In its quest to quickly push out a free-to-play model for its flagship MMO, has BioWare burned all players -- both subscribers and the new free crowd? MMO consultant Simon Ludgate takes a look at what the developer has really wrought with its adaptation of the game.
When BioWare created Star Wars: The Old Republic, the developer intended for it to be a huge blockbuster MMORPG, with millions of subscribers dutifully paying their fees for years and years. However, BioWare spent most of its money on single player story content, wrapped up in all the worst time-sink tropes that pervade the MMORPG genre. Design elements that players suffer through in order to get to the parts of the game they really enjoy: the coveted "end-game."
SWTOR's "end-game" was anemic at best, especially compared to the well-received storyline content. Surprise, surprise; most of the people who paid for the game didn't continue subscribing after playing through the story once or twice. Between the annoying grind and the recycled content -- another one of those annoying MMORPG tropes -- the game's single player content ended up being even less fun than a normal single player game, never mind the subscription fee to keep replaying it.
Faced with hefty costs to recoup, and dwindling subscription numbers, BioWare did what everyone else does with a failing MMORPG: alter the game to be free-to-play (F2P), which lets players download and log in to the game without buying it or paying a subscription. These games usually impose some restrictions on free players and try to sell them items in-game or convince them to upgrade to a subscription.
This article analyzes the effectiveness of the current SWTOR F2P model and contrasts it with general principles of F2P design and the specific issues with SWTOR that led to its downfall as a subscription-based game.
To begin with, I logged in to my old account and checked the in-game market to find out for myself what it would cost to have a subscription-like game experience without a subscription.
Fifty-Six Dollars per Month
That's what it costs to play Star Wars: The Old Republic as a free player.
And that's assuming you're going to plunk down $180 to unlock everything (including hotbars to put your abilities on so you can actually use those abilities) on only two characters. You can't actually get more than two characters (as far as I can tell), and there's plenty else you can't unlock, like getting quest rewards from completing quests or carrying more than a handful of credits.
This is what they're expecting free players to pay. And those players are "free players" because $60 for a boxed game and $15 for a subscription was ridiculously overpriced and not something they were willing to pay for. That's why they're in SWOTR now that it's F2P, as a free player, spending Cartel Coins like they're Zimbabwe's 100 trillion dollar bills.
The unlocks totaling $180 are a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculations, which weren't made any easier by the buggy in-game Cartel store, which refused to show me the price for most account unlocks vs. individual unlocks. But since you only get two characters anyway, we'll just take the individuals and double the values; close enough.
The real shiv-to-the-gut is the ongoing weekly cost to play SWTOR. SWTOR has five main content avenues: the single player story, the single player space missions, the group Flashpoints (four-player dungeons), the Warzones (PvP battlegrounds), and Ops (20-person raids).
You have to pay for four different passes to unlock four of the game's five content avenues (all but the story) and each weekly pass is 240 cartel coins. As each cartel coin costs a little over 0.727 cents USD each, 240 per pass, four passes per character, two characters, four passes a month = 7680CC, or $55.84.
Now obviously, no sane person is going to actually pay $56 a month for SWTOR. They're going to pay the $15 subscription fee, or they're not going to pay at all. Which makes one thing very painfully obvious: SWTOR's F2P isn't meant to be a free-to-play MMORPG; it's meant to be an excessively contrived demo to get people to sign up for subscriptions.
F2P! What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nuthin'! Huh!
Now, F2P games aren't really meant to be totally free. Duh. They're there to make a profit, like any other monetization scheme. But there's a right way and a wrong way to design an F2P/subscription hybrid game: You are either building a separate and meaningful way to play the game with the hope of turning a large profit from a small subset of paying players to offset the large number of non-paying players, or you are building an extended demo with the hope of turning F2P players into subscribers.
BioWare plainly went the wrong way with SWTOR. You don't have to go any further than the comments about how special and important subscribers are and how BioWare wants subscribers to feel special, even in the F2P environment. F2P is clearly just a demo; it's just that BioWare is changing the limit from "level cap 15" (the old trial, which also doesn't work) and instead applying every form of hindrance and impairment it can come up with, putting the Handicapper Generals to shame.
One has to question whether this makes any sense at all. The game was failing because people didn't want to pay for subscriptions. The choice was paying subscriptions or not playing at all, and people were choosing "not at all" over subs. How, then, does replacing "not at all" with "kneecapped" change things? How does that help net new subscribers, and how does that help keep existing subscribers?
