Does a year make a difference in a game? It should surprise nobody who listens to the CMP Podcast that I’m playing a new MMO this week. Replaying one in fact, one that I might have said I’d never play again. (I say that a lot, and I think it to myself even more.) This past week I hopped into SWTOR again for the first time since January 2012.
This time around I’m treating SWTOR as a single player RPG because that is where the game shines. Being rusty I rolled a new class to relearn how to play. Unlike my initial experience, I’m taking my time, listening to all the quests and in general I’m appreciating the game quite a bit more.
As expected, the RPG portion of SWTOR is truly excellent. The story is compelling and the game is produced to a very high standard. You can see where Bioware spent a lot of time and care on many aspects of the product. It shows in the character animations, worlds, their respective environments and the voice acting.
Bioware seems to have built the entire game with the idea that players will roll alts and replay the content over and over. The legacy system is very much geared to leveling multiple characters. The more characters you play to level cap the more rewards you can obtain, such as species unlocks and some global perks to help as you level more characters. There is an endgame to be sure, but it almost feels like they’d rather I just re-rolled and took a different character through the game over and over and over again.
Free-to-play isn’t as bad as I thought, but it has some quirks. As a premium account holder I’m a step between free and full-blown subscriber. SWTOR is quite playable as a free game, but there are many restrictions that I can already tell will be tough to live with if I continue to play. For example, the credit cap is quite low — in fact it is lower than the required amount for many of the unlocks in the Legacy system. Sneaky.
Other limits are even more restrictive. I can only list 5 items for sale on the Trade Network (free players can only list 2). Subscribers can list 50. All of the instanced content has either severe restrictions or requires a paid weekly pass of some sort. Non-subscribers need to purchase an authorization to equip most of the best gear in the game. Speaking of gear, it is disappointing that free players must pay (over $10!) to equip the Artifact gear they obtain as rewards from playing the class story (and pvp). When is a reward not a reward? When you have to pay to use it. Bioware, you can do better than that.
And then there is the odd stuff: Free players get less quickbars. Free players cannot hide their helmet from displaying unless they purchase an unlock. Free players have to wait until level 15 to sprint. I’m used to F2P games putting restrictions on things to entice players to pay for unlocks, but some of the SWTOR restrictions seem designed to annoy rather than entice. And yes, you can pay for unlocks of many of the restrictions, sort of like LOTRO, for those who wish to play à la carte.
Or, you can simply subscribe and have no restrictions at all. And from what I’m seeing this is exactly what Bioware wants you to do. SWTOR feels very much like what it is: a subscription game with a F2P option and cash store tacked on as an afterthought rather than a F2P game with a compelling subscription option. Bioware seemingly has failed to embrace the spirit of F2P, possibly to the detriment of the game down the road.
The Cartel Market (cash store) is very much what you’d expect in a F2P game. Unlocks, boosts, cosmetic items and random packs of digital goods are a few examples of the offerings. Many (possibly all?) of the Cartel Market goods can be sold on the player market for credits. Unlike some other games there is no way to earn Cartel Coins from playing the game — if you want them you have to buy them (or subscribe and get a monthly grant).
Seeing only eight US and nine EU servers now (plus three or so for the oceanic region) was quite the shock upon logging in. In this case less might be more: on Coruscant this weekend there were over two hundred and fifty players in my instance, with two or three other Coruscant instances available as well. You definitely see lots of other players, with all the good and bad that entails. The game now “feels” quite populated and the market is quite healthy and robust on my server.
So what difference does a year make? On one hand SWTOR is still an excellent game, especially the 1-50 leveling experience. I’m having a lot of fun again — important when you are playing a game. There is an upcoming expansion with a level cap increase and new class storyline to play. There have been consistent updates to the game and many tweaks and fixes. I’m seeing a lot of other players on the server. There is also a new Star Wars movie in production which should put a spotlight on the IP. All good signs.
On the other hand, the failure to embrace F2P might prove to be a stumbling block down the road as the newness of F2P wears off and the endgame/replaying of content becomes stale. If everyone ends up subscribing (as Bioware seems to desperately want) my question becomes: what has really changed?. As a subscription game SWTOR was losing hundreds of thousands of players so they decided to convert the game to F2P. Now the game is F2P and they seem to be herding players in the direction of a subscription… It appears that SWTOR might be on the edge of an MMO death spiral of sorts unless they make some radical alterations to make F2P more palatable and player-friendly.
Is SWTOR worth (re)playing? In my case the answer looks something like this: fantastic IP + fun game + good story + excellent production values > questionable business model + poor F2P execution + bad reputation.