Dr. Ray Muzyka’s presentation for Star Wars: The Old Republic at Electronic Arts’ E3 2012 presentation stank a little. It wasn’t horrible, it just smelled like something just starting to turn at the back of the fridge. Look! We have new races, new planets, new player versus player environments! People are totally still playing! You can even play for free up to level 15, just so you can see how much you’ll like our stories and… please don’t leave. There’s only so much confidence, only so many features you can add, to cover up the fact that you shed 400,000 paying monthly players just months after the game came out. The rot is laying in for The Old Republic.
Which means there’s only one thing to do to turn that under-populated, under-profitable frown upside down: Free-to-play. Boost it up past level 15, make the whole game free, and start charging people adventuring a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away for each fancy new landspeeder and lightsaber they want to buy. It saved Lord of the Rings Online, it can save Star Wars: The Old Republic. In the past, BioWare and EA both have staunchly refused to entertain the notion of a fully free-to-play Old Republic, at least inside this first year of the game’s release. Desperate times tend to change people’s minds though.
Speaking with GamesTM (via Kotaku), The Old Republic’s lead designer Emmanuel Lusinchi said that he and the rest of the team are discussing going full free-to-play. “The MMO market is very dynamic and we need to be dynamic as well. Unless people are happy with what they have, they are constantly demanding updates, new modes, and situations,” said Lusinchi, “So we are looking at free-to-play but I can’t tell you in much detail. We have to be felxible and adapt to what it going on.”
Adaptability is certainly a part of the problem that plagues Electronic Arts’ MMO. Star Wars: The Old Republic was conceived of more than half a decade ago, in a time when World of Warcraft was still a new, growing phenomenon. Blizzard’s MMO seemed to be the monetary realization of Everquest’s promise at the end of the ‘90s. It was a world inviting to millions of players, not just a few hundred thousand, and it was keeping them playing for long periods of time. By the time Star Wars: The Old Republic was out though, WoW was already in decline and free-to-play games were replacing it for millions of players around the world, especially in China, a country MMOs need to be successful on a WoW scale.
Free-to-play would be the best thing to happen to Star Wars at this point. Get people playing, and they’ll spend. If they’re spending, BioWare can tell more stories. Everyone wins.