How The Old Republic does Free2Play wrong

I like Star Wars: The Old Republic.

It’s a solid MMO that I put a good 3 or 4 months into with my friends. I played it long enough to get two characters to the level cap, and had a good number of alts running on the side.

Eventually, the lack of new content and painful gear grind wore us all down and we lost interest. We moved on and started playing other things – I guess a lot of other players did too. A few months ago Bioware announced the game was going to go Free2Play, and it wasn’t entirely unexpected. This sounded good to me, I thought after a break from playing for a few months I could jump back in and casually enjoy the parts I liked best about The Old Republic.

That was, at least, until I saw the list of Free2Play restrictions.

The Free2Play business model is becoming something of a standard for new MMOs, and there are very few games that call pull off the old $15/month fee anymore. Finding the best Free2Play model for your player base is tricky, and there are still regular missteps in their execution. You can’t just take the Farmville model and apply it to Call of Duty – they are separate markets with completely different expectations. The MMO Free2Play space is starting to see some maturity though, and we’ve seen a number of successful titles – Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dragon Nest, just to name a few.

There are success stories you can look at to help find the right model for your market.

Star Wars: The Old Republic hasn’t done a very good job at this. They’ve decided to restrict all but the most core feature, and give very little reason to choose the Free2Play model over subscription – and we all know how well that went for them last time.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of premium purchases:

  • Unlocks: paying a one time fee to access a feature, either as an account level or a character level – more storage space, access to character classes, racial unlocks…
  • Consumables: buying items that temporarily make the game easier – field resurrections, health potions…
  • Passes: paying for access to game features for a limited period of time – Space Mission passes, access to Operations…

I don’t have issue with the first two types of premium purchases - unlocks and consumables. These are the kind of paywalls I expect from a Free2Play MMO. When I haven’t put any money into a game, it’s not unreasonable to ask for me to pay for access to some features. Give a player a few classes to choose from, and let them pay to unlock more. Want more inventory space? Let them pay for it. Don’t want to run back from the respawn point to your quest area? We can help you out with that, buddy.

The Old Republic will give you a number of free characters classes and races, and let you play through their story quests. There is plenty of PvE content they are giving away on this model, and that’s by far the best they have to offer. Some of the character unlocks seem pretty excessive (really, you need to pay to use a purple item, and only one crafting skill?), but none of them seem totally unreasonable.

The third item on that list – Passes – is completely ridiculous.

There are two fundamental MMO features that have been locked behind weekly passes. If you’re a player who wants to complete high level dungeon content, or compete in PvP warzones, you’ll be severely limited in how much content you can access without effectively subscribing to the game again. The high level dungeons, called operations, can only be accessed if you purchase a weekly pass.

Similarly, if you want to play more than three PvP matches in a single week, you’ll need another pass. Bioware have taken the two of the core reasons that people play MMOs, and retained the subscription model. The exact pricing hasn’t been announced, but it’s largely irrelevant. Free2Play exists because people don’t want to subscribe to content, they want to pay for what they use. It’s the act of paying a subscription fee, rather than the dollar amount, that stops most people from coughing up regular cash.

I just wonder… why? Why even bother? You don’t replace a subscription model with another one. I was recently talking to a friend about jumping back into some Old Republic to play some PvP, only to find out that if I want to I’ll effectively have to subscribe again. If I’m going to start buying passes to access game content, why not just become a subscriber again? Maybe that’s what they really want…

Finding the right business model for a Free2Play game is hard, and knowing what your audience wants can sometimes be a little bit of trial and error. I’m hoping that these passes, especially for access to the PvP and operations, is something that’s abandoned pretty early on. After getting a little excited about casually jumping back in to The Old Republic, I’m now pretty uninterested. Like the launch of the game, this feels completely mismanaged, and out of touch with what their player base really wants. I have little doubt going Free2Play will see a surge of new users, but will they stick around when they realise they’ll effectively need to subscribe if they want to access content?

I’m not very optimistic about that…