July 2012

SWTOR Going Free To Play


It was foreshadowed for quite a while, and today EA finally made it official: SWTOR is going free to play.

The matrix listed at first glance is fairly reminiscent of SOE’s offerings – theoretically, you could play the entire game for free, but realistically, you run up against walls pretty quickly that ‘encourage’ you to switch to a subscription plan. The site is light on details (and most likely rushed out in time for EA’s earnings call to be held soon) but the cash shop items listed seem to run towards the intangible and not, say, unlocking a race or warzone.

So, as SWTOR players (which, by the way, I still am, to a fairly frightening degree) we still don’t have a lot of information on how this pending change will affect us. As industry pundits, though, it’s fairly easy to draw conclusions:

The subscription model is rapidly becoming the “new car price” initial markup of even the largest budget MMOs – once you get past the first year, that markup devolves to the default free-to-play model quickly. Even The Secret World, this year’s Most-Successful-MMO-Shipped-Until-Guild-Wars-Two-Consumes-All release (which, by the way, is launching as a free-to-play title), is already straightforward about how in a couple of years it will be a free to play title as well. The number of MMOs that do not have some free to play element are limited, indeed. And if you think World of Warcraft is some kind of exception? Well, they certainly don’t want you to think so judging from ads aimed at people who don’t play World of Warcraft (all seven of them):

Everything is free to play, because the financial barrier entry for MMOs is fiercely competitive and in the end it’s very difficult to compete with zero. However much grognards may grumble, the vast majority of players prefer that revenue model. They’ve voted as such with their pocketbooks, and MMO developers who fail to recognize this (all six of them) are committing malpractice.

The other conclusion, which somewhat contradicts the above: going free to play is seen as a sign of giving up. Would Bioware prefer to be making $15 from millions of people every month? Of course they would. Will they make $15 million a month in microtransactions from millions of free players? No one knows.  It’s a risk. And with a title as heavily weighed down with budgetary requirements and licensing fees as SWTOR? Risk is not something you easily sell. Which makes this decision all the more important: at this point there are X hundreds of millions of dollars in budgetary outlays to make back up, and clearly someone at EA saw the trend of subscriptions going down and said “uh, let’s try something new.”

2012, without a doubt, is the year of The Old Republic. And it has not been a good year.

Precious Comments By Game Industry Executives, #19 In A Series

“Zynga is not a very subtle company, are they?” — anonymous

Eric Schiermeyer, a co-founder of Zynga, an online game company and maker of huge hits like FarmVille, has said he has helped addict millions of people to dopamine, a neurochemical that has been shown to be released by pleasurable activities, including video game playing, but also is understood to play a major role in the cycle of addiction.

But what he said he believed was that people already craved dopamine and that Silicon Valley was no more responsible for creating irresistible technologies than, say, fast-food restaurants were responsible for making food with such wide appeal.

“They’d say: ‘Do we have any responsibility for the fact people are getting fat?’ Most people would say ‘no,’ ” said Mr. Schiermeyer. He added: “Given that we’re human, we already want dopamine.”

Eric Schiermeyer
Part Of The Problem, Zynga
From a New York Times article about addictive technology

And Now, The Finger Pointing

Boston Magazine has a recap of the 38 Studios meltdown, cast as some kind of dinner theatre, with Curt Schilling the amiable and clueless family patriarch who just holds his head in his hands sadly at a kid’s softball game wondering

and the just and the unjust alike were trapped in the onslaught of taxpayer funding

why his company blew up.

No really. That’s not from the dinner theatre metaphor, that’s from the actual story.

Back at the softball field in Dracut, Schilling is still having trouble fathoming what happened. “I’ll find myself in the middle of the day, just aching,” he says. He concedes that he’d promised his employees 60 days’ warning if the money ever looked like it was going to run out, but argues that the situation was moving too fast for him to keep sending updates. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell anyone,” he says, “it’s I didn’t know what to say.”

Note to Curt: being in that position is why your job title was Chairman and not, say, Director of Responsibility-Free Fun Stuff.

No new actual material facts in the piece, but lots and lots of context: the author of the infamous “it is in the company’s interests that we fire everyone immediately, get out” letter turns out to be Curt’s uncle, for example. And surprisingly a lot of ex-38 Studios execs talked to the author, on and off the record, mainly to point out that Curt Schilling did not have the most realistic expectations. (You don’t say.)

The most damning part, however, came from Hamlet-On-The-Softball-Pitch himself:

“The game wasn’t fun,” he says, unprompted, beside the softball field. “It was my biggest gripe for probably the past eight to 12 months.” Visually, Copernicus was stunning, but the actual things you could do in the game weren’t engaging enough. The combat aspects especially lagged. Schilling — who never wavered in his belief that the game would be great — says the MMO was improving, but after six years, it still wasn’t there. When Schilling walked around during lunch hour, he says, nobody was playing Copernicus’s internal demos. They were all on some other game.

Most outside the industry will read that and think “well, damn. It wasn’t fun, they failed!”

Most inside the industry will read that and think that Curt Schilling knows so little about making games that he actually expects people who work on a game for 12 hours a day to play it – even though it’s unfinished and most projects don’t actually become fun until the last sprint of development – on their one free non-working hour.