Fixing SWTOR’s business model

The big announcement

Last week, Bioware teased a big announcement for yesterday. Yesterday, the announcement happened and, judging by the comments over on Massively Overpowered, most people found it lacking. The announcement was about being able to recruit the popular HK-55 as a companion and getting to play the droid in an “exclusive Episode”. The thing is, to qualify for that exclusive episode, you’ll have to be subscribed to SWTOR from now until august 2016.

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As i’ve mentioned more than once, SWTOR- to me- is still a subscription game. Bioware put too many restrictions on free players, even if you’re a “preferred” player (e.g. those who bought the box). I think in itself, this subscriber reward feels….ok-ish. I don’t care much about HK-55. But i agree with one point made several times by players: this doesn’t really qualify as a “big announcement”. And when i thought about the trouble Bioware seems to be having with its subscriber rewards, one thing came to mind: SWTOR isn’t sure what business model it’s using.

Business Model confusion

It’s free-to-play

You can start playing Star Wars: the old republic now. Well, after a lengthy download. After that, though, you can log in and play up to…well, i’m not so sure about that. Is it the base game? Or are some of the released expansions free, as well? I don’t know. Also, you’ll suffer some of the most annoying restrictions for free users in the industry. Use of 2 hotbars only, for instance. No running (is it still in?), no “hide helmet” option, ingame gold and dungeon-running as well as pvp match limits and so on. There are so many of them that i can’t even remember all of them.

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Of course, some of these restrictions get less annoying if you are a preferred status player (by buying the base game).

It’s a subscription game

If you choose to sub up, you’ll not only get all those restrictions lifted, but also access to all the available content in the game. And a monthly cartel coin (funny money) alotment. There are no restrictions whatsoever, but one thing that annoys me very much is that SWTOR basically sells the best cosmetic outfits, pets, stronghold items and what-would-i-know in lockbox-style “packs”. To make matters worse, there are many different packs to buy. For me, it is actually hard to search them for items i’d like to buy. Sure, Dulfy has it covered, but the ingame shop not so much.

It’s buy-to-play

The funny thing is- the content you unlock by being subscribed? You’ll be able to access that after you let your subscription run out, as well. If you sub now, you’ll get access to all expansions, chapters 1 to 9 of the latest story-centric expansion and you’ll still be able to play that content if you don’t sub next month. You’ll suffer f2p-restrictions, though (of course, there’s the possibility to unlock those with ingame-credits, as well). So this is the part where SWTOR is following the buy-to-play-route.

It’s not a hybrid, it’s a mess

Now, since this post isn’t a guide to SWTOR’s business model i haven’t done much research on restrictions, what you’ll get in the different states of the customer-producer-relationship. A quick Google Search didn’t show any interesting entries. My guess is…it’s too complicated. Even Bioware doesn’t bother with bringing their f2p matrix up-to-date. What’s stated there concerns the base game only.

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Fixing this

So, with Bioware’s intentions kept in mind (they want us to sub)- how would i go in and improve what they have? I’d make it a hybrid with an emphasis on being buy-to-play.

I’d give the base game out for free. Also, i’d only put restrictions on stuff bots and gold sellers use to do their work- ingame-mail and -chat, auction house, currency cap, no rest xp. You would also be able to lift all these restrictions by spending the 5$ needed to get “preferred status”.

Then, sell all expansions and chapters of the Fallen Empire storyline seperately through the cartel market(!). This would allow for a real subscriber reward: being able to let the sub lapse and simply buy the content with saved up funny money.

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Subscribers would get some bonus xp (think 12XP buff; subscribers would be able to go from 1 to 55 with class story missions only, but make it optional) and access to all “DLC”, of course. For the time their sub is up. Let it lapse and you’ll lose access. But of course, you could go on and simply buy the expansions in the cartel market.

Obviously, Bioware can’t do that anymore, because they’d take something away from people. Everybody who subscribed and directly cancelled the sub has access to the expansions now. So Bioware need the hefty restrictions on free players to get those people to keep their sub going. Without taking something away, they’d have to give access out to all of those customers and i really don’t know if that would be viable.

Still…i think this would be the way to go, but that’s just me. Maybe they like the complicated setup they have, because for me, i can tell you how i decide how to play SWTOR: don’t play, don’t pay. Want to play, sub up.

