The lights are on
BioWare announced today that its science-fiction MMORPG is adding a free-to-play option this fall. The game will be going on sale in August for $14.99 (one month's subscription included) in anticipation of the change.
All existing and former subscribers will receive a lump sum of "cartel coins" to spend in the microtransaction shop as a thank-you for their loyalty, based on their previous purchases of the game box itself as well as subscription time. These coins, which will also be for sale for real-world money, can be used to purchase convenience items, cosmetic customizations, and access to new content through the new microtransaction store.
BioWare Austin general manager Matthew Bromberg says that adopting a free-to-play model will allow the developer to drop content on a much more frequent basis. "Every six weeks or so, we're going to provide a warzone, a flashpoint, an event, an operation, that sort of thing," he says. "The basic idea is that free-to-play players will pay for those content updates with cartel coins. Subscribers will get those updates free as part of their subscription."
The generally agreed-upon best part of The Old Republic – the class storylines that go from character creation to level cap – are entirely free for all players. "Our goal was to bring as many players as we can into the core experience to enjoy the game, and then to provide experiences on top of that for people to upgrade to," Bromberg says. "We're really excited about putting our best foot forward." Many of the ancillary parts of the game – space missions, group-based flashpoints, PvP warzones, and more – are only available on a limited basis to free players. The Old Republic's hardest cooperative content, raid-level operations, require a subscription to take part in.
Additionally, free accounts will use coins to purchase convenience items and customizations like bank slots as in many free-to-play MMOs. BioWare is also going to require either an active subscription or a microtransaction purchase for characters to equip certain tiers of high-level items like top-end raid-acquired gear (though the company is not selling the gear itself).
Holding an active subscription will grant access to everything – all content new and old, and no item use restrictions – for free, as well as a stipend of cartel coins to spend in the cash shop.
BioWare doesn't have any plans to change the structure of existing content to account for the addition of a free-to-play option. Executive producer Jeff Hickman says that the biggest changes aside from the implementation of a cash shop are on the technical side. "We have a large server initiative we actually put in place months ago," Hickman says. "Our populations on our servers are huge even right now and are capable of handling much, much more than we need."
Many players and commentators have been waiting for this announcement since the game came out. So has BioWare. "We've really been looking at this since the first day we launched. It really, for us, became a question of 'when.'" Bromberg says. "The market for MMOs is a free-to-play market, and so it's something we've been thinking about for a long time."
I have a hard time seeing the downside of this announcement from a player perspective. BioWare is giving away the best part of the game for free. Subscribers still get everything for free. Free accounts have to buy their way into the endgame and expanded PvP content, but that seems like a fair trade-off. The business end of things has a lot more room for interpretation and analysis, but this particular SWTOR player welcomes the news.