This week, I'd like to talk about SWTOR's free-to-play model in general. Although the design team has received a lot of heat from fans and haters alike, the system does have merit along with legitimate flaws. I do like SWTOR, but I'm not ignorant enough to believe that everything the game designers have done is perfect. I am also not one to hate because the game wronged me a year and a half ago. No matter the game, I understand, given my three years reporting in the industry and many other years playing video games, that there will always be people who hate a game no matter what developers do to appease them. At the same time, there will always be those who love a game no matter what stupid thing the developers do and will see no wrong no matter what you say to try to convince them. I try to put myself somewhere in the middle.
Publishers and investors want to make money too. I say that without any malice. In western culture, we've been taught that money is the root of all evil. Without getting all philosophical, I'd just like to point out that I don't believe making money is evil, and I completely understand that the profitability of a project is a perfectly viable test for the level of a game's success.
The majority of western free-to-play models are an attempt to balance these sometimes opposing forces, art vs. profit. SWTOR is absolutely no exception.
SWTOR was built to be a subscription-based game, so I don't think it's any secret that the F2P model was designed to push players toward a subscription. Again, that's not bad. If the biggest value for the customer is in the subscription, then it's not bad to attempt to persuade customers in that direction. Granted, we're dealing with some artificiality because the designers ultimately ensure that certain things are more valuable than others, but the principle is still there.
Compromises also have to be made to balance making money and designing a good game. A friend of mine attended the recent cantina tour in Dallas. He spoke at length with Lead Designer Damion Schubert, a designer whom I have had issue with in the past. If you're familiar with any free-to-play model, you know that placing items on a cash shop that immediately makes one player better than another is considered "pay-to-win" -- a big no-no. Unfortunately, not all publishers know this. Schubert explained that he fought hard to make sure that nothing on the Cartel Market trumped anything that could be earned in-game. However, that meant that anything else was up for grabs, including minor cosmetic changes via the Appearance Designer. Although I'm not impressed with the decision of the "higher-ups" on that matter, I do have to give Schubert props for fighting for a core principle of good F2P design.
When creating a free-to-play model in which the driving principle is to convince players that the subscription model is the best way to go, the sub has to be the most valuable item you're selling. I've seen this done in both positive and negative ways in SWTOR.
Restricting fundamental functions of gameplay by placing them behind a cash wall is bad. You never want a player to feel frustrated with your free-to-play model. When item storage becomes an issue, don't put that item behind a paywall. All players in your game have value, even free ones; they become content for your paying players. Don't drive them away by removing basic gameplay functionality.
Restricting cosmetic or other shinies works. I know players like to say that cosmetics aren't important to them when gaming, but I think BioWare would disagree. The weekend after the launch of the Appearance Designer and Cathar, BioWare saw the biggest influx of money from the Cartel Market the game has ever seen. Keep in mind that over that weekend, nothing new hit the game that was not cosmetic. It's important to players how their characters look, and they are willing to pay for it. So placing the ability to unify armor color and hide a character's head slot behind that pay wall is perfectly acceptable. A F2P and subscribed player can do the same thing, but the subscribed player looks better doing it.
The last principle of a good hybrid free-to-play/sub game is that a subscriber needs to feel that his time is valued. The minor items that you would normally charge a F2P player for should be free or at very least obtainable by subscribers through gameplay. Which is more valuable to you as a designer: 20 cents for a cosmetic change or fifteen minutes of that player actually playing the game to earn 80,000 credits so that he can earn that cosmetic change, interacting with the environment, the playerbase, and the economy all the while? I think the latter.
In the end, SWTOR's model works, and although there are glaring flaws, there are also shining examples of how BioWare has done things right.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to email@example.com. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!