The Long Hello or Goodbye? Star Wars: The Old Republic Goes Free-to-Play

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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.

(MORE: Star Wars: The Old Republic Nears Two Million Active Subscriber Mark)

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.

MORE: 10 Great Pieces of Star Wars Swag

15 comments
Mark McAllister
Mark McAllister

 Most overlooked area that EA should've included...PvP war...it is called Star Wars after all; there should be planets to conquer and fleet battles that affect the player Universe in real time...like Eve; that is the only thing you need for end game content. Battling for resources, territory, and honor make an MMO immortal.

Sean Patterson
Sean Patterson

My only barrier is the lack of Macintosh support. At this stage of the game though, I highly doubt Bioware will port this title to Mac OS X...

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

You can buy the game for 10 bucks now. That is more of a warning then anything else.

Jamie Brinkman
Jamie Brinkman

Well, I actually enjoy the game! And I also know that you can't have the level of content that Bob Olmstead is talking about at endgame right away. Name any MMO and they all had less content at endgame when they launched. And as the years passed, they would all add more content. That's just how it works. Even WOW, the holy grail of MMOs, was the same when it launched. Not a lot of endgame content there (in fact LESS than TOR had).

The problem is that Bioware spent so much time after launch adding in quality of life features (group finder, guild banks, custom UI, etc.) that they didn't add very much story content. And on top of that, they opened up too many servers, which spread the population out too thinly. So people wanted more content and more people to play that content with, and they weren't getting it.

I honestly believe that if Bioware had delayed launch until spring of 2012 so they could get all those quality of life features in at launch, and then spent the majority of their time post launch adding actual story content (and fixing bugs, of course), and then if they'd also refrained from opening so many servers before the population had a chance to stabilize, then we would be telling a much different story right now. Granted, that is quite a bit of "if" to deal with! ;-)

All that being said, I enjoy the game, and I really hope they handle the transfer to f2p well and the game flourishes. I want this to be the game's long hello, and not it's last goodbye!

I do think future expanions should (and will) add more "Star Warsy" content like bounty hunting missions, smuggling runs, and Jedi/Sith conflicts. I just think that will come, not in the form of Operations and Flashpoints, but in your Class Missions, which will expand into "Chapter 4" and "Chapter 5" and so on as the game progresses. Assuming f2p lets them get that far, of course.

DisgruntledPlayer
DisgruntledPlayer

REALLY THOUGH, what kind of MMORPG restricts free world chat and local chat? The game developers for the Old Republic are disgusting. They know that restricting chat would annoy many into subscribing just to get a voice. This game is trash and so are the developers who worked on it. My advice to Bioware for this tragic mess and disgrace to the Star Wars franchise: Quit or pay dues to ALL past players, not just the poor suckers who made the mistake of subscribing to a game whose marketing model required going free-to-play not far down the line. The Old Republic was apparently controlled by the dark side the whole time.

Trey Beasley
Trey Beasley

Biggest disappointment in 25 years of gaming for me. Something that hasnt been mentioned is the absolutely ridiculous amount of airlocks, doors, etc you have to go through to get somewhere. It made me just wanna turn it off and come back later.

Bob Olmstead
Bob Olmstead like.author.displayName 1 Like

This article, like many articles Ive seen popping up, totally misses the major points as to why this MMO has crashed and almost burned. The latest bean counter version is that 40% of their exit interviews (which I took these surveys, several in fact, very poorly designed) say the monthly fee was the issue. In less then one year, EA and TOR's senior management continue the spin machine and sadly, the media continues to buy it, unchallenged, hook-line- and sinker. The issues are absolutely NOT that their monetization model, or that they over reached on the use of the SW brand but rather, they did not leverage the SW brand anywhere near what they could have and should have. The solutions are not around some quick turn monetization model, the latest of which is F2P. Im sure some MMO F2P types will save this brand on a basic level. But there is a VAST difference between saving your butt financially and an MMO that has truly become all it could be. Almost 2M subscribers speaks to the hope that people had, where it is now, under 1M subscribers, has to do with fundamental breaches. 