Subscribing Makes You Special! And Sparkly!
Back when F2P was first announced, I created a trial SWTOR account to talk to some existing subscribers.
They all said roughly the same thing: They were looking forward to F2P because they hoped it would mean a lot more players for them to play with.
The existing queue times for Flashpoints (group dungeons) and Warzones (PvP battlegrounds) were tediously long, and it was exceptionally difficult to find people to do world boss raids or create new Ops (raid dungeons) groups. More people would mean all this multiplayer stuff would become better.
Unfortunately, that's exactly where BioWare aimed its shotgun when blasting holes in SWTOR's available content.
Locking players down to a handful of Flashpoints and Warzones a week and out of Ops entirely was a big part of the plan (and the source of that $56-a-month fee). Which means the F2P solution they came up with does nothing to help address the concerns subscribers had when they were cancelling their subscriptions in droves.
So, on the one hand, BioWare is trying to create an F2P experience so horrifically bad that it brutally coerces players into subscribing, but on the other hand they actively sabotage the very thing subscribers wanted in order to remain subscribers. Two hands here, folks.
I can understand the desire to get subscriber numbers up. I'm sure the discussion at BioWare went something like:
"OK, we need more subs. How do we get them?"
"What about F2P?"
"Yeah, that's a great idea! We'll use F2P as a way to get new players, and then convert them into subscribers!"
The problem was twofold: meeting the requirements of subscribers (having people to play with) and also meeting subscriber expectations (that it's "worth" subscribing and not going free). The "worth" part of the equation went spinning out of control though. BioWare was SO worried that subscribers would feel they weren't getting their money's worth they basically made sure free players would have a worse experience than players who never touched SWTOR at all. Ultimately, the addressing the second problem killed any chance of solving the first.
What Do We Burn, Apart from Subscribers? MOAR SUBSCRIBERS!
BioWare's goal, thus, was to continue to sacrifice existing subscribers in the hope of getting new subscribers. The utter disdain for past customers is exemplified in all the "return to SWOTR" nonsense. "Get all these bonus Cartel Coins for all the months you paid for!" is the claim. Sounds like a way to bring them back, no?
No. What BioWare left out was the fine print: "You only get them if you subscribe again."
So maybe BioWare did want to get old subscribers back subscribing, but decided to do it in the sneakiest way possible. I'm surprised BioWare hasn't just emailed every past subscriber with the following ultimatum: Subscribe again or we'll delete your account. That would probably get SWTOR at least a few more subscribers, and BioWare's reputation couldn't exactly get any worse at this point.
BioWare's plan forward is clear: it has written off old subscribers, decided the game is a rapid churner, and is mainly looking for fresh blood to run through the churn. Which, aside from being an unsustainable practice and something that most assuredly drives your brand into the dirt, is also very ill-served by the crazy F2P implementation BioWare actually put in place.
Well, at Least the Story's Free?
The one major free thing in all of SWTOR's F2P is the single player storyline. If you're happy doing nothing but the storyline in a fairly single-player-esque and slow, limited, grindy fashion, and you don't mind not getting any quest rewards (you have to subscribe for those), you really don't need to spend a cent on SWTOR. And that single player story is probably SWTOR's most redeeming feature.
So here's the conundrum. Droves of people are going to download SWTOR for free, connect to the servers for free, play through the story for free, and quit (for free). BioWare doesn't just get nothing from these F2P players, but in fact pays for all that bandwidth so the F2P player can do it on the servers. It'd actually make more sense for BioWare to release an offline, stand-alone version of SWTOR on The Pirate Bay then to build its online F2P MMORPG around that model.
The thing that keeps players in MMORPGs is interacting with other players, and BioWare has made sure that free players barely get a taste of that interaction. In fact, just the other way around: Due to restrictions on F2P players, not only do they not get to interact with subscribers much, but subscribers won't want to interact with F2P players. Who wants handicapped players -- unable to revive in an instance or use all of their abilities due to UI restrictions -- clogging up their party slots?
Not to mention that F2P players can't even equip artifact gear (the good stuff you actually need to equip to be competitive in any aspect of the fabled end-game; you know, that thing subscribers play). The ironic thing is that subscribers might actually get more frustrated the more they play with F2P players, to the point they'll cancel their subscriptions in frustration because they're getting auto-matched with people who can't possibly help them!
