The thing about SWTOR’s ongoing free-to-play revival is this: while many justifiably don’t feel like celebrating when a number of punitive systems remain in place, it really has revitalised the game. Two million have joined since its relaunch in Autumn, and thousands more go through the rigmarole of account creation and a many-gig download with every passing day.
In a State of the Game update today, executive producer Jeff Hickman addressed the questions BioWare Austin are frequently asked to field about the success of their free-to-play option.
“We’re now about 120 days post-launch and more than 5 months into our new series of content updates, so we’re just starting to get a feel for it ourselves,” he wrote.
“Last spring, there was some uncertainty surrounding Star Wars: The Old Republic as we were starting to lose subscribers and players were growing frustrated. In fairness, many of the complaints and worries were justified. In an effort to try to address everything, we just weren’t sufficiently focused on improving the core experience.”
Then free-to-play happened. The frequency of content updates was increased, and non-subscribers were able to play through all class stories through to level 50, provided they could stomach a reduced XP rate, truncated quickbars and a host of other restrictions. The move has paid dividends, says Hickman.
“You can see for yourself when you log in to the game,” he wrote. “Our new, high capacity servers are teeming with people. This means more people to play with, more growth for your guilds, more Warzone matches, and more ways for players to continue to advance their characters.
“Even though there’s bound to be dissent about every aspect of MMOs on the internet these days, player feedback, in general, has been very positive about the new things in the game. We’re committed to continuing our 8-week new content cadence, and are looking forward to the launch of the first Digital Expansion: Rise of the Hutt Cartel this spring.”
I’m not sure Hickman is wise to dismiss the sort of criticism SWTOR’s free-to-play option has weathered as an inevitability of the genre – other contemporaries, notably the MMOs under the custody of Turbine, have made the transition without inciting nearly as much frustration from new players.
Still, the plans he goes on to briefly lay out for development post-Hutt Cartel suggest that the team at Austin have heard the space-screams, and are doing all they can to relieve players’ pain. New paid-for aesthetic customisation options are due for early summer, but in the coming months, the dev team’s major focus with be on improving “quality of life”:
“We hear you on features such as hood toggle (as one example of many), Asia Pacific server populations (we are actively looking into solutions that make the most sense given our current tech and should have an announcement soon), continued improvement to the Cartel Market pricing and content, and the need to keep working on performance improvements and bugs,” said Hickman.
“We will keep at it, I promise. We’ll keep listening to your feedback and continue to dedicate ourselves to making the game the best it can be. Nothing is more important to us than getting it right.”
As a current player, I can believe it. Last week’s SWTOR 1.7.2 patch proved to be the most significant in a long line of tweaks that have reduced the experiential gap between free and Preferred players and their subscriber brethren. Though they’re loathe to say as much, BioWare are working to curb the worst excesses of their redesign.
Have you picked up SWTOR post-free-to-play? And have you stuck at it?