How Free-to-play Saved Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare Austin game director James Ohlen has given a talk at this year's GDC on how free-to-play "saved" The Old Republic, and Massively has been gracious enough to transcribe the salient points for those of us who weren't able to attend. Here's a snip:
As I listened to Ohlen's presentation, I was surprised to hear him admit to some of the mistakes the developers made when creating the game. But Ohlen explained that those mistakes were not completely unseen. "One of our concerns was about the elder game," he conceded. "It wasn't developed as much as we would have liked. It didn't have as many operations -- our versions of raids -- as we'd have liked. We didn't have some important social features such as a group finder to make finding groups at the elder game easier. We were also notably lacking on some guild features." He confided that the public testing was not as robust as the development team might have wanted. However, these challenges could have been dealt with had another misjudgment not been made.

Based on BioWare's pre-launch metrics, the team expected players to get through the content in three or four months. This assessment might seem obviously wrong to an experienced MMO player, but we are talking about a game with extensive voiceover and literally thousands of cinematic cutscenes adding up to about 170 to 180 hours of content. So the devs anticipated that TOR would take more consecutive days to complete than the average MMO. But according to BioWare's metrics, players were tearing through the content an average of 40 hours a week; some players spent more than 120 hours a week in the game. "Within four and five weeks, we suddenly had close to a half a million people at the endgame," Ohlen said. "It was something we didn't expect at all." Players were unsatisfied and began to exit the game.


How did BioWare tackle F2P development? "We had to come up with a system that made subscribers the core of the business," Ohlen explained. "But we also had to have an option that brought in new players." According to Ohlen, SWTOR was designed to be a subscription-based game, so any F2P option needed to still effectively support the service the way a sub game would. The most successful compensation came in the form of Cartel Packs. In the style of trading card games, these packs would give players random items that they could use in game. And just as in any good TCG, the items in the Cartel Packs could be traded with other players -- this time on in-game auction house, the galactic trade network.

When free-to-play launched in November, it "blew all expectations out of the water," said Ohlen. Subscriptions started going up again. Concurrent players on the servers went way up. Both of those statistics continue to rise. As Ohlen put it, TOR is the second biggest subscription MMORPG in the western world, it has had two million new accounts since the F2P launch, thousands of new players try out the game everyday, and TOR is one of the largest microtransaction money-makers for publisher EA.