EA has decided to switch Star Wars: The Old Republic to a free-to-play business model due to dwindling subscriber numbers. Some saw this as a sign that subscription-based MMOs are no longer feasible. However, the fact of the matter is that Old Republic simply wasn't going to work as a pay-per-month game.
What really sets Old Republic apart from competing MMOs is how story-driven it is. Each character class has a different main quest line that roughly runs from level 1 to 50 (the current cap). The player recruits a colorful cast of companions, faces equally memorable foes, and makes a series of difficult moral decisions. Ultimately they rise from humble beginnings to become, say, the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy or the most wanted bounty hunter. In other words, Old Republic is a quintessential BioWare RPG at its core. The company’s signature ability to craft a choice-laden, character-driven narrative is on full display here.
The problem is that this epic quest ends. The player has killed his main nemesis, saved the galaxy and…now what? An NPC tells them to do daily quests, engage in player-versus-player, or join with other players to do Operations (“raids” in other MMOs”) or Flashpoints (“dungeons). There are no more story missions to pursue. It’s like the player’s been unceremoniously dumped into an entirely different game.
This new game is a very average MMO. The Operations have some interesting boss fights but there’s not enough content to keep serious raiders busy; most of the learning curve for each fight is simply adapt to strange bugs. The Flashpoints are more challenging and fun than the Operations but there’s little reason to run them more than once because they give crappier gear than the latter. Furthermore, the Operations are tuned in such a way that you don’t need to farm up Flashpoints for gear before you start them. The daily quests take too long to reach so they feel like busy work rather than a fun part of your gaming routine. The player-versus-player Warzones, meanwhile, have the same flag-running and territory-capturing that you’ve seen in any other MMO with PvP.
A player who doesn’t like the end-game options for Old Republic could just roll a new character. There are eight different classes in the game so that’s eight different BioWare-caliber stories to play through. Unfortunately, though, there’s a lot of shared content between different classes. For every unique class quest you complete, there’s maybe three or four quests designed for all classes. While my Sith Assassin’s storyline was a nice change from my Bounty Hunter’s, the thought of slogging through Nar Shaddaa’s quests again removed all enthusiasm.
Still, let’s assume someone played through all eight class quests. What incentive do they have to keep paying a monthly fee? Keep in mind how many players came to Old Republic as fans of the single-player Knights of the Old Republic games or BioWare’s other RPGs. In their mind, they’ve finished the best part of the game. Why should they cough up subscription money so they can have access to the shakier, more pedestrian features? The main selling point of the game, the story-driven quests crafted by BioWare, are sadly the most finite part.
Could Old Republic have worked as a subscription MMO? Maybe, if the game was offering up a steady stream of new class quests for players to undertake. I don’t know if it would’ve been possible to create scripted, voice-acted content quickly enough to keep subscribers busy. Still, BioWare could’ve at least tried. They haven’t released a single additional class quest since the game’s launch.
As I mentioned in a rant last month, I think subscriptions can still work with MMOs. There is nothing inherently wrong with monthly fees for video games. The problem Old Republic faced was that it’s ultimately a single-player RPG at its heart, and no one’s going to pay a subscription for a game after they’ve beaten it.