I’ve been waiting for this.
I wrote a post on my own blog a while back when Bioware was considering transitioning Star Wars: The Old Republic to a free-to-play (F2P) model and how it was an inevitability. Subscription-based MMOs are no longer a long-term business model.
In my mind, there are basically two models that have risen from the ashes of the old: (1) Free-to-play at launch; and (2) Early adopter subscription-driven with a transition to free-to-play. Both are supported by getting some users to pay for additional content or features. Some, like Guild Wars, offer expansions for additional cost, while many others offer microtransactions for additional content, character slots, short-term bonuses, etc.
SWTOR falls into that second category. For the better part of a year, SWTOR has cashed in on hardcore MMO and Star Wars fans that felt compelled to play the game when it first launched. Once that surge of income began to dry up, the move to F2P was on. As many other MMOs have proven over the past few years (D&D Online, DC Universe Online, Lord of the Rings Online), the F2P model can be very successful if implemented properly.
When I was working for CBR, I had a few conversations with the DC Universe Online devs prior to that game launching, and it was clear to me they knew the game would eventually go free-to-play. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would even try a subscription-based model in the first place, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. In the short-term, there is a lot of money to be made from the early adopters. In fact, publishers can almost use that subscription-based period as another beta test while they ready their F2P model. They can see the game in action, and figure out where microtransactions would best fit in based on how people play the game, how long average sessions last, etc.
I firmly believe that this was the plan for SWTOR all along. The only thing that Bioware and EA didn’t foresee is that they would need to make the switch to F2P this quickly. The game launched in December of last year, and I bet they figured they’d get two years out of the subscription-based model before needing to switch over. In comparison, both DDO (2006) and LOTRO (2007) lasted about 3.5 years apiece before switching, while DC Universe Online (2011) and SWTOR (2011) lasted less than one year. What that tells me is that even early adopters are balking at the idea of a subscription-based model, and F2P will soon become the primary model for all MMOs moving forward (some might argue it has already).
So given that the switch to F2P has come a little early for the folks behind SWTOR, it will be interesting to see how their version of a free-to-play model is implemented. Already, there seem to be some odd choices in terms of restrictions (F2P players not being able to equip rarer weapons and items, limited number of PvP events per week), but at least it looks like all classes and experience levels will be accessible from the get go.
I will be diving into Star Wars: The Old Republic when it goes F2P, and in the Force Test series of posts, I’ll be writing about my experience with the game and my thoughts on how the F2P model has been implemented.