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Star Wars: The Old Republic dev calls for an end to "whales"

Former lead designer Damion Schubert says it's time to treat heavy-spending "patrons" with respect

Free-to-play can be a polarizing topic. There are players who find the business model unnecessarily exploitive, or detrimental to their enjoyment of a game. It's hard enough to convert players who prefer the traditional PC or console game business model to give free-to-play a try, but it can be that much harder to convince the developers of those traditional games to devote their livelihood to creating free-to-play games.

Damion Schubert is familiar with that sort of resistance. The current design director of Boss Fight Entertainment, built his career on massively multiplayer online games, from Meridian 59 to Star Wars: The Old Republic. And when The Old Republic faltered at launch as a subscription-based offering, Schubert oversaw the game's conversion to a free-to-play model and used that experience as the basis of his GDC talk, "Embracing the Paradigm Shift: Converting a Premium Team to an (Enthusiastic!) Freemium Team."

"Game developers from my generation, the ones who grew up with boxed products, look on the old model with longing."

When The Old Republic missed expectations on launch, Schubert said EA gave them a mandate to convert the game to a free-to-play business model and to do it fast. That meant there wasn't time to bring on board developers with expertise in the free-to-play market, so Schubert and his existing crew had to research the process themselves. In discussing free-to-play with other developers, Schubert said there were two common types of people they met: the Scrooge McDuck sort focuses on monetization, and developers experiencing "existential despair," "morbidly depressed" about working in free-to-play instead of boxed products.

However, there was also a third group of developers, those who'd monetized their games in profitable ways that the player base loved. He specifically mentioned the popular FIFA Ultimate Team game mode, which has players throwing out their progress every year and eagerly embracing a new game with new cards.

"Game developers from my generation, the ones who grew up with boxed products, look on the old model with longing," Schubert said.

For them, the free-to-play model is a too-good-to-be-true offer. But for kids growing up today, everything they could want--music, movies, porn--has been available for free, legally or not. Now there's so much entertainment available for free that kids only need to pay money if they want to emotionally invest in something. Even in the boxed retail market, the digital distribution alternative has pushed prices down close to free. Schubert pointed out that Far Cry 3 is just a few years old but can already be had for well under $10 on Steam.

The shift is happening everywhere. Entire genres have gone free, with MOBAs and MMOs now almost exclusively the domain of free-to-play.

"Now imagine if you will that EA and DICE manage to figure out how to make a true Battlefield 5 experience that is actually a good free-to-play experience," Schubert said. "They'll have an increase in profits, they'll claim the free-to-play first-person shooter experience, Call of Duty will have to flip, and then the whole genre will flip."

"Free is not a nudge. It's a massive force multiplier."

So if free is inevitable, how do you get the team on board? Schubert said the answer is to remind developers that they are artisans, and the goal is to have as many people as possible play their games. And if that's the case, free is essential.

"Free is not a nudge," Schubert said of its effect on player base size. "It's a massive force multiplier."

He pointed to another of his previous games, Shadowbane, which was made free-to-play a month before being shut down just to avoid potential lawsuits from players who might have paid for service that was severed without warning. The surge in players in that month was so massive that Schubert said there was talk of adding servers to manage the extra load, and in the end publisher Ubisoft left the lights on for about two years just to accommodate the large number of players.

When BioWare started converting The Old Republic, Schubert said many of the Scrooge McDuck types were trying to convince them to monetize users and put up paywalls as early in the player experience as possible. But EA's extensive internal testing had showed that The Old Republic already had one of the best introductory game experiences the MMO genre had ever seen, so Schubert said they had to push back to keep it as is.

Some of the most successful blockbuster free-to-play games like Heroes Charge are incredibly generous with their early game experience, Schubert said. Giving the first few hours away for free doesn't mean much if you can get people to stick around for dozens of hours a week over years and years. On top of that, having a free-to-play game with a robust early experience is crucial to a game's virality. It's one thing to download and play a game on a friend's say-so, but another thing entirely if you need to pay money for the "starter pack" to get a passable experience.

People like to spend money on their hobbies, Schubert said. As evidence, he talked about his wife's "ridiculous" yarn collection and his "ludicrous" Magic: The Gathering expenditures. Ideally, free-to-play developers can create something that people will want to spend money on. Magic is "completely" a pay-to-win game, but Schubert said its value proposition is transparent enough that it is a completely ethical approach to that model.

"These [high-paying] people are very important, and we can start by treating them with some fucking respect."

