Hyperspace Beacon: It's time for free-to-play, SWTOR

Hyperspace Beacon It's time for freetoplay
I'm a positive person, generally. I'm loyal to my favorite franchises even when George Lucas can't make up his mind about who actually shot first. But I don't like it when my loyalty to a product is taken advantage of when I'm told I will get one thing but am ultimately sold another. That's why I say to EA and BioWare, "Make Star Wars: The Old Republic free-to-play already."

When EA was voted the worst company in America by the Consumerist, it was not because the products suck. If a customer has a constant feeling that she is not going to get what she pays for from a specific publisher, then it will start to wear on her. Now whenever someone from EA speaks, we have to ask ourselves whether there is any double meaning to what was said.

I believe SWTOR will be free-to-play by the time the first expansion comes out, and not directly because of subscription numbers or rumors. My evidence comes from those who speak for SWTOR and the actions of BioWare's management. I can also guess as to how the studio is going to spin it.

Hyperspace Beacon It's time for freetoplay
Since before SWTOR launched, BioWare has touted the game as a service. Developers explained that's why they went with a subscription model and that they want to make the game worth the $15 you spend for it every month. James Ohlen hinted that free-to-play wasn't very close when he said in a recent interview, "There have been games that weren't free to play from the start and transferred over to becoming free-to-play that have worked as well. But it's definitely not something that's super easy to do." I believe he was very particular in the words he chose.

Obviously, no creator of an ongoing, service-based game will ever say that anything is off the table as far as business models are concerned, but the very recent CNBC interview with EA CEO John Riccitiello suggests that free-to-play might be closer than Ohlen would like us to think.

Early in the interview, Riccitiello talked about online and digital gaming in general by saying that "it's a more lucrative way to provide entertainment to consumers." Of course, EA's interested in selling the company's profitability to the shareholders first, and this was published by CNBC, not a gamer's magazine. This profitability was emphasized by a 40% growth in the digital market for EA. You can almost see the dollar signs glitter in Riccitiello's eyes when talked about online games.

During this same interview, he downplayed SWTOR's subscription model not working and immediately jumped to free-to-play models. Then he turns into a spice dealer when he talks about how the free-to-play models work:
"There's a lot of power in free-to-play. For what it's worth, free-to-play is anything but free. We have lots of games that are quote-unquote free-to-play where the paying user is giving us 10, 20, even 30 dollars a month. What happens is the first gameplay is free, and then when you get further into the game, you have to pay for things."
I believe that despite Ohlen's suggestion to the contrary, BioWare and EA have been ready to move SWTOR to a free-to-play model for well over a month now.

Hyperspace Beacon It's time for freetoplay
Layoffs are horrible for the individuals affected, but unfortunately, investors and money managers love them. During the first round of layoffs in May, we saw a pretty even cut across the board, typical of what you would expect to see for the average MMO. Obviously, QA took the biggest hit, but that was only natural, unfortunately. The second round of layoffs from last week seemed to be more focused on actual restructuring from a management standpoint.

If you started following Stephen Reid's former SWTOR team on Twitter as he suggested, then you probably noticed the feeds lighting up like crazy after last week's layoffs. Why? Because the majority of staffers affected by this latest cut were part of the community team.

Now, even though I think SWTOR had one of the best community teams in the business, I am well aware that the team was much larger than it needed to be for the game. However, from what I can tell, a good 70% or more of the community team staff was cut. That tells me that BioWare is seriously thinking about the way it does business overall.

Free-to-play models are driven by direct dollars. If a certain item sells well, the development team makes more of that. If something doesn't sell well, then the devs change the direction of that line of production. In a subscription model, you don't have that direct-dollar feedback. That's where the community team comes in. That team keeps a pulse on the community to get an idea of what the players want. If you switch to a free-to-play model, then the community team becomes drastically less necessary.

Hyperspace Beacon It's time for freetoplay
In about six months, we will see BioWare finish off the current storyline for the Dread Masters with Update 1.5. Most of this is already in place, as made evident by the E3 press conference. The video and interviews with staff indicated that we will see what happens when there is a major power vacuum in the galaxy.

In my opinion, that storyline will also mark the end of the subscription model for Star Wars: The Old Republic. The first expansion will also open up the rest of the leveling game for free, just as the first 15 levels are free right now. We will probably see progression raiding, new story content, and ranked warzones become pay-to-play. My guess is that things like new species and character redesign will also become a la carte when SWTOR 2.0 releases.

What's the time frame on all this? Christmas. Be ready for it because BioWare's not going to sell it as free-to-play yet. Just look at the way the studio handled the server merges. How long did it take for the company to admit that the "free transfers" were actually server merges?

As usual, I might be completely wrong. Let me know what you think in the comments. Hopefully, there are no surprises from the BioWare camp that will trump the discussion in this column this week.

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to larry@massively.com. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!

This article was originally published on Massively.