The folks at Cryptic Studios dropped a big ol' bomb last week. A free-to-play bomb! Sometime soon, Champions Online -- y'know, Cryptic's other MMO, the one about superheroes -- will adopt a fabulously free-ish payment model. What does that mean for the future of STO? Let's speculate!
What the what?
News broke early last week that Champions will shift to a free-to-play model in the relatively near future. Surprise! I don't know anyone who really saw that coming, and the general reaction appeared to be one of flabbergastation. Our resident CO expert, Patrick Mackey, "never in a million years" saw it coming. So, you know, unexpected.
But who cares, right? No one sidles up to the Captain's Log to order anything other than a tall, frosty glass of STO. So I should shut up about CO already. Well, not so fast, my friend. Last week's big news can't help but affect us and our feculent Klingon foes.
The dudes and dudettes at Cryptic Studios run STO! And one of their two big-time MMOs just hopped aboard an express flight to Freemium City. That's, like, 50 percent of their prime-rib MMOness going free-to-play. That alone would be reason to sit up and pay attention.
But of course, STO players have more than just common sense and the transitive property to rely on. Eagle-eyed brain-havers will remember that Executive Producer Daniel Stahl once suggested that STO could conceivably one day maybe go free-to-play, possibly.
Now we have some sense of how the overlords at Cryptic would structure the services of a free-to-play MMO. So what can we infer from that in regards to STO?
F2P CO FTW
Alongside the big announcement, CO Executive Producer Shannon Posniewski presented fans with a "features matrix" to explain the upcoming division of content between free players and subscribers. Keep in mind that the list is a work in progress -- hence the big "beta" sign at the top of the page.
Glancing at the list gives the impression -- reinforced by Patrick Mackey's assessment -- that non-subscribers, or "silver players," will enjoy access to a hefty slice of CO's content. All characters levels, all zones, PvP, crafting and a few other features will be completely free.
Of course, the guys at Cryptic won't dole out everything for free. Custom archetypes, certain costume pieces, power tinting, veteran rewards and some other goodies will only be open to subscribers, or "gold members." And a few features, such as adventure packs and supergroup creation, will be available to silver players on a limited basis or can be purchased as microtransactions.
Get to the STO part...
Right, so, I'm wondering how the Cryptic people might translate their free-to-play model from CO to STO. Obviously, this is all guesswork. I'm assuming here that the model would translate in some way, which I think is a safe assumption -- it would only make sense for Cryptic to use its experience taking CO free-to-play to inform the process of doing the same with STO.
The developers will change the creation process a little bit as CO goes free-to-play, introducing archetypes, which bundle together certain powers and determine a character's skill progression through the game. Basic archetypes will be available to all players, while gold archetypes (whatever those might be) will be open to all subscribers and to silver players who buy them separately. Custom archetypes, the current system in which players simply choose all the skills they'll want, will be available only to subscribers.
In STO, that could translate roughly into races, which come bundled with certain pre-set skill bonuses. Since races are already popular fodder for the C-Store, I would expect to see more races restricted to subscribers or to microtransactions. Some "super-premium" races likely would end up going only to subscribers.
Snap judgment: Not the end of the world, for the most part. The C-Store has sold STO races from day one. Having to subscribe in order to customize alien races would be pretty unpopular, though.
From the sound of it, most of CO's core content will be available to all players. I see no reason to expect otherwise with STO. Allowing all players to continue with most functions -- leveling, questing, PvP and crafting -- unhindered by the free-to-play switch is key to a successful transition.
Snap judgment: Few worries here. The folks at Cryptic could encounter trouble if they bundle too many popular mission storylines into purchaseable "adventure packs," but the CO beta experience will give them a good idea of how to balance that give-and-take.
CO subscribers will get at least eight character slots, while non-subscribers will have to survive with a measly two.
Snap judgment: Meh. STO subscribers already receive a pitiful three free character slots. Unless a free-to-play STO were to restrict non-subscribers to a single character slot, I can't see this being a point of contention.
Hm. Once CO makes the switch, silver players will receive limited or restricted (Cryptic's distinction, not mine) access to chat, guild creation, forum access and in-game mail. I would expect just about the same changes to STO.
Snap judgment: This could suck. Socializing in STO can be chore enough without restricted chat channels. But the restrictions could be limited by level more than anything else to prevent too much excessive abuse by gold-sellers (credit-sellers?). Earning full access to chat and mail after, say, hitting level 10 wouldn't be so bad.
Wild card: The Foundry
Simply put, CO has nothing like STO's upcoming user-generated-content tools. I expect those tools to breathe an exciting form of new life into STO and to ooze popularity and awesomesauce. So the suits at Cryptic would need to handle the Foundry's conversion to free-to-play very, very carefully.
The ability to create and share missions is too great a selling point to shut completely behind the subscriber paywall (I would hope). I imagine the Foundry would assume some sort of hybrid status. Maybe free players would be able to create missions using limited item or NPC sets, or even using limited gameplay mechanics. Whatever systems would allow for reviewing and sharing missions certainly would be restricted -- maybe non-subscribers wouldn't be able to share missions at all.
In the worst-case scenario, the bigwigs restrict all content-creation tools to subscribers. Assuming the Foundry turns out to be as popular as I expect, I can't see anyone at Cryptic greenlighting such a painful move, frankly. Right out of the gate, that pretty much would gank any illusion that STO was going free-to-play in any enjoyable sort of way.
Back to reality
Seriously, though, that was all speculation. Official word out of Cryptic is that we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads about anything.
"We're very excited to see Champs go F2P," Daniel Stahl says, "but this has no direct impact on Star Trek Online. Our subscription and C-Store model will continue forward without changes."
So that's that. (Not really, though.)
Less trustworthy than a Ferengi loan shark and more useless than a neutered Tribble, Ryan Greene beams Captain's Log straight into your mind every Thursday, filling your brainhole with news, opinions and reckless speculation about Star Trek Online. If you have comments, suggestions for the column or insults too creative for Massively's commenting policy, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org.