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When I played the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta, I thought to myself that the game was fun, but that I would never pay a subscription for it. It lacked the key element of MMORPGs: players playing together in a persistent, mutable world. While it had nice graphics, decent gameplay, interesting storylines, and an amusing group story participation dynamic, it had no strong foundation as a “massively” multiplayer game. At best, a one-time box purchase with private multiplayer, kinda like Borderlands; but certainly no justification for a subscription.
Still, it seemed interesting enough to play and write about. I asked my EA PR contact for a review copy and never got a response. I shrugged and scratched SWTOR off the list of games worth covering on my MMORPG review site and moved on to other titles more worthy of the category. The game launched to all sorts of media fanfare and box sales, but I wasn’t among those playing the game at that point. EA apparently didn’t want to hear what I had to say about the game, and life went on.
Now, EA has announced SWTOR is going to re-launch with a new free-to-play-slash-hybrid-freemium model, as has been the popular thing to do in North America lately. The internet is abuzz with criticisms like this one, trying to figure out what went wrong with the game, while others argue that the game should have originally launched F2P.
So it might seem odd that someone like me would come out in defense of SWTOR’s original subscription launch.
I think there are two very different issues at hand here: could Star Wars: The Old Republic have been designed to be a good game worthy of a subscription, and is the version of SWTOR that actually exists worthy of a subscription. I’m not going to tackle the first issue in this article: I’m not going to talk about game design flaws or how things might have been. Instead, I’m going to take a marketing viewpoint: if this is the product I have in my hands, how do I make the most money from it?
Launching as a subscription game means selling lots of boxes and profit-boosting collector’s editions and it means 100% monetization rate in terms of required subscription fees. That is to say that everyone playing the game is giving you some money; and arguably pretty decent money at that. Even if people are just curious and want to try out the game, you’re getting that boxed game sale or digital download edition, which is more than a month’s subscription.
On the one hand, you could see people buying the game and not continuing to subscribe as a big negative. On the other hand, you could see this as a positive: “at least we got the game sale.”
So what would the landscape have looked like if the game had launched F2P? All those hundreds of thousands of people who bought the game and never subscribed wouldn’t have bought the game and never subscribed. In other words, the subscription launch monetized people who probably wouldn’t have been monetized in any way from a F2P launch.
I’d also be willing to argue that a lot of those million-plus people who did subscribe wouldn’t have in the hybrid-freemium F2P model currently proposed for SWTOR.
Launching as a paid-box-and-subscription game means a lot of extra income up front, followed by potentially dwindling revenue as people figure out whether or not your game is worth paying a subscription to play. So here’s the kicker: if you already know your game isn’t going to be worth paying a subscription and you already know you’ll have to switch to a F2P life support system, you may still be better off launching as a subscription game.
The trick is whether or not you have a license people will buy. And SWTOR has that.
I’m reminded of a discussion I had on the Star Trek Online Priority One Podcast, where we discussed the seemingly outrageous price being charged to players for the privilege of captaining the new official Enterprise in the game. During the discussion, the hosts revealed the ship wasn’t really any different from existing star cruisers in the game from a game balance point, but, hey, this was THE ENTERPRISE! Of course they all had to get it and captain it, because being the captain of the Enterprise is what being a Trekkie is all about!
It was around the point where they mentioned spending hundreds of dollars traveling to Star Trek Fan Expos that I suggested that maybe Cryptic shouldn’t be selling the Odyssey for only $50. The point here is that they’re not just selling some ship in a game, some bit of extra content, but that they’re selling something directly to a very specific and very willing to spend niche audience. Any video game player would look at the bonuses gained from captaining an Odyssey and think it wasn’t worth spending any money on; but a Trekkie sees it as a must-have-at-any-cost status symbol.
They had bought the Odyssey bundle at $50, after all.
When Star Wars: The Old Republic launched, it wasn’t selling a good MMORPG: it was selling the dream of the Star Wars experience. It didn’t face the challenge of reaching a new audience the way an original IP game like Rift does. So where a game like Rift had to rely on creating a high quality game experience (and continues to both deliver on that experience and reap the rewards in terms of continued subscription-based operations), SWTOR was relying on the brand to move copies.
I don’t think SWTOR could have sold one percent the copies it did had it launched set in an original sci-fi setting.
So I don’t think analyzing SWTOR as an MMORPG makes any sense, really. Bioware didn’t build a strong, quality MMORPG; they built a vessel for experiencing an IP. In that sense, they actually produced a pretty good product: the personalized storylines and companion characters are very good at making the player feel like they’re part of the Star Wars experience. A box-and-sub launch followed by a F2P transition makes perfect sense in that context. You make as much money as you can up front from the fans of the IP, then turn it around to F2P and re-monetize those same fans again with in-game purchases, not the least bit unlike Star Trek Online’s $50 Odyssey bundle.
Some people are surprised that SWTOR made a switch to F2P in less than a year. Others are surprised it took that long. But me? I think it was right on schedule, and I thoroughly question whether EA could have made more money doing it any other way.