EA’s recent investor call is a lesson in business expectation management. Before the call, EA announced the shift to a free-to-play business model. In the call, Frank Gibeau, the President of EA Labels, explained that the game and team would “pivot and provide a two-tiered pricing plan, which will make the game more accessible and grow the audience.” But later, Frank admitted that the new plan wouldn’t necessarily bring in more cash.
In an answer to an investor question, Frank explained that “the pivot to free-to-play is really about opening up the top of the funnel and getting more player through and starting claw back some of the folks that have churned [i.e. bought the game and cancelled their subscription]. But we don’t see free-to-play revenues as incremental to anything that we currently discussed on the call.”
What was surprising throughout the call was the open negativity surrounding the game coming from the EA execs. It was frequently described as “a disappointment”, and EA continually downplayed their expectations.
The problem: they’re probably right. I have serious doubts whether Star Wars: The Old Republic can seriously compete as a free-to-play game. The rules Bioware and EA will enforce with the conversion to free-to-play - the chance to play all levels from 1-50, is incredibly fair. But I’m just not sure the game’s good enough.
Free-to-play games thrive when the developers and publishers produce a relatively small content set and rapidly iterate and improve on the game. The Old Republic is a vast, vast game, but subscriber numbers have dropped off because the Bioware devs have only released three major updates in the year that the game’s been out for. The expectation was that players would be happy to go back and level new characters through the same world. That expectation was flat out wrong. Now, in the last month, the number of developers working on the game has been cut back through layoffs.
What a shame.