The bottom line, EA just doesnt get it on a multitude of levels and I see no sign that will ever change. If I had more time, I would take the recent interview that Ohlen (TOR) gave and rip it to shreds piece by piece. Why? Because he stated they always wanted to be an MMO first and foremost. Really? Is that why about 60-70% of the assumptions a player can make about what they will experience as "standard" among all MMO's is still nowhere to be found in TOR? And, frankly, I blame Lucas Arts who twice now, has surrendered the Star Wars MMO licensing to firms that that are notorious for horrible service; SOE and EA. Bioware was a great call, but for whatever reasons, that was not enough.

Article after article by BEAN COUNTERS cite stat after stat, or make the issues about things that never address the CORE GAME MECHANICS and the GLOBAL ATTITUDE which better define the real truths behind the massive failure of this MMO. I cant imagine what all these hard working (many of them now laid off) devs and visionary managers must feel like to have something they cared so much about, shattered into pieces after years of work. So lets look at just SOME of those bottom line issues, randomly presented, as I did not have time to prepare for this article.

#1- The current mentality is to INVENT Star Wars content versus truly giving players/fans the Star Wars we know. When you constantly invent outside of a powerfully established context, you’re asking people to learn about and embrace your version of the cannon versus offering players the ability to enjoy fully, the SW experiences they want to play. The story arcs that Ive played, three in total, are very good, the best of any MMO or any other game and yes, very iconic. Some of the side quests score decently well, in this regard. But for the most part, this game is KOTOR on steroids and not even close to an SW MMO experience. Once you make it to 50 to include end game content, the game just falls flat on its face in terms of it being a SW license and as an MMO, plus they abandon the very thing they hook you on- story! And slapping up some typical MMO end game raids, one that has all the huge monsters they swore they would not delve into; going for the quick fix PvP and F2P crowds will save the break even point, but it will fall dramatically short of maximizing all of the wonderful things this game COULD have been. 

A very good example  of this mentality is the invented planet that they are choosing to launch, which is being marketed as an all PvP planet. They are obviously playing to the quick fix, heavy PvP crowd from which F2P will bode well with (for minimal cost), which has nothing to do with truly offering the Opus of Star Wars experience that they could have and even started to offer. Put another way, they way from which they have chosen to "fix" the game is a  TOTAL FAILURE TO TRULY DOUBLE DOWN ON OFFERING A SUSTAINABLE STAR WARS EXPERIENCE that keeps a core base coming back for more and growing.  Had they launched Endor or Dathomir as planets, well known and mysterious, highly desirable locations to explore and to “experience iconic Star Wars moments”- that alone, just launching one of those planets, increasing some options to explore, having good story lines, a Dathomir end game experience (talk about sexy? WOW!) that alone would have immediately resulted in more players and more revenue. Typical of EA, they've made all this about the statistics of MMO trends per very poorly structured exit surveys. They say 40% wanted F2P, essentially. As I know a lot about this area, taking marketing surveys, the way they chose to mine this data means the real number is more like 30%, assuming we have clean data at all. That means that there is 70% of their base (or former base) that felt another way. Again, Ive taken several of these so called surveys and they simply were not structured in a way to got to the REAL issues. Rather, they were structured very superficially around how to quickly monetize or more superficial game play fixes. Like I said, they just dont get it.

#2- If Im a Bounty Hunter and Im a level 50, I want to Bounty Hunt. Not gonna happen in TOR. If I am a Level 50 Smuggler, I want to smuggle, a Jedi Master- I want to work with the Jedi Council to go on important missions. NONE OF THIS IS AVAILABLE once your turn 50 in TOR, which is a HUGE STORY OVERSIGHT and has resulted in TOR leaving a ton of money on the table. A moment ago, I stated that had they launched a more iconic planet and opened up the gameplay framework, to allow for more exploration, they would have had a boon in return customers. Now lets add to that Level 50's that can Bounty Hunt, be Spys, run missions for the Jedi Council, so on and so forth- and that number of people that would bring back and the core TOR population would soar. IS EA IN TOUCH WITH THESE TRUTHS ON ANY LEVEL? The answer as evidenced by all of their actions, is no. 

