SWTOR F2P: Game On, BioWare!

As promised, key members of our team are going to give their thoughts on the announcement SWTOR has gone free-to-play. It’s Jemima Moore’s turn.

I love SWTOR and when I awoke to the news that my current passion was going F2P, I will admit, I got that sinking feeling most long-time gamers get when they hear that phrase.  F2P = MMO death, or at least it used to.

My immediate reaction was one of sheer outrage at the blatantly misleading marketing language.

“…adding a new Free-to-Play option this fall. This option will give players access to each of the eight iconic Star Wars character class storylines, all the way up to level 50, with certain restrictions*. Unlimited game access, including new higher-level game content and new features will be made available through individual purchases or through a subscription option.”

What? Let me re-read that a couple of times and take out all the bits designed to confuse…

“a new Free-to-Play option… will give players access to … new higher-level game content and new features through individual purchases or through a subscription option.”

So… um… the F2P option doesn’t give you access to higher-level content and new features – you have to purchase them or take up the subscription option.

“Subscribers will retain unrestricted access to all game features”

Except you won’t. Some game features require Cartel Coins to access and subscribers get a restricted amount for their monthly fee.

Even the name of the option is misleading. I remember when Free-to-Play actually meant it was free to play. Without spending a dime you could experience every aspect of the game.  Real money was only required if you want to look different, get around more quickly or skip a grind fest to min/max your gear.

Pay-to-Win meant the game was mostly free but to get the best gear, experience late end-game content and be competitive at the highest level you had to pay.

BioWare, and many other developers, are calling their incoming model free-to-play, but it’s actually Pay-to-Win or a Super-extended-free-trial or some other marketing lingo yet to be developed. Somewhere along the lines the meaning of F2P got hijacked and twisted around to mean any model that isn’t strictly and solely subscription-based. From a developer’s point of view it makes sense. Any catch-phrase with the word FREE in it is number one with a bullet when it comes to advertising. So what if it isn’t true? Gamers are addicts – we just have to suck them in.

Well, we may have let them twist around definitions and use them for evil and not good – but most gamers are pretty picky about their drug, er… MMO of choice and value-for-money remains King.

In this regard, BioWare’s new Pay-as-you-Play option is the greatest blessing we could have hoped for. Subscription models don’t tend to force players to assess the worth of their fun every time they log-in and play. For most the financial commitment to a game happens once and then continues unmonitored until you tell it to stop.

Split those decisions into many little parts and shift them to the here and now and people get a lot more picky. Subscribers may be willing to spend $15 per month on buggy unfinished content, riding elevators, staring at loading screens, and basic MMO services that are unintuitive and clunky like the GTN or crafting window. But spending 50 cents on a Warzone that may or may not count as a win will only happen once.

Bioware haven’t always demonstrated the best sense in this regard, but I’m keeping the faith that the instantaneous money-talks feedback they’re about to introduce into the game will drive faster bug fixes, better QA, more content and a few sackings in the Crafting Department.

I’ve got money in my pocket, Bioware, so it’s Game On!

Comparing SWTOR F2P Versus Subscription

It’s been a big day for SWTOR, with the announcement of the game going free-to-play. Although I’m extremely cynical about the framing of the announcement of a great positive sign for the game, I do think the move is likely to grow the game somewhat. Not purely because of the change broadly, but because of the way BioWare have drawn a nice line between what F2P’ers and ongoing subscribers can access. Let’s take a look at the key ones:

1. Everyone can play right through to Level 50

This is an unavoidable move if you want to attract new players and it’s a good move when you factor in the other differences between the two player types.

2. Limited character creation options for F2P’ers

Only subscribers will get to choose species. It’s a good differentiation, as any RP’ers or other Star Wars devotees that love a particular species will be driven to subscribe. More casual players won’t be fazed most likely, so it’s not a huge issue.

3. Warzones

F2P’ers will have a lesser number of Warzones they can complete each week. There’s no confirmation of what the exact limitation is at this stage. Rabid PvP’ers will probably maintain a subscription anyways, while everyone else can really check out if they like SWTOR PvP.

4. Flashpoints and Space Combat

Again, only subscribers will have unlimited times they can play Flashpoints or space missions. What will be interesting here is the number F2P’ers can play – if the number is relatively high then there actually won’t be that big a difference. No-one sane plays dozens of Flashpoints a week. Do they?

