Fair disclaimer, this is my opinion. It is based on what I have seen and read.
I expect that anyone reading this article is already familiar with the fact that Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) will be going Free to Play (F2P) in the near future.
Now ever since F2P was released onto the Public Test Server (PTS, a special server that’s restricted to active subscribers only and that gets upcoming patches before the live server does.) People have been complaining about the restrictions, about how they are too restrictive, how they nickel-and-dime the player, and so on. Well in this post I plan to explain why these complaints are wrong, and further, why SWTOR’s F2P configuration is good, not just for SWTOR, but potentially for the games industry as well.
Free to Play
First let’s talk about Free to Play (F2P), what it means, why it works, and how to do it right.
“Free to Play” refers to the possibility of playing the game for free. The important thing to remember however is that “Free to Play” is nothing more than a tactic to get more people to play the game. Why then has F2P taken off so quickly recently? I believe this to be because the mindsets of the people who play games has changed over the last few years. Previously the majority of people were willing to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Now however, the majority of people seem to prefer paying for stuff as they want it.
Understand however that F2P as a monetization model is nothing new, for example, all of the MMOs owned by Perfect World Entertainment are F2P, they are however also heavily Pay to Win (P2W, a situation where the more money you pay the more powerful you are.) The worst example of this is in Perfect World International (PWI) where endgame gear can be bought for the approximate sum of $1,700. I wish I was making this up.
I believe this is why F2P has had such a slow rate of acceptance in the gaming community, because any time someone mentions “F2P” everyone hears “P2W”. Fortunately however F2P can actually be done right, without being P2W and it’s really quite simple.
How to do Free to Play right
There are three aspects to F2P that must be done right to be successful.
First, never sell power. Ever. Doing this will make money in the short term but if you do you will do more harm than good.
Second stock the cash shop (the place where people spend real world money to buy in-game items.) only with cosmetic and convenience items.
Third make the items attainable in-game. This is almost as important as never selling power because it makes it the player’s choice when to pay. This has to be balanced correctly however because if it is too hard to get cash shop currency in-game it will drive people away and if it is too easy people won’t pay to get the items.
If it is balanced correctly however then the players will be able to choose which they find more important, their time or their money. In other words, people with lots of time but little money can use their time to get cash shop items and the people with lots of money but not much time can use their money to get cash shop items.
Meanwhile, from the perspective of the game’s makers, both types of people have a positive effect on the game as a whole. The paying players obviously support the game, while the free players support the game’s environment. Even if they are not paying to play the game having hundreds or thousands of people running around will create a vibrant and engaging atmosphere that people will be more willing to spend money on in order to save time in, which will in turn support the game financially.
To quote part of Extra Credits’ Episode on Microtransactions, “in a multiplayer game players are content. We all know that no matter how good the mechanics of a game are, it’s no fun to play if it’s a ghost town. If you can’t get a game or find players to group with, the experience withers on the vine.”
So that’s how to do Free to Play in a good way, now let’s look at how SWTOR’s F2P restrictions match up.
SWTOR’s Free to Play Restrictions
SWTOR’s Free to Play Restrictions are too numerous for me to go over all of them individually so I will just touch on the ones that seem to be causing the most consternation on the forums I have been reading.
Before I go over the restrictions however I want to point out something subtle, while you cannot buy Cartel Coins (CC, SWTORs cash shop currency) in-game, every cash shop item can be bought and sold on the in-game auction house (Galactic Trade Market (GTN)) for the basic in-game currency, Credits.
This means that almost all of the restrictions can be lifted with time, the remaining restrictions that can’t be lifted are either necessary for security/stability reasons or to make being a subscriber actually worth it.
The obvious flaw to this however is that the player who buys the cash shop items to sell on the GTN can sell them for more than 200,000 Credits, which is the maximum number of credits that a Free player can carry. However I think that this is irrelevant, as the only people who would be buying them would be free players who would not be able to spend more than 200k Credits. Thus I expect that none of the cash shop items will be sold for more than that.
Looking at the restrictions themselves then becomes almost academic but I will touch on them anyway.
1: Free players only get 2 quickslot bars.
Solution: Buy more quickslot bars. Due to the nature of this upgrade I expect it to be the hottest selling item for some time after launch. I think the next most common upgrade will be cargohold access.
2: Free players only get 5 warzones per week.
Solution: Buy the warzone weekly pass. The weekly pass items will likely be a steady mid range item, and indeed they are perfect from a monetization perspective as they get a player to “subscribe” with either time or money to the feature they want to use.
And the list goes on. Like I said, being able to buy all the unlocks for credits means that most of the restrictions can be lifted with time, and thus cannot be considered to be restrictions long term.
So then, what are the restrictions?
Taking into account the unlocks the list comes down to this:
- 2 character slots per server
- No trading with other players
- Cannot send mail
- No /who usage
- General chat/Trade/PvP limited to one message every minute (shared timer)
- Say chat/tells/groups/ops are not restricted.
