Read most headlines regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic Tuesday and you’ll see a lot of attention mongering, with the internet practically shouting at you that the game has gone free-to-play. Before we start running out the door proclaiming from the hilltops, let’s be clear — the MMORPG from BioWare and EA is getting a free-to-play option. This will run side by side with the subscription model already in place.
For a first day buyer and early subscriber like myself, this allays many of the fears and frustrations swirling around the move, one they have been publicly flirting with for several months. It arises new hopes that this pulls SWTOR out of its slump and fans get a MMORPG that is worth the growing pains as well as the money they have already pumped into it.
All speculation and sighing aside, the move itself is quite savvy.
Imagine the ire from gamers who were paying around $30 every 60 days, spending countless hours leveling, only to learn that EA wasn’t satisfied with the revenue and were toying with the idea of changing the game’s subscription model to free-to-play outright. Needless to say, if Tuesday’s announcement was as extreme, the collective rage would have been coming at them from all sides.
The announcement of the side-by-side options is not to say that all is at peace with the Force. There are sure to be gamers out there who would have loved to have given SWTOR a test drive before committing their hard earned money to traversing the galaxy far far away. There is definitely a repressed feeling, albeit small, that one had missed out on the opportunity.
Albeit, by reaching that middle ground Bioware and EA show business ingenuity and needed care toward both the current, core gamers as well as a much wider demographic. As was their goal, describes Matthew Bromberg, GM of BioWare Austin, “[p]layers want flexibility and choice. The subscription-only model presented a major barrier for a lot of people who wanted to become part of The Old Republic universe”.
For the most part, the free-to-play option doesn’t host anything out of the ordinary. Players who choose this route will, in typical fashion, find limited access to everything from side quests to the amount of space missions and warzones they can visit every week. Without a doubt, the most notable factor in the free-to-play option is the level-50 ceiling.
Leveling that high is no quick feat. Smart move on EA and BioWare’s part, reaching level 50 gets the player deep enough to really make the decision either to keep going or quit a substantial one. This makes it almost a complete win-win situation for the developer as by that time the free-to-player would have made real cash purchases and perhaps the decision to break down and become a subscriber. The only real challenge is for them to fill the game with as much exciting, new content as to capture new MMORPG players as well as those who come into the free space with the intention of quitting at level 50 despite.
Challenge accepted, BioWare?
Now, one cannot help but see similarity with World of Warcraft and its free play cap at level 20. In direct comparison, SWTOR places more content restrictions on the free-to-player than WoW whose limitations are focused more on the social experience, like the ability to create guilds and invite other players to a party. We will just have to wait until this fall and some time after to see how the limited content vs. limited social abilities argument pans out. In my opinion, comparing SWTOR to WoW is comparing apples to oranges, as the saying goes. It’s a matter of taste in the end.
All that can be said for sure is that EA and BioWare are making a smooth move by having free-to-play as an option, rather than doing something more drastic that may oust their current player base. The model seems more complete, with the game able to cater to its core audience as well as lure in new players, if only for a quick romp and a small cash purchase. This is just a prognostication among prognostications, but, current developments have me thinking that this is the rebirth of Star Wars: The Old Republic, this time with the proper midi-chlorean count.