SWTOR: Unfair-to-Play?

Are free-to-play gamers welcome in BioWare's flagship MMO? Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer shares his opinion on SWTOR's recent transition.

Editorial: When I first heard about Star Wars: The Old Republic moving to Free-to-Play, I cheered BioWare on for making a smart move. As it became increasingly squashed under the weight of a number of summer releases, the switch to free would breathe new life into the game just as Christmas approached. At least, that was the theory.

What actually happened was an onslaught of concern and criticism over what would generously be described as “overly aggressive monetization”. When patch 1.5 went live on the public test server, and we were able to try out life as a free-to-play newcomer, I was stunned. Lower XP rates and no rested XP? No ability to hide an equipped helm? Only two hotkey bars?

So what was BioWare’s original plan? When I spoke to Jeff Hickman, BioWare’s Executive Producer for Live Services, at Gamescom earlier this year, this was the reason he gave behind the move.

 

“As we looked at this stuff, we could stay the course just like every other MMO has tried to do, and take two or three years, and continue to analyze this stuff, and cater to our subscribers, and not think about anybody else. Or, we could try to be both options. We could still cater to our subscribers, still make sure that they’re treated as premium players, with all the benefits that a premium player has. And at the same time, we could make an offer to those players who don’t want to commit, because that’s generally what it is

 

 “For [free-to-play] players, we’re going to have a restricted but deep experience, where you can come in and play some of the best of what we offer: our story. And our hope is that by playing the story, and interacting with all the other things that are going on peripherally - warzones, flashpoints, crafting, legacy systems, all this stuff - those players will start to reach out and grab the other things that they like.

 

“Think of it as an a la carte offering. If you’re a person who wants to play PvP this week, you can buy out of the PvP restrictions. If you want to play flashpoints next week, buy out of the flashpoint restrictions. Whatever you want.”

The end result is the three-tiered model SWTOR now has. But BioWare’s flagship MMO wasn’t the first game to launch with this system – Sony Online Entertainment had been using something similar for DC Universe Online, EverQuest II, and more.

An Incorrect Ethos

While it’s easy to point at the list of restrictions on free-to-play players and describe them as overly onerous, I wanted to look at precise reasons why. What is it that made the revamp and relaunch feel like such a miss-step?

One important motivation behind the free-to-play movement is this sense of being fairer to players.  David Williams, Lead Class Designer at FireFall, had this to say on the subject when I spoke to him at Gamescom earlier this year.

 

“I think [free-to-play] is generally a stronger model; it has fewer restrictions and it’s easier for players to try out. It’s egalitarian, because if you’ve got a good game, people will play, and if you do not have a good game people will not play. And I am totally fine with that.”

There’s more to it than just a sense of fairness – there’s also a chance to develop a growing community. GamersFirst Associate Game Director Joseph Willmon described how veteran players in Fallen Earth would help free-to-play newcomers, in an interview with ZAM last year.

 

“Really, though, Fallen Earth has always had one of the most helpful communities in the MMO world, hands down. There’s a Help chat system, and I have yet to see a question come through there that wasn’t answered both quickly and accurately.”

Yet, looking at the restrictions BioWare has introduced, free-to-play gamers aren’t welcome as part of that community. Despite SWTOR having a heavily fragmented experience already, free players are prevented from using general chat channels once they finish questing on the starting world. They’re also blocked from trading, or using particular types of gear. While some of these restrictions can be lifted by buying Cartel Coins for use in the item shop, other limitations, such as mount usage and no rested XP bonus, remain.

It doesn’t end there. Part of an MMO’s questing design is ensuring that there’s enough content for a player to hit a specific level by the time they’ve finished the zone. But with free-to-play gamers gaining XP at a reduced rate, they’re going to be hitting regular speed bumps as they play through the story. Taking away field revive just makes leveling even more painful.

