Star Wars: The Old Republic, Free to Play, and the Makeb Expansion

I’ve been playing SWTOR for a year, now. I’ve got four characters at level fifty (the current max) and six more anywhere from baby eleven through thirty. I haven’t yet finished most of the class stories (waiting for that level cap increase) so the end is nowhere in sight for me.

With the conversion to free-to-play for the game, I took a hard look at how I play and how much I would spend on frills and unlocks that BioWare has included in the price of a subscription. Then I considered how the restrictions would affect me.

I came to the conclusions that, with so many alts in mid-story, being restricted to only two would drive me bonkers. Some days I want light sabers. Some days the pew-pew-pew is the only way to go. Hubby and I play some characters together and others are strictly solo and PUGs.

Certainly, it would be cheaper in the short run to go to preferred status, as a then-former subscriber. But, should I take it into my head to go do the flashpoints I’ve never seen (which is most of them) I’d have to buy access with cash.

If I wanted to wear purple gear I’d crafted I’d have to pay for an unlock for that. New species in the Cartel market? Cash out of my pocket. Conveniences I could have bought for credits through my legacy? You literally can’t carry enough credits to pay for most of them. More money from my now-dwindling supply.

I pay BioWare about fourteen dollars a month to play this game. They reward me with 650 cartel coins a month. Since the value of the coins is approximately $1 per hundred I can view that as paying them all of eight dollars a month to play the full game, with access to whatever content I like at any time.

Obviously, people who pay their subs month-to-month get fewer coins and those who don’t have a security fob or smart phone app get fewer still. But the minimum number is 500 coins a month for a $15 subscription. That means the toys in the Cartel market basically come free for subscribers, if you can resist the urge to buy the random packs every few days just to see what pops out of them.

I’ve seen numbers recently that put the total player base of SWTOR as high as three million, these days, which explains the hundreds of people I’ve found on pretty much every planet. From my read of the situation, the move to hybridize the subscriptions with free-to-play was not unexpected nor was it a response to a “dying” game. It was a reason to include the Cartel market and get people to cough up a whole lot more cash than they had been.

If that’s accurate, BioWare and EA made a shrewd assessment of the MMO market and took a successful leap, at least in the short term. Many subscribers brag on the forum how much they’ve spent on packs and gear from the market and one can only guess until the EA’s next reports how much the “free” players have contributed. Despite my intention of spending not one coin until Cathar were released as a playable species, hubby convinced me to pick up a couple of packs because he got such fun toys and great gear in his.

True to the spirit of gambling, the coