Okay, maybe “shock” is a little strong. Going free-to-play is, after all, what all the cool kids are doing. But it speaks to the future of MMOs if a big-budget, high-profile game like Star Wars: The Old Republic can’t sustain paying subscribers.
So what does it say about the MMO industry if one of its biggest and most important titles is forced to go free-to-play to survive? If you’re thinking “free-to-play is the future,” then ding-ding-ding! We have a winner!
I can’t really pretend to be surprised. The MMO business model has been a flawed one from the start. It’s hard enough to justify shelling out $60 for a triple-A video game without needing to plunk down an extra $15 (or more) a month just to keep playing the game you already own. It’s true that you’re paying for the right to play alongside other gamers in a massively multiplayer online setting, use the game publisher’s servers, help pay their employees, etc. And it’s also true that other titles have seen — and continue to see — success at going the subscription route (World of Warcraft being the granddaddy longlegs of them all).
But the subscription model has another major flaw that has nothing to do with money. MMOs require major investments of time and effort, to the point that most players only have enough time in their lives to play a single MMO on a regular basis. There are only so many gamers in the world with the interest, time, and money available to pour into notorious time-suckers like MMOs. And MMO players tend to, after finding a game that tickles their fancy, be very loyal to their game of choice. It’s simple math: the gaming public can only sustain so many of these things.
If anybody had a chance of attracting new players to the MMO genre, it’s Star Wars. And it’s not like The Old Republic didn’t get off to a great start. The game signed up a million subscribers in its first three days after going live — topping all previous MMO records. Metacritic shows it with a strong overall score of 85 out of 100. The game is estimated to have cost BioWare somewhere upwards of $200 million to make, and features more than 200,000 lines of dialogue performed by voice actors, instead of on-screen text like most MMOs. Star Wars: The Old Republic has so much going for it.
But don’t mistake this news for the game’s eulogy. BioWare says that they’re “adding a free-to-play option” to the game, sounding like Starbucks putting a fun new flavor of frappuccino on their over-priced menu. As part of the deal, BioWare is also lowering the initial price tag of the game down to $14.99, which is sure to make early adopters of the game feel even more… special. To make up for that duped-by-Charlie-Sheen feeling of, “Too late dude, we’ve already got your money,” longtime players of SW:TOC will get a big bag of “cartel coins” to spend on in-world goods and content. BioWare also says it will be producing new content about every six weeks now, which free-to-play gamers will have to pay for, while paying subscribers get the updates automatically.
Likewise, free-playing gamers will be able to play up to the point where their character maxes out their level cap, without paying a dime. But for additional content beyond that point, a subscription is still required.