportunity for me to clarify something. First, I think it's important to note that F2P transitions for AAA MMOs that were originally boxed products (at least in our case) in no way imply imminent failure. "Transition equals doom" seems to be a pretty widespread misconception gamers share these days -- looking at comments we see on editorial sites, anyway. STO is, in fact, a solid, successful game for us and has a great playerbase. We're extremely proud of all the team has accomplished since launch. So when we decided to implement a hybrid F2P model, it was not out of necessity. It was a choice. I think that leads us to the question of why.

We've always said that our business models, like everything else at Cryptic, are not exempt from scrutiny. Certainly, we've struggled with product launches in the past, but we never give up on our games, and we constantly learn, improve, and change.

We've also said that decisions related to Star Trek Online's business model would be based, at least in part, on the success of Champions Online: Free for All. Specifically with regard to STO F2P, we've been considering for some time now how we'd go about appealing to more users (as all developers do).

In today's market, MMOs that require retail keys and subscriptions carry very high barriers of entry. Their very nature excludes huge groups of gamers and casual players who might otherwise be interested in playing. F2P resolves most of those barrier-of-entry issues (though large client sizes still prove to be obstacles, even if the client is free). Furthermore, today's market is one that's rapidly shifting toward gaming as a service and free-to-play gaming with pay-as-you-like models. It's a concept that's only now becoming acceptable in the West and gaining real momentum. Remember that when we started working on STO (and even when we shipped) AAA F2P games in the West were almost unheard of. They carried a stigma and were often unfairly associated with grind heavy titles in other regions.

Of course, we also have an amazing IP. Star Trek appeals to millions. If we'd like millions to try STO, it makes sense to lower the barriers of entry for them.

And then we saw the proven success of Champions Online: Free for All's hybrid model, in that it utilized F2P to attract new users and yet it still retained value for existing subscribers. That settled it for us.

Everything added up! We have a beloved IP, we've made huge improvements to the game since launch, with F2P we can appeal to more users, with F2P we can lower the barriers of entry and appeal to more ST fans, F2P is now an acceptable practice in the West gamers respond well to, we can still retain value for existing subscribers as we proved with CO... and, best of all, now we're owned by a company that has proven success doing exactly what we intend to do.

Timing + game improvements + new support + market = planets aligned. Go! Do!

Was this model in the works before the acquisition by PWE?

Yes. As I mentioned above, we've been thinking about F2P for some time, and we were working on bits and pieces here and there. Perfect World just encouraged us to do more, better. Perfect World also provides MMO and F2P-specific expertise and support we just didn't have before.

What does STO's going F2P mean for its players?

It's very important for us not to make waves for existing subscribers. Like we did with CO, we want to ensure that existing subscribers (be they recurring or lifetime) still have valuable subscriptions. Our features matrix on the official website breaks down the offerings, but we include things like a 400CP stipend, veteran rewards, Foundry creation and a slew of other miscellaneous perks specific to subscribers. No content limiters, though. We want everyone to play 1 to max.

I suppose the biggest immediate change will be more players to play with. Of course, once we do launch F2P, we're going to start working double-time on new content.

What do you see as the biggest benefit of switching to a F2P model?

More players, for sure. It benefits everyone. Existing subs have more people to game with, the community expands, the business grows, the game grows, still more players come in. It's a good circle.

With F2P, people have the opportunity to play the game whenever they want and not have to worry about subscriptions. Some only want to play for 30 minutes or an hour, maybe play a mission or two, and then not play again for another week or so. Perfect. F2P allows for that, but the hybrid model ensures subscribers aren't devalued.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity of switching to a F2P model?

Again, players. It's all about growth. F2P makes a game more accessible, which means more people can play. I think we have an opportunity to grow the game even more and do all the things we want to do. There are so many great ideas being passed between team members and the community. Switching to F2P allows us to bring even more of them to fruition. 2012 is going to be an amazing year for STO. Some of the content and changed we have in the works are big and very, very cool.

What, if any, marketing is planned around trying to increase the playerbase?
We'll have two more press releases, more editorial outreach, several more trailers (including a great new intro to the game), new screens, a new website, new ships features, some contests, lots of web ads, third-party promotions with our friends at Intel and Alienware and Logitech and NVIDIA, key giveaways... all kinds of neat things.

It's really just about trying to get the word out that it will be F2P. We've already had a bunch of people tell us that they'll definitely check the game out now that it's offering a F2P model. And really, that's all we can ask for.

Thanks for your time, Ivan!

Star Trek Online screenshot
My overall thoughts

Like I mentioned above, I truly believe that this move is smart and strategic for the game. Star Trek is one of the biggest IPs out there and has a massive fanbase. With a hybrid model like the one STO is going to adopt, there is an opportunity for even more people to play the game. Many diehard Trekkers and Trekkies whom I spoke with at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention admitted they did not play the game because they were not "gamers" and did not want to pay money to try it out just to see if they would like it, so this is going to give them an opportunity to give it a go and, possibly become paid subscribers for all of the benefits.

To convert some of the free players into paid subscribers, constant and new content for the game is going to be important. Therefore, I also think this change will mean that there will be a constant stream of new content coming out. This is obviously a win-win situation for both types of players, including long-time veterans who have been going through the supposed "content drought" (it's debatable whether that exists at all when you consider that there are dozens of new Foundry missions published each day).

Well, Captains, we have come to the end of this week's log entry. As with anything in the MMO world, things can change at a moment's notice; while there is no firm date for when the above changes will take place, keep your eyes locked on my column for more information as it develops. Also, I am going to be livestreaming STO next week on a special evening edition broadcast -- tune into our livestream channel next Thursday evening, September 15th, at 10 p.m. EDT, as I continue leveling my new Klingon Engineer toon, a Gorn name Thwack.

Until next time, let me know what your plans are and what you think of the F2P change by commenting below or emailing me directly at brandon@massively.com.

Computer, terminate recording.

Boldly going where no one has gone before, Brandon Felczer transmits Captain's Log through Subspace right to your PADD every Thursday. Join him as he discusses the latest news, gossip, and dev interviews about Star Trek Online. Hailing frequencies are always open to his bridge through brandon@massively.com.