With yesterday's announcement of Star Wars: The Old Republic introducing a free to play model later this year and the EA Earnings call, there was a lot to process. Darth Hater has gone over the facts, pulled out the most important details, and presents a feature to answer the pressing questions.
If you have any questions that remain unanswered, feel free to ask them in the comments section and we'll do our best to track down the answer.
So how many subscribers does SWTOR currently have?
While we weren't given an exact number this time, a range was given during yesterday's EA earnings call. Frank Gibeau, EA President of Labels, said, "Although it launched well, subscriptions have been on a declining trajectory and have now slipped below one million. Last year we announced that the breakeven point was roughly 500,000 subscribers. And while we are well above that today, that’s not good enough." Previously announced subscription numbers were 1.7 million reported on February 1, 2012 and 1.3 million reported on May 7, 2012.
Why did they decide to go free to play?
While EA reiterated that the breakeven point is around 500,000 subscribers and they are still "well above that number," the downward trend of the subscription numbers seemed to point in the direction of being close to or below that 500,000 number before the end of the year.
It was also noted both in the EA earnings call and a posting by Jeff Hickman on the official site that the exit survey taken by players who cancelled their subscriptions indicated that the monthly subscription fee was a reason they stopped playing the game. "The message from players exiting the game is clear – 40 percent say they were turned off by the monthly subscription. And many indicated they would come back if we offered a free-to-play model."
Clearly EA and BioWare believe that Star Wars: The Old Republic will attract and maintain more active players if they offer a free to play option.
So does this mean the game is a failure?
Well, that depends on your definition of "failure." Several times during the EA earnings call there were statements indicating that SWTOR failed to live up to their expectations. EA CEO John Riccitiello stated, "The disappointing results of Star Wars: The Old Republic were largely offset by a powerful performance from Battlefield 3 Premium service – although revenue-recognition rules will push this very significant EPS driver into our fourth quarter." Ken Barker, EA's Interim CFO, explained, "Non-GAAP revenue for the fiscal year is expected to be between $4.10 and $4.25 billion. We are lowering the midpoint of our guidance from $4.30 billion to reflect current exchange rates and lower expectations of Star Wars." And Frank Gibeau said, "As John mentioned, the disappointing performance of Star Wars is largely offset by the great performance of our Battlefield 3 Premium service... We couldn’t be more pleased with how the diversity of our business allows us to make up for a miss on one franchise with a big hit on another." The implication there is that they consider SWTOR a "miss."
However, EA is still making money from the game. It remains to be seen how the switch to the new free to play model will effect the profitability and success of the game. It is clear that the game has performed below expectations so far.
What exactly are the "limitations" of certain aspects of the game if you choose to play for free?
There is a chart on the official SWTOR site that gives us a breakdown of what we know so far. Free players will get full access to class stories up to level 50. Beyond that, access to features is limited:
Character Creation - "Some character creation options, such as species, are limited to subscribers." It seems unlikely that BioWare would remove any existing species options for free players. (If they make people pay for the Sith Pureblood species, for example, what happens to any characters of that species when a player changes from subscription to free to play?) However, this does seem like the perfect way to introduce new playable species. The recently announced Cathar species could become one of the very first "pay to access" features of the new system.
Warzones - "Free players are limited in terms of how many Warzones they can play per week." Without knowing more details about this limit, it's hard to comment on. Will the limit be on a per character or per account basis? Are Ranked Warzones accessible by free players?
Flashpoints - "Free players are limited in terms of how many Flashpoints they can play per week." Again, we don't know enough on the numbers and how the limitations will be applied.
Space Missions - "Free players are limited in terms of how many Space Missions they can play per week." Another limitation as to the number of runs allowed for free players.
Operations - "Only Subscribers may complete Operations." Currently the only feature listed as totally inaccessible to free players, it appears Operation access will be used to entice the true hard-core end game players to maintain a paid monthly subscription.
Travel Features - "Subscribers have access to all travel functionality, making getting around the world easier." New methods of travel were recently added with the Legacy perks in the 1.3 update. This limitation seems to hint that such convenience travel methods will be unavailable to free players.
Game Login - "Subscribers will always be in login queues ahead of free players." The value of this depends on one thing - will there be login queues to get into the servers and play the game? With long login queues, this perk of being a subscriber will be nice. Without login queues, this is meaningless.
Galactic Trade Network - "Subscribers can post up to 50 auctions for sale." I've seen a few players mention that this seems like a limitation to subscribers, but it's no change. The current limitation for players is 50 auction listings at one time per character. That is not changing. What is changing is that free players will have "extremely limited access" to the GTN, which likely means only a handful of listings at any given time, a limit of how many items can be listed per month, or perhaps only the ability to buy but not sell items via the GTN.
