18/03/2019

SWTOR's F2P Seven Years In

I still remember when it was first announced that SWTOR was going to convert from its subscription model to a free-to-play game: I was devastated, viewing it as an admission of failure and fearing for the game's future. However, the free-to-play conversion came and went, I stuck with the game anyway and quickly found that it wasn't actually all that bad. Yes, the cash shop filled with silly hats did happen, but for the most part that's been easy enough to ignore and my overall enjoyment of the game hasn't really diminished as a result of the business model change. I just stayed subscribed and nothing much changed.

Due to spending most of my time in operations, I don't know many other players who don't subscribe either. We've had people dropping to preferred status occasionally, but as you can't participate in ops without being subscribed these days, this doesn't tend to last (either they re-subscribe or fade away). Running into a completely free player in the wild is always a slightly bewildering experience because nobody really knows how free accounts work and what sorts of restrictions they are subject to. I also remember grouping with a free player for the heroics on Korriban once and having trouble even communicating with them because of their inability to chat in various channels. Still, my point is that to a subscriber SWTOR's free-to-play model is pretty much a complete non-issue.

If you read certain forums or blogs on the other hand, you'd think that it was actually the game's defining feature. People who've never even tried it will go on and on about how terrible it is to play for free and "lol hotbars", purely based on something they read somewhere once. And others who've never played the game either pick up on this and then in turn spread the word about the supposed evils of SWTOR's business model.

This always makes me somewhat defensive when the subject of the free-to-play model comes up, because while I don't think that all the restrictions are good, people are rarely interested in having an actual discussion on the pros and cons of the system and just want to engage in some good old EA bashing. Which in turn is a completely alien point of view to me as someone who's been playing the game for over seven years now and has always felt that she's getting good value for money out of it.

The end result seems to be that the people who enjoy talking about SWTOR's business model the most are those who don't actually play it (anymore), while those who are the most passionate about the game simply subscribe and play, largely oblivious to any potential restrictions that non-subscribers might face. Like I mentioned in one of the posts I linked above, the people actually playing for free regularly - who would be in the best position to cast judgement on F2P restrictions - tend to be enigmatically silent for the most part.

I've occasionally toyed with the idea of starting a new free-to-play account to do some research on the subject and clear up some misconceptions, but I've seen other people try and fail to do the same, and I'm also honest enough with myself to admit that I'm already unable to keep up with all the existing projects that I've been trying to juggle over the course of the past year and that I hardly need to add to their number at this point.

So I was highly pleased to see that Swtorista, one of the most passionate and knowledgeable voices in the fan community at the moment, basically did the whole thing for me and made a very detailed video about it:



The title is a bit clickbaity, sounding like it could potentially be one of those angry video gamer rants with which YouTube seems to be inundated these days, but her tone is actually as cheerful and entertaining as always. It's most certainly not a rant, but instead a detailed exploration of all the different restrictions that free players face, with Swtorista always adding her own opinion on whether she thinks a particular limitation is useful and serves a purpose or is rather silly. The video is over 40 minutes long but I found that time flew right by while watching it and I was entertained throughout.

I'll also openly admit that while my overall "how much do you know about free-to-play" scorecard was pretty good, there were some items on that list that were completely new to me, such as that completely free players can't place bound pieces of armour in their bank. WTF. In general, the video reinforced my impression that when F2P was first introduced, they must have had a brainstorming session at Bioware to talk about every possible gameplay feature that they could restrict in some arbitrary way without completely crippling the player... and then decided to actually implement the lot of them.

I may be a subscriber and perfectly happy with free players having some serious restrictions, but some of that stuff is so random, it does kind of make you shake your head. (My favourite quote from the video was: "If Billybob wants to play 40 space missions a week for free, just let him.") For example I'd happily see stuff like the restricted number of action bars go the way of the dodo just so that people can stop bringing it up as some kind of catch-all argument for why SWTOR's business model sucks. Sure, those who just love to complain will simply latch on to something else instead, but I'd still be happy to be able to reply that no, that quick bar restriction is not a thing anymore.

