The other night I ran a random level 50 hardmode with two guildies, and we got into Kaon Under Siege with a level 50 Commando as our fourth. He promptly asked us if we could trade him any trooper drops - since he was "loot locked" - and outed himself as a non-subscriber that way. We said sure, why not (it's not as if we were there for the gear at level 55), but there was some confusion about how exactly this loot lock thing worked. I was on TeamSpeak with my guildies and explained as much as I knew, but ended up questioning myself in the end as our trooper friend seemed to be able to roll on everything as normal anyway (plus his request ended up being kind of irrelevant because no trooper gear dropped). Maybe he was just trying to get ahead of the game by "saving" his need rolls if possible.
Either way it got my guildies and me talking about free-to-play in general, and we realised that we actually knew very little about it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: people like to bash SWTOR's F2P system (and I definitely agree with some of the criticisms levelled at it), but if you're a subscriber it plays pretty much like a subscription game with a cash shop and it's easy to forget that "free" is even a thing. My guildies and I couldn't even agree on whether free players were able to level to 55 or not. I still think that they are capped at fifty unless they bought the expansion or were subscribed for at least one month in the past year - ever since Rise of the Hutt Cartel became a free goodie given to all subscribers.
It seems to me that there is relatively little information out there on how exactly SWTOR's free-to play-system works... or rather, there is a lot of misinformation that muddies the waters. In pretty much any discussion thread on the matter you're bound to find people
claiming things like that you can only do three flashpoints per week
(which is flat out not true). Even the page on the official website has some debatable bits of information on it, such as that you can buy an unlock to permanently lower your quick travel cooldown without subscribing (which is technically true, but subscribers can buy the same unlock and will therefore always have a lower cooldown on the ability than a non-subscriber can possibly achieve). There is no mention of some of the more ridiculous annoyances such as restrictions on emotes, quest rewards and and the ability to hide your helmet. And didn't they remove the whole concept of an event item authorisation altogether? I also have to admit that until I read through that official feature page just now, I didn't even realise that "free-to-play guilds" were a thing.
While there are some good guides out there on how to circumvent specific restrictions that people face when they are not subscribed, it can be hard to get a good idea of what it "feels" like to be F2P when you're a subscriber. My own experiences are pretty much limited to what I saw back when I tried out the PTS before the free-to-play transition went live and the issues I observed when my ex-boyfriend dropped down to preferred. I've seen several players talk about "free-to-play experiments" on blogs, where they usually create a new account just to explore the F2P experience, but those always seem to fizzle out pretty quickly because people either want to focus on playing on their main account or get fed up with the restrictions.
Looking at voices in the community, SWTOR's F2P population as a whole seems to be a strangely silent crowd, though I guess that's not really surprising. The game's business model strongly pushes you towards subscribing if you actually enjoy the game, so people who are active in fan circles without also being subscribed are bound to be a rare minority. Without an active subscription you also can't post on the official forums.
At Gamescom earlier this year EA boasted about SWTOR having more than a million active players each month. I reckon that a sizeable percentage of these must still be subscribers, however even if we optimistically assume that the game still has 500k subs (the last number they reported before the F2P transition), that would still leave another 500k silent non-subscribers playing the game as well.
If I had to guess, I would say that most of the game's free and preferred players must be levellers, because I see so few obvious non-subscribers at the level cap that people like our Commando pug in Kaon are notable exceptions. I wonder how they experience the game, and what their thoughts on it are. Are any of my readers dedicated players who don't subscribe?