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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.

Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.