On that note, I'd like to take a look at the free-to-play plans for our Star Wars MMO. Many players hope that F2P will finally launch SWTOR in the right direction. Others believe that if SWTOR had launched F2P, we wouldn't have seen the mass exodus that we saw in March. (Of course, there are also those who claim that F2P is just the next step toward fail and that the game will shut down in less than a year.)
Personally, I'm a fan, so I'm hopeful. However, I take that hope with the realization that this could definitely be the beginning of the end for SWTOR. Ultimately, the potential for success hinges on the disparity between what the players want and what BioWare delivers. Will F2P save SWTOR?
BioWare will offer a large variety of options with its F2P design. Critically, the full story from levels 1 to 50 will be open to all players with or without a subscription. It's an incredible offer if you ask me -- maybe too good. Even some players who left the game say that SWTOR has the best leveling experience of any MMO. Sure there are slow parts, but the story stands as an engaging one rarely found outside of single-player games.
The other parts of the game, ranging from character creation to PvP, will feature limited a la carte access for F2P players. For instance, F2P access allows for three warzones a week, but you can purchase your way out of this restriction. Cargo hold bays (bank slots) can be gained and expanded with Cartel Coins. As a subscriber, you receive the cargo hold for free at level 6, and you can expand it using in-game credits. If you haven't looked at all the features of SWTOR F2P, take a moment to check it out now.
I can't pretend to know what every SWTOR fan wants, nor can I speculate on all the reasons people left the game in the first place. However, many of the commenters in this column as well as many of the people on the other sites I visits were more than happy to tell me exactly why they left the game. Obviously, BioWare will not be able to please all the former players of TOR, but can anything be fixed with this new payment model?
The fastest drop in populations from launch until now was likely on the PvP servers. Unfortunately, those populations continue to drop. My PvP buddy over at Taugrim, Ed Park, would attribute that to two key points, the first being the formulaic changes in update 1.2, which Creative Director James Ohlen talked about in an earlier Hyperspace Beacon. The second is the horizontal progression in the PvP ranking system.
On the PvE side, players are discouraged by the snail's pace of new endgame content releases. This confuses me a bit because SWTOR features a content production cycle on par with most existing MMOs. However, I will say that there is an issue with difficulty. Admittedly, my guild has yet to complete all the content, but I have said many times that we aren't a hardcore raiding guild. Those who live to PvE have completed all the content multiple times over. There is no longer a challenge for them.
Lastly, let's not forget roleplayers and casuals. Although roleplayers are only a sliver of the overall population, the casual market makes up the vast majority of SWTOR players. These two groups tend to look at this game as a social experience. Sure, the game mechanics are important, but the shiny items and no-commitment minigames are a bit more important to these groups. And they might ultimately be what saves SWTOR from falling off the map.
Two factors weigh against SWTOR in its quest for F2P salvation, and two factors might help it succeed. First, BioWare is giving the best part away for free: story. Secondly, none of the options actually gives PvPers and PvEers what they are looking for from SWTOR. However, F2P will immediately and monetarily let BioWare know what features are working vs. failing. And the Cartel Market will offer a plethora of shiny items for the roleplayers and casuals.
My optimistic self says that the money-counters will see that specific areas of the game are not getting the traffic needed and assign developers to home in on those parts. With a base subscription covering all content, there's never a direct correlation between the player quitting and the reason behind it. It's usually subjective based on the evidence the community team retrieved from forum posts and exit surveys. When F2P goes live, if a player stops paying for the PvE content but continues to PvP, then designers can determine that there is something in the PvE content that is no longer entertaining.
I wish I could definitively point to one or two things and say this is going to save SWTOR. Even though I'm optimistic, I am keeping my expectations low. F2P isn't a guaranteed formula for success. However, I do believe that BioWare is on the right track. Hopefully, the development team has cracked a winning formula. We will find out in November.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!