You have a game that does a great job of drawing you in through their story arcs and BAM, your reward for turning 50 is ALL OF THAT goes away. Your companions have nothing else to say to you, at least the ones you’ve maxed out, thats it- your relationship with that NPC companion is, for all practical purposes, done. TOR wants you to (in fact, forces you to- if you want to enjoy companion perks) max out all of your companion's XP. So if you had a blast with Kira, ALL THIS BUILD UP with her, you're gonna get married, you secretly broke Jedi rules and then level 50 hits or whenever you max out her storyline, then nothing, you're done, THE SILENT WIFE named Kira. From that point on she will only give you route, basic responses; basically, you have a talking test dummy.

How did this happen? How do you make those kinds of decisions? How do create a game so built around epic story lines  and companion relationships only to then abandon all of that once a person hits 50? Again, this is a failure to NOT LEVERAGE THE BRAND ENOUGH versus leveraging it too much or any particular type of monetization model. 

#3- Its friggin’ Star Wars! I want to explore and fully experience this cool world. Not going to happen in TOR. Ohlen stated in his article that they never meant to change the MMO experience, only to add story. Every MMO Ive played and I’ve played a lot of the big ones to include Galaxies - WoW - LOTR - Rift and others, let you truly explore the world you’re in. Rift even has a solid reward system for such desires with some fun perks. TOR greatly limits this to almost nothing. The zones, with a very few exceptions, are vanilla, small and full of restrictions as to where I can and cannot explore. There are few truly unique areas that blew my mind and captured my imagination and the ones that did, fell very short on my ability to interact with the environment.  I thought Nar Shadda was rather impressive, but you can't interact with anything there and as stated, nothing to explore. A friend and I were talking about the game Star Wars Galaxies. I shared a story about one day when I was zooming along, minding my own business riding my speeder on the high level planet (it TRULY felt like a planet) of Endor, on the shoreline of a lake there, when out of the blue I get knocked off my bike- which then blows up and I hear Stormtroopers telling me to halt. I look behind me and see two ships full of stormies unloading and coming after me. I popped up my chat for my guild and said, "you won't believe this". Seconds later, I was in a fight for my life. The "trigger" for this random event had to do with a system they deployed that tied in how many imp kills I had, both PvP and NPC, that related to my reputation rating. Folks, this was a random encounter that made my experience feel rather over the top real! I was on a SW high for days. 

No exploring. No iconic Star Wars world events (think Galaxies and Rift). Nothing meaningfully Star Wars after 50. Very narrow control on skill trees with Hybrids being a big no-no. Next to no interaction with our Star Wars environments. But sure, the real issue is people having to pay a monthly fee. So very sad, given how awesome the game trailers were, give how awesome this game could have been. 

#4-Rhakghouls- seriously? Fine, its a call back to KOTOR, so a little bit here and there. But to make that such a huge deal throughout? In operations? In your one world event? Do you people even understand what the attraction of Star Wars is all about- because it aint Rhakghouls! And although KOTOR has some great merits, people didn't sign up for a KOTOR MMO NOR WAS IT MARKETED AS SUCH, they signed up for an EPIC SW experience! Give me a world event where Sith Masters or Jedi Masters suddenly appear on the opposing factions Capital Ships. Have a Call To Arms world event where I see twenty of my fellow players called back to the Jedi temple because its under attack. Give me iconic breathtaking and wide open SW worlds to not just fight in, but also to explore. THATS Star Wars!