5. Operations

This is probably the firmest line in the sand between the two player types. If you want to raid, you need to be a subscriber. That said, the F2P players should be welcome additions to guilds, as they can level up and gear up on F2P and if they decide they want that last step, they can pay up then. The cynic in me says that F2P’ers will get some Operation access in the future though.

6. Travel Features and GTN

Again, less access for those who go F2P. GTN access is apparently going to be ‘extremely’ limited, with full subscribers able to have 50 simultaneous listings. There’s no clarity on exactly what falls within ‘travel features’ – perhaps there’ll be longer cooldowns on Quick Travel for those who go F2P.

7. Priority Login for Subscribers

Ok, I feel bad, but I laughed when I read this one. Subscribers will always jump the login queue ahead of F2P’ers. That’s reasonable and handy – if there were queues. Can anyone tell me the last time they had a queue? 1.3 update maybe?

Over to you: are the subscription features enough to stop you going to F2P? Let us know!

SWTOR F2P: Caution, Diatribe Ahead

As promised, key members of our team are going to give their thoughts on today’s announcement. First cab off the rank: Simon Potter.
There’s a time for being charitable and understanding and there’s a time to just say what you think… guess which this is?
Clue… I am angry, people.

In my humble opinion, F2P isn’t the news although I welcome the change, if it’s done right. 

Bioware have plenty of good examples to follow and SWTOR should enjoy the growth and ongoing success of DCUO and LotRO. If they screw it up, they only have themselves to blame.

What really burns my brisket about this announcement is the mealy mouthed obfuscation from various spokespeople regarding this inevitable model shift. While they were just following orders, it’s perfectly clear that the weasel words were to cloud the issue so this announcement could be married to the EA earnings call yesterday. Perhaps they value their shareholders opinion and good wishes more than players? I think it’s a distinct possibility.

All the while BioWare maintain the ‘if we don’t talk about it, then no one will notice’, which I will be honest is really beginning to grate. Since BioWare have fired most of their community team, it’s no surprise that their communication has gone from uneven to non-existent to insulting. However at least one person at EA is honest, if not with player then with the investors. In the earnings call Frank Gibeau, President, EA Labels, referred to SWTOR as ‘a miss’. Well, that puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

To sum things up, if BioWare expect to keep the sudden influx of new and returning players informed, they will need to lift their community communication dramatically and perhaps try to be a little more honest and open. Too much spin makes people dizzy and nauseous.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let me assure you I still love SWTOR and am looking forward to the upcoming announced content, assuming we ever see it. After all they’ve promised a number of things that have yet to materialise. The game is only just beginning to hit its stride and I’m certain it will be a longterm survivor.

I still hate Taris though. 

SWTOR Suggestion Box: Daily Quests

Another work week is close to done for a lot of us, so it’s time to get excited about some weekend gaming time. While completing some Ilum dailies last night, I got to thinking about the dailies grind in general. Wouldn’t it be great if there could be more variety built into dailies.

This isn’t a criticism of SWTOR specifically, as I’d argue it has one of the better daily/weekly quest setups around.

Still, I’m sure there could be improvements, and that’s where you come in: if you could design daily or weekly quests, what would you change in SWTOR? Be as brave / zany / silly as you like!

Suggestion Box: HK-51 Abilities

One of the more exciting pieces of information coming out of BioWare over the past week was the teaser on HK-51. Which got me to wondering what people would like their favourite killing machine companion to do, besides.. killing.

So over to you: if you could decide a useful / funny / bizarre ability your HK-51 could have, what would it be?

An Open Letter From A Completionist

Dear Mr Triangle,

As a bit of a obsessive completionist, I have the tendency to play every mission, explore every area and will not leave a planet until every one of you cursed equilateral demons has your creamy green filling. The idea of leaving anything undone or undiscovered fills me with horror. So you and your kind make for a long time between drinks at the Class Story Fountain. If you’ve ever watched a drama series on broadcast TV, then re-watched it on DVD you’ll know how those week long pauses dull detail and erode ambience.

So I decided to focus on closing those gaps to a minimum with a new alt while my bounty hunter went on a skiing holiday to Hoth. Obviously I went for a different class, that way I get to peek behind red force shields I haven’t been through yet. After all, I’m still a completionist. Thus, from my triangle frustration was born a new Sith Assassin, master of side-quest-avoidance, disdainer of completing World Stories and wearer of dresses. A Sith born of hatred. Appropriate, don’t you think?

