Monday, January 7, 2013

How Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) Does Free-to-Play

Since my earlier post on Lessons Learned from Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is the most popular post on the blog, I'd like to follow it up with a sort of "post-mortem" of the game's transition from a solely subscription-based MMORPG to a hybrid model that mixes a Free-to-Play (f2p) service with the existing subscription service. The way that SWTOR does f2p is quite intelligent, and solves its monetization and population challenges in unique and thoughtful ways. As the debate over the validity and ethics of the f2p business model rages in industry discussion forums, we can all benefit from analyzing how BioWare has successfully integrated a f2p scheme that is fair, balanced and anything but "pay-to-win."

I won't go into the specific details of SWTOR's f2p service here -- you can check their official website for the details. Rather, I'll cover the conceptual aspects of the decisions that BioWare made to implement the service, and how these decisions impact the relationship between subscribers and free players, as well as the impressions they give to new players choosing which service to use.

To conceptualize the way that f2p works in SWTOR, start by thinking of the entire game, as a whole, and all of the features that go along with it. Imagine that each feature is like a faucet nozzle, and that all of the nozzles were turned on full blast at launch. What the f2p service does is turn some of the nozzles down to a smaller flow, turn others down to a trickle and leave the rest at full blast. An f2p player can pay small amounts to control the flow through any nozzle, turning this one or that one higher or lower at will, while all of the nozzles remain at full blast for subscribers. The most that an f2p player can do is to purchase enough feature unlocks to be playing the same game as a subscriber, in which case the f2p player will be paying roughly the same amount as a subscriber (theoretically). Therein lies the genius of the scheme -- there is no opportunity for a player to buy his way to greater power than everyone else. The most a player can buy is a set of full-blast feature nozzles that makes the player equal to subscribers.

For example, a f2p player only has access to play two pvp warzones per week, while subscribers have access to an unlimited number. In this instance, the pvp "nozzle" is at full blast for subscribers, and at a trickle for free players. However, free players can purchase a weekly pass to enjoy the same unlimited rights as subscribers for this particular feature. Another example is playable races. Subscribers have access to the entire range of playable races in the game -- a full blast feature nozzle. Free players, on the other hand, only have access to a few. Again, f2p players can spend money to unlock additional playable races, allowing them the same experience as subscribers for a small fee.

Vanity goods are another integral piece of SWTOR's f2p strategy, and in this case the challenge was to avoid unfairness toward subscribers, rather than making things fair for free players. BioWare continues to add interesting vanity goods to their f2p store, including unique mounts, pets, costumes and entertaining consumables (things like fireworks). Since these items are only available in the shop, BioWare doles out a healthy allowance of f2p currency to subscribers each month, essentially allowing them the right to choose whatever vanity goods they would like without having to pay more than their existing subscription fee.

It's refreshing to see a company create a viable and robust f2p service, and impressive to see it done post-launch alongside an existing subscription service. SWTOR continues to be one of my favorite games, and I can't wait for the new expansion to continue my Sith Juggernaut's story.

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