One thing that helped The Old Republic developers come around was a bit of transparency on the sales figures of microtransactions, Shcubert said. Designers who know what will sell best, such as character customization items, will be better able to spend their time on things that will be popular. For some reason, mini-pets don't do well in Star Wars, but vehicles sold exceptionally well. When designers saw that data, they started thinking about making cooler vehicles, downplaying emphasis on unpopular options, and finding ways to make the profitable items cheaper to produce.

Schubert also talked about the word "whale," saying nothing would make him happier than to see the industry do away with the disrespectful term entirely. As an alternative, he suggested "patrons," like wealthy lovers of the arts that will part with large sums of money so those works could be enjoyed by the masses.

"These people are very important, and we can start by treating them with some fucking respect," Schubert said.

The problem is that having content created for that 1 percent of players--like a $500 character in a game--can alienate the masses, making it a delicate line to walk. He suggested something akin to a ComicCon-exclusive Magic: The Gathering card set, playable shiny versions of normal cards that sold for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. It was a purely cosmetic change, but Schubert said it helps create a culture in which heavy spending is a source of pride rather than shame among the player base.

Finally, Schubert said that greed really does exist in the free-to-play world, and that developers can easily overstep boundaries and become the Scrooge McDuck caricatures he referenced earlier. To keep people in line, Schubert said every studio needs developers who will keep in mind that they are serving the players and act as their advocates.

"They're not always going to win the fights, but it is incredibly important to have somebody like that in the room," Schubert said.

Latest comments (7)

Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext4 years ago
I like the change in terminology from 'whale' to 'patron'. This helps set a much more healthy mindset.

I would also like to state that I have yet to see a successful implementation (in the west) that follows the advice of the 'Scrooge McDuck' type advice. This is typically a carryover from P2P, with the belief that you must get money upfront. I have seen it tried quite a few times, only to change as they found that they were inhibiting their own sales (which are on the backend, not the frontend).
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop4 years ago
Sounds like a non-talk. "We didn't have time to spend a day having someone with f2p knowledge talk to the team about the basics, so we spent time re-discovering stuff that's been well known for years."
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Eyal Teler Programmer 4 years ago
@Anthony Gowland, if there was stuff that's "well known for years", we wouldn't have as much discussion of F2P models as we do. (And that was in 2012, when monetisation discussions weren't as big as today.) Anyway, the people with relevant F2P knowledge are those who had experience with it, and that's exactly where the SWTOR team went to learn about it.
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George Williams Owner 4 years ago
There's free to play and then there's SWTOR f2p. At every turn, window you are reminded to buy X unlock for cartel coins(their in game currency) and if it wasn't for the whales, SWTOR probably would have been dead a long time ago. The game feels like a 'nickel and dime' approach to F2P with restrictions placed on all players.

And these very restrictions have an impact on ALL players, as old content like Flashpoints/Raids are locked behind pay walls and if you subscribe you get unlimited access. However, looking on the forums, there's endless complaints about long Q times before playing, which is a direct result of locking content behind pay walls.

Again, SWTOR tried a pay to win approach with Galactic Starfighter and it bombed. Cartel coining almost everything to do with space combat. F2P can be done correctly if you remove the dollar sign glasses before approaching it.

MMOs will always struggle to hold down a subscription base as they are 'theme parks'. They rely on content to be generated by the developer and when that developer can't meet the demands of their player base, they leave.

For me, F2P has only one stand out winner and that is Riot with LoL. Their model is perfect. Players can obtain anything they want if they invest the time, or can enhance their experience by purchasing Riot Points without any pay to win feeling.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by George Williams on 4th March 2015 10:09am

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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 4 years ago
@Anthony, I think you misunderstood - or I did ^^

I think they meant that they had no time to employ a new team member with f2p experience or bring in a consultant, so had to learn themselves from others in the industry presumably very succinctly. Not that they had no time to physically bring someone to the studio.
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe4 years ago
I really didn't like the way SWTOR did F2P. I understood why they implemented it but asking to spent cartel coins to unlock the feature to disable the display of your head gear was insane and offensive. It felt desperate to make players churn our cartel coins at every damn moment. It was a "fantastic" example for how to do bad F2P.

That being said I do welcome the notion to talk about "patrons". It sounds indeed more friendly and respectful. (Not that whales aren't friendly themselves.) As long as the industry does not find a way to do F2P properly without trying to pick-pocket customers it will not happen and a real feeling of being a patron will hardly be developed among customers.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
This will no doubt lead to a "Save The Whales" promotion by another f2p company in the near future.
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