Then again, some of the most upvoted comments on the video sadly admit that they specifically subscribed because of some of those silly restrictions, with the limited amount of action bars being one that got called out in specific. That doesn't really make a great business case for Bioware to ease up on the restrictions for free accounts. But I guess we can always hope.

7 comments :

  1. Knowing what the Mini-Reds went through with their free accounts, I know that the bank is the biggest limitation out there. The head gear is a bit of a silly limitation, as is the lack of titles (I frequently don't even bother with titles on half of my toons, so I'm occasionally mistaken for a F2P out there), but the bank limitation is a bit of a killer. So, when I gave them each a $20 GC for SWTOR for Christmas 3-4 years back, I was hoping that the move into Preferred Status that the gift would provide was enough of a bump to keep them playing. (And it has, although one has moved away from gaming and another tends to play games such as Europa Universalis IV, the oldest still plays SWTOR a lot.)

    One thing that LOTRO does with their F2P model is that you can earn enough in-game points to unlock various items, something that SWTOR doesn't do, which could bring in more casual F2P players.

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    1. Well, strictly speaking you can earn some Cartel Coins from playing in SWTOR... but I agree that the amounts are so tiny as to be practically irrelevant.

      That said, I remember not being that impressed by that feature in LOTRO either during my brief time trying it out as it seemed more like an attempt to get people comfortable with using the store interface than anything else, what with things like basic riding skill being impossible to buy with in-game currency.

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    2. The idea is to perform deeds and build up your currency that way. Some of it is exploration based, others are instance based, and still others are "kill enough rats" based. The first items to go for are the riding skill and the in-game gold cap, and once those are removed your life in LOTRO eases up tremendously.

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  2. That was an interesting listen while I put fifteen levels on my Carpenter in EQII. One of these days I really must get around to trying SW:tOR and it will only be as a F2P player. I quite like restrictions in MMOs - I have a free account for GW2 as well as my three "paid for" ones and playing on the free version is a distinctly different and in no way inferior experience. I used to love playing EQ2 as a "Silver" player, which would be the equivalent of SW:tOR's "Preferred" status. I actually liked Silver so much for a couple of years that I played it as my main account even when I was subbed on another.

    One thing I would take exception to in the video is the bit at the end where Swtorista suggests combat should be made harder at lower levels to encourage f2p players to stick around. I have yet to play any MMO where devs made combat making combat harder had that effect. I also think most experienced MMO players hugely underestimate just how "hard" non-mmo players already find the genre. If SW:tOR is really that easy they out to make a feature of it, not change it.

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    1. Well, if you see restrictions as an opportunity for different gameplay, you'd have a field day as a free player in SWTOR! And I can definitely see the potential in challenges such as working around the credit cap restriction. It's hard to see the fun in limitations such as being unable to use basic emotes though.

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  3. Personally I think you pretty much have the main point of evidence that the F2P model is crap right there in your own post: barely anyone who's somewhat serious about the game even considers playing without the sub, and due to that hardly anyone knows how it actually is to play without it.

    Basically this is an 'optional sub' that isn't really optional (again, if you're somewhat serious about the game). Calling this free to play is pretty much a scam in my opinion.

    It was (or is) the same in ArcheAge. Yes, being a 'patron' is optional, but if you're not you can't own land - which not only takes away a lot of the game's appeal, it also locks you out of some serious money making capabilities.

    If your subscription is basically mandatory to really play the game as it was intended to be played you can't actually claim that your game is F2P in my opinion.

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    1. At that point we're just arguing semantics though. Would it be any more fun and less restrictive it was called an unlimited free trial (which, incidentally, would feel like underselling it to me, considering how much content you get for free)?

      What is a "true" F2P game anyway? E.g. I've never heard anyone complain about LOTRO not offering you any quests after level 30 but that seems pretty restrictive to me too. Then again, I've always found the notion that you should be able to play for free, forever, without feeling any sort of pressure to pay, somewhat absurd.

      In one of the posts linked from this one I noted how I initially found the term "free to play option" (which is how it's officially referred to in their FAQs etc.) strange, but it actually seems pretty apt. It's an option, but there is obvious pressure for you to pay. That can be annoying, but dishonest it is not.

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