Non-Paying Players Help Keep Paying Players Playing (And Paying!)
I've been saying it for years now, but there is a mantra BioWare should have been following with SWTOR's F2P implementation. The goal isn't to shoo away or coerce free players into paying, the goal is to get paying players to pay more (either by keeping them subscribed longer, or by giving them more options to pay beyond the subscription).
BioWare's SWTOR F2P plan should have been built up something like this:
- We want to make money. The people who are most likely to give us money are the people who have paid us lots already in subscriptions and collectors editions.
- We need to make the game as attractive as possible to subscribers and meet their needs so that they stay subscribed, as well as offering them more opportunities to spend money.
- In order to support subscribers we need free players accompanying them in multiplayer groups, so we need to give free players everything they need to be desirable group members in all multiplayer activities.
- We can restrict access to features that don't impact grouping for free players.
Conclusion? Lock out parts of the story and give free players unlimited access to multiplayer content. In other words, the exact opposite of what BioWare actually did.
What would I have put behind the subscription barrier? Well, the legacy system seems like a fine example of something you could make a subscription-exclusive system. The whole thing is a set of high-level perks that was introduced after launch, designed to give a few fun but non-critical bonuses to players who play two or three or fifteen bajillion characters through to Level 50. In other words: a perk system for addicts who put in tons of play time and are probably subscribers anyhow.
I think subscriptions should be about getting additional perks rather than bypassing restrictions. The monthly Cartel Coin stipend to subscribers, along with general unlocks of the storyline and legacy, would be the bulk of what being a subscriber would mean. Perks like priority queues to log into your server of choice are a given, and perhaps priority queues in-game with Flashpoints and Warzones. And a bunch of small math boosts to XP and credit fees for services like fast-travel and auction house.
My primary focus for monetization would be on additional stuff to sell, rather than unlocking basic functionality. Costumes and mounts, like BioWare already implemented, are an obvious choice, though so far those have been done in very small numbers and with a very unpopular reliance on "gamble boxes" -- you buy a box, which might have a mount, but probably has a piece of shit in it instead. Literally. Like, an object you right-click on and it smears it on your character's face, just to remind you how bad an idea it was to buy a gamble box.
Instead, I'd go the extra light-year and sell alternate space ships. Currently every class only ever gets one ship, but I'd plunk down alternatives and charge a good $50 to $100 in the store for them. Seriously. It's the ultimate cosmetic upgrade and a perfect example of the kind of thing you can sell for very big bucks.
Of course, if you did that, you'd also have to let players ride on each other's ships. How else would you show off your new digs to your buddies? Then take another step to add a ship decoration system, where you can get furniture and what not and decorate your ship, much like house decoration in all those other MMORPGs. Have looted decorations, have crafted decorations, and -- of course -- fill the cash shop with premium decorations.
At this point, you can go ahead and up the ante with capital ships and possibly large space stations for guilds. All behind the paywall, of course, though consider making the guild bases a communal thing: Have two dozen players each chip in $20 for the guild's star base. Sounds good and profitable to me.
All In a Day's Work
To be sure, SWTOR's F2P implementation was an extremely rushed job. BioWare basically went from "let's do this" to "here it is" in a matter of weeks. There's no way the developers could code and implement complex systems like ship decoration or star bases in that time frame.
But the thing is: BioWare could have planned for the long term. The team could have said: "Okay. We don't have much to monetize now, so instead of trying to charge for every little thing we can cut out of the game, we're going to focus on attracting both new and old players with a very favorable F2P implementation and, once we've built up the player base again and have lots and lots of happy players, we'll roll out these systems that will drive up our F2P profits."
Instead, BioWare seems to have tried to find a way to get the most money in the immediate present. I don't know how well it will work. I certainly don't expect it to work well in the long term. There's an expression out there: don't burn your bridges. I guess BioWare wants to invent a new one: If you're going to burn your bridges down, you may as well sell tickets to the show.
I'm not writing SWTOR off entirely -- not just yet. To be sure, BioWare could still hire someone who knows what they're doing and give them enough power to make the decisions that need to be made (P.S.: I'm available). But that window of opportunity is closing fast and there may not be enough leadership left at BioWare to act in time.
For the rest of us, I guess all we can do is enjoy the show. Pass the marshmallows?