Back in 2010, someone purporting to be a disgruntled ex-Electronic Arts employee posted an anonymous blog post about the company’s forthcoming Star Wars-based MMO that caused quite a stir. In the note, this acid-tongued incognito claimed the game was a budget-bloated disaster, that BioWare’s developmental priorities were mislaid and that Star Wars: The Old Republic would go down as “one of the greatest failures in the history of MMOs from EA … [probably] at the level of the Sims Online.”
It turns out they were wrong on all counts. SWTOR arrived last December in remarkably stable condition, bearing BioWare’s signature story-intensive slickness and garnering critical acclaim from just about everyone. By last February, the subscriber base was approaching two million.
And the game offered a startling amount of content — hundreds of hours, in fact — so long as players were willing to retread the main story playing as all eight of the game’s light side/dark side character classes.
But after that? There’s wasn’t much else to see or do, or at least not much players hadn’t seen and done elsewhere in more accomplished MMOs. Daily quests? PvP? Raiding and dungeon-delving? Been there, done that.
Thus, despite its sunny launch and a record-breaking ramp-up in early subscriber numbers, it’s no surprise that the game’s had a bumpy eight months as players expecting more than Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic III had their fill, then exited the scene. The main problem: BioWare promised frequent content updates and hasn’t really delivered — just a handful of patches that add a few supplemental features.
That’s led many of the people who initially celebrated the game’s solo play perks to denounce its MMO mediocrity. In particular, they’ve taken issue with its monthly subscription model that, absent compelling MMO content, asks players to approach the game as investors, throwing money at a product they’ve long since sewn up on the off chance BioWare might at some point pony up the promised new material. Add to this awkward situation the news in May that the game was hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of subscribers and that BioWare was laying off members of the development team, and things have been looking fairly bleak for a game with an average 85 out of 100 Metacritic score.
All of which explains why BioWare chose last week to announce that SWTOR would add a free-to-play option this fall.
“We quickly became aware that our subscription only model was a major barrier for a lot people who wanted to become part of The Old Republic universe,” explained SWTOR executive producer Jeff Hickman in a note on the official site. “In fact, many players who have left the game said they would happily come back if they could play without the commitment of a monthly fee.”
Lots of MMOs have made the pay-per-month to free-to-play switch and blossomed. World of Warcraft would be the most obvious one, adding a free-to-play model last summer, but that’s a game that’s enjoyed record subscribers and revenues for years. I’d cite Lord of the Rings Online as the better, nearer SWTOR example — a game whose shrinking subscriber base rebounded then grew dramatically, according to developer/publisher Turbine, once that game shifted in its early days from a pay-per-month model to a free-to-play one.
So I don’t really agree with Ramin Shokrizade, writing for Gamasutra, that the switch to free-to-play eight months in “is not a particularly good sign.” Sure, that’s true if we assume the subscription model is preferable, and if you’re Blizzard in 2004, it may well be. But in 2012? That SWTOR is transitioning to free-to-play inside its inaugural year has more to do with where the market is today. I doubt even a game like “World of Warcraft 2,” if it existed (it doesn’t) and arrived tomorrow, would survive long as an exclusively pay-per-month game. Not in 2012.
I do on the other hand agree with several of Shokrizade’s critiques of SWTOR as an MMO, but those criticisms have little to do with whether switching to free-to-play as this point makes sense. That, and we’ve heard them all (and many more) before.
The salient takeaway from Shokrizade’s piece is this: If you haven’t designed free-to-play into your base game from the start, and it’s a game as complex as SWTOR, shifting to free-to-play presents massive and possibly even insurmountable design challenges. Can BioWare pull it off?
Place your bets, but I’d submit LotRO as an example of an enormously complex subscription-angled MMO that made the switch smoothly: It launched in April 2007, went free-to-play in 2010 and it’s since grown by leaps and bounds, adding content every few months and major expansions at nearly one per year (including the latest, dubbed Riders of Rohan, due to launch this September). Of course LotRO had years to prep for its switch, whereas BioWare’s diving in less than a year after SWTOR‘s debut. It’s also anyone’s guess how “free-to-play-friendly” SWTOR‘s base design is.
What do we know about SWTOR‘s free-to-play mode so far? Nothing to speak of, just that it’ll let you “Play the game for free to Level 50 with some restrictions” and that it’s “Coming this Fall.” BioWare has bills to pay — SWTOR allegedly cost between $150 million and $200 million to make — so the financial pressure’s on, and coming up with a balanced incremental content exposure and reward system capable of mustering sufficient revenue to keep the game afloat is obviously paramount.
But of at least equal importance will be generating all of this long-promised, high-quality content, then folding it seamlessly into the free-to-play game. BioWare’s ability to do so — sooner than later — will determine whether we look back on SWTOR‘s shift to free-to-play in the coming years as the game-saving pivot point of a drawn out hello, or the beginning of its long goodbye.