Non-Paying Players Help Keep Paying Players Playing (And Paying!)
I've been saying it for years now, but there is a mantra BioWare should have been following with SWTOR's F2P implementation. The goal isn't to shoo away or coerce free players into paying, the goal is to get paying players to pay more (either by keeping them subscribed longer, or by giving them more options to pay beyond the subscription).
BioWare's SWTOR F2P plan should have been built up something like this:
- We want to make money. The people who are most likely to give us money are the people who have paid us lots already in subscriptions and collectors editions.
- We need to make the game as attractive as possible to subscribers and meet their needs so that they stay subscribed, as well as offering them more opportunities to spend money.
- In order to support subscribers we need free players accompanying them in multiplayer groups, so we need to give free players everything they need to be desirable group members in all multiplayer activities.
- We can restrict access to features that don't impact grouping for free players.
Conclusion? Lock out parts of the story and give free players unlimited access to multiplayer content. In other words, the exact opposite of what BioWare actually did.
What would I have put behind the subscription barrier? Well, the legacy system seems like a fine example of something you could make a subscription-exclusive system. The whole thing is a set of high-level perks that was introduced after launch, designed to give a few fun but non-critical bonuses to players who play two or three or fifteen bajillion characters through to Level 50. In other words: a perk system for addicts who put in tons of play time and are probably subscribers anyhow.
I think subscriptions should be about getting additional perks rather than bypassing restrictions. The monthly Cartel Coin stipend to subscribers, along with general unlocks of the storyline and legacy, would be the bulk of what being a subscriber would mean. Perks like priority queues to log into your server of choice are a given, and perhaps priority queues in-game with Flashpoints and Warzones. And a bunch of small math boosts to XP and credit fees for services like fast-travel and auction house.
My primary focus for monetization would be on additional stuff to sell, rather than unlocking basic functionality. Costumes and mounts, like BioWare already implemented, are an obvious choice, though so far those have been done in very small numbers and with a very unpopular reliance on "gamble boxes" -- you buy a box, which might have a mount, but probably has a piece of shit in it instead. Literally. Like, an object you right-click on and it smears it on your character's face, just to remind you how bad an idea it was to buy a gamble box.
Instead, I'd go the extra light-year and sell alternate space ships. Currently every class only ever gets one ship, but I'd plunk down alternatives and charge a good $50 to $100 in the store for them. Seriously. It's the ultimate cosmetic upgrade and a perfect example of the kind of thing you can sell for very big bucks.
Of course, if you did that, you'd also have to let players ride on each other's ships. How else would you show off your new digs to your buddies? Then take another step to add a ship decoration system, where you can get furniture and what not and decorate your ship, much like house decoration in all those other MMORPGs. Have looted decorations, have crafted decorations, and -- of course -- fill the cash shop with premium decorations.
At this point, you can go ahead and up the ante with capital ships and possibly large space stations for guilds. All behind the paywall, of course, though consider making the guild bases a communal thing: Have two dozen players each chip in $20 for the guild's star base. Sounds good and profitable to me.
All In a Day's Work
To be sure, SWTOR's F2P implementation was an extremely rushed job. BioWare basically went from "let's do this" to "here it is" in a matter of weeks. There's no way the developers could code and implement complex systems like ship decoration or star bases in that time frame.
But the thing is: BioWare could have planned for the long term. The team could have said: "Okay. We don't have much to monetize now, so instead of trying to charge for every little thing we can cut out of the game, we're going to focus on attracting both new and old players with a very favorable F2P implementation and, once we've built up the player base again and have lots and lots of happy players, we'll roll out these systems that will drive up our F2P profits."
Instead, BioWare seems to have tried to find a way to get the most money in the immediate present. I don't know how well it will work. I certainly don't expect it to work well in the long term. There's an expression out there: don't burn your bridges. I guess BioWare wants to invent a new one: If you're going to burn your bridges down, you may as well sell tickets to the show.
I'm not writing SWTOR off entirely -- not just yet. To be sure, BioWare could still hire someone who knows what they're doing and give them enough power to make the decisions that need to be made (P.S.: I'm available). But that window of opportunity is closing fast and there may not be enough leadership left at BioWare to act in time.
For the rest of us, I guess all we can do is enjoy the show. Pass the marshmallows?