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Roundtable: The Old Republic's Free-To-Play Future

Roundtable: The Old Republic's Free-To-Play Future

Fri 03 Aug 2012 2:30pm GMT / 10:30am EDT / 7:30am PDT
PublishingDevelopment

With BioWare's hugely expensive MMO going free-to-play this year, we examine what the model means for The Old Republic and the industry at large

EA BioWare

BioWare develops high quality console, PC and online role-playing games, focused on rich stories, unforgettable...

bioware.com

Few needed the services of Michael Pachter to accurately predict the future of Star Wars: The Old Republic. For many, the outcome was clear even before the game launched, but after several months of encouraging rhetoric EA finally made the call: this November, Star Wars: The Old Republic will go free-to-play... well, more or less.

Certain aspects of the game and all content beyond level 50 will remain behind a pay-wall, but for the most part these concessions seem to be more about EA's damaged pride than actual value for the consumer. It's hard to judge the significance of any event in the moment, but it's worth entertaining the notion that The Old Republic's inability to sustain a subscription model will be regarded as a milestone in how games on this scale are created and sold.

The key question now is, will it work? Free-to-play has been the apparent saviour of a growing number of MMOs, but while these games have been given a second chance by adopting the model, the degree of success they have enjoyed since the transition is less clear. In the absence of hard numbers for revenue and profits we're left to assume that free-to-play leads to untold riches, but what's good for DC Universe Online won't necessarily be good for The Old Republic.

Zynga's current woes can be attributed to a number of factors, but, as Rob Fahey recently pointed out, the failure to monetise its new users is a key part of the problem. Obviously, the perceived value of the product is vital here, but as more free-to-play products of all kinds enter the market it will only become more difficult to compete for the players' time and their incremental injections of revenue. Will removing the barriers to entry really lead to a market where any game can succeed, and, perhaps more importantly, will it lead to better games?

Dan Pearson

"By admitting that it could not compete with Activision Blizzard in the subscription MMO market, EA will have, in some people's eyes, capitulated"

It's hard to believe that there wasn't a little pride involved in EA not making this choice much, much earlier. This is a huge battleground, one of the areas where it's taking a big swing at its biggest traditional opponent, Activision - the left cross to the windmilling right of the FPS market contest. Squaring up to Acti across these two enormously profitable arenas is a massive commitment, one that has bigger connotations in the boardroom than it ever could in the living rooms of gamers.

The switch to free-to-play, as eminently sensible as it appears to be, is still a sidestep; a moving of the goal-posts. By admitting that it could not compete with Activision Blizzard in the subscription MMO market, EA will have, in some people's eyes, capitulated.

It's undoubtedly a wise move, and it won't have been done without due consideration. In the reams and reams of metric information that the publisher collects on the MMO, there was clearly a spike in uptake after the recent compromise of making 15 levels free-to-play that has prompted this full switch - whatever its eventual budget, this is a project way too expensive to roll the dice on. Whether it has what it takes to turn profit in a hugely competitive market is another question.

Perhaps if EA were to begin this project today it would pick F2P straight off the bat. Perhaps it would take its lead from Guild Wars 2 and opt for a boxed-product model, with little or no further monetisation past the point of sale. As someone who has never understood the mentality of MMO players in general, and their willingness to pay monthly in particular, it seems so obvious - but there are still over nine million WoW players who would disagree.

David Radd

I have to believe this will benefit the game, because it has in almost every other case I've witnessed, but Star Wars: The Old Republic is a peculiar case. Almost everyone that has played the game regards the storytelling as the best part of the experience. The story is a solo experience with other players included as an option, and interest in the story doesn't necessarily mean interest in the raiding and PvP end-game content that EA will apparently keep behind a pay-wall - they might just be giving away the best part of the game.

2

Will the mass transition to free-to-play lead to better games? I'm really unsure. Free-to-play requires having a product's paid conveniences laid bare, sometimes to an almost annoying degree, and there's always the worry of "pay to win" situations, all of which diminish the experience. We're still in the early stages of free-to-play, and there are certainly a few discoveries and innovations still to come, but it's a fine line between selling extras to willing customers and exploitation your players. Hopefully, The Old Republic will find the right balance.

