It’s been nearly a year since the launch of Carbine’s action-based MMORPG, WildStar, and things have definitely looked better. This was probably the game I was most excited for in 2014, and although it had a great start it left a lot to be desired. One of the biggest selling points for the game was the excellent combat system, which completely removed tab-targeting, included active dodging and overall ramped up the twitch skill requirement for the genre. After the initial feeling of awe faded, however, things turned grim rather quickly for WildStar and players began to leave in droves; I’ve never seen a population decline as steadily in any other MMORPG as WildStar’s did in the last quarter of 2014. Even though things seemed quite bad near the end of last year, there’s also a glimmer of hope. Now that WildStar is planning to go free-to-play in the fall of 2015 there should be a much needed influx of players in addition to a steady stream of new content.
I first began playing WildStar during the closed beta and immediately fell in love. I thought this was going to be the game that I’d be playing for the next two or three years. There were probably a lot of other people that felt the same way I did, and servers were packed. On launch there were 14 North American servers alone, with a pretty decent split between PvP and PvE. For the first few weeks there were even server login queues and the world was crowded with new players looking to explore Nexus and learn the secrets the Eldan had left behind.
The game was beautiful, the combat was fun and innovative, everything seemed fresh and the battlegrounds were some of the most enjoyable that I’d ever played. This enamor began to fall off slightly as the typical MMORPG leveling woes began to kick in, but things were still alright for the time being. The first time through adventures were the most fun I’d had in an instanced dungeon in a long time. You could actually choose your own adventure and repeat the mission several times with multiple different outcomes. This was a really interesting concept at first, but it eventually just became another tedious task to complete for the gear grind and attunement progress.
Not only was the combat exciting in WildStar, but it also had one of the better collection and housing options around. Players could buy one of multiple houses and decorate them any way they’d like. Some players even went so far as to create mazes, games, or try to replicate the Bat Cave. There were all kinds of ways to acquire new furniture and accessories from PvP to running dungeons. These were the good days in WildStar, the first 3 months or so, and then things started to decline.
Once I hit level 50 I was ready for the real game to begin or so I thought. I joined my first raiding guild and we all began to work toward the attunement process. At the time, there were 12 painful steps to finally become attuned for the Genetic Archives and many of those had multiple objectives to complete as well. Needless to say, the entire process was exhausting and took months to complete. Currently, things have been tweaked quite significantly and I’ve been told it’s a much easier process now than it used to be.
The raid attunement process wasn’t the only thing that turned players off, however, and the population began to decline in relatively large increments. The adventures that I adored so much at the beginning became a constant grind fest in a feeble attempt to obtain gold rank for the small chance at epic gear. There were no longer choices and instead the shortest or safest route was taken every single time. After veteran adventures came the veteran dungeons and silver was needed in each of these. I don’t know how many times I had to run Stormtalon’s Lair or Ruins of Kel Voreth but I’ll be happy to never see those places ever again. The pressure became too much for many of my guild members. Some of them tried to take refuge on a higher population server while others quit the game altogether.
By the third quarter of 2014, revenue for WildStar had dropped 42 percent. According to the 2015 first-quarter earnings from NCSoft that number was down nearly 91 percent from the original earnings. Now it’s not unusual for an MMORPG to lose a significant population within its first year, but in WildStar you could literally see the changes happening. It started with the consolidation of servers from a dozen to about half that. Then there were only two North American servers. When there’s no one left to fight in the Crimson Badlands or the Northern Wilds on the only PvP server then you know things are going in a bad direction. The megaserver merge caused a massive panic and most players tried to consolidate on Entity, the last PvE server. At the time there were only a handful of guilds making progress in the Genetic Archives and even less in Datascape.
A frustrating grinding process wasn’t the only thing that led to WildStar’s decline. The game was also plagued with bots, bugs, exploits and hacks that turned off a large portion of the population. There were multiple exploits that increase the damage of certain classes and allowed guilds to progress through content that they never would have normally. Battlegrounds were a haven for bots and caused many concerns for hardcore PvPers. Bots weren’t the only issue with PvP, however, as the game suffered from major bugs and a lack of incentive to play. There were literally days when the Dominion starting shield was broken in Daggerstone Pass, which lead to massive Exile camping.
Once a player obtained the highest rated gear from arena there was simply no reason to keep playing due to a lack of seasons or gear updates. Warplot gear was the equivalent to arena equipment, which created little motivation to play and meant that only a very small fraction of the game ever even saw that content. These issues eventually led to 20+ minute queue timers for rated battlegrounds and an overall disinterested PvP population.
It’s true that things were very bad in the WildStar universe for quite some time, but is it possible for the game to rebound? Since I stopped playing there have been two major content drops, Protogames Initiative and Invasion: Nexus, that have implemented new content and quality of life improvements. The most important update, however, if the announcement that WildStar will go free-to-play. I predicted last October that the only way WildStar could possibly recover was by removing its subscription and creating an influx of new players. NCSoft has decided to take this a step farther and it’s going to remove both the subscription and game cost to create a truly free experience.
This doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to try and make some money. Players will still have an option to buy a signature subscription and earn loyalty points, which provide a number of bonuses from more character slots to an extra proc chance from gathering. After looking over the long list of perks there doesn’t seem to be anything too offensive included and it looks like free players will have access to the complete game but with much less convenience. Many players left WildStar for a good reason and not only due to the cost of a subscription, but this move will likely bring in players who were either skeptical before or would have never considered the game due to monetary costs. Hopefully, this will create a less jaded player population and give the game a chance to grow again.
To see if the announcement of the free-to-play transition sparked any premature life into the game I decided to log into my old account; there’s a 10-day free trial for all new and inactive accounts at this point in time. Warhound was still completely dead. There was literally no one in Illium at all and the auction house was almost completely devoid of items. Thankfully, there’s the option to switch servers for free right now and I transferred my main character over to Entity. While not quite “teeming with life,” there were actual humans to talk to and my battleground queue went off in less than five minutes. As I hovered around town I noticed multiple people at the various crafting locations and the auction houses, which is definitely a good sign. If you haven’t played since Sabotage then now might be a good time to test out the new content, but those looking for a crowded server might want to wait until free-to-play is fully implement.
During the past year WildStar has been the MMORPG equivalent of a rollercoaster. It started out with huge prospects and quickly dropped off the radar. There are definitely a lot of great aspects to the game, but poor management in the beginning caused many players to lose trust in Carbine and the development team. However, it looks like WildStar is going to be given a second chance, and with any luck the free-to-play update will spark new life into a game that hasn’t been looking so great recently.