It’s faded in recent years, but the notion that a lot of gamers still have when a subscription game goes free-to-play is that it’s failing. Sometimes, those opinions are overblown, a smug, sadistic rush to write off a game that dared to try to compete with “their” game. And the bigger the perceived threat to their game, the louder they are to trumpet another game’s downfall, real or imagined.
With Star Wars: The Old Republic, however, there was no exaggeration. Free-to-play was a move that had to be made to save the game. As Senior Producer Bruce Maclean told MMOBomb in a recent interview, “The mood wasn’t that ‘We’re going to be in trouble,’ the mood was, ‘We are in trouble.’ We were not doing well.” That’s pretty frank talk, and starkly refreshing to hear from the developer of an ongoing MMORPG, the kind of negative admission that’s usually nixed by PR and marketing teams.
Along with Lead Designers Charles Boyd and Michael Backus, we had the chance to reminisce about the good times and the bad over SWTOR’s first four years. The game launched on Dec. 20, 2011, and celebrates its fourth birthday on Sunday – and there’s some important movie coming out, oh, about now – so it seemed like a good time to chat with the crew at BioWare about their experiences. All three had been with the game since roughly forever, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a team more rooted into the ups and downs of the game’s development cycle, both pre- and post-launch.
A new hope
With everything (especially money) that went into the game, I thought it seemed “too big to fail.” I can remember doing a show a few months after SWTOR launched and insisting – despite some vocal disagreements – that the game would still be around a year later, in some form, just because Electronic Arts wouldn’t be willing to throw that money down the drain and write off the whole thing so quickly.
Maclean chuckled ruefully at my “too big to fail” comment and told me about how bleak things seemed those first few months and what had to change. “We needed to change everything. We changed our team, philosophy, we changed our communication style, our cadence of delivery… and we changed our business model. We said, ‘You know what? If anyone wants to play, let them play. Let’s make the game free-to-play.’ Since going free-to-play, we’ve been on a fantastic and positive journey. Going free-to-play paradoxically doubled our subscribers.
“As we were doing all these things, we arrived at a Star Wars: The Old Republic that is beyond anything that we hoped for even at launch. One reason for that is our players have been helping us chart the course. Our subscribers have been supporting us throughout all this and really helping us know which way to go. It’s become really clear, especially in the last year, that what they really want us to do is embrace our BioWare roots and focus on personal story.”
The renewed focus on story is obvious to anyone who’s followed the game the past couple years, with Shadow of Revan and Knights of the Fallen Empire being very story-rich and loved by fans. And KotFE is still in its infancy. “It’s been extremely well-received,” Maclean said, “and we haven’t even finished the story arc yet. Chapters 10 through 16 have yet to play out. The second half of this new direction really starts in February, with chapter 10, and every month there will be a new chapter of content.”
Monthly updates are something new to the SWTOR team, and it’s part of a new “vision mandate,” Backus said. “You might not have time for an MMO, but you’ll always have time for our story,” as he puts it. The key is to make sure that people can still enjoy the core of the game, even if they’re not the ultra-obsessive types who are putting in 20+ hours per week.
When the decision came down to make the game free-to-play, it was met with emotions like the ones Maclean expressed at the top of this article. “There were so many things that we needed to fix, and it was obvious,” he said. “We had a moment of truth where we said, ‘Let’s change how we run our teams, let’s change our level of transparency and communication both inside and outside the building. What we’re doing isn’t working. Let’s think outside the box and let’s start with what our players are saying.’
“It was a humbling and transformative moment. We were in trouble and we all knew it. It was obvious that something had to happen. We hoped [free-to-play] would be well-received, but the response was overwhelming. It was really a shot in the arm.”
“Removing that barrier [of up-front payment] has brought in so many new people to give it a shot and experience these really awesome stories that we worked so hard on,” added Backus.
For all their talk of how well-received F2P was and how popular it is, however, the stigma remains of the early – and some continuing – restrictions that free players have had when compared to paid players. I told the team, straight up, that I had to ask about those sort of things because I knew what the response would be if I simply came back with an “everybody loves F2P” message.
“The reason why we did that?” Maclean offered. “Probably stemming mostly from fear at that time” – fear that, if a subscription didn’t seem valuable enough in comparison to free-to-play, nobody would pay for it. “But over the last three years, we’ve been talking about maybe summarizing all this and sharing with our players. We have been constantly dialing those things back, one at a time. There were so many different ways in that the free-to-play experience wasn’t as good [as subscribing].
“Our philosophy has really changed, especially with Knights of the Fallen Empire. That’s what a subscription is: You get access to an amazing story. That’s the value of a subscription. Not ‘you get access to a hotbar.’ Over the years, we’ve been undoing these ones that have that punitive feel and trying to get back to subscription value being premium content.”
Backus referred to early F2P restrictions as “overtuned to start with.” “The short and firmly honest answer is, it was a mistake in hindsight, and we’re correcting that mistake as the years go,” Maclean finished.
Even though the game has only been out for four years, some of the guys’ experiences go back for twice that long, and I asked what was the favorite thing they worked on in that time. For Backus, that was the Galactic Starfighter expansion, which brought free-form space combat to the game. “It was a very small team, about 12 people, we had a very short period of time to do it, we weren’t sure if the engine could handle it… and I think it’s a very fun experience.”
Boyd brought up one of his favorite cutscene moments from Knights of the Fallen Empire, where a character is introduced with an acrobatic entrance, the type of which he didn’t think the engine could have handled a few years ago. “If we’d have written that in the plot summary a few years back, [the effects team] would have laughed. It exemplifies how far we’ve raised the bar of our cinematics and the action that we can do.” He also gives a shoutout to trooper companion M1-4X for his over-the-top rah-rah “For the Republic” dialogue.
For Maclean, the sheer scope of the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion and how they managed to pull it off is one of his favorite things. “A lot of folks didn’t believe it was possible at first.” Around the start of this year, work began in earnest and the entire company started to invest themselves fully in realizing the grand vision of the content, a process Maclean describes as “magical.” When they first pitched the entire story to Lucasfilm, they were met with awkward silence. Before they could figure out how to escape the meeting room, the Lucasfilm reps told them how amazing it was and excited they were about its prospects. Whew.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has gone from “can’t-miss next big thing” to being on death’s door and needing free-to-play to rescue it. Even once that happened, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, and the dev team has had to make plenty of adjustments and improvements to keep the ship afloat – or, in this case, to simply (“hear me, baby”) hold together. A willingness to confront those issues and talk about them in public is a trait some companies, in their pride, refuse to do, preferring instead to see their game go down in flames than admit mistakes and do what’s necessary to correct them.