Speaking at GDC James Ohlen, creative director on Star Wars: The Old Republic, revealed that since going free-to-play the number of players has risen to 4.5 million, a boost of 2 million players, at a rate of 10,000 new players a day.
The shift away from subscription has marked a turnaround for the game, revitalising its playerbase. Though Ohlen explains there were more problems with The Old Republic at launch besides its subscription model.
The two main problems, as Ohlen sees them, was the game’s lack of group finder and its poorly implemented Public Test Realm. The first meant that the games social side stagnated, it wasn’t easy for players to congregate and take part in the more cooperative parts of the game, raids and PvP, etc. The second meant the first few patches Bioware released were crippled by bugs.
Another problem, something the designers hadn’t foreseen at all, was how quickly players were burning through the content they’d created for the game’s vanilla release. Bioware thought they’d made enough to satisfy an average player for four to five months, in reality the players were burning through all of the game’s quests and reaching the endgame in about four to five weeks.
With the game’s weak social tools players that were hitting the endgame were just quitting. That meant there were few high level players, which meant there were fewer endgame raiders, which meant there was less to do when you hit the max level, which meant people quit. It was a circle of pain at the end of Bioware’s MMO.
They went about fixing the game’s problems in two ways. One team was focussed on fixing the game’s internal problems – improving social tools, creating more endgame content, merging servers to make the game feel more alive – while the other began retrofitting the game into a free-to-play model, a change which would hopefully bring a wave of new players into the game.
Since the game was originally subs-based they decided to retain that core model, but build a separate free-to-play model that would supplement it, acting a little like a taster of what the subscription offered.
Since launching as free-to-play Bioware report seeing the number of subscribers stop decreasing and, recently, begin to rise once again. Ohlen puts a lot of this on the lack of box cost, something that is an immediate turnoff for a potential player.
Looking to the future, Bioware see the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion evolving from the new model they’ve implemented since launch: it provides more story content but with a focus on social play. They’re also planning on introducing new features focused on star wars license, which they claim aren’t available in any other currently released MMO. They were keeping quiet about what those were exactly, though.