- No rest XP
Now let’s go over these restrictions one at a time, Two character slots per server, I honestly don’t know why this is a restriction as it will likely be bypassable by simply making a new account. *shrug*
Furthermore according to darthhater.com (full link below) “Players will be able to purchase additional character slots with Cartel Coins shortly after F2P launches.”
No trading with other players/cannot send mail/no usage of the “/who” command. These three restrictions are to help combat gold credit farmers and to maintain server stability.
It is less secure but I suspect that free players could transfer items through the guild bank, bypassing the trade restrictions. As for access to the /who list, I have almost never used it so I won’t miss it.
General chat/Trade/PvP limited to one message every minute (shared timer), Say chat/tells/groups/ops are not restricted.
Again this comes back to Credit Farmers, do you want to see something to the effect of “100kk CREDITS FOR $5 100% SAFE GARENTEED DELIVERY” every 10 seconds? Because I sure don’t.
No Rest XP. Honestly I have never felt rest XP to be very important. It’s a nice extra but like with the /who list, I just don’t really care about it.
So there you have it, with time and patience, free players can essentially lift all the restrictions, and with a simple one time purchase with real money be bumped up to preferred which, among other things, lifts the restrictions on chatting and trading.
What will happen when SWTOR goes F2P?
So now that we have looked at how SWTOR’s F2P are good from a mechanics viewpoint, let’s look at what effect they might have on the game once it goes live.
One of the loudest complaints I have heard about SWTOR is that “The frequency of our Game Updates was way too slow. People were leaving because we were not releasing new content fast enough to keep up with the pace at which it was being consumed.” I forget where I read this but 2-3 months after release people started hitting the level cap and realized that there was little to no endgame content, and the problem with re-rolling an alt, which seems to be the most common rebuttal, is that other than the story quests the game is largely the same from a mechanics perspective. For clarity I am referring to how no matter what level or character you are your quests almost always boil down to “kill X something’s then return to me”. No matter how dressed up that is with voice acting or variations that’s what most quests in SWTOR are.
Personally, I think SWTOR is an awesome game despite the grinding, and I hope it succeeds. I think/hope that when F2P is released that there will be a large spike in active players, I expect that all the current players in the “Free to level 15” trial will start working their way towards level 50. What worries me is that eventually they will hit the aforementioned lack of content and realize the fundamental flaw with SWTOR, there is a finite amount of content.
Think about it for a second. Yes there are 8 classes, yes there are many different operations, yes there are all kinds of different things to do, BUT if you ignore for the moment the reality of real life interfering with your play time and the possibility of getting bored and quitting for a while, can you see yourself doing literally everything in the game? How long would it take? And how long would it take even with interruptions and breaks?
Lack of content. Fixing SWTOR’s biggest problem.
In the past this model of content would have worked, and worked very well, but the landscape of the games industry has changed over time and now no matter how much content a game has people will play through it, and if they find nothing there at the end, they will leave it.
So then, how to fix it? How do you create a game with infinite content?
Well the answer is simple. Very simple actually, get the players to make their own content. Simple isn’t it, but what does it mean? It means that instead of being a static experience the game should provide the necessary tools to the players to make their own “fun” within the game.
Think about it, how many “fun” things are there in SWTOR for level 50s? Warzones, operations, space missions, doing daily quests and helping low levels. That’s only five things for level 50s to do! Now to be clear there are technically many more things for 50s to do, but those five are the big ones and is the standard answer to the question. Again, how long before you have done all the Ops/missions and helped enough low level players to never want to see one again?
So how could SWTOR give players the tools to make their own fun in the game?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. All I can do is look at what I believe to be a successful implantation of this principle: EVE Online.
Released in 2003 EVE does a number of things that make it unique, my personal favorite is how there is only one server, as opposed to SWTOR’s multiple servers. Why games distribute their population over multiple servers I will never understand. But still, that’s not the topic of this article. To illustrate my point let’s look at EVE’s story.
Here’s a hint it doesn’t have one.
Well ok so it has some story, but it’s mostly back-story and world building. From a gameplay perspective the story might as well not exist. And yet it has been around, and financially successful, for over 9 years. Why? Mostly because of its uniqueness but also because of how it provides the tools for crafting player experiences to the player. In EVE when a player gets bored they don’t have to quit, instead they can go do something else. Because of how the game is paced it becomes effectively impossible to do everything. In other words there will always be something that a player has not yet done. Thus, EVE has an infinite amount of content.
EVE and SWTOR are different enough games that I don’t know how EVE’s successes could be adapted onto SWTOR but I suspect that the answer to being a successful MMO lies in tapping the players to make their own content rather than experiencing the content made by the games’ developers.
SWTOR vs. WOW: Why it didn’t work, and why it might still work
I haven’t seen this talked about since SWTOR actually came out and people realized that SWTOR wasn’t going to result in WOW’s servers failing over night due to the people leaving WOW by the millions.
Although as a funny aside, think about what would have happened to SWTOR’s servers if the entire population of WOW had come to SWTOR. I almost wonder if that’s why they had so many servers at launch lol.