Steve Peterson

Free-to-play is a seductive business model, but the game design implications are scary. Free is the standard in the social game market, we've seen it rapidly conquer the mobile space, and now the MMO is following suit - but the results are not always going to be successful. Sure, The Lord of the Rings Online made a great transition, ending up with far more users and more revenue than before, but many MMOs haven't been so lucky, and it's difficult to tell where the chips will fall for The Old Republic. Game balance is a delicate thing, and suddenly assigning costs to items could potentially make the game much less fun to play.

"This isn't a rushed decision, and as a result there should be a lot of smart monetisation options appearing come November"

The story-based style of Star Wars: The Old Republic is another complicating factor. How exactly do you convert that to a pay model? Do you have to pay to find out how a story line ends? Or are some stories not available unless you pay? What exactly is going to be worth the subscription price? Michael Pachter may think the game can grow to 50 million users, but I just don't see how that's possible. The game's design and production values will make adding new content more time-consuming and expensive than any other MMORPG, and adding new content is the lifeblood of the genre... especially when it's free to play.

Making Star Wars: The Old Republic free-to-play is the best chance EA has to create a growing game, but it's not at all a sure-fire thing. I wish them luck; they're going to need it.

Matt Martin

I would imagine BioWare and EA had free-to-play in mind way before development had even finished on The Old Republic. It started out with subscriptions, but free-to-play was mounted on the wall behind Greg Zeschuck's desk: 'In Case of Emergency Break Glass'. This isn't a rushed decision and as a result there should be a lot of smart monetisation options appearing come November.

If anything, the MMO market becomes more brutal with every new game that announces its free-to-play ambitions. MMOs are designed as time-sinks, pulling in customers and keeping them playing with their friends. But loyalty isn't necessary when you're not paying for the experience, and so players can come and go as they please. As a result, weak free-to-play games become more disposable and only the strongest will survive.

3

The Lord of The Rings Online is the prime example of a successful free-to-play transition

But if players have already experienced The Old Republic and drifted away, then this won't bring them back. Surely the million-plus early adopters were all hardcore Star Wars and gaming fans, the most loyal players with high disposable income (why else does Lego create a $400 Death Star?). That's not an audience put off by a price; that's an audience turned off by the game.

Star Wars may be a part of popular culture and have universal appeal, but the mechanics of this kind of MMO are far from friendly. So who exactly will a free-to-play Old Republic attract? Maybe the same people who have dabbled in that other free Star Wars game, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures. But we don't hear much about the continued success of that, and it isn't the flagship product for a publisher with a slowing social games business and tanking share price.

James Brightman

The Old Republic going free-to-play won't be a shock to anyone who follows this industry. It's the only reasonable move EA could make to stop a leak from becoming a gushing waterfall, but I don't think it's going to significantly extend the title's longevity. My hunch is that The Old Republic will get a temporary bump for a few months as the user-base surges from curious players, but, in the long run, will the game really be able to sustain enough of a paying user-base to support its massive infrastructure? MMO players are fickle and nomadic, and Mists of Pandaria and Guild Wars 2 could make EA's life very difficult in the months ahead.

"While it's good to see SWTOR declare free-to-play status up to level 50, many games are weighted a bit too heavily towards quickly opening your wallet"

The free-to-play market is a fascinating study of business and human psychology. Developers don't want their games labelled as "shallow", but at the same time the business dictates that they hold back some of the very essence of the game that would make it deeper - or else why would any sane person pay anything? The trick is to come up with a "hook" to get players addicted and willing to cough up some cash on multiple micro-transactions. Then again, if it pushes the hook too obviously and quickly, as John points out, it saps the fun out almost instantly. It's a very careful balance that needs to be achieved, and I sure don't have the right answer - if I did I'd already be rich.

Ultimately, I'm most curious to see whether free-to-play can really be applied to console and AAA products. Can free-to-play sustain a product that costs anywhere from $40 to $60 million to develop, and more to maintain? Perhaps the best free-to-play use would be "free-to-try", like Gaikai's instant demos of top quality games. No micro-transactions or gimmicks; see if you like the game, and if you do, pay for the complete experience. Xbox Live demos, in my experience, have been one of the best marketing tools. It's really the only free-to-play I need, but maybe I'm in the minority.

John Benyamine

Star Wars: The Old Republic going free-to-play is a solid move by one of the few companies that seems to understand the ever-changing games market and is willing to take a risk, even if that risk is being initiated by a poor consumer response to the initial retail offering. I'm very curious to see how EA tackles the problems that I've always seen with free-to-play, which boils down to two categories.

