Star Wars: The Crotchety Old Republic, the future of MMOs and the free to play model

I love Star Wars. I work in an office with a lot of people, all of whom are cooler than me. So earlier today when my boss asked what the wooly-white denizens of Hoth are called, I blurted out “Wampa!” a little too eagerly. In an attempt to dampen my extremely apparent nerdiness, I appended the the interjection with an “I think”, but its tardiness betrayed my duplicity and what little cool-credibility I had vanished, like Obi-Wan Kenobi after he gets slashed by Darth Vader. There I go again. 

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So yes, I love Star Wars. I duly disown the recent triolgy and I have embarrassingly read a supplemental novel, the first book of the Thrawn trilogy (it is horrible; do not even think about reading it and be wary of anyone who considers it halfway decent). But more than anything I love Star Wars videogames. I have played all the titles in the Jedi Knight series, many of the X-Wings and Rogue Squadrons, Shadows of The Empire (an N64 classic whose mercilessly unforgiving Jedi difficulty leaves me dejected each time I play) and Star Wars Galaxies (the first Star Wars MMORPG). My list goes on, but perhaps the greatest gem of the Star Wars IP is Knights of the Old Republic. Lucas Arts convened with RPG extrodinaire BioWare to make my favorite game and one of the greatest games of all time.

So when Star Wars: The Old Republic was released (the BioWare MMO set in the Old Republic universe) I surprised myself by not buying it. At the time I had tired of the MMO space after playing the hell out of World of Warcraft, quit such time consuming games and was actually focusing on school, which, in addition to studying, requires embracing poverty and drinking quite a bit. I was much more inclined to spend $15 a month on a 30 of Miller High Life than for a new MMO, so when it was announced that SWTOR was going free to play, I couldn’t have been happier.

Electronic Arts is decidedly unhappy about this. Exact development costs are unknown, but SWTOR is considered to be the most expensive game ever made with estimates exceeding the $200 million mark. Spend a little time in this game and you will get a sense of just how unhappy F2P has made EA: You are limited to two characters per account. Your character can only be three of the nine races. You cannot sprint until level 15 (walking is slow). You cannot send outgoing mail and you cannot use general chat. It is the most bitter, resentful free to play model I have encountered, and yet I absolutely love this game. I can imagine a board of executives seething as they grant even the smallest access to the audience for nothing upfront. I don’t blame them: this game cost a ton of money, a lot of hard work went into it, and I am never going to pay them for it. Here is why, according to Mark Kern, a lead developer for WoW:

“The biggest problem is the fact that you’ve got a monthly model, but it’s so expensive to make content for the traditional MMO now that if you spend $250 million like EA did on Star Wars, you’ve only got 30 days’ worth of content,” he said. Old Republic’s big draw was an elaborate, multi-part storyline set in George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. But once Old Republic players burned through all of that content, there was nothing to keep them involved. The cost and time required to develop more content for players to enjoy made it difficult to impossible to keep them supplied with entertainment for their $15 a month.

The problem with this F2P model is that the majority of it is not enticing me with better options, instead EA is, at nearly every corner, trying to frustrate me into paying for this game. The best aspect of SWTOR is the divergent plot, which is already available for free. In essence, EA is trying to get me to pay for the ease at which I access this plot, but it won’t work because I am a stubborn free-to-play-er and because I have total access to the story, just at an inconvenience.

What may work is this component of their payment breakdown: end-game content for players who reach the max level are completely locked out of “Operations” (known as raids in MMO parlance) and are limitied to five “Warzones” (arenas where players fight other players) per week. This is the content that players may end up paying for and is the biggest reason that MMOs retain players over time.

SWTOR doesn’t really do anything to mix up the MMO endgame, which makes this payment model all the more precarious. It clings to the class canon of the MMOs which came before it: the damage receiver (the tank), the healer, and the damage dealers. If I was going to pay for this game format, I would pick WoW over SWTOR, because Blizzard already does it so well and, more importantly, there is a massive player population. SWTOR may grab a few people who get to level 50 for free and want to keep playing, but the majority of those hardcore long-term players will remain in Azeroth. 

With today’s high cost of game production, Kern said, “that model is dead.”

“You end up in a race to keep enough content out there before the bulk of your players become bored,” said Jon Lander, executive producer of the space exploration MMO EVE Online, in an e-mail. “With [EVE], the more people who come into the game, the less chance you have of getting bored. That overall idea is what has kept us steadily growing now for 10 years.”

Emergent gameplay like EVE may indeed be the future, but WoW still has a humungous playerbase (about 10 million) and Blizzard Activision is probably the most well endowed company in the industry. It is possible that these players are the last holdouts from the Everquest generation, but to say this model is dead is far from certain. SWTOR experiemented by adding a broad story: that failed. It going free-to-play is another attempt to mix up the revenue model. Developers that focus on end-game content may be on precarious footing, but rather than abandoning it for EVE or some other emergent centric gameplay, the solution may be to change the basic tropes that are all too common in the class based MMOs.