First, let me describe the joy of ignoring the majority of your parasitic brethren as they hang impotently above quest givers. Most of them are now redundant, because, for whatever reason (maybe it’s because I’m awesome) progression through the class story has been fairly easy and a lot of fun. My ship was delivered promptly at level 13, Tatooine tasted my thruster exhaust just on level 25 and Alderaan at 29. World quest arcs have effectively ceased to exist and, with their passing, class quests are almost seamless. The erratic accent of my Sith Master sending me forth, still rings fresh in my ears as I return to report success.

While I certainly don’t advise anyone to blow off so much lovingly crafted content on primary playthrough, I can highly recommend disregarding you accursed hollow cornchips with at least one alt.

Obviously there’s a downside to all this. Up until now my method of gearing has been to find orange loot I like, then use the commendations from side quests to spec them up. Since my inquisitor doesn’t have that option he has to rely on PvP, operations and a good dose of space combat.  This is no bad thing because (as a solo player by nature) it’s forced me to explore aspects of the game I’ve previously been able to ignore.

So that’s what I’ve learned from avoiding you Benbenet’s of Grind and it’s that personal revelation that’s the whole point of this missive. If you play an alt, why not alt your play style as well? There are a lot of paths to level 50 – some faster, some less so, but they all have something to offer.  Retooling your strategies freshens the game up and proves Bioware has a point when they say you can play the game the way you want. Okay, that’s not strictly true as I can’t play Pazaak yet, but there’s more than one way to flay this particular feline.

As for my dress-wearing Inquisitor, he will continue to inflict evil as he explores the galaxy, all the while keeping his eyes open for a decent pair of pants.

So how do you play the game? What’s your modus operandi? I’d love to know, so why not leave a comment and tell us your pet strategy?

Suggestion Box: Group Finder

Now that SWTOR 1.3 is well and truly ensconced in our lives, it’s worth a debate on one of the key features that update brought us: the LFG tool. I picked up my first PUG via the tool to complete the False Emperor Flashpoint, and it was a hoot, with no wipes or other issues.

How about you? Have you found the group tool useful? Post away below!

From The Holonet: The Republic’s Dangerous Enemies And What To Do With Them

From the Holonet is a series of articles, opinion pieces and features taken from the Old Republic and printed here on TOROZ.

The Republic is threatened by more than just the Empire. A wretched plague fouls the democratic dream. Organised gangs run wild through the capital of Coruscant and across the galaxy, from corrupt law enforcement to drug gangs. To top it off, lately rumours of a prison planet suffering mass break outs are running wild through the holonet. It is clear to most of us that the republic is facing an organised crime epidemic. While the Emperor spends his every waking hour planning the downfall of our galactic republic, treacherous profiteers seek to waste our precious resources, distract our brave soldiers and drive us even closer to collapse.

Take a single gangster. This individual will reside, squatting, in some abandoned locale which could be providing housing for refugees, or a disused factory that could be commandeered for the armies. From there, they will patrol their territory, using guns on Republic civilians, other gangsters, law enforcement, etc in attempt to acquire more credits, expand that territory, or just generally make chaos. To suppress this individual, the Republic government must commit security forces, who then must stop working on other projects, and possibly take casualties in the process. When arrested, they are contained and put through the judicial system. Only to be either let free to continue wasting exponential amounts of time, or returned to containment where they must be fed, housed, and have more resources spent on keeping them around. Given the current threat of the Empire, this is an absolute and undeniable case of treason. There is no scenario in which these criminals are not actively and aggressively shutting down the Republics capacity to make war, and to provide safe housing for its refugees.

To elaborate, if the Empire were to directly threaten Coruscant again, the battle on the planet would be fierce. These criminals, who have spent their lives antagonising the Republic would find little refuge amongst the civilians or the army. So, would this individual not find the notion of joining the Empire appealing? Promises of exoneration for servitude would be a simple decision. Criminals who give their lives to stealing from the Republic are not patriots. It would not be long many if not most of the gangsters across Coruscant were aiding the Empire, and a few prison breaks later there would be plenty more to the fold.