What's this "Cartel Coins" stuff I'm hearing about?
"Cartel Coins" are a new type of currency being introduced into the game when free to play launches. Essentially it will be the currency used to buy things only available to subscribers or to free players who have purchased the currency with real money. The official FAQ does confirm that Cartel Coins may be bought with real cash stating, "Cartel Coins will also be available for purchase from our website in various price packs."
Paid subscribers will earn Cartel Coins as part of their monthly subscription fee. Players who were subscribed before the free to play announcement on July 31, 2012 will be awarded 150 Cartel Coins per month. Players who remain subscribed between August 1, 2012 and the date when the free to play model launches will be awarded 200 Cartel Coins per month. Players who purchased the Collector's Edition version of the game will be given a bonus of 1000 Cartel Coins. And all active players between August 1, 2012 and the date when free to play launches will be given a bonus of 250 Cartel Coins. While no exact number has been given yet, it has been confirmed that paying subscribers will continue to earn a monthly amount of Cartel Coins for their paid subscription.
So for someone who bought the Collector's Edition of the game, has maintained an active paid subscription up until present, and plans to maintain an active paid subscription until free to play launches in November, they will accumulate approximately 2750 total Cartel Coins.
The rewards page on the official site offers a glimpse at some possible rewards available for purchase with Cartel Coins - a Kowakian Monkey Lizard pet, a Sith Meditation throne, and the Lost Helm of Darth Nihilus. We do not know how many Cartel Coins rewards such as these will cost or what the real cash value of Cartel Coins may be.
During the EA earnings call, Frank Gibeau mentioned the new in-game currency while describing the differences between subscription based and free players:
"The first tier is a Premium Players membership for Star Wars fans who want everything the
game has to offer. For $15 a month, Premium Players will receive comprehensive access to the game plus monthly infusions of in-game currency which can be used for boosts, customization and for moving more quickly through each level.
The second tier is a free-to-play option which allows consumers to experience the first 50 levels at no charge, but with some restrictions on content and advanced player features. Upgrades to the experience can be purchased with in-game currency. Players will move at their own speed and comfort level. If and when they’re ready, they can easily switch to the Premium tier."
Is there any reason not to cancel right now and just wait until free to play launches?
The main incentive being offered right now to keep your subscription is in the form of Cartel Coins. There is also the "Bonus Reward" mentioned on the official rewards page which will be decided by a fan vote. It is explained that reward will be offered to "current subscribers" though it is unclear exactly when the subscription must be active in order to receive that reward.
When can we expect to see some new content?
According to the interview over at MMORPG.com, a new world event similar to the Rakghoul invasion will launch in August, which means we could see the beginnings of that any day now. Beyond that, we do not have a timeframe.
Looking at the pattern in the past regarding timelines:
- 1.1 went live on 1/17, 1.2 hit PTS on 3/16.
- 1.2 went live on 4/12, 1.3 hit PTS on 6/6.
- 1.3 went live on 6/26, so 1.4 should hit PTS about 2 months later... so 8/20ish.
In his blog statement Jeff Hickman's stated, "To that end, I am proud to say that we have a lot of great new content coming your way, and that it will be coming more frequently. We have a great lineup in development including: a new Operation, Terror From Beyond, a new heroic mission series on the planet of Belsavis; a set of level 50 space combat missions for those looking for the ultimate challenge mode; introduction of a dangerous new Companion to accompany you; and for our PvP fans, a new warzone, Ancient Hypergate!"
How are they going to produce content at a faster pace after the layoffs?
Good question. With the introduction of Group Finder and Ranked Warzones in the 1.3 game update, there is a feeling that the "core" systems of the game are now complete. Which means that the design and development teams can focus on producing content within the game's existing framework. The MMORPG.com interview confirms this shift within the staffing to more focused content teams as opposed to development on large new game systems.
While that new approach could turn out to be a good thing for players craving new content, it doesn't bode well for seeing new systems - such as mini-games or guild capital ships - any time soon.
Who are Jeff Hickman and Matthew Bromberg?
According to his LinkedIn profile, Matthew Bromberg joined BioWare Austin in May 2012 and has taken on the role as General Manager for the studio. Up until now we had not heard who would be taking over as GM (beyond Greg Zeschuk taking over temporarily) with the shakeups at the studio going on since Gordon Walton’s departure back in February. Matthew Bromberg’s last venture was Major League Gaming that he grew from being a start up to what it is today.
Jeff Hickman has been working with BioWare Austin for several months as an Executive Producer. He comes from EA's Mythic division, where he was a part of the team that worked on Warhammer Online. With the departure of Rich Vogel, Jeff Hickman is likely to see an increased role on the SWTOR team.