First, the pay wall tends to show up a lot quicker than most gamers would like. That's a pretty obvious statement in the age-old battle of consumer interests versus corporate bottom lines, but it's an important aspect of free-to-play that many traditional companies still don't have a handle on. While it's good to see a game like SWTOR declare free-to-play status up to level 50, many games (including EA's own SimCity Social) are weighted a bit too heavily towards quickly opening your wallet.

4

Tribes: Ascend is free-to-play but without the pervasive sense of compromise

In that regard, it reminds me of the iTunes App Store; it took some time to figure out that a lower price point translated into substantially more revenue, even if that meant changing user expectations towards one-dollar apps forever. We're still at that critical early point in time where the free-to-play market will have to decide how much is enough to satisfy users while earning a worthwhile profit, and SWTOR should teach us a lot over the next several months.

The second, more sinister problem comes with the worry that by introducing for-pay items into the gaming ecosystem, you naturally stack the deck in favor of those with infinite funds. Reflecting on my own gaming habits and the recent Diablo III, seeing rare drops in the auction house made finding those rare items in the game world less fun. That's not an issue that can be patched up willy-nilly, and I'm worried that things like that will start to sap the fun out of games unless you have one of the most dangerous and expensive gaming accessories by your side: your wallet.

Matthew Handrahan

It may surprise you that the team doesn't regard The Old Republic's free-to-play switch as an instant home-run, but I also remain sceptical about the game's future. While it adheres quite closely to a familiar template, EA and BioWare's claims that they were attempting to bring new standards of quality to the MMO were true of some aspects of the game. Maintaining The Old Republic and providing regular new content of the standard already set will require a steady flow of revenue, perhaps more than 2 to 5 per cent of the user-base can provide. Worryingly, my friends who have played the game extensively have trouble suggesting where in-game purchases could easily fit into the picture. The Old Republic was sold as a story; very soon, it will have to double as a shop.

The final outcome of this mass exodus towards free-to-play is equally hard to predict. I don't hold with the notion that the model will become standard for all games - there is a great deal of middle-ground between $60 and free, and the industry should cover every inch of it - and, more to the point, I believe it would be bad for the industry if it did. Games like League of Legends and Tribes: Ascend have made me reconsider my once staunch opposition to the model, but, for the most part, contemporary free-to-play games force the player to mix the immediate experience of playing with the economics of continuing to do so in a way that leaves me cold. I know I am not alone, but I also know that there are many more who would disagree.

10 Comments

George Williams Owner

5 1 0.2
By going free to play, wont guarantee SWTOR's success. Overall, its an extremely poor game. Too close to WoW, zero Community Management, lack of end game content - the list is endless.

There's still a place for a subs based MMO, if the end user sees value and, a long term plan for content. Free 2 play, if done correctly can work for both the business and players needs but its a fine balance. Lets see how EA/Bioware deal with this challenge because it could end in tears if they get it wrong.

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Patrick Keller Head of Software Development, ProSiebenSat.1 Games GmbH

4 2 0.5
The new F2P lockouts are totally irrelevant, people will not go sub to have the benefits those players have.

What will happen is that people play f2p till 50, will talk to others realizing operations don't deliver the value needed for a sub, and leave.

The loyalty system also neither delivers stuff that puts social pressure on players, nor is it enhancing your gameplay to a must have.

It's a shame...

The game had its moments.

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Michael Gunter Monster Hunter

15 5 0.3
F2P is a model I have been playing in since 2008, and while the model itself is VERY successful in my opinion, much of that success hinges on the game it is attached to and the level of "freeness." The less money based transactions affect the core gameplay, the more likely I am to pay.

Two games that I feel have done this VERY well are Dungeon Fighter Online and Vindictus, both of which are under the Nexon flag. World of Tanks by Wargaming.net has some minor flaws in their model that likely won't disappear on account of how profitable they have already proven, and as a result, I have put significantly less into WoT than I have into DFO or Vindictus. Heck, I've put more into Atlantica Online than WoT, but that was before AO got very far along their slow growing "Pay to Win" curve.

