Thursday, November 15, 2012

Early Observations for SWTOR's Non-subscription Model

SWTOR's big relaunch day has finally arrived.  The model can and probably will change over the coming weeks, but things have settled down enough to get an idea of what we are dealing with.  I have actually gone into the relaunch with a recently renewed subscription - no, not because I wanted to pay $15 for $5 worth of "bonus" coins.  SWTOR as currently implemented may be the first model where it can make sense to jump back and forth between the two payment options.

For endgame, not so much...
For better or worse, Bioware has made the decision to give away most of the game's content.  This leaves them in the position of trying to convince players to fork over cash for playing the game as a service.  Thus, it does not appear that Bioware is keen for existing subscribers to switch to a non-subscription model and pay less.  There are various things to unlock - including some extraordinarily petty options such as a charge to hide your helmet (certainly not mandatory, just petty) - but the bigger story is what you cannot unlock. 
  • Endgame content requires the purchase of consumable weekly passes per type of content you wish to play.  Even at the most favorable exchange rate, unlocking two of the four types of content (raid, PVP, space combat, flashpoints) will cost you more than $15/month.   
  • Nonsubscribers are stuck with a currency cap that cannot be lifted.  This limit applies not only to credits - the standard currency - but also the various token currencies used to purchase items.  
  • Nonsubscribers are also slapped with a permanent penalty to vendor prices, which includes gear vendors that take tokens.  
  • The cap plus the penalty combine to make it impossible for non-subscribers to purchase certain token rewards, and more generally require 25% more grinding at whatever you are grinding (raids, PVP, flashpoints, etc) for gear. 
There might theoretically be a very specific niche of players (perhaps if you and a group of friends have an appointment to log in and do flashpoints precisely once a month) that can save with the non-subscription model, but most players at endgame will be worse off for the attempt.

Leveling and grandfathered unlocks
Setting aside the endgame, what if, like myself, you are primarily interested in the game for the solo story content?  This scenario is a bit more interesting.

There are certain restrictions that you can't lift (or won't want to pay for) including the currency penalties (you won't hit the credit cap but you may have problems with commendation vendors on planets) and restrictions on travel.  There are also restrictions on your rate of exp gain, but that is ironically a mixed blessing in that I found the game's exp curve to be faster than I needed and skipped most of several planets to preserve challenge.  And there are things you will probably need to pay for, such as access to your crewskills, probably a third hotbar (I don't know that all four that players had previously - or six that subscribers now get - are completely mandatory, but you will probably need a third bar).

Then there are an odd handful of things that can be unlocked in principle, but in practice are cheaper to unlock via a temporary subscription.  Access to races - which are purely cosmetic in this game - will run you 600 Cartel Coins, but your existing characters are not affected when your subscription lapses.   Your first two inventory upgrades can be paid for with 5000 and 20,000 credits as a subscriber, while non-subscribers must pony up 175 Cartel Coins per unlock - 350 total.  In short, if you're looking to start up one - or better yet several - new characters, a one-month subscription may be the way to go.

And finally, there's the question of content.  The new "Section X" content added with this patch will run non-subscribers 600 Cartel Coins.  This content features new daily quests, which will be markedly less attractive to non-subscribers due to the currency issues, and the one-time questline for the HK-51 droid companion.  This sort of content may well be more attractive as a rental than a permanent unlock.

Looking Ahead
On the horizon, Bioware plans at least one major content drop.  It will also be interesting to see whether some of these restrictions get relaxed - either by default or through additional purchases - as  the model matures.  In the mean time, I don't regret my one-month subscription, and I might even see an advantage to subscribing for a month at a time periodically.

I suppose the risk you run - and perhaps the reason why Bioware is willing to make the temporary subscription attractive - is that you get used to the perks that cost money and do not want to give them up.  Then again, I suppose that is a good thing to the extent that it would mean that you are playing the game and enjoying it enough to want to pay. 


Anonymous said...

This whole scheme just reeks of the poor decision making that has plagued this project from the beginning. They are essentially giving away the one chunk of the game that is well done and has broad appeal - the leveling story. Devising an overly complex, a-la-cart, pay-as-you-go scheme that gates access to the least successful and least appealing parts of the game is mind boggling. Anyone that was on the fence and opted not to buy at launch can now do what the vast majority of purchasers did - enjoy the story, level a character or two and quit. For free!

Yeebo said...

While I don't feel as violently about it as Anonymous, I kind of agree with his main point. They are giving away their best content. They are also making FtP accounts just annoying enough to play (with XP penalties and limited hot bar functionality) that the game will very likely make a poor impression on a lot of the players that decide to use FtP as a preview.

I think it would have been a lot more sensible to make FtP accounts fully functional, but charge players for access to quests outside of the class quests from about the third planet on. This basic model seems to be working really well for Turbine in both DDO and LoTRO given the pace at which content is being put out for both. Of course, a good/ great game hobbled by bafflingly inept management is sort becoming a theme with SWTOR.

The transition to FtP at least went smoothly, and seems to have brought a ton of players in leading into the Holiday. You never know, maybe I'll be eating my criticisms six months from now.

Anonymous said...

I'm not currently bothering with the relaunch, as its very obvious that you're supposed to 'subscribe, damn you, subscribe!'. And if I wanted to subscribe I would already be subscribed :)

For a 'Free to Play' scheme to work *for me*, I have to feel the stuff I will buy is actually bought and will stay bought, and that subscribing is just a means of getting the stuff I buy piecemeal more efficiently and in a manner that suits some people better, rather than the thing they're desperately trying to do a bait and switch with, and upsell to me.

So yeah, a buy planets, buy currency cap increases for the various types of currencies, buy non-core missions as unlocks rather than passes, etc. plan would be more likely to get me to log in and spend some money.

I'm not sure my preferences work as long-term business model tho'.