Hyperspace Beacon: The SWTOR free-to-play experiment, week one

Hyperspace Beacon The SWTOR freetoplay experiment, week one
The complaints about free-to-play and Star Wars: The Old Republic have been itching at me. Although I'm sure there are legitimate issues that players have with BioWare's F2P model, but with all the vitriol, it's hard to tell the difference between which problems are caused by BioWare and which are misconceptions generated by a dissatisfied playerbase. So I aim to challenge those perceptions. One way or another, we'll find out which side is telling the truth.

For this project, I created a new Smuggler on The Ebon Hawk server. However, I made this character on a brand-new account with none of the perks of my real account. I plan to take this character all the way to level 50 without subscribing. Then, to top it off, I plan to play endgame as well, all without playing a dime. I believe it will be difficult, but I don't think it's impossible. My hypothesis: A player can get what he wants to play SWTOR effectively without paying any real money but by using the GTN and other in-game means to get items from the Cartel Market.

Hyperspace Beacon The SWTOR freetoplay experiment, week one
There are two possible phases to this experiment because there are two possible free-to-play options in SWTOR. The first, of course, is a completely free account; this will simulate someone who has never played SWTOR before and is hopping into the game on a trial or because he doesn't want to or can't spend any money on the game. The second option is playing as a preferred member. I suspect that most of the complaining about free-to-play comes from preferred players due to the restrictions placed on their accounts that weren't there at launch. However, I am going to hold off on jumping up to a preferred account until the totally free restrictions become too much to bear. If I do upgrade the account, I will attempt to do it through free methods first, like using the Android security key or my physical security key fob. This will represent a player who came back to the game but didn't catch the Cartel Market cut-off when BioWare gave us free Cartel Coins.

To keep this experiment free of any financial corruption, I will not accept credits or any gifts from other players. The only exception to this rule would be if I am buying an item from the GTN. I will do what I can to buy everything outright, but I understand that credit cap is extremely low. I want the freedom to use all the resources around me to gain what I want from the game. This includes, to a limited extent, the other players around me. After all, this is an MMO and not a single-player game. If there is an item that I need that is above the credit cap, then I will wait two days (the maximum amount of time an item can stay on the GTN) before asking someone to help me buy it. Also, I will pay off the debt within two days. This way, I'm not spending millions of credits nor taking advantage of friends I have in the game. This will be limited to GTN items only and not legacy boosts and the like.

I will never directly or indirectly send credits or items from my alts to the character I'm using for this experiment.

Because I am an experienced player, I hope to be able to give new and returning players tips and tricks for enjoying their free-to-play experience. And maybe, just maybe, I will prove whether it's possible to enjoy SWTOR as a F2P player.

Hyperspace Beacon The SWTOR freetoplay experiment, week one
I don't think restrictions are necessarily a bad thing. If I'm getting a game for free, I can't complain when the company (a for-profit organization) asks for a little bit of cash for some aspects of gameplay. That's exactly why it was not a big deal to me to see that the first restriction on my Smuggler was species choice. Granted, most of the choices for species in SWTOR boil down to green human, blue human, red human, or human with head tails, but the free-to-play choices are limited to human, human with horns, and human with gadgets on his face. I settled on human with gadgets on his face; since none of my other characters is a Cyborg, I decided it was high time that I tried it out.

Unlike some other F2P games I've played, SWTOR places no restrictions on the actual cosmetic options available once I had chosen the species. My Cyborg Smuggler could look like everyone else's Cyborg Smuggler who was just starting out. When a player unlocks the Cyborg legacy, I understand that there are more options, but this was a new account and new character. I wouldn't have those options normally, so those aren't technically restrictions.

The craziest thing I found out as I was traveling the sandy beaches of Ord Mantell hunting down separatists is that nothing there has really changed since launch. I consider that a good thing. The first 10 levels have always been the highlight of SWTOR. The greatest amount of personal character development is done in those levels, and the blending of the world arc with the personal arc is nearly seamless. But I'm not playing through this again for the story experience.

I'm not sure if it's because I've been playing SWTOR at top level for too long or if I'm just bit bored with having to play through Ord Mantell for the umpteenth time, but it just seemed to take forever to get from one point of the map to the other. I am well aware that I do not have the sprint ability yet. However, all through beta and when the game first launched, I didn't have sprint then either, so I'm not exactly sure why this seemed poorly paced.

But despite my underwhelming run speed, I was on track to complete the first 10 levels in about four and a half hours (watching the personal story cutscenes, mind you). And other than the enticing upgrade button that announced, "Hey, you can run faster if you pay $15," every time I trained up, I didn't really notice that I was playing a free-to-play game. There were zero questgivers with a Cartel Market icon above their heads; there were no annoying pop-ups every 15 minutes reminding me that I'm still a freeloader.

However, I think the biggest thing I noticed about this game versus most other F2P games is the lack of gold farmers. Now, I guess it's possible that gold farmers feel that there isn't a large enough playerbase to sell to. I'm not sure that's accurate since there are at least 500,000 people playing SWTOR, and games with smaller populations have gold farmers all over the place. I believe that BioWare has created a decent system that discourages farming credits, which is why I was limited in the number of things I could say in chat, I suppose.

In the end, the first 10 levels were great -- just as I remembered. Next week, I'm off to Coruscant with a foreboding message from a pop-up in-game, the first real indication that I might find the next part unenjoyable. It read: "Free-to-play Players begin gaining reduced Experience and Valor Points at level 10. Experience reductions can be offset using Experience Boost items found in the Cartel Market. Subscribers gain Experience Points faster!"

Wish me luck; I'm gonna need it.

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.