Updated Wed, Dec 12, 2012 by gunky
Like fingerprints and snowflakes, no two MMO developers are exactly the same. While two rival companies may share some key characteristics, they will handle their games very differently, and players will have very different types of experiences with their competing games. And when those games eventually succumb to the pressures of the current MMO market and convert their titles to Free-to-Play, the differences may become even more pronounced.
Compare BioWare with Turbine. Both companies control MMOs with big-name intellectual properties (BioWare has the Star Wars brand, Turbine has the Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons), and both companies converted their games to F2P after the old monthly subscription model proved itself no longer viable. But, while the Turbine conversion (for both Dungeons & Dragons Online and the Lord of the Rings Online) is often regarded as a model for success, the conversion of Star Wars: The Old Republic risks becoming a cautionary tale.
In a lot of ways, the SWTOR F2P conversion seems to follow the model of DDO and LotRO. The "entire game" can be played "for free," and you can unlock "convenience items" by paying cash. That's the ad copy, anyway. In reality, it means that the F2P package is choked and limited to the point where it's nearly unplayable past a certain level without buying some key unlocks.
In LotRO, a F2Per starts with limited inventory space, no ability to quick-travel to distant locations, limited character slots, chat, mail and auction house restrictions, no access to the "premium" classes (Rune-keeper and Warden), limited use of Traits and Virtues for character customization, and with only four questing areas and a handful of skirmishes. They cannot access PvMP on the Free Peoples side, but can roll a monster character and do PvMP that way.
Technically speaking, a player could level all the way to 85 with just that, never spending a dime or unlocking anything. It would be boring and repetitive as hell, and that character would never want to stray too far from a town, but it's certainly possible. But the great thing is, players can expand their game by playing - earning Turbine Points by completing deeds, and using those points to unlock restrictions and purchase quest packs. Earning enough TP to unlock the (almost) full VIP game can take a very long time and possibly requires rolling a lot of disposable deed-farming alts, but it can be done. You can get essentially the full thing (except PvMP on your main character, which is VIP-only) without ever paying a dime.
In SWTOR, the restrictions are a different flavor. F2Pers have access to all 8 basic classes but only a handful of the races and a small number of character slots. The user interface is choked and restrictive, and can't contain all the character's combat skills without buying an unlock. They start with the same inventory space as subscribers. They have access to the entire game world and can level a character all the way to 50, but they have limited access to group content, and can't equip the best gear without buying an unlock.
Unlike LotRO, SWTOR F2Pers cannot unlock the rest of the game just by playing. Cartel Coins cannot be earned in-game. They can only be purchased with real money.
This makes for two very different experiences. In LotRO, once the player has quested his way through Ered Luin, the Shire, Bree-land and the Lone-lands, there is an impetus to keep going and see more of the game. The ability to unlock new questing areas by finishing quests in available areas makes the player want to keep soldiering on. It's the carrot on the stick.
In SWTOR, the player is pretty much just given the carrot. For many players, the epic Star Wars storyline is the entire draw of the game, and once the story is done there is little reason to keep going. While there is more "endgame" now than there was at launch, the big draw of any BioWare title is its engaging storyline. As it stands now, if a player can get by with the F2P limitations all the way to 50 and is not terribly interested in an endgame gear grind for stuff they can't even use anyway without paying cash for it, he can do the whole personal story and all the planet quest-chains, heroics and bonus series, and then drop the game and move on to something else, having never spent a dime. Which is exactly what a lot of players say they are doing in General Chat on most planets.
It would have made more sense in this case to more-closely follow the Turbine model and offer planet quest packs. The personal story, like the epic books in LotRO, would be totally free, but the rest of the missions, heroics and bonus series would be unlockables. Instead of selling a cap-removal to flashpoint access, sell the flashpoints individually. Sell the PvP warzones individually.
Both companies have basically the same policy for subscriber bonuses - a monthly allowance of their in-game currency to spend as we see fit. Since subscribers don't need that currency to unlock anything, it can be saved up and spent on expensive luxury items, or dumped all at once in exchange for consumables and trinkets. Everything is faster for subscribers because all the cool stuff is automatically unlocked.
Since Turbine Points can be earned in-game, the LotRO monthly allowance is almost redundant. It's a nice bonus when you've been saving up for that expensive cosmetic or premium mount, but a player could earn that same amount of TP in a few hours by rolling a new alt and deeding in the starter areas.
The monthly allowance in SWTOR is slightly more advantageous. Since Cartel Coins can't be earned in-game, the monthly allotment gives subscribers a clear financial edge over F2Pers. Subscribers get free stuff, which they then sell to non-subscribers for pure profit. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Eventually the F2Pers rise up with the battle-cry, "We Are The 99%!" and attempt to occupy Fleet, and Jello Biafra writes a song about it called "Corellia Uber Alles."
To be fair, both sides have made some errors here. That's important to note, because it's the cash shop that makes or breaks a free-to-play game. If the cash shop fails, the game fails.
Turbine's track record with its cash shop in LotRO is long, but far from spotless. Initially, its offerings were slim - unlocks and some cosmetics and stuff - but eventually they started selling store-exclusive potions and weapon enhancements that caused many detractors to opine about "pay-to-win." More recently, the playerbase's ire was sparked by beta-testing of a 50-dollar hobby horse item - a stick with a stuffed horse head that had the same stats and speed as a premium mount and had an hilarious riding animation, but cost nearly 5,000 Turbine Points per character. This item and its absurd cost was met with nearly universal hostility by the players, and even "testing" such an item caused some cynical players to lose faith in the game.
SWTOR's cash shop is not really any better. Initial offerings have been slim - some cosmetic items and consumables for subscribers, and a sea of unlocks for F2Pers - but the real best-seller has been the Crime Lord Cartel Packs which rarely contain the premium items used in the advertising. These items have been commanding absurd prices on the Galactic Trade Network because of their relative rarity and coolness, but the likelihood of actually getting one from one of the $3 Cartel Packs is dismayingly low. At best, these rare items have the ability to even out the financial gap between F2Pers and subscribers - everyone has the same chance of winning a throne or a mask. But in realistic terms, the people buying the packs are the ones who can afford them (e.g. subscribers who get them basically for free), and the trickle-downs reap none of the rewards. Hello, global economy.
It comes down to which is the lesser of two evils: pay-to-win consumables and overpriced vanity items, or bait-and-switch tactics and gambling. Neither is terribly appealing, but those are the options we are given. And they are not exclusive to these two games, either. Essentially, any f2p game on the market now will have some form of these things. It's not the fault of the developers, either. That's just how the MMO market works now. Don't hate the games, hate the players who made the games what they are.
SWTOR has done alright since the conversion. New players are filling General Chat on the lowbie planets with their desperate pleas for help, and experienced veterans are trolling them and grumbling about how things were so much better before the switch. The exact same thing happened in LotRO right after its conversion. And when I tried DDO after that game went F2P, I saw the same thing there, but from the other side - I'm a subscriber for LotRO and SWTOR, but for DDO I was trying the free-to-play.
Both DDO and LotRO found great success with F2P. If BioWare hopes to capture the success of Turbine's F2P titles and build a stable, financially-viable player base, it's going to need to pay closer attention to what makes these games work as well as they do. A big IP only carries the game so far.