Not everything was bad about the leveling process. Sure there were some oddball items like not being about to accept cash boxes from quests. (I guess that's understandable given that it's a free account and BioWare wants to avoid gold farming.) But overall, the first 15 or so levels worked out pretty well. If you're looking for a new MMO and haven't played SWTOR yet, then the free-to-play game up to about the time you get your ship can be fun and enjoyable, and it'll remind you of how well BioWare can make a video game.
A few months back, a friend of mine attended the Dallas Cantina Tour. Much like those who attended the one in Seattle this weekend, he was able to get some one-on-one time with the developers, asking his questions directly to the folks putting together the code. He asked in passing about free-to-play and some of the restrictions placed on free players. And in a statement that won't be much surprise to anyone, the developers admitted the free game is intended as a trial of sorts. Although a player can play the whole game without spending any money, he's not really supposed to. This is quite evident with the first two planets being on par with how they played at launch. That also explains the major slowdown after the player gains his ship. Beyond level 15, a player steps into the pay-to-play arena.
On Taris and the following planet of Nar Shaddaa, the experience gap did not matter. The point loss was easily offset by adding flashpoints and the weekly allotted warzones. However, I felt the slowdown on Tatooine right away. As I said in the fourth free-to-play experiment article, I had finished Nar Shaddaa on level; however, when I reached Tatooine (the next planet, mind you), I was two levels under the mobs I was fighting. Frustration set in and never let up. Eventually, in the middle of Balmorra, I burned out and absolutely could not finish the leveling process.
Although there were little annoyances from time to time up to that point, it was evident that I was being punished for not paying for the game. If free-to-play was how you were supposed to play SWTOR, then it was obvious that something was wrong. But as my friend found out at the community cantina, the free version of SWTOR is really no more than an extended trial, and it's intended that way. That mindset caused the F2P model to falter.
Had the developers intended F2P to be a viable way to play the game, they would not have included an XP penalty. As I have mentioned many times, if you're aren't a customer, you are content. And as a free player, I'm absolutely willing to accept that. My job is to enhance the experience for players who are paying for the game. However, that is impossible to do if I am not given the tools to do so. The fact that I cannot level on par with a subscriber makes for a giant hurdle in my being content for that player. Instead, I've now become a burden. Not only am I not enjoying the game, the person I'm playing with isn't enjoying it either.
Once you hit max level or are return to the game for free after having been subscribed, the field changes. Of course, I believe the restrictions placed on returning players are ridiculous. No matter the case, I don't believe that returning players should have been made to feel as if they were going to have to buy the game again just to get back to the level of entertainment they had before they left. As an armchair developer, I would have given all returning players the unlocks they needed to have a game equal to the one they started with, such as hide-head-slot unlock, two quickbar unlocks, and the artifact-equipment unlock. A good chunk of those players paid $60 or more for the game, and having to pay that again is a huge turn-off.
Preferred and free players at max level do become content for paying players rather easily, to my complete surprise. Although it's subscribers who buy the most Cartel Coins, free players buy the unlocks, and I would not be surprised if they are the ones who buy a good chunk of the other Cartel items on the GTN. A max-level preferred player can afford buying unlocks and weekly passes on the GTN, thereby allowing subscribers and Cartel Coin buyers to turn their real-life money into in-game currency.
In conclusion, I believe I have discovered the ultimate path to take full advantage of SWTOR's F2P model. If you're not interested in playing some of the more exotic species in the SWTOR universe, then level up to 16 or 18 and subscribe for a month. This will increase your XP gain as well as unlock more flashpoints and warzones (although when 2.4 launches you'll be able to do as many WZs as you like anyway). Then at max level, buy all the unlocks you like (account-wide unlocks are the best) and also buy some escrow unlocks as well. When your month is up, you can unsub and not suffer the loss of many of the things you became accustomed to.
If I had started to play the game when it switched to F2P, I might have stuck it out because it's Star Wars. However, this free-to-play model is not for me. I don't like the restrictions, and I am not patient enough to handle playing the market the way my guildie Thallahan does. Unfortunately, even after all the misconceptions, I still think that playing the game as merely a preferred player is far too much for me. It becomes a second job. For me, games, even MMOs, should be mostly about fun.
I commend anyone who can have fun with SWTOR's free-to-play model, and I'd really like to read what you have to say in the comments. But for now, I consider this experiment closed, and in Mythbusters-style, let's call this one not busted but certainly plausible.
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!