Star Wars: The Old Republic is going free-to-play, and honestly, I'm not surprised. In fact, I had already written half of this post a month ago, and it was just sitting in a box waiting for a suitable moment to be published. Why is free-to-play ("F2P") a logical progression, you say? Because:
- SWTOR is at that famous point their game lost it 'shinyness' causing the loss of a lot of customers and needs to make sure their model keeps working, and
- the F2P model is seen by many gaming critics as the future of the MMO world, whether gamers like it or not.
I play two MMO's that are based on different business models. On one side there's SWTOR, which currently works with a monthly subscription model. On the other side there's LotRO, which has a hybrid model of so called "VIP's" (consisting of monthly subscribers and oldschool life timers) who get most content automatically, and F2P players who don't and have to buy individual quest packs.
Free-to-play in Lord of the Rings OnlineOn first sight, the LotRO system looks the most appealing, and there are many people who praise it. If you haven't played for a while, it's quite easy to get back into the game without having to pay for anything and can just enjoy yourself familiarizing yourself again. If you get caught up enough you can choose to buy a quest pack or expansion, or start subscribing again. This seems to be the way to go for online games in a time when there are very many MMO's offered and an increasing amount of players don't stick to one MMO, but rather 'butterfly' from game to game. Another often heard argument for F2P is that you "pay for what you play": you can carefully pick what you want to do and only pay for that. If you never raid, you don't buy that content and you don't indirectly pay for them through a subscription fee either - at least, that's the idea. In LotRO, it's even possible to receive small amounts of Turbine Points or 'TP' (the coinage used to buy quest packs and other things in the in-game store) by completing in-game achievements ('deeds'). So of course there are people who make a sport out of it and try to progress in the game by only completing deeds and buying quest packs from the TP earned through that. A journal of a LotRO player trying this out can be found at Wynnie goes Free to Play.
Sounds great, right? So would could possibly be wrong with the LotRO system?
Potential free-to-play problems
I guess it all boils down to your own personality. For me, there are several things I dislike about LotRO F2P:
- Planning ahead and thinking about what to purchase. I know some people are shopaholics, but I personally don't like spending money. I want to spend my time in-game having fun, not thinking about which expansion, quest pack or item to buy. If I pay a monthly fee, I know how much it is but I'm not reminded of it all the time. I'll automatically receive all content (apart from expansions), so I can try everything I feel like without feeling any pressure. Basically, F2P isn't for me. You can subscribe to LotRO, though, so what am I moaning about? Well, there is problem 2:
- Subscribing doesn't give you everything there is. A subscription used to include everything apart from expansions. This has changed. Store items include things you can only get through the store, and in some cases this are game system things that would've been given to everyone as an update in the pre-F2P era. For instance the barter wallet, that lets you store barter items in there instead of in your bags, freeing up loads of bag space. In practice, this means that subscribers pay the same, but get less.
- In-game advertisement environment. There is a tendency to trick players into buying more. This is easy to spot for players who have played LotRO since the launch in 2007 and still do as of today. Where the game used to be only about having fun in Middle-earth, now there are buttons hidden everywhere that lead you to the LotRO store. Need to complete a deed to get a virtue sorted? If you click on it, you'll get directed to the store, where you can buy the virtue and don't need to do anything in-game. Recently, festival activities have been introduced with an extremely rare chance to get a certain mount or item. Of course, if you aren't lucky enough, you can always buy it in the store. These are just two examples how sneaky advertisements try to lure people into buying more. For me, they distort immersion with the beautiful world of Tolkien.
- Distrust in game companies. Many long-term players have become distrustful of Turbine because of not keeping their promises. With the introduction of F2P, players where soothed from their fears by being promised they wouldn't introduce so called "pay to win" (P2W) items. They took this back, and introduced items that give you clear advantages in PvP areas. There's also a history of enthusiastically announcing new things, which afterwards turn out to be only available by paying separately for them when they were implemented (the sixth bag and, again, the barter wallet come to mind). This feels like misleading. It's not fun to pay a company you dislike, and many old time players I know have left because of it.
Comic of Dilbert, by Scott Adams.
Don't get me wrong, F2P was probably a good thing for LotRO. Without it, it might very well not exist anymore. During the time of the Mirkwood expansion very little people were around, and logging in would really give you the feeling of a dying game. There wasn't that much new content and people were generally disappointed and left the game. It was getting quiet, very quiet. F2P brought an influx to the game that made it thriving again. However, all the marketing of the LotRO store makes me feel sad. It doesn't fit with Tolkien's world at all. I just want to play my elf again, wandering through the woods without being interrupted by some sort of store advertisement every so-many minutes.
Free-to-play in SWTOR
SWTOR still has all options open: F2P could turn out to be great. I'm sure the game will get an influx of players, a boost that could help the game a lot. So far, it looks like they give subscribers full access and F2P'ers limited, which is the common solution that works well. I hope they won't place many attention calling advertisements everywhere, but I suppose they might need that to get money flowing. If they do, I can only hope they will give subscribers a break from it. That would be a great quality of life improvement.
The only reason I still play LotRO is because it has a great community, because the content is good and because I'm a huge Tolkien fan. If SWTOR goes down the LotRO F2P road, I might not have the same patience.
That said, SWTOR now has the opportunity to "do it right", and I genuinely hope they will.