#5- The general perception that Bioware and EA could care less has been a huge issue, regardless of all their press saying otherwise. They launched an economy that was utterly ridiculous in terms of all the costs for healing, repairs, transaction fees, etc.. They added and still have crazy costs for getting Legacy perks. Their tier based equipment and mod systems, which have been constantly changing rendering all your hard work useless, all made the game anything but user friendly. Then there is the Legacy system complete with a Legacy XP bar for perks that I need to spend a fortune to buy, but somehow that supposed to feel like something I earned? And If you bought the Collectors Edition, you really felt a deep sense of betrayal, of Bait and Switch. Sure, the shipped items with the CE were nice, but VERY CLEARLY STATED IN THE RAMP UP is that we would get a vendor that would be updated regularly with exclusive new items and content. Never happened. The in game benefit to having a security key was dramatically better then having bought the CE. When this tender issue was brought up endlessly, we kept on hearing the same, tired response. "Yes, we realize this is an issue but its down on the list in terms of our priorities."  In other words, we already nailed you for all that extra money so deal with it. That was a very dumb, very short sighted business move that alienated their most passionate customers. I could go on and on. Side quests, once Ive leveled to 50, I still have to waste my time on all the dialog when Im leveling a toon? I get that being important for a new toon's core storyline quests, but all the side quests too? So leveling 3 toons MANDATES dredging through all the same side content again? 

STOP spitting out statistics and STOP throwing quick fixes that will create a more superficial, less Star Wars experience. Give us the experience we paid for, the SW experience you marketed; give is Dathomir and bounties to hunt, things to smuggle, Jedi council meetings to attend that spark great adventures; give us back the companions WE WANT TO PLAY versus forcing us to level companions we could care less about. And in spite of what all the so called data TOR, especially EA likes to tout- the game will actually turnaround. Sorry OP, but you missed pretty much all of the major reasons this game has failed

MuteTV
MuteTV

EXCELLENT POST. It is nice to see and intelligent write-up like this. I used to post similar, well edited pieces only to be ignored by BioWare. I even went to talk about the game in person and was paid. I told them a majority of what is said here and NOTHING. 

Honestly, every time I see an SWTOR article, it makes me want to throw up. 

urgelt
urgelt

I haven't played SW:TOR, and so I appreciate both the passion and the depth you have provided in your comment, Bob.  It's illuminating.

I loved KOTR.  KOTRII was an abortion, badly written and left unfinished.  When Bioware announced they would produce a sequel to KOTR, I was delighted.  Then they said they'd make it an MMO.  That didn't thrill me one bit.

An MMO?  Really?

Bioware does not do big expansive worlds to explore.  It isn't their design philosophy.  They do gauntlets.  You can't really step off the gauntlet, or their story line would get messed up.  There's no flexibility, and your decisions can never change important story outcomes.  In an MMO, that's doubly true.  Take LOTRO, a game which I did play for a while.  Everyone experiences the same story line, the same instances, but at least you can go exploring, and there's quite a lot to see.  Gauntlet designs don't just discourage exploration, they make it impossible.  That's not a good fit for MMOs, and it's a flaw I expected to find in SW: TOR.

In Bioware's single player games, you get to the end of the story line, then the credits roll and that's it.  You can start over.  You can't keep playing.  We accept this feature for single-player games (though some of us prefer BethSoft's open world endless play approach).  But because Bioware's worlds are gauntlets, you won't see many surprises on subsequent play-throughs.  Lately, Bioware's single-player titles net me about eighty hours apiece in several play-throughs, then I'm tired of them.  BethSoft's titles last for hundred and hundreds of hours.  I've probably put a thousand into Morrowind alone.

The kind thing to say - and all the game blogs seem to say it - is that Bioware brought 'story' to the MMO genre.  After reading your comment, the way I'd put it is, they brought 'gauntlet designs' with well-defined end points to the MMO genre.  That just doesn't leave enough room to keep players engaged.

And so now they're going FTP.  I hate FTP.  FTP means only one thing: your success and prowess depends on opening your real-world wallet to buy in-game stuff.  Nothing truly worth having is earned by effort.  And it won't solve the fundamental problems you identified.  It won't change the fact that you can't just go out and explore a vast world, or a vast galaxy in the case of the Star Wars franchise.  When the story is over, it's over, and opening your wallet to buy a better lightsaber or whatever won't change that.  When players realize just how short-term the adventages of those costly extras, only the truly monomaniacal PVPers (or those with very fat wallets and don't care about spending) will bother with buying them.  People tend to forget that PVPers flock to the latest thing.  Their loyalty is nonexistant.

