A little while back I wrote an article about why I think raiding sucks as “endgame”, and why it’s a manipulative, artificial way of slowing down the progress and reward acquisition of players of subscription based MMOs in order to keep them paying a monthly fee. I went into great detail about why Guild Wars 2, the soon to be released buy-to-play (you pay for a copy but no sub) MMO from ArenaNet doesn’t need this kind of endgame to be successful.
In subscription MMOs, raiding is a cooperative experience with very specific and intentional limitations built in to ensure players keep coming back week after week, month after month in order to repeat the same scripted, static content. That’s why only a few people receive loot of off each boss kill, and that’s why raids have lockouts that restrict the number of times you can defeat the same boss in a week. In many ways, it’s like gambling. You win once in awhile and get a rush, and then spend your remaining raid time chasing that high while pouring your time and money down the drain. And make no mistake, you NEED that loot to be competitive in a subscription MMO since the emphasis is on gear instead of skill. That’s why raids have new, more powerful gear to chase with each new raid tier. Without the promise of more power, who in their right mind would raid? Sure, the initial boss kill can be fun, like an unfamiliar puzzle you get to solve as a group. But who in their right mind would enjoy putting together the same exact puzzle time and time again without any additional reward, especially for a fee?
So what does this have to do with Star Wars: The Old Republic offering a free-to play option?
I’m glad you asked.
First, let’s take a look at exactly what that option is. Here is the breakdown as listed on the SW:TOR page:
Looks pretty good to me actually, considering I enjoy the Star Wars world enough to play in it for free now and then, but what I find really interesting are the restrictions and exclusions. I think it backs up everything I said about raiding in the first place and its dependency on the subscription model. Let’s break it down item by item:
1. Story Content – Players can play their full class stories from levels 1 to 50.
This is perfectly logical, and some would argue it’s the only portion of the game SW:TOR really did right. BioWare has long said that playing this MMO is like playing several sequels to their Knights of the Old Republic games, and this line basically means that you get multiple single player story lines for the shelf price of the game. Looks great on paper, but we’ll get to the fine print on this later.
2. Character Creation Choices – Some character creation options, such as species, are limited to subscribers.
Interesting, but intentionally vague. Does this mean existing species/class combos are included but perhaps unlocking new combinations through the Legacy system is for subscribers only? What if you already unlocked species in your Legacy system? Will those characters be locked unless you pay a subscription? Does this mean that even less species will be available than there are today under the F2P model? What other options are limited besides species? Had SW:TOR been build from the ground up as a F2P model, then things like species could have been offered as microtransactions. It will be interesting to see how they implement this, and how many people they piss off in the process if they remove existing functionality. If it were any other MMO, I could see them adding new species exclusive to subscribers, but given the thousands of lines of voiced dialog each species needs to be a playable race, this is unlikely. Unless they add Wookiees, and make all their dialog the same 10 subtitled Wookie growls over and over again like they did in KOTOR, adding new species is a long shot.
3. Warzones – Free players are limited in terms of how many Warzones they can play per week.
This is a fairly huge limitation, intentionally designed to get players to sub. SW:TOR is essentially WoW in space, and just like in WoW, gear is everything. PvP in SW:TOR, just as it is in World of Warcraft, is NOT fought on a level playing field. The guy with the best gear wins. The team with the best gear wins. If you only have a limited number of games per week to earn the currency needed to purchase your PvP gear, you’ll never be the guy with the best gear, meaning F2P players will always be at a disadvantage. People hate losing. People love winning. Winners will subscribe, and BioWare is counting on this. Unless you don’t care about SW:TOR’s PvP at all (like me), and have no intention of participating in it, this may bother you.
4. Flashpoints – Free players are limited in terms of how many Flashpoints they can play per week.
The same concerns about limited Warzones apply here, with one large exception. You’ll still suffer the same gear disadvantage that your F2P PvP counterparts, but at least they’ll be able to access the “endgame” of PvP. As a PvE player, your access to Operations is completely dependent upon your subscription status. Unless you don’t care about raids at all (like me), and have no intention of participating in them, this may bother you… a lot. More on that below.
5. Space Missions – Free players are limited in terms of how many Space Missions they can play per week. Aside from being a means of picking up a few easy credits, space missions in SW:TOR were a lot like raiding, only without the prospect of new gear: static, boring and on rails. Unless they add some incredible new elements to this corner of the game, I can’t imagine anyone caring.
6. Operations – Only Subscribers may complete Operations.
ONLY SUBSCRIBERS MAY COMPLETE OPERATIONS. This validates everything I’ve said about raiding, and we’ll get to that after these last few items.
