So then. I hate to open a piece by saying; “we told you so” but quite frankly, we did. Bioware and EA have officially confirmed that this coming autumn will bring a free-to-play option to SWTOR, much to the shock and surprise of just about nobody.
The MMO set in a galaxy far far away will retain it’s subscription side, with players who choose this option having access to all in game features plus a dedicated server just for them. They will also receive the all new Cartel Coins on a monthly basis which will act as in game currency, allowing gamers to purchase extra items and features from the title’s store.
Those who choose the F2P option can play upto and including level 50 with various restrictions. However some of these can be negated via mirco transactions.
What does this mean for the MMO at large then? Plenty of editorials have appeared over the last 24 hours declaring the death of the subscription based MMO. Which quite frankly is disingenuous. If there is one thing in gaming that really tugs at my beard it is the over exuberance with which gaming hacks attack the genre. At the beginning of the year there was much hoopla about a drop in subscription numbers for WoW, with some pinheads concluding that we were finally seeing the fall and decline of the biggest show in town. A few weeks later the numbers had leveled out and even increased slightly. Now it’s the turn of The Old Republic.
It is indeed disappointing that an MMO which has been running for less than a year has had to move to an alternative pay as you play system, but there are bigger reasons for this than simply no one is willing to pay monthly subs anymore. Yes the vast majority of us are finding money akin to hens teeth at the moment, thus we are cuting back on various forms of entertainment. It is also true that if it is a choice between keeping the lights on or swinging a virtual lightsabre we will choose the former, but that is not the one and only reason why Bioware and EA have taken this decision.
Despite Star Wars probably being the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time there was always going to be a relatively small number of harcore fans and gamers who would stick with the game over a long period. It is ture that subscriber numbers have fallen over the last 6 months, but this is the case with nearly every MMO that has ever launched. The dip after release is something that will continue to happen as gamers have so much choice, whether that be other online titles or various blockbuster releases on console.
All that has happened here is SWTOR has taken a path which has been a success for titles such as Lord of The Rings Online, Champions Online and Warhammer, games at one time which looked destined to shutdown.
Is this a sign of things to come? Possibly, but until World of Warcraft falls below 5-6 million paying customers, I do not believe that we will see the end of subscription gaming.