It was foreshadowed for quite a while, and today EA finally made it official: SWTOR is going free to play.
The matrix listed at first glance is fairly reminiscent of SOE’s offerings – theoretically, you could play the entire game for free, but realistically, you run up against walls pretty quickly that ‘encourage’ you to switch to a subscription plan. The site is light on details (and most likely rushed out in time for EA’s earnings call to be held soon) but the cash shop items listed seem to run towards the intangible and not, say, unlocking a race or warzone.
So, as SWTOR players (which, by the way, I still am, to a fairly frightening degree) we still don’t have a lot of information on how this pending change will affect us. As industry pundits, though, it’s fairly easy to draw conclusions:
The subscription model is rapidly becoming the “new car price” initial markup of even the largest budget MMOs – once you get past the first year, that markup devolves to the default free-to-play model quickly. Even The Secret World, this year’s Most-Successful-MMO-Shipped-Until-Guild-Wars-Two-Consumes-All release (which, by the way, is launching as a free-to-play title), is already straightforward about how in a couple of years it will be a free to play title as well. The number of MMOs that do not have some free to play element are limited, indeed. And if you think World of Warcraft is some kind of exception? Well, they certainly don’t want you to think so judging from ads aimed at people who don’t play World of Warcraft (all seven of them):
Everything is free to play, because the financial barrier entry for MMOs is fiercely competitive and in the end it’s very difficult to compete with zero. However much grognards may grumble, the vast majority of players prefer that revenue model. They’ve voted as such with their pocketbooks, and MMO developers who fail to recognize this (all six of them) are committing malpractice.
The other conclusion, which somewhat contradicts the above: going free to play is seen as a sign of giving up. Would Bioware prefer to be making $15 from millions of people every month? Of course they would. Will they make $15 million a month in microtransactions from millions of free players? No one knows. It’s a risk. And with a title as heavily weighed down with budgetary requirements and licensing fees as SWTOR? Risk is not something you easily sell. Which makes this decision all the more important: at this point there are X hundreds of millions of dollars in budgetary outlays to make back up, and clearly someone at EA saw the trend of subscriptions going down and said “uh, let’s try something new.”
2012, without a doubt, is the year of The Old Republic. And it has not been a good year.