28/07/2013

Random Free To Play Thoughts

In a couple of days the one year "anniversary" of SWTOR announcing its free-to-play transition is coming up. I'm putting anniversary in quotes because to me the word implies a joyous occasion that you're happy to remember, while the free-to-play announcement was pretty much the opposite of that for me. I may even have considered a ragequit for a day or two back then! Yet here I am a year later, still happily playing away. Have I changed my mind about the model? Not exactly.

In a way, the conversion has confirmed to me that I do prefer just paying a subscription. I'm a member of the apparently increasingly rare breed of gamers that likes to devote all their gaming time to one game, so a subscription is great in terms of value for money.

Having microtransactions instead of a sub that you pay only once a month (or even less frequently) also moves the focus of the game away from purely "playing the game" towards "shopping for virtual items". Now there are many people who enjoy that kind of thing, both in real life and virtually, "treating" themselves by buying things for themselves, but I'm not really one of them. I always fret about what the best offer is and whether I'm getting good value for money, and having to think too much about that in regards to my MMO of choice certainly doesn't increase my enjoyment of the game. Virtual goods are particularly devious because they take up no tangible space, and it's all too easy to spend money on something that you'll never even get any actual use out of and simply forget about. (The stories I hear about Steam users and their vast libraries of unplayed games...)

Free to play also does affect the development focus of a game, because no matter what exactly it is that is being sold in the cash shop, it's going to be an incentive for the developer to put all the good stuff in there and neglect alternatives that can be acquired purely by playing the game. In SWTOR, this has mostly turned out to affect customisable gear. Before the conversion, there was pretty good business in crafting things for looks, whether it was orange armour, weapons or colour crystals. Since the free-to-play transition, it feels like 99% of any additions in that area go straight onto the Cartel Market. I thought it was kind of humorously bad that the entirety of all new Armormech schematics that came with the expansion and that you can get as random mission rewards consisted of four patterns for gloves. Four. And no other gear slots! Every time I get one of those now it goes straight to the vendor because everyone and their mother's already got it and it's pretty much worthless. Yet how many dozens of whole new armour sets did they add to the Cartel Market in the last couple of months?

Don't get me wrong, it's not like crafting has become completely useless or anything, but it has definitely taken a heavy hit. I suppose the silver lining is that if you're not actually a crafter, you simply benefit from Bioware pouring more resources into putting out new armour models, and it doesn't really matter whether the guy from whom you buy them on the GTN crafted them or bought them for real money. I have to admit that I've never been a hardcore crafter myself, so I'm not exactly crying myself to sleep over it.

Keeping that in mind, and this is the important part, the game hasn't actually changed that much for me. It's funny actually, because people like to blast SWTOR for all the restrictions it puts on free players, but that's precisely why my subscription still feels like good value for money to me. In a recent episode of the Cat Context podcast, two of the hosts went off on a bit of a rant about how they hated SWTOR and its payment model now... and then sighed wistfully about how they kind of miss MMOs where they can just subscribe and not worry about anything else. This made me chuckle a bit because I feel that this is the biggest strength of SWTOR's model: yes, it does have a free-to-play option, and no, it's not the most attractive one on the market, but you can still subscribe and then not worry about anything else. The shop is fairly unobtrusive, and if you really do want to buy something from it, the subscriber stipend should generally have you covered.

Basically, when the payment model change was first announced, I kind of scoffed at the wording of them introducing a free-to-play option. How could there be a genuine choice between maintaining a sub or playing the whole game for free? Well, they managed to pull it off, because it's still quite obvious that the game is, at its heart, designed to be played with an active subscription, and there's a clear trade-off for not paying. You can play for free if you really want to, and you do get access to a lot of content at no cost, but various restrictions on bag space etc. make it quite obvious that the subscription is the best deal if you actually enjoy the game and want to play a lot. Bad news for former subscribers who wanted to come back to the game and have exactly the same experience as before without having to pay for anything, but good news for subscription lovers like me who just want to pay their monthly fee and then not have to worry about anything else.

5 comments :

  1. To be honest, the only time I even look at the cash shop is when I decide to add some extra bag space without paying credits for it. I'm happy with my sub, and really, the cash shop doesn't entice me at all. In the games I DO play F2P, like Star Trek Online or Neverwinter or Age of Conan, bag space is my biggest gripe. Otherwise, I'm not really bothered by it.

    That the game has stabilized and been allowed to grow due to the existence of the cash shop is a good thing. I can put up with the minor inconvenience of the occasional cash shop spam if it means that TOR will continue to thrive. (Especially since even Blizz is beginning a real cash shop of their own.)

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    1. I do think the cash shop is almost impressively low-key; most of the time I don't even remember that it's there. Which might not be good for the game's bottom line, I don't know, but I do appreciate it. And I do continue to give them money on a regular basis after all.

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  2. I ended up writing a whole post on this topic. Thanks for bringing it up!

    http://hawtpantsrepublic.com/2013/07/29/one-year-later-free-to-play-topic-shamelessly-stolen-from-shintar/

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    1. Thanks for posting; very interesting read. :)

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  3. This is another one of your very good posts and I very much agree with it entirely.

    I'm a member of the apparently increasingly rare breed of gamers that likes to devote all their gaming time to one game, so a subscription is great in terms of value for money.

    My sentiment exactly, and even though I do like to have a look at different games from time to time, I must be a member of the apparently increasingly rare breed of people who don’t think of commitment as something negative.

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