Star Wars: The Old Republic has gone free-to-play in just under 11 months since its release. As someone who hasn’t played SWTOR at all, this is a great opportunity to provide a bit of insight into what the experience is like for a completely fresh player.
The gameplay and mechanics of SWTOR are solid – nothing special, sure, but enjoyable nonetheless. Quality-wise it’s very easy to draw numerous comparisons to World of Warcraft with an extra story-driven focus for your character as you progress through the game. The cutscenes for the story quests are well-written and voiced and the whole experience plays out like an online Knights of the Old Republic title, with somewhat simplified combat.
All in all, SWTOR is a solid title that’s a load of fun. Probably. If you’re a subscriber.
Sadly for Bioware (and the rest of us, but more on that later), SWTOR has fallen on its own light-saber in spectacular fashion. Going free to play to bolster player numbers is all well and good, but I suspect the goal is to actually keep those players playing, rather than driving them away with the most aggressive and poorly thought out “freemium” system in the entire industry. Allow me to break down my free to play experience with SWTOR:
Initially I was unable to login due to not having an active subscription despite the game now being free to play (this was likely just a teething issue, but it becomes relevant to my point so bear with me). I send a report through to customer support. 24 hours later I’m able to login, though there was still no response from CS.
“Wahoo! Let’s get this party started!” I thought, being a huge fan of the Knights of the Old Republic series.
During character creation all but two species are locked: Human and Xabrak (for the unfamiliar, Darth Maul was Xabrak) and for my planned Sith Inquisitor of downright evilness I thought perhaps a Cyborg or a Pureblood Sith would be more fitting. Every other species was locked with a notice informing me that I’d need to have unlocked a Legacy in-game, reached level 10 on at least one character and buy Cartel Coins to unlock them.
“Fair enough.” thought I, and began playing with the goal of reaching level 10 and figuring what a Legacy was so I could play as a Cyborg.
The beginning was exceptionally standard; Aside from the cutscenes, SWTOR was the most impressive WoW-clone I’d seen to date, looking and playing like the stalwart industry behemoth down to the very finest of details with a Star Wars twist. All went swimmingly until about level 2, when I went to purchase my first skill for my interim human Inquisitor. One of my skills was apparently locked until I hit level 15 unless I was a subscriber.
“Also fair enough,” thought I again, “they need to make money to keep the game alive and I have the option of earning the skill through playing too.”
Then quest rewards started getting locked in the same fashion.
“Here’s the prize you would have earned were you a subscriber,” SWTOR chided repeatedly, nudging me in the ribs with its bony elbow “perhaps you’ll consider giving us the moneys now?”
“No,” replied I, my patience slowly being eroded “let me unlock the ability buy the Cyborg from you first, then we’ll review our options.”
Soon afterwards I completed a quest that rewarded me with skins for my companion character and I was allowed to choose whichever one I wanted as a free player. Of course, in order to actually use the customisation I’d need to unlock the ability to do so first via Cartel Coins. In fact, a large number of features that many games offer as standard were blocked off in this fashion, such as the ability to display titles you’ve earned or hide your head gear.
Communication between players was restricted; Items, skills and standard MMO features were being withheld and when I finally hit level 10 and unlocked the Legacy system (which turns out to be a rather innovative system to help you support your alts on subsequent playthroughs) I was informed that the rate that I gained experience points would be cut down from then on and that the only way to remedy this is to either subscribe or buy boosts to offset the penalty.
It’s not that it’s a negative reinforcement model. In fact, such systems have worked fine in the past – Tribes Ascend had the same exp penalty until you’d bought something – it’s the combination of aggressive microtransactionalism (that’s a word now) and the only real thing SWTOR had going for it, namely the focus on your character story.
Nothing shatters immersion quite like being penalised or denied certain aspects of the game and being reminded of the fact every few minutes unless you cough up your hard-earned cash. The worst of it was that I actually wanted to give them my cash, but was arbitrarily forced to get to level 10 first, which was enough time to convince me never to give SWTOR the time of day again.
SWTOR is not a bad game. It’s clear that a lot of love has gone into it’s development and if you’re not tired of the WoW formula yet you’ll probably have a great time. I suspect it won’t take long for the current free-to-play elbowing bonanza to be heavily revised, so it’ll likely be much more enjoyable. Unfortunately for The Old Republic franchise, this kind of misstep will destroy gamer goodwill to the point where many won’t be giving it another chance.
While this is pure speculation on my part, it’s plausible that this freemium disaster is not only unrecoverable for SWTOR, but will perhaps drastically reduce the chances of a Knights of the Old Republic 3 seeing the light of day – nothing gives investors more confidence than a big budget project that had a rough start and even worse free-to-play relaunch.
The day after I stopped playing SWTOR, and three days after I contacted Customer Support due to not being able to log in to their game, I received their response.
Quoted directly from the email:
“Please be aware that in-game support, including item and character restorations, is only available to subscribers.”
Goodwill destroyed. So long SWTOR, I wish you all the very best in your future endeavours.