Hyperspace Beacon Extra: SWTOR's expansion 'refunds'

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Hyperspace Beacon Extra: SWTOR's expansion 'refunds'
Hyperspace Beacon Extra The fundamental issue with SWTOR giving a refund on its expansion
On Thursday, BioWare gave all Star Wars: The Old Republic subscribers the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion for free. From that moment forward, if you subscribe to Star Wars: The Old Republic, you can level to 55 as well as participate in Makeb planetary content and endgame content like operations Terror from Beyond and Scum and Villainy. By doing this, BioWare increased the value of its subscription, which it has been struggling to do all this year. Disgruntled subscribers will be happy about paying their $15 a month, right? Well, not exactly...

As expected, most subscribers already own Rise of the Hutt Cartel. In fact, the most loyal players pre-ordered the expansion early this year and have been paying a subscription for the full six months prior to the expansion's being given away. BioWare also announced that the subscribers who bought the expansion within the last month will receive 1050 Cartel Coins, credits to the in-game cash shop equal in value to the price of the expansion -- kind of like a refund. This seems to be a reasonable compromise, right? So why are players split on the issue? Why do some players believe that this a perfectly reasonable compromise while others are readying their hatchets and pitchforks? I think it is directly related to how players define the game. Is SWTOR a product or a service?

Hyperspace Beacon Extra The fundamental issue with SWTOR giving a refund on its expansion
When you buy a single-player game, you own it. Barring certain exceptions peppering the industry, such a game is for you to do with as you please. You can trade the game, resell it, or give it away, just as you could with a couch, TV, or any other physical object. If you bought a product and the next day the retailer was selling the product for 20% off, a good retailer would give you the 20% off, too, if you brought it to its attention. I have even had a local electronics retailer go so far as to tell me that if came in the next day, I would get a discount. That is incredible customer service, the same kind of excellence that BioWare was trying to provide by giving some players 1050 Cartel Coins.

In April, BioWare launched a new product, Rise of the Hutt Cartel. This product was an add-on to its existing product Star Wars: The Old Republic. For six months, BioWare sold this product for 9.99 US dollars. Then, as standard retail practice, BioWare announced that it was bundling this add-on with its base product. Great! Now the base product gained more value, and to those who paid for the add-on a month before this announcement, BioWare is granting a refund in the form of in-store credit. From this standpoint, BioWare is the hallmark of customer service and should be commended.

Unfortunately, BioWare sits in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don't position because not all players believe the game is the same as a retail product, especially those who have been paying monthly to play the game. Not every subscriber has been able to put his finger on why he feels slighted, but just because someone cannot articulate an issue doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Maybe I can help place some substance to it by explaining another viewpoint on what exactly BioWare is selling.

Hyperspace Beacon Extra The fundamental issue with SWTOR giving a refund on its expansion
If there is a monthly fee attached to a product to use that product, then the product ceases to be a product and becomes a service. But since SWTOR is free-to-play, doesn't that mean that you don't have to pay a monthly fee to play the game? I would agree, but it's BioWare's unofficial stance that SWTOR's free-to-play is an extended trial. It's steering people toward the subscription. And by adding RotHC to the subscription, the developer has actually made the game even more of a service, and those who are playing the game for free become an extension of that service. (I've covered this in other articles already.)

From the perspective of a service-based industry, BioWare upgraded its service in April for $10 to those who were already subscribed. Six months later, it bundled this upgrade with the regular subscription and no longer charged for it -- a change in service. To those who were late jumping onto this service, BioWare returned their money as if to say sorry. This gained a lot of odd looks from those who had been participating in and paying for the service for six months.

Services change all the time in the service industry. They have to because the economy is fluid. It's completely understandable, but it's not standard practice to refund people for services rendered just because you change your service unless of course you have yet to render those services. To avoid these kinds of issues, companies will announce in advance changes in service and sometimes give perks to those who have participated in the service up to that point. BioWare nailed it on the second part, but it's failed on the first part.

Hyperspace Beacon Extra The fundamental issue with SWTOR giving a refund on its expansion
Now, it can be argued that Rise of the Hutt Cartel is not a part of the regular service. I can see that. You do not need to have Rise of the Hutt Cartel to level from 1 to 50. However, you do need RotHC to participate in endgame. It's a requirement for continued service whether you play through the planet Makeb and the other quest lines or not. I had to buy it on one of my accounts for that very reason. I've not done a bit of the new content on that account, but in order to participate in the flashpoints and operations that I was paying for with my subscription, I had to buy the expansion.

In the end, BioWare needs to decide what exactly it's selling. Is it selling a product or a service? If it's a product, quit charging a monthly fee for anything and make money off the Cartel Market items, similar to how buy-to-play games operate -- or realize that Star Wars: The Old Republic is indeed a service in every aspect and market accordingly.

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!
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