If the idea behind free-to-play was to showcase the best BioWare has to offer, free-to-play gamers will probably feel browbeaten and penalized, rather than welcomed into a community that badly needs a fresh injection of new blood. And even if they do buy a bag of cartel coins and move up to Preferred Status, the level of support they’ll receive is still very much second class.

The nickel and dime approach doesn’t even seem to make a lot of business sense. Why ask players to pay for more UI hotkey bars, or to hide a character’s helm, or to get a better deal from NPC vendors? Why not tempt them with items they want to buy, instead of strong-arming them into paying for unlocks they feel compelled to purchase? Focusing on desirable vanity items is something that worked surprisingly well for EverQuest II, as Laura Naviaux, Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing told ZAM earlier this year.

 

“Well, we knew that mounts would be popular, but we didn't think they were going to be almost 25% of our revenue! There are a few things that created more volume than we necessarily thought. The expansion - Age of Discovery - is selling tremendously well. There are also a few things that come up on the boards where we go, "Oh yeah, that'd be cool to add in!" Colors are another big thing. Often times we'll make something and someone will say "Oh, I'd really love this in another color!" Nine times out of ten, we can accommodate that!”

Can bad monetization damage an MMO? Richard Corbett at Eurogamer certainly seems to think so, with their recent re-review lowering SWTOR’s score from a respectable 8 to a disappointing 4 out of 10. While it’s clearly more sensible to start off with an over-aggressive plan and then scale it back, the lengths that BioWare has gone to are likely to put off any potential new customers.

Fixing a Hole

There were some things about the transition that BioWare did right, like rewarding existing and former subscribers, and offering account-wide ability unlocks in exchange for cartel coins. I also think it’s a nice touch that many of the unlocks can be sold on the Galactic Trade Network. Beyond that, the team really needs to address some significant shortcomings in order to convert reluctant gamers into fans.

To start with, I’d drop a whole batch of restrictions to enable new players to join in chat and ask for help, regardless of level. I’d also drop many of the pettier restrictions, such as hiding a helm or having a lower XP rate. I’d preserve restrictions only where it made sense to do so, such as credit and crew skill limits. All of this would be done with the aim of rolling out the welcome mat to newcomers, instead of barely tolerating their presence on the server.

I’d introduce account service packs to the Cartel Store – character renames, server transfers, recustomizations, character slots and so on. These are services that both full-paying subscribers and non-paying newcomers would be interested in picking up.

Oh, and while I’m at it, I would integrate that massive yellow coin with the rest of the UI. At the moment it’s a neon yellow wart on an otherwise wrinkle-free interface.

Finally, I’d pull apart the cartel packs and relist the mounts and pets individually. I’d still introduce cartel packs every month or so, possibly with exclusive color items, but I’d look to get a mount and pet store up and running as soon as possible. I’d also add a barrage of cosmetic items – more new clothing sets, new items for my ship, and possibly even ship resprays. After all, every new vanity item is something that can be sold to subscribers and free players alike.

Ultimately though, BioWare need to move quickly. Without some bold and significant movement, the initiative is likely to be lost to other free-to-play games that are making a grab for the market. Without change, I’m doubtful that the current incarnation of free-to-play will pull in the new players BioWare hopes to get.

After all, you catch more gamers with honey than vinegar.

Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer, Senior Contributing Editor

Comments

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SWTOR is clearly unfair to play
# May 09 2013 at 3:59 PM Rating: Decent
1 post
Hi, I am a SWTOR free-to-play player and ill share my opinion with you guys
First Id like to say why do free to play players are "literally banned from the game"?
For instance i think that some things MUST be allowed to our classes like:
-medium exp rate
-access to secure trading
-composing messages with items
-more character slots
-access to the cargo hold
-some weekly cartel coins and mountly cartel market reward
-unlimited access to flashpoints and warzones just like the others

I hope that the author of this well written post "argues" with BioWare and presents this things so that we can have more players joining game and a more fair game for all of us

Fairwell and try to call BioWares attention for this problem with URGENCY!!!
hmm
# Apr 19 2013 at 12:24 PM Rating: Decent
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I have played a decent amount of F2P MMORPG games and I really think SWTOR is about the worst F2P experience. The biggest turnoff for me was the lower XP rates. The moment I completed a quest and saw this I exited the game and haven't played it since. All this does is frustrate people to the point they quit (which is what I have done). I bought the game on launch played it for several months before quitting the first time. I don't expect to get it all with F2P but restricting experience gain is a mistake IMO.