If instead, all organised criminals were issued immediate death warrants, the resource cost would only go so far as the security deployment used to kill them. In this scenario, the Republic could simply issue routine patrols to sweep areas, and killing gangs. Many conveniently ‘flag’ themselves regardless. In this case, the resource cost is significantly lesser, and more importantly, organised criminals are eliminated as a threat to Republic stability. Furthermore, the treasonous criminals could be immediately dealt justice. If nothing else, this law should last the duration of the existence of the Empire.

There should be no mistaking; I do not advocate for the elimination of all criminals, simply an on the spot death penalty for those who organise in groups and actively disrupt the government. I understand how this policy may be considered similar to something in the Empire. I wish to refute this. In this case, the policy only defines treason as worthy of on the spot execution, further, it only specifies active organised criminals as deserving of the death penalty. This is not targeted at political opponents, people who fail to achieve certain tasks or other minor issues, it is not a slipperly slope or, ‘the thin edge of the wedge’ as some might say in an attempt to scare you. It is a simple measure, somewhere between government in peacetime and in wartime. Write to your senator; petition your neighbours, friends and family. Call for a proposition on the organised crime death penalty. The Republic needs safer streets, quieter slums and a capital city filled with patriots, not criminals. It is the only effective solution to the Republics dangerous enemies within.

Cavalair is a Twi’lek raised by a human family on Coruscant, who had adopted him after he was liberated from a busted slave trading ring. A survivor of the sacking of Coruscant and a common figure on the galactic political scene, he is often found writing articles and advocating his views on the Empire, the Republic and everything related. His views are held in high regard right across the Republic.

These are not the factions you’re looking for!

A long, long time ago in a land far away, there was a beautiful princess, handsome rogue, black knight, evil king and a brave lad about to take his first steps on a great adventure. Oh, did I mention the menacing castle, wise wizard and two bumbling dwarves for comic relief. Sound familiar? It should because Mr Lucas not only lifted a classic fairytale template but the childlike morality that goes with it. So, in SWTOR you tend to be pushed to one moral pole or the other in order to benefit from alignment rewards.

This was not always the plan though. Back in the hazy genesis of the game there was talk of having three factions: saintly, chewing-the-scenery evil and normal people just looking to make a buck. But as the game evolved that went the way of other ambitious ideas and we ended up with the binary factions each gaining one of the neutral classes. Perhaps they didn’t want to stray too far from WoW’s recipe or maybe three factions was more work than they could handle.

The ghost of the third faction still haunts the corridors of BioWare Austin, as has been acknowledged by the promise of neutral gear sometime in the indeterminate future. So, to draw a long bow, perhaps a third faction is a concept that could be dusted off and re-examined because the game could certainly benefit from it.

Now before I go further, this is a mental exercise so don’t go flaming about problematic details, we’re painting with broad strokes here. So grab some Giggledust and lets go down the rabbit hole…

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first, since much of the ground work is already in the game. The neutral faction already has two classes: Bounty Hunter and Smuggler. Now if my math is correct that leaves us a class short. Rather than introduce a new one I’m going to suggest ‘Revanites’ where neutraly aligned Republic and Empire plays could defect to, but probably not until level 50 once the class story is out of the way. Why complicate things.

Now we need a capital. What’s appropriate and easy? Hutt Space in one form or another predates either The Empire or The Republic and Nar Shaddaa rivaled Coruscant as a trade hub until the Kyyr system’s star went supernova and destroyed the Ootmian Pabol trade route, so we’ve got our capital city. Unless BioWare feel like building Bilbousa. Nah, didn’t think so.

So what’s the point of having a neutral faction? In a word – Endgame. To avoid changing too much of the existing game during levelling, specifically voiceover and story, a neutral faction would really exist to create added gameplay dynamics in warzones and, if it’s ever fixed, open-world PvP. Potentially it could help balance factions by allowing the two smaller ones to team up against the largest. Or not. Wholesale slaughter can be fun too.

More to the point, since endgame content is still a bit thin it gives Bioware the opportunity to develop new material that will make level 50 gameplay more compelling and stand out from other offerings in the genre.

Before I wrap this up, I’ll just say again, this is purely a ‘what-if’, it’s not fully thought through because I’m not a game designer. I also understand there would be a lot of work to make it happen, so don’t waste your time pointing that sort of thing out. But taking all that into consideration, why not join in this flight of fancy and tell us what would you like to see if a third faction was a possibility?

Throw a comment in below!

