We've already heard Larry's impressions this past week of the pros and cons of this new business model. I thought I'd dog-pile on top of that with my own from a slightly different perspective. You see, while Larry is our resident SWTOR columnist, someone who is staying on the subscription side of the fence, I'm a lapsed player who recently returned to taste and see whether or not F2P is any good.
I've seen a lot of F2P transitions in my tenure here at Massively. Some have proven to be a resounding success, while others fail to keep a broken ship from plunging into the deep waters of cancellation. So which will SWTOR be? Read on for a second opinion on the subject!
There are two types of garage sales in the world: the ones where people are trying to make money and the ones where people are trying to get rid of stuff. Generally, the first aren't worth your time, but the latter are. I kind of view F2P adaptations in a similar light: There are the models that welcome free players and are cool with trying to make money from them via the store alone, and there are the models that exist to punish freeloaders until they subscribe.
I kind of get the impression that EA and BioWare have this second mindset because everything the studio's said in regard to F2P and how it's set up the new system begrudges players free content while putting on the thumbscrews to get them to sub up. It's not the most comfortable scenario.
I get that EA really wants to see a big bump in SWTOR's numbers and profits, as do I. I'm all for this game finding financial and player stability and growth. But this is also a studio and a company that are relative virgins in the F2P market, and I'm worried that there was a temptation to try to squeeze players too hard for cash instead of trusting that if you convert it, they will come... and so will their money.
Returning to the fold
While players who are trying SWTOR for the first time, ignorant of how it feels to experience the game on a subscription level, could be totally satisfied, I'm coming at it from a different perspective. I'm a former player returning to the fold, which means that I am granted a few luxuries that completely free players don't get -- but it also means I'm well aware of the F2P shackles.
I appreciate that BioWare did extend the olive branch to former players by offering several perks, such as cash shop currency, preferred status, and the ability to grandfather existing characters even if they'd need to be paid for otherwise. I probably ended up on the sweet end of the spectrum, with enough Cartel Coins to buy my way out of several of the more chafing restrictions, such as no artifact gear, the inability to hide my head slot, and a limit of two quickbars. What I've ended up with is a character who can enjoy most of the personal storyline (albeit at a slower pace) but will have a hard time gearing up at the endgame due to currency caps and limited Flashpoint runs.
As a gamer who mostly solos and is interested in this game for the setting and personal storyline, I think I've gotten a good deal overall. I find it really strange that BioWare is trying to make money on group and PvP content, seeing as those are side attractions instead of the main ring. I'm not complaining, of course. When the cards fall your way, you just thank your good luck and carry on.
So let's talk about these restrictions in comparison to what I've seen in F2P games elsewhere; after all, these games don't exist in a vacuum. Probably the most generous and least annoying F2P adaptation I've seen to date is, surprisingly enough, Star Trek Online, which has few limitations and (other than the lockboxes) restrains itself from shoving the cash shop in players' faces at every opportunity. In that game, pretty much all of the content is free as the developers hope that players will want to splurge on lockboxes, consumables, and premium items (ships, costumes) to generate some profit. This is exceedingly generous to players, although it worries me that it might not be pulling in enough money because of said generosity. Players love to freeload, after all.
If BioWare did this, it might bankrupt the studio. But I wonder whether that open-armed generosity would've smoothed over some of the hurt feelings players have toward the game and pulled them back without reservation. As it stands, the current F2P model gives everyone a reason to gripe, fair or not, and SWTOR certainly doesn't need more ill will.
DDO and LotRO, both put out by Turbine, have taken to heart the concept of a la carte -- that is, you pay for content chunks, but once you unlock them, they're yours forever. There's a lot more to those games' models than that, of course, but that's the core. This is actually the model that I expected BioWare to adopt: You'd get the first two planets free but pay to unlock additional planets (and your storyline) past that.
The big problem with this is that it requires the studio to keep coming up with that story content, and if you haven't noticed, that's not really what the devs have been adding to the game over this past year. They've been promising additional questing planets and more chapters of the personal storyline, sure, but one has to wonder whether BioWare didn't lose too much in the way of talent and finance to be able to do that, period.
One other F2P setup I'd like to mention is used by SOE, which offers a weird blend of content a la carte while not-so-subtly strong-arming players into subscribing. I mean, for a while there with EverQuest II, the studio kept free players quarantined on their own server just to make them feel as if they were at the kiddie table. Some of the restrictions were silly and arbitrary, such as denying spell levels, and it just put a sour taste into the mix of what was, on the whole, a pretty good deal for players.
SWTOR has the most in common with SOE's model. Despite my complaints, I can't deny it's a really solid game that offers a lot -- I mean, a lot -- for free, and I think it will do OK for itself. I wouldn't even be surprised if we heard some very impressive numbers by the first of the year from BioWare. But some of the restrictions (the quickbars, the head slots, the fact you can't choose money boxes as quest rewards) are purely annoying to anyone who's seen another F2P game. That could hold the game back from going as far as it otherwise could.
I have one more maxim I apply to life: There are companies that make me feel as if I have to spend money, and there are companies that make me want to spend money. If I didn't have to pay to lift some of the more ridiculous restrictions, guess what? I probably would've spent that money in the store anyway because BioWare's put some attractive and fun items in there. But I'll tell you another thing: I would've felt a lot happier spending that money, too, if I didn't feel forced.
BioWare needs to make bank on all this, sure, but I'd urge the studio to keep in mind that customer loyalty is crucial in that goal. If I stick with you longer, I'm more likely to drop cash on your game. Trying to squeeze me with stupid nickle-and-dime pressure sales isn't going to garner that loyalty, at least from me.
Whether I'm a subscriber, a paying free player, or a complete freeloader, I need to feel appreciated and welcomed by the game and its studio. F2P isn't an automatic pass to the golden life, just an opportunity for a fresh start -- or restart.
I wish SWTOR the best; I truly do. I'll be dabbling in it from now on, and I really hope that BioWare will evaluate its first month with this new system and make a few changes to pave over the rough spots that are keeping people from appreciating all the good that's in here because if it doesn't... well, I know other games that are happy to have me.
Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?