I think the best F2P model out there right now is Everquest 2. You can pretty much level at the same rate as anyone else and use all of the features of the game. To use the best gear in the game you can buy tokens which are 35 cents each that allow you to equip a higher end piece of gear. OF course if your leveling you can just stick with mid grade armor and not worry about it. You can even use the auction house system for 10 cents per transaction on selling items (free to buy). These prices don't even include the discounts where SOE sometimes offer double or triple station cash (pay $10 and get $20 or $30 worth of SC).

IMO that is the F2P model companies should be trying to copy. A good F2P should encourage people to buy unlocks for premium services, gear, etc. Not punish them and push them to either subscribe or quit playing.
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# Mar 30 2013 at 2:12 PM Rating: Decent
1 post
Before Bioware offered its free-to-play option for SWTOR, my son subscribed to the flagship Star Wars game expecting a lot. After being disappointed with game glitches, imbalances, and poor customer service, he decided to drop his subscription.

Apparently word got around quickly about the shortcomings of the game, and at that time many people dropped their subscriptions. Bioware then did a very smart thing in instituting a F2P option. My son and I both decided to play with this option and found ourselves sucked into spending extra cash on unlocks and upgrades, which is to be expected.

What was not expected, however, was the fact that since both of us are now spending money to play SWTOR as preferred status players, we have become true customers of Bioware but are not treated with any respect as such. If there is a problem within the game...totally a design flaw such as a character getting hopelessly stuck...a "preferred status" free-play SWTOR player is afforded zero help. Although we are customers of SWTOR, we cannot use the forum, the in-game help, and phone support personnel refuse to help.

I would begrudgingly buy an upgrade to actually have in-game support, but the way it is now, I am becoming a disgruntled customer who has sought out THIS forum because I am not allowed to post on SWTOR's forum as a F2P player.

Since the whole free-play option was envisioned to drive players toward becoming subscribers, I can't help but think that if Bioware's CEO or other management personnel could actually experience what they are doing to their potential customers, that maybe...MAYBE, they would realize that spurning potential customers is NOT good for business.

F2p is lame for this one
# Mar 18 2013 at 10:54 PM Rating: Decent
1 post
I've played many mmos, from Age Of Conan, Shaiya, EQ2, WoW, FFXI, Flyff, Atlantica, Lineage 2, Cable Online, and Even text based like Materia Magica. (Other titles too)
I played SWTOR for 3 days, got to level 26 and was having a blast really. The cutscenes were great and the voice acting really drew me in. I would probably have subscribed for a month or two but then I really thought about it. It was just like you said in this post with EQ2, and games like Shaiya where they don't force you to buy and restrict you. This penalization for not paying is retarded, I can understand if paying customers get an easier time at the game, or have a faster leveling experience (and the rest exp) but not trading? Not equiping certain gear? This nerfs you tremendously in pvp. I was pvping and there were guys getting 2xs or 3xs everyone else's kills. Now say you do pay, unless your always subscribed you will not be on an even playing field which makes this game F2P where your every move is restricted.

Here is the story of why I quit this game:
The problem came when i got an Artifact Hilt that you can use for modding your weapon. I installed it and it said now you can't use this weapon because your have to pay. Ok, so I'll just go buy a new weapon right? Go to the AH and there is almost nothing for sale. Or at least nothing showed on the search for double bladed light sabers. So I asked trade/general chat for help and someone was nice enough to make me a hilt (lvl 10, I had a lvl 16) but I'm not complaining. Then I can't trade, so he mails it to me and I have to wait about an hour. Seriously I cna't trade at all unless I pay? Well after an hour of waiting I just got fed up at not being able to trade, and waiting for mail for 1hour and the Auction house selection being so poor. Also when questing, and i'm in a party they will return to homepoint 4x's for my every 1 time, so what happens? they have to wait for me which I don't care, but they seemed really upset lol.
Next thing you know i'm uninstalling the game.

