Free for All: What F2P and indie games can learn from SWTOR

SWTOR screenshot
As I am sure you know by now, this is the launch week for a tiny game called Star Wars the Old Republic. Launch weeks for major titles are always fun around the Massively offices. The buzz is so thick in the air that you can almost feel it. Twitter, Facebook, blogs and forums are on fire with posts about the upcoming title, questioning what will happen in the higher levels or how the lore will pan out. It's exciting, for sure, even if you are not a fan. Fortunately, there is a lot to learn from this newest AAA launch.

Fans of indie or free-to-play games might think that SWTOR will have no effect on our worlds or influence over our favorite titles. I beg to differ. SWTOR is an MMO all the same, and its launch will have effects on the industry just like the last dozen major titles did. What does it mean for a tiny game that has been lovingly crafted by one designer? What can the world of free-to-play learn from this latest major release?

Click past the cut.

SWTOR screenshot
Use the hype, Luke

Hype shouldn't be seen as a negative or positive force. It is simply a tool. Still, SWTOR's hype has been insane. It's been called a game-changer, a new hope for the subscription model and much more. Is it possible that this hype will be bad for the game? Either way, smaller companies could use a bit of the confidence that SWTOR has shown. Hype is the by-product of confidence, and it shows that you believe in your title and have taken the time to get the word out. While many gamers might be sick of hearing about SWTOR, developers need to remember that hype can spread your message for you. It can get players excited for a product that they might not have been excited for before. I cannot tell you how many games I have paid for because I gave in to the excitement surrounding the title, or more commonly the hype surrounding a sale. At the worst, I got my money's worth from the memories of the event. Free-to-play companies can hype up sales or discounted events, and indies can put some hype behind a unique system or community feature. Other developers need to remember that many of those SWTOR digital copies are being moved thanks to hype.

Quality is a double-bladed lightsaber

If there is one thing that really sticks out about SWTOR, it is the quality of the game. It is very well-made. The graphics are sharp and stylized but do not require the beefiest of machines to run. The animations are smooth and fluid, and the voice acting... well, we all know that the voice acting is at the top of its game. As with RIFT, the last "AAA" launch, even those who are very critical of the game can nod their heads at the craftsmanship behind the pixels.

Of course it would be silly for me to suggest that an indie developer, or even many of the larger F2P developers, can put out a title that has the same massive scale and polish that a game like SWTOR has. After all, BioWare literally has hundreds of developers, while many indies work with a team of 10 or less. Fortunately, quality is not defined by the number of hands that touched the product. Websites, logos, the lore of the artificial world: All of these things can be built at the same level of craftsmanship put out by any AAA studio. While affording a graphics engine like the one used to build SWTOR is out of the question for practically anyone who is not BioWare, unique and stylized graphics are well within the reach of all independent budgets. SWTOR has shown that quality is one of the most important aspects of game-making. If you are going to make a world, make it well.

SWTOR screenshot
Underestimate the subscription, you will not

Theories about how many subs SWTOR will bring, and keep, are popping up everywhere. Everyone has an opinion about it. Some say that SWTOR will single-handedly show that subs are still number one, while others claim those subs are simply the repositioning of the same people who have continued to pay a monthly fee for games like World of Warcraft or RIFT. Either way, the pre-order count and beta test numbers show that there are still many, many people who value the all-in-one price point. Free-to-play developers would be wise to view a subscription as just another payment option, alongside options like microtransactions, unlimited free trials or cash-shops. Even I have always maintained at least one subscription. (Recently, I've paid for two: RuneScape and Glitch.) In many cases, the subscription offers a simpler choice for those who don't have the time to figure out tiered payment models or cash-shop goodies. I sub to a game when the sub is cheap enough or offers me something that I normally cannot get through other in-game methods. Whichever payment method you prefer, SWTOR's model will start out very strong. Where will it be in a year or more? That's something else to keep an eye on.

Help me complex story structure, you're my only hope

"While many developers outside of BioWare would be hard-pressed to fit such a system into their budget, there is a solution: live events."

The main difference between SWTOR and any number of other class-based linear titles is the active story system that allows players to choose what they say and do within the story, with many different outcomes possible. It's not really a new mechanic within MMOs, but it has been executed in a unique way that will result in many players' becoming more immersed in the world. While many developers outside of BioWare would be hard-pressed to fit such a system into their budget, there is a solution: live events. Live events can feel similar, even superior, in many ways, to the story system of SWTOR. Games like Ryzom have been hosting live events for many years. Some of them are no more complicated than introducing a new character in the greater story. Players often host roleplay events or meetings and receive official support from the developers. Many argue that SWTOR's story system creates a single-player environment that is anti-MMO, while a live event is the essence of MMO games. Live events don't have to be over-the-top or cost bundles of cash to host. A live event can be a simple interaction between players and a GM-controlled character. SWTOR does story well, but allowing players to actively participate in the story is a task that is doable by even tiny developers.

@Red_Leader standing by

Of all of the lessons that BioWare and SWTOR should teach the indie and free-to-play market, keeping communication lines open is one of the most important. BioWare has been the Jedi Master of communication, even with the few blurbs on its otherwise perfect record. The secret is that Twitter, official forums, and email campaigns are free tools that anyone can wield, regardless of budget. Letting players in on development and updates not only is good form but creates even more hype and excitement for games.

In closing, I would like to say that SWTOR does many, many things right and quite a few things wrong. Developers of all sizes can learn from such a massive launch. Keeping an eye on someone else's multi-million dollar launch is much cheaper than attempting to launch your own! Join me here in a year and we'll see how it all pans out.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.