The point I am making plays into James Brightman's statement
MMO players are fickle and nomadic
From a personal standpoint, the SWTOR take on the F2P model will be VERY hard pressed to pull any sort of profit from someone like myself. I realize I don't speak for ALL F2P players, but if you want me (or anyone like me) to be a profitable customer, you don't punish the future payers with login queues, limited race choices, entry limits, content blocks, and inane blockages on transportation methods.

I might out of curiosity try the 1 - 50 content, that is, if I can find time to pull myself away from DFO, Vindictus, World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, Mech Warrior Online, Planetside 2, and Hawken, as well as the occasional romp in D3 just because hey, I already made the mistake of buying it, getting a wizard to 60, and hitting that horrible realization of a lack of end-game appeal, so I might as well play it now and again when somebody finds the next invincibility bug, but EA will be hard pressed to monetize my experience in SWTOR with so much good competition. If anyone is still reading this far, you deserve a cookie, so treat yourself at lunch or grab an extra scoop of ice cream, you deserve it.

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Spencer Franklin Concept Artist

95 125 1.3
"... if players have already experienced The Old Republic and drifted away, then this won't bring them back."

My sentiments exactly. I've played, and for me an the many like me who actually purchased and played beyond the limits of this "freemium" offering, there is nothing to go back to. The things behind the paywall are things that are already lacking, and putting transportation behind this wall is also punishing to any new players as well as old. The 1-50 leveling is the meat of this game, and everything else they failed at considerably, to varying degrees.
As mentioned elsewhere, many of those that left the game before now didn't leave because of the cost of a subscription, but because of the games lack of content, it's buggy (and very limited) engine, which were not worth a sub. This f2p model they are following does nothing to change that.

Posted:2 years ago

#4

Ethan Abramson Lead 3D Artist, Powerhead Games

5 6 1.2
Perhaps the best free-to-play use would be "free-to-try", like Gaikai's instant demos of top quality games. No micro-transactions or gimmicks; see if you like the game, and if you do, pay for the complete experience.
Maybe James Brightman (and perhaps other authors of this piece) isn't aware that anyone can currently download SW:TOR and play 15 levels for free. If you want to continue, you can buy the full game, which comes with a 30 day subscription.

It seems like maybe it's not clear to the authors that basically in the Fall, players will not have to buy the game at all. So that's really a $50 difference from the way it is now, regardless of subscription model, microtransactions, etc.

Posted:2 years ago

#5

James Brightman Editor in Chief, GamesIndustry.biz

242 367 1.5
Ethan, that sentence wasn't a direct reference to SWTOR. I was talking about F2P in general.

Posted:2 years ago

#6

Ethan Abramson Lead 3D Artist, Powerhead Games

5 6 1.2
Fair enough. I just thought it was interesting that this article barely touched on box price, instead focusing on subscription. The MMOs mentioned essentially fall into one of three different business models: box price and paid sub with free trial (WoW and SWTOR's current model), box price and free unlimited subscription (Guild Wars' model), and F2P with paid premium content and/or paid subscription (most current MMOs' model). That $50 difference between models can often mean a huge number of new players will decide to play a game, regardless of how much they spend after that point.

Edit: It's also worth noting that microtransactions for vanity and convenience items (i.e. non-pay2win) are already present in pretty much every MMO across the board, including WoW and new paid-sub offerings like The Secret World. They really aren't as relevant to the various models as the other factors.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ethan Abramson on 3rd August 2012 8:11pm

Posted:2 years ago

#7

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,132 1,164 1.0
Some f2p games are a success, no doubt.

But how many games which failed as subscription games successfully transitioned over to f2p and became a success with their new business model?

Posted:2 years ago

#8

George Williams Owner

5 1 0.2
@Klaus - Thats very true. However, SWTOR has one major flaw - its choice of game engine.

If you look closely at WoW, it will run on just about any PC or laptop, no matter how old or slow it is. I've heard that if you put a cream cracker in as a graphics card, it will still work! ;)

SWTORs Hero Engine is just too clunky and taxing on older systems to get any decent kind of frame rate. Bioware need to dig into that lazy coding and make it alot sharper if they want to exceed 1 million users on F2P

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe

82 38 0.5
I think once it changed to F2P alot of players will come back for one reason or another. I will come back for at least a short time to finish the personal stories on both my characters. That is all I'm interested in.
But F2P worked very well with big profits for many, so why shouldn't it work for SWTOR. I actually think it will work extremely well for them.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

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