Pros:
great community very fun to play with many members
Awesome story line I loved the cinemtics and some of the quest missions feels like i'm in a mini movie.
The pvp is fun (though confusing for a new player as no one speaks to you)
Cons:
not really free too many restrictions
Some of the mobs and quests are really easy or they are really hard.
No real need for teamwork many times. and the rewards for a 4 man party is not much better than a 2 man. . considering how long it takes to get a party together that doesn't D/C run away or go afk for half the time this can be annoying.
Relax
# Feb 11 2013 at 1:36 PM Rating: Decent
1 post
Honestly as long as they keep adding content and making the game better, I really don't care if the charge to play the game. It's something all MMO's have to deal with and in order to keep that content coming they need the funding. Personally I have played WoW and Final Fantasy online, and now I am playing this game because its better. And as long as it stays better, I will continue to play. I'm not sure if other players have noticed but in the chat window I keep seeing "Best Game Ever" and comments close to it. GOOD JOB BIOWARE. Keep that content coming!
Pay now! *twists arm* to play
# Dec 05 2012 at 12:00 AM Rating: Decent
1 post
There's another big restriction I didn't see listed in the article that should be, the fact that F2P and preferred players can't post at all on the forums. Meaning the only way they can get help is through their horrible customer service.

I followed the game for about 2-3 years before launch, pre-purchased, beta tested ,stayed subbed for about half a year and left because of how slow content was rolling out. Coming back to this...was a slap in the face. Luckily now they are changing the quickbar restriction to 4 for preferred players and bumping the character slots to 4 as well (but that is apparently coming in a later patch). If they changed the credit limit for preferred players to be a daily cap, not a hard cap, and the other stupid restrictions like the color match and hide helmet I would spend some more money on the game. I think the current model has done it's damage though and pushed a lot of potential new comers and returning players away. It nearly pushed me away.

Unfortunately for me right now I'm dealing with their terrible CS to try to fix an issue that won't let me create any characters on the live servers. I have 2 characters on the PTS right now but I can't delete them because it says I don't have authorization to access that server. So I'm pretty much locked out anyway right now :/

Edited, Dec 5th 2012 1:01am by Rurik1547
Free to Pay
# Dec 03 2012 at 11:37 AM Rating: Decent
21 posts
Pardon the pun

You make a lot of good points Gaz, but I think I disagree on a fundamental level about what a F2P experience vs a paying experience should be.

I've been around the block a couple of times with games that switched from subscription based to a 'free' model. DDO, LTOR, STO, EQ, and EQ2. I think everyone would probably agree that the most successful transition from pay to 'free' was DDO. Turbine really seemed to get the concept of there are gamers with discretionary funds that will drop one or two dollars here and there and that there is a slimmer population of gamers willing to drop a few hundred. Take a look at WoT; in my opinion, they are aiming at the latter group with their free to play system. If you want a premium tank that is competitive at high tiers, you're going to drop more than $20 on it. If you want to play any tank over tier 7, you're going to almost have to have a premium tank or a premium account to pay your repair bills. If you aren't paying attention to your PayPal, you'll find yourself in the hole by a couple hundred dollars every couple of months. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I'd look at EQ2. Upgrading to 'silver' (Much like SWTOR) gets you access to some perks for a tiny monetary amount that will allow you to complete the story arcs through Sentinel's Fate (At that point, many rewards and drops are 'Legendary' and cannot be equipped). SOE is constantly running promotional deals doubling and tripling your SC contributions and many of the store items translate to $2 or $3 purchases. Sure their mounts and cosmetic sets are pricey, but for the most part, you can game your butt off for minimal investment. Cryptic's STO transformation is similar to Bioware's in that it added annoyances for subscribers without making a significant play experience difference between the paying and preferred-free tiers.