Suggestion Box: 1.3 impressions

It’s been two and a bit days since SWTOR 1.3 Allies went live, so most of us have hopefully had an hour or twenty to check it out. Therefore, it’s  the perfect candidate for our weekly debate.

So, jump in and tell us: what do you think of 1.3 so far and do you think it’ll give some new momentum to the game outside of that initial excitement? Post away in comments!

Suggestion Box: Funniest SWTOR Username

My wordy lordy it’s the end of another week, so it’s time to mount the soapbox and give your thoughts to the gathering throng. This week I thought it was time to discuss funny SWTOR usernames seen in-game. Now that a whole bunch of server mergers have been done and there’s on the whole larger populations online at the one time, we’re all seeing a lot of new ‘faces’.

So: what username (or even guild name) have you seen that’s given you a good laugh?

That laugh may be because the name is funny, or it may be a horrified laugh that someone could call themselves that. Post away in comments so we can all share in the mirth!

The Wrong Revolution?

MMORPG is a stale genre in many respects. Leveling, crafting, gathering. It’s all very familiar – electronic Dungeons & Dragons®. So when a new one appears we all hope that it’s got something new to offer, something improved, perhaps revolutionary. SWTOR promised this with the ‘fourth pillar’ of story and voice. It’s definitely made the leveling process more interesting and immersive so long as you don’t mind having your character and path heavily defined for you. But once you reach endgame this fourth pillar effectively vanishes, leaving you with the same ol’ tripod – a notoriously unstable configuration, particularly if the legs are different lengths.

Which is why two recent MMOs have got me thinking about whether BioWare really chose the right thing to pour so much time, energy and money into. I’m talking about Tera and Day Z.

Tera was launched in South Korea in January 2011 and in North America May this year. It runs on the time- tested Unreal 3 engine. Unlike SWTOR, the producers (Bluehole Studio) have made no attempt to reduce grind or draw you into a rich compelling story. What they have done is bring a third person shooter-style aiming system into an MMO, along with distinctive play styles and strategies for each class. I don’t need to tell you that this can remain fun and interesting long after the leveling process ends. Despite a total lack of innovation in most other areas, many admit it’s still damn fun and compelling. People want to try new classes because they each offer a something substantial and distinctive, not just different animations and light effects.

Day Z is completely different. A mod for ARMA II (plus its expansion Operation Arrowhead), Day Z runs on the propriatory Real Virtuality 3 engine and throws you into a zombie infested, post apocalyptic landscape (254 km.sq). You have some basic supplies, a weapon and zombies… so many zombies. Scattered about this enourmous landscape are fellow players who may help you, or just as likely kill you for the pittance in your backpack.

Every step you take, every choice you make has real consequences, it’s all about survival. But it’s not for everyone. There’s no crafting, no slick UI, no map (you WILL get lost… alot) or any of the plush velvet luxuries that many MMO players now demand. There’s no attempt at plot, but there are plenty of stories – all tales of player’s experiences – some are intense and no wonder. It’s just you, your wits and a little blind luck. This is a brutal, unforgiving place and it’s massively popular. So much so it’s pushed ARMA II sales up, even to the top of Steam’s sales chart. Not bad for a product still in alpha.

So where does that leave us? In fairness to BioWare, the world has changed a lot since SWTOR was conceived in early 2008. Back then K.Rudd had just apologised to the Stolen Generation and the Global Financial Crisis had yet to start biting. The world has changed a little since then, but not within SWTOR’s masterplan it seems, although that may change very soon. Only time will tell if the ‘fourth pillar’ was the right move or just a footnote in MMO evolution.

The real question is “where to from here?”. Maintain the ‘fourth pillar’ by continuing your personal story? Desperately add extra content for endgame? Re-examine the current market and make some hard choices? In all honesty, since it’s hard to tell what resourcing EA/Bioware have available for SWTOR, it’s hard to say – especially after the Austin studio lost somewhere around 120 fulltime staff (as best we can tell).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sick of the game, nor am I downhearted about its future, but I’m not going to gloss over existing problems. I believe that, with the world economy and reduced staff resources, BioWare need to decide who their core player base is and focus on improving the game for them. They will lose players but they’ll certainly gain many others.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to sit back and hope we see more openness and transparency in BioWare’s communication with their fans. They should remember that, like your character has a health bar, any business has a trust bar and that SOB drops fast and recharges very, very slowly.