I think that for an MMO to be wildly successful - and at 200 million bucks sunk cost, wild success is the only way they'll ever see a profit - it has to entice a sizable player community into investing themselves in it for the long haul.  The base design of SW:TOR fails to do that.  Like Bioware's single player games, you finish the gauntlets, and that's it.  Game over.  Switching to FTP is a desperation move, a long shot gamble.  I don't think it will pay off.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

 What seems to be the problem is the focus on the bottom line.  The dollars.  Executives and game makers tend to look at other game makers and see what they do to monetize their franchises without necessarily looking at why the franchise is in any way successful in the first place.  Monetizing plans aren't necessarily the way a franchise is made successful.

Content, content, content.

An MMO HAS NO END.  If one "ends" or runs out of story, then it will fail and it will take a new franchise to move it on.  It's that simple.

What gamers fail to realize is that this is deliberate.  It makes you invest in a new game, play it to the end, spending money on things along the way which won't be taken to the next game.  Then you have to play the next game.  Gamers are looking for content.  Game makers are looking for money.  Planned obsolescence is the name of the monetizing game.  State of the art improves, new graphics and feature can be added, but in a new game in which previous purchases have no impact, making someone buy more.

Passionate gamers are looking for content, decrying (as you did) their lack of imagination and dedication to the franchise.  But executives are looking for MONEY.  So are investors.  So they're not going to put more into a game than is needed to turn a profit and move on to the next level - assuming they decide it's not yet tapped out.

The bottom line in all of this is that it's a very rare game maker who considers content as part of the monetizing scheme.  It's simpler (and more profitable) to build in obsolescencea nd save the new content  - and game upgrades - for the next game.  WoW and the Sims franchise do this through expansion packs, but there are others who simply create new games.  All of these things the player must pay for in order to play - or must pay for the "goodies" in order to compete on a level playing field.

You make some outstanding points from the perspective of a gamer.  If you can profitably marry them to monetizing the investment in the effort, you'd be a fiscal force to be reckoned with in the MMO world.

GBSpencer
GBSpencer

 I remember reading somewhere in there you weren't gonna rip into the article...

What you've said is mostly true, the game is great... as a single player game, if they would have spent less money on servers an more on content we could have had KOTOR 3 shame really. It almost felt like I was being punched in the face when I heard they were creating a mmo old republic, but the fact they spent that much money is astounding really.

ClubModified
ClubModified

wow.... give this guy a job Bioware!! i think you nailed it fella. Why oh why is it always the same with mmo's... the people making them only have to read the forums, or text like this to get what is going wrong. I got my Sage to level 50 and then instantly got bored with nothing to do but grind the ops for gear... not the SWTOR I had in mind.. I, as im sure many people do, think this could still be a great game, but only if they return to making it a true SW adventure.

anonbiowareemployee
anonbiowareemployee

The Gamsutra piece was spot on. I feel the sudden shift to free to play coupled with 6 months of no real interaction or content updates on Biowares part to alleviate and explain the silence from developers, was a terrible buisness move. these are consumers who had payed sometimes a great deal of money and time and had gotten no real answers from bioware. When me and my guild left we discussed what we said on that feedback form before we unsubbed from the game. and trust me it wasn't us telling Bioware we would return if it went F2P. We listed the issues about the various bugs and numerous features that it lacked. we also described if they added a real space simulation and took the game of the "linear rails" that plagues every part of the game. we would return. NOT if it went F2P. So the anger and distrust is already been solidified bewteen Bioware and it fans. and we both know when you anger a star wars fans it won't end well. just look at star wars galaxies for an example. Bioware sure didn't.

Chip
Chip

Making this announcement within the first year, made me think that they had this model already to go but were planning on releasing it down the road. The fact that their subscription base was dwindling at a pace that surely scared the crap out of them just forced them to push it out earlier than expected. The other reason behind this decision for any MMO is market share. The MMO market has become incredibly saturated and one of the only ways to survive is to grab as much of the pie to squeeze out revenue as best as possible. I expand on this here.

http://www.techgeekgamers.com/...