Having a free experience that is equivalent to a paying experience alienates your paying customers and rewards nonpaying users with entitlements. I don't think I need to go into how 45% or so of the population of America feel about entitlements. I think Bioware was right to want to make freeplayers feel that they are missing out on some things, but I think they chose poorly on how to implement that. The cosmetic 'no hat' is just silly. The crafting limitation was almost smart. Basically, for $5, you can become a crafter using two characters to round out your gathering skills. The no secure trading is a fail. The goal of a F2P switch was to increase server population and interaction, which should include a player based economy. By preventing freeplayers from participating fully in the player economy, they are defeating one of the goals of F2P. Freeplayers can't craft much themselves, so giving them full access to personal trading should provide a boon to the value of green and blue crafted items. The Credit cap limit makes sense to discourage gold farmers/sellers. The no sprint til 15 is just asinine. That will turn players away more than anything else. After making the run from the volcano on Ord Mantell to the closest travel hub at a walk once, that will be a shelved character. The UI limit.. also asinine. I will agree that the cartel UI button is off style. It should have been implemented as an additional hot button in one of the existing UI bars.

Here's where I get called troll; what bioware should have done is embraced their paying members by giving them something unique to subscribers. (i.e. summoning 2 companions after lvl 35 or 40; 1.5x inherent xp boost, cartel stims stack, triple legacy exp) Preferred status only happens if you pay the cost of a box game, like all of the subscribers pre switch did. Preferred status gets you all the content, but you have to pay for the end game operations, no social or valor xp granted. F2P goes WoW mode. An F2Per gets all the story access up to Chapter 3. If you want to see the chapter 3 content, gotta buy the game. No crafting access period. Green and Blue gear only, ala EQ2. No social or valor xp.
Then they need a store like EQ2. Something where you can spend $1 or spend $100. The people interested in spending huge money on games is out there, just look at kickstarter. However, most people looking for something f2p that can't get into a free beta might not spend anything, so there has to be items in the store that are cheap enough to be an impulse buy.
Welcome changes!
# Dec 01 2012 at 9:07 PM Rating: Decent
6 posts
The lower XP rate for F2P is a welcome change to SWTOR. In fact, it should be extended to subscribers as well. The leveling game in SWTOR is too easy without it; as long as you do all your quests, you're overleveled from level 20 on! Unless, that is, you're F2P.
Retrictions are FINE
# Nov 29 2012 at 7:32 AM Rating: Decent
The Cartel Market button can be resized, faded and moved in the UI. Bioware needs to do NOTHING about that, players need to use their own brains and figure this out.

The "petty" restrictions you moan about have no impact on gameplay and unlike other games which have converted over, Bioware didn't lock F2P out of content. Sorry, but if you want to hide your helmet or unify your colors, then pony up a lousy $15 bucks a month. Subscribers don't have to get screwed to make F2P players happy.

Cartel Packs should not be account wide. You take the gamble about what you get in a Cartel Pack and they unlock the restrictions on packs in 36-48 hours depending on your level of payment. So how precisely are those Cartel Packs not account wide already?

I agree they need to add some account services to the market but that isn't a rode Bioware is aware of yet and they should be. Hopefully with the change of personal at the top recently, changes to basic account services are coming.

In essence, F2P players should stop whining. F2P is not entitlement. You want the benefits of subscription, then suck it up and subscribe. Can't afford $15 a month, then stop playing video games until you can.
Retrictions are FINE
# Nov 29 2012 at 9:47 AM Rating: Excellent
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36 posts
Thanks for your reply, but I think it's worth going through each point in turn.

stitchersflock wrote:
The Cartel Market button can be resized, faded and moved in the UI. Bioware needs to do NOTHING about that, players need to use their own brains and figure this out.