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10 thoughts on “Fixing SWTOR’s business model

  1. The sprint thing is funny. Free players have always been able to get it at level 10… which is several levels earlier than subscribers got it at launch. I never understood why that’s considered such a horrible punishment. 😛

    I agree that Bioware doesn’t seem to know what they want from their business model, except money obviously. I don’t think I would like your suggested alternative either though, because why would I still subscribe if I can just buy everything once? XP bonuses on their own are a terrible perk, as I’d actually be quite happy to level more slowly.

    The problem I always have with suggestions like these is that at their core, they always seem to come down to “we want more for less money”. Which is nice for the customer of course, but what’s the upside for EA? I feel like games like LOTRO and The Secret World have shown that relying on selling content/DLC as your main revenue stream does not work so well in the long run.

    1. Your arguments are valid- i think in the model i proposed, i’d simply buy stuff…and maybe spend less. If i were smart, though, i’d do it the same way right now. Unsub, wait for all chapters of the Fallen Empire to release and then sub one month and play through it all. Unfortunately i’m not so smart, but the possibility still exists.

      As for the sprinting thing- i don’t think that is so horrible, but the point you make also simply shows the downside of a sub-only model: of course it took subscribers longer to sprint at launch- SWTOR was a sub game at that time- slowing players down was their business model.

      Coming to that last point- maybe/possibly nothing. The revenue numbers for SWTOR speak for themselves- their model works for them. I simply think it’s quite a mess and confusing…if you were to opt for something other than the sub.

    2. ” I feel like games like LOTRO and The Secret World have shown that relying on selling content/DLC as your main revenue stream does not work so well in the long run.”

      uh, really? Please look again and consider:
      1. LOTRO in 2010 was about to close down forever. Instead they went F2P.
      Now please take a look at this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings_Online

      “On June 4, 2010, it was announced the game was to add a free-to-play option in the autumn, with an in-game store. Free-to-play was successfully launched in North America on September 10, 2010. After a delay in Europe, free-to-play went live on November 2, 2010.During the following six months the company reported tripled revenues from the title.”

      Trippled revenues clearly were the wrong way to go, they should’ve stayed subscription based and let the game die?

      2. I don’t intend to dig apart Funcoms last business reports, but it’s all in there. The Secret World is actually currently their most lucrative IP. Unlike most other producers and publishers, Funcom due to their business model is required to do an annual report of their business, so you can look it all up.

      They have a history of bad business decissions and due to massive depts since years struggle to survive. (As far as i remember, the companys survival is secured till next autumn, then the dice are in the air again. ) The most painful financial loss in their history was the utter failure of Lego Minifigures Online. In contrast TSW, despite the grim setting which only appeals to a limited number of players, the annual reports of that year made it clear that the revenue of the game increased a lot after the B2P conversion.

      Last not least, the big flagship for B2P out there is Guild Wars 2. The one which was released soon after TSW, cost it a lot of customers (who ran away from both the gloomy atmosphere and the subscription model) and also up to now doesn’t seem like it’s suffering too much from being B2P and just selling content for money. (In case of doubt, look up “Heart of Thorns” or also check out the Living Story Season 2 in the in-game shop. )

      And to conclude what the advantage for EA would be: They could still have me as “casual player”. I have a number of games, including 3 MMOs on my playlist. I spend a lot of time (up to two evenings a week) in TSW, i play GW2 a few hours every weekend and once every odd week i spend an evening in DC Universe, simply because i sometimes enjoy its quite different combat system. (Now that Smed is gone from SOE/Daybreak, i see no reason any more to abstain from their games. )

      In contrast, i at some time played SWToR, but found it lacking in too many aspects to be my “main MMO”. I could imagine playing it in a similar way as DC Universe, which also would mean that i’d in the long run buy expansion and the likes. I would pay less than what they expect any current player (because they really don’t want anybody to play without subscription) to pay, but i would pay more than i currently do, resulting in higher income for EA.