7. Travel Features – Subscribers have access to all travel functionality, making getting around the world easier.
If this isn’t the most backwards thing ever, I don’t know what is. How about make it easier for EVERYONE to get around in your terrible travel system? The fact that it takes multiple load screens to travel from one planet to another, or even from just your ship to a planet’s surface, is just horrible design. Orbital Stations shouldn’t even exist. The Looking for Group system was a much-needed addition to the game, but even it fails to let you return to the planet you were on immediately after your flashpoint. Instead it dumps you back on the fleet. Does this mean they’re only fixing this for subscription players?
Even if Bioware wanted to implement a solution to this mess and only offer it to subscription players for free, a microtransaction option for F2P players would have been a bare minimum. There are probably a lot of players out there who’d pony up for a limited use item that would make travel between planets instant.
8. Game Login – Subscribers will always be in login queues ahead of free players.
Fair is fair. VIP access only makes sense in a dual payment model game.
9. Galactic Trade Network – Subscribers can post up to 50 auctions for sale. F2P players get “Extremely Limited Access”, whatever that means.
Until they release details, it’s hard to say what the hell they mean. If anything, it probably devalues crafting even more that it already is for casual, F2P players. If you can’t sell your goods, or if you can’t compete with sellers who can post more product than you can, then why bother? You really only need top end gear to compete in top end PvP and PvE, and since you can’t even access Operations under the F2P model, why participate in the time and credit sink that is SW:TOR crafting? Seems short-sighted to make an entire avenue of your game useless to a portion of your player base, but it’s far from the worst thing on the list.
VALIDATION OF THE RAIDING CONSPIRACY
By locking out F2P players from the PvE endgame of SW:TOR, they’ve only proven that raiding is a system entirely dependent upon, and entirely designed for, subscription players. If you aren’t raiding, and you have no subscription strings attached, then congratulations, you’re free to come and go from the game as you please. The only thing keeping you playing is if the content you have access to is fun and enjoyable, just like any other game you own, and just like any game should be experienced. If you are paying a fee, then you need to feel like you’re getting something for your money. With this model BioWare is giving you exclusive access to content and, more importantly to a gear-based MMO, the best tier of PvE gear in the game.
Of course, you only need that gear to access the next set of raids, and so the cycle will continue ad infinitum. Enjoy your run on the hamster wheel.
This is what kills me about the current generation of MMO players. Raiding isn’t doing you any favors. It isn’t the alpha and omega of MMO endgame. It’s just a time sink, and by association, a money sink. Sure, there is the initial thrill of overcoming an obstacle and seeing new content, but your perpetual need for gear, coupled with the intentionally gated method in which raiding awards that gear, chains you down to that same content over and over again until you dread logging in. It dictates how you spend your time in-game, and with whom you spend it. Raiding leads to dedicated rosters and schedules, where you can lose your spot unless your attendance meets standards. It leads to loot systems to manage loot drama over the randomized loot that may or may not even drop. It leads to resentment when people can’t attend or when someone “less deserving” than you gets the loot you wanted. It leads to guild applications with more questions on it than you’ll find in many job interviews. In may ways it is just as much the opposite of fun as the grind fests that older generation MMOs used to be. Yet where most players have realized that the evolution of MMOs means freeing yourself from those terrible grinds, thousands and thousands of those same people can’t even imagine a successful MMO without raiding at its core.
It’s mind boggling.
In many ways, trying to talk to people about it feels like being in the Matrix films and trying to convince them to wake up from the system that enslaves them.
But hey, at least with SW:TOR, players will have a choice. They can still experience almost everything the game has to offer, including multiple characters and story lines…
Or can they?
Remember that fine print I mentioned earlier?
From the FAQ on the official site:
Q: What happens if I decide to change from being a subscription player to a Free-to-Play member? What will happen to my credits, inventory, bank items, and characters?
A: Your account will automatically be downgraded and it will operate under the Free player restrictions. You will need to choose what items to keep with you within the restriction levels of the free access. Furthermore, you will be able to see, but not use, your excess credits, inventory slots, bank tabs, and extra characters.
I’m not sure what the BioWare means by “extra characters,” but it sure seems like F2P players won’t be able to enjoy as much of the story portion of the game after all. It’s one thing to offer a number of character slots with purchase and then offer additional character slots for a small fee, but it is something else entirely to lock players out from using characters they already have. The same thing goes for inventory slots and bank tabs.
And what does “excess credits” mean? Does it mean that F2P players can only have so much wealth? If so, then that’s a whole other explosion waiting to go off in BioWare’s face.
I enjoy SW:TOR from time to time because I enjoy the Star Wars universe, and I’d continue to play it under the right F2P model, but I’m very skeptical about how all of this is going to shake out. While I’m certain that offering a F2P model within a year of release isn’t what anyone at BioWare or EA intended, half-assing it could be worse for the game than not offering it at all.
To me, this looks less like a free-to-play model and more like an extended trial.