So why didn’t it work? I believe it is due to social inertia. According to what I have heard, people play WOW because their friends play WOW. Say a guild has 1000 people, if 500 leave and go play SWTOR, eventually their friends in WOW will lure the people playing SWTOR back to WOW.
So that’s why SWTOR didn’t kill WOW, now let’s look at why it still might.
Before I look at how WOW might die however, let’s look at how it was born.
Way, way, back in November of 1994 Blizzard Entertainment released a 2d Real Time Strategy (RTS) game called “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans”. This was not the first RTS game of course but it was one of the first to be widely played, and predates even Microsoft’s “Age of Empires” series.
A game that was that successful naturally garnered a sequel, so in 1995 Warcraft 2 was released, with an expansion pack releasing in ’96. They were also successful so in 2002 Warcraft 3 was released with an expansion pack in ‘03. Then in ’04 World of Warcraft, an MMO set in the world of the warcraft games, Azeroth, was released, and has been around ever since. It was not the first MMO of course, but it was by far the most popular, so popular actually, that it sold copies faster than Blizzard’s servers could support, in fact they actually had to stop selling copies for a while as they improved their hardware!
So WOW was successful primarily because it drew on a fanbase that was already strong when it launched.
Now people like Star Wars, and no matter who you ask, Knights of The Old Republic 1 (KoToR 1) is the best Star Wars RPG ever made. (KoToR 2 is… more controversial. Personally I think it’s good but that’s not the point here) But the problem is that KoToR 1 was released back in 2003 (KoToR 2 in 2005) leading to a gap of seven years before SWTOR was released, as opposed to WOW’s 1 year. I think that it was during this time that the fanbase who enjoyed the KoToR games dwindled somewhat. Still, the Star Wars mythos is strong and as a single player game SWTOR is excellent.
Ever since the MMO industry realized that WOW was unquestionably the biggest MMO ever virtually every MMO with a big budget and bigger ambitions has been called “The WOW Killer”… until it actually releases and everyone realizes that it is just a WOW clone. What game makers don’t seem to realize is that having unique features will not make your MMO the “WOW Killer” if your game still boils down to “Go kill X something’s then return to me.”
From what I have seen SWTOR went the opposite direction from most other MMOs and mirrored the creation of WOW more closely than any other MMO. Yes I just called SWTOR the best WOW clone ever. But it still was not enough, why? Again, the answer is social inertia. WOW was the first big MMO, and in many respects it is still the biggest MMO around, because it is the biggest MMO around.
So does SWTOR still have a chance to “take down” WOW? I think yes.
See, WOW is not free to play. Currently it offers a “Free to level 20” trial (sound familiar?) but no progression past that. IF, and it’s a big if, SWTOR goes F2P and is successful at it, and IF they can keep their players with new content and new ways for players to have fun, then it will put pressure on Blizzard. If more and more people move from WOW to SWTOR it may force Blizzard to create their own F2P model. If they do not, they may lose even more subscribers than the ones they already have.
Currently social inertia is in WOW’s favor, but, if social inertia flips in favor of SWTOR because it is free when WOW isn’t then SWTOR could finally gain some serious traction against WOW.
If SWTOR’s F2P is successful what will that mean for the MMO industry?
I think we are seeing a shift in the MMO industry from P2P models to F2P. If SWTOR manages to pull it off then it could, in theory, become the “next WOW”. That said, even if it doesn’t affect WOW, it will show developers that F2P can be very successful, and profitable, when done right, which will have a positive effect on the game industry as a whole, both in MMOs and in single player games.
So to recap, If SWTOR succeeds at F2P it will make lots of money and attract more people but it will only last if they fix the underlying lack of content.
After F2P actually releases I will revisit this topic with a part 2 which will be my hands on impressions with the game and the model, and possibly a part 3 several months later after its effects on the game industry, if any, can be determined.
If you like thinking about games and game design I HIGHLY recommend watching the Extra Credits and All Your History shows as they are both full of excellent information.
Extra Credits’ Episode on Microtransactions
All Your History: World of Warcraft Part 1: Crafting a World of War
SWTOR State of the game blog post: (Point 3 quoted above)
Dulfy’s List of F2P restrictions and cartel market unlocks.
BioWare Press Q&A Reveals Free to Play Launching November 15 and Details Specifics
Many, many, forum posts from many different people that I have read over the last year.
About the Author
I have played computer games all my life, in recent years however I have started paying closer attention to why some games are successful and others are not.
Also I have never spent money on an online game. The reasons for this are actually quite simple. The first MMO I ever played was called Perfect World International, and it was F2P but it was also heavily P2W. So much so that I decided to never spend real money on it. The other reason I don’t spend money on online games is because I don’t like paying a subscription fee because then I feel like if I’m not playing I’m wasting money, and I don’t like wasting money or feeling forced to play.
For SWTOR, I played a Jedi Sentinel back in beta. I managed to hit level 50 with a few days to spare before the servers were wiped and the game was released.
Since then I have played a Jedi Shadow in the “Free to level 15” trial, and I am looking forward to being able to play to 50 when F2P goes live. I just hope it’s good.