      Unfortunately this is not going to happen. When it went “F2P” and i took a look there, the first thing i got was “you cheap freebooter won’t be allowed to still use the gear (yes, i mean my characters equipment) you formerly had, unless you pay up”. (Wording my differ, but that’s the message the game gave me. )

      There is no way i’d return on that basis, and that’s quite true for a number of my friends, too. By forcefully driving us potential customers away, the game deprives itself of an excellent source of income. Alas, more money to spend on TSW, GW2, DCU and whatever else i just fancy. 🙂

      1. Ooh, I only just saw this!

        I don’t know what your first point is supposed to prove as it just illustrates that LOTRO’s F2P conversion was highly successful in the short term. In recent years however all I ever seem to hear about the game is how there is less content coming out, fewer players, and ever more desperate attempts by Turbine to get some money out of their remaining playerbase. Maybe that’s just a sign of an aging MMO and unavoidable… but it’s hardly a raging success story either.

        Same for The Secret World – being the most lucrative IP of a company that is not doing well overall isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement either.

        Guild Wars 2 is actually an example of a game that hasn’t relied on selling content/DLC, with Heart of Thorns being only a very recent addition. Before that they kept going for years without charging anything for things like the Living Story updates (though I have to admit that as someone who doesn’t play I don’t know where they did get their money from during that time). My issue isn’t with B2P as a business model, but that a successful MMO needs to entice customers to spend money more often than just on one 1-2 game updates a year, and if “content” is your main revenue stream, you just won’t be able to provide enough of it.

      2. Stick to the facts:

        1. LOTRO was about to shut down 2010. Thanks to the switch, it will still be alive in 2016 and probably allows it to go on for some more years. The “terribly business model”, which is “certain to fail” allowed the game to survive for at least six more years.

        All the rest you say: how many MMOs of that age are still around? And how many of them are doing well? And this is before even considering that for a MMO LOTRO has a number of problems from the start, which basically resulted from the limitations the IP owners added into the contract. The recent decline of playerbase and thus revenue is a sign of it’s age.

        Of course, would they not have switched the business model, it would remain in players memories as “the pretty game which for whatever reasons (like, nobody found it worth paying the subscription) was closed down 2010, so it wouldn’t have aged so much.

        2. Go there, read the business report, return. Funcom was in debts even before developing TSW. Making this game was expencive and too longer to recover the investment than they hoped for, but unlike some other products it did. What really almost broke the company was the LEGO game, which went completely belly up right from start while costing a fortune for the IP.

        According to this logic, i have to conclude that SWtoR must be terribly business and an utter failure. After all it’s the only MMO they have left, since WAR (yes, it in the end was a Bioware game) also died horribly. Man, the stench of bad logic gets quite intense here…

        3. GW2 has not relied on selling content? Enter the game, go to the item store, look for the Living Story Season 2. Surprise, surprise, that stuff is sold for gems. Yea, not money, just gems? 😉

        Next to that, they survived on selling lockbox keys, inventory slots and cosmetic stuff. Business as in most F2P games, and unfortunately TSW also is slowly drifting in that direction. (Their real money shop was much more light-handed than in any other of the mentioned games. It still is, but not as much as formerly. )

        And in the end, i am quite amused about this part: ” My issue isn’t with B2P as a business model, but that a successful MMO needs to entice customers to spend money more often than just on one 1-2 game updates a year, and if “content” is your main revenue stream, you just won’t be able to provide enough of it.”

        Remember the numbers, stick to them. LOTRO survived for at least SIX more years with the new business model, as subscription game it would have shut down. TSW also looked like a financial disaster under the subscription model (and a shutdown was under discussion, it’s also in the 2012 business report) and now is lucrative.

        These are the numbers, the actual finances of the games, their actual survival rate. All the rest, with “MMOs need a subscription to survive” is religion, and just like even the weirdest religion this believe survives in some people minds, even if reality tells a different story.

      3. OK, I tried, but you keep putting stuff in quotes that I never said and arguing against points I never made. From what I gather you seem to think that I’m saying that subscriptions are good and B2P/F2P is bad, which wasn’t my point at all, so I’ll simply leave it at that.

      4. I just fail to understand what you want to say with ”I feel like games like LOTRO and The Secret World have shown that relying on selling content/DLC as your main revenue stream does not work so well in the long run.” if the point is not that the business model is faulty. So I guess yes, we got to leave it at that.

    3. Revenue aside, I think the integrity of the product comes into question with so many mixed messages being given by its various payment schemes. I have no issue with F2P, B2P, or Subscription models but SW:TOR’s mess is something else entirely. Whether the game is good or not, I was so turned off by the mere idea of being restricted from hiding my helmet that my will to find out ran its course almost immediately.

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