In the last episode of Burton and Scrooge, resident “scrooge” Brian was talking about getting back into Star Wars: The Old Republic now that the latest expansion has dropped. I’ve played SWTOR very briefly in the past as a free-to-play player, and enjoyed it quite a bit. My frustration with the game was purely technical, as every 2nd time I booted the game launcher, it would go through a “reorganizing data” phase which lasted upwards of three hours. I tried a few Internet fixes, none of which worked, and eventually decided that a free game that only worked 50% of the time was not as appealing as other options. It’s an unfortunate situation when you’ve got a great game, but you can’t get out of your own way to be able to deliver it to a potential customer!
Anyway, to hear Brian tell it, a player is now able to subscribe to SWTOR for a month and receive “everything” for the rest of eternity, even after the subscription has lapsed. This sounded like an appealing option to me – almost like a buy-to-play situation where you could “buy” all previous content with a $15 subscription once a year or at whatever frequency you desire. One problem, though. I’m still not completely clear what the “everything” is that you get! I know you get all of the content from the expansion packs, but what else? As much as I like the free/premium/sub business model from the perspective of player choice, I admit that it is also one of the most convoluted and confusing ways to offer an MMO. Just take the table below, for example. This is the marketing slide comparing the differences in the three tiers. We all know marketing slides are always sufficiently dumbed-down to the simplest possible presentation so they can be easily understood at a glance. Can you imagine what this was dumbed-down from? The original business-model presentation as approved by Bioware brass must have been 50 pages long!
After studying the table above, I still had plenty of questions. When my subscription lapses, do I fall back into the “Free” category or does a sub count as a purchase, bumping me up into the “premium” category? Or does the premium category require an actual cash store purchase? Does a subscriber get a stipend of points each month? And what’s with the half circles? And the 1/3rd circles? Can a free player only sprint 1/2 as fast as a subscriber? What does it look like to be able to equip only 1/3 of an item? PC load letter? What the #$%$ does that mean???
Horrendously complex and limiting business model aside, the game itself is every bit as fun as I remembered (up to my highest level of experience, anyway – level 13!). I love having dialog options for my character, even if the actual story isn’t influenced by them. The light side/dark side mechanic based on your NPC interactions gives the constant feeling of character development, which is something most MMO’s can’t offer. Character progression, yes, but character development, not so much. It also gives extra weight to the questing, I think. I actually feel like I’m helping to save so-and-so’s farm, not just killing ten womp rats (even though I am, in fact, just killing ten womp rats). I imagine this feeling wanes during subsequent play-throughs, but luckily there are several different class stories to enhance replayability and provide variety.
Happily, Bioware seems to have figured out how to keep their data organized, as well! I haven’t had the technical issues with the new launcher that I saw constantly with the old. Which is a good thing, because between Marvel Heroes, Shadow of Mordor, and dabbling in LOTRO here and there, I’ve got no time for a game that doesn’t launch when I click on the icon. There are simply too many other enticing gaming options out there to have that type of patience.
The game has seen a stat revamp via its latest update. Instead of specialized stats for individual class types, all characters now use a stat called “mastery” to enhance their skill. Hard core RPG fans may find this appalling, but for someone who hops between several different games this is a welcome change. If I have to memorize one more set of arbitrary stats, I’m going to gouge my eye out with a controller. One of the new, ergonomically friendly ones, too – not the NES ones that sliced into your palms no matter how you held them.
I’ve gotten this far into a SWTOR post and not even mentioned the most obvious draw: it’s Star Wars. As has been my MO, I gravitate towards games with a known IP that I don’t have to learn along the way. My current stable of games includes lore from Marvel, Lord of the Rings, and now Star Wars, all universes that I already understand and enjoy. It’s also nice that my kids can play this game for free, and we can share experiences and discoveries. Locowolf has been enjoying his sith marauder quite a bit, and was nearly overcome with emotion when he learned that he had earned his own star ship. Have you ever seen a 14 year old boy overcome with emotion? It’s a pretty rare sight, but with Star Wars, it’s possible.
The plan at this point is to continue to play SWTOR sparingly until I can finish up Shadow of Mordor, then perhaps it will become the next MMO I spend significant time in while popping into Marvel Heroes for my quick ARPG fixes. But it’s tough to tell. Hybrid payment models are complex, attention is fleeting, and time is limited.