I know it can be moved and resized, but it is still an isolated yellow pimple on an otherwise smooth interface. It's ugly, clumsy and inelegant, detracting from the unified design.

stitchersflock wrote:
The "petty" restrictions you moan about have no impact on gameplay and unlike other games which have converted over, Bioware didn't lock F2P out of content. Sorry, but if you want to hide your helmet or unify your colors, then pony up a lousy $15 bucks a month. Subscribers don't have to get screwed to make F2P players happy.

Subscribers wouldn't get screwed, but these restrictions are just unnecessarily petty on everyone else. Few people would bother paying to remove such a limitation, but why have the restriction in the first place? It's just pithy.

And there are gameplay limitations. Field revives. Lower XP gains. These are just two significant gameplay changes that treat free-to-play players as second-class players.

stitchersflock wrote:
Cartel Packs should not be account wide. You take the gamble about what you get in a Cartel Pack and they unlock the restrictions on packs in 36-48 hours depending on your level of payment. So how precisely are those Cartel Packs not account wide already?


I think you're misreading. Account wide unlocks for things like legacy perks and inventory expansions are already in place, and can be bought for cartel coins. I think that's a great thing, and I'm glad that BioWare already implemented this.

What I don't think is great is that they have these Cartel Packs, which are a low-odds gamble, versus having dedicated mount and pet sections of the store that just sell the items for points directly. That's more likely to generate sales and less likely to annoy players, whether subscribing or free-to-play.

stitchersflock wrote:
In essence, F2P players should stop whining. F2P is not entitlement. You want the benefits of subscription, then suck it up and subscribe. Can't afford $15 a month, then stop playing video games until you can.


Free to play players won't whine, they'll just move to another game that treats them fairer. BioWare never gets a chance to earn money from them, and the community doesn't get new blood to replace those that naturally leave. If BioWare is serious about growing the number of players, they need to adopt a fairer system if they're going to attract newcomers and possibly convert them to long-term subscribers.

Edited, Nov 29th 2012 10:56am by Gazimoff
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Bioware's New Version of F2P!!!
# Nov 29 2012 at 5:30 AM Rating: Decent
1 post
I totally Agree with the bottom part of the Article, It is too bad that Bioware Basically is killing it's Own Crown Jewel with Petty Coin n Dime Scheme. I was Playing SWTOR but I unsubscribed when they went to F2P, They don't really care about the support of the F2P Community seems they care more about the money like their Counter Part, Partner in Crime and Business affiliate Electronic Arts.

Since Bioware has Joined up with EA nothing Good has happen to the company, They might have good run in the single game aspect outlook but even in that realm they have been doing nothing accept screwing the gamers. You know sometimes what the big brother wants that don't mean you kneel down and give it to him, Basically that what Bioware has been doing just selling them self short and not living up to it's potential.

Bioware has lost it's two Leaders the Doctors, That is really shameful because company like Bioware should have not be bossed around by EA, but it has and there is nothing we can do about that now.

And SWTOR is a lost cause, and EA doesn't really care about it if Bioware will sink it's own sail because of what has been done to it. Seems to me like Since the Early or incomplete product that has been released in December 2011 basically has killed the game, Having Horrible Bugs, and End game content not being able to contend with other MMO's at that time basically People and the SWTOR community in general lost the interest in the Game, Whose fault is that, I gave you 2 vowels, E n A for short EA, If EA would leave the Developers of and MMO to what they wanted to do it in the first place, Hopefully the game would have seen a better Light, It was very anticipating game of the Decade but it felt short on the Delivery.

Giant Corporations tend to screw things up from time to Time, And I'm not saying everyone is Perfect, but writing off 300 million isn't that simple especially in today's economy, Unless you are Uncle Sam.

That is my 2 cents what I think on that.

This Game was good and would been better but the F2P or Current Bioware Version of F2P Totally Sucks Bantas Ass.
Bioware's New Version of F2P!!!
# Dec 02 2012 at 7:45 AM Rating: Decent
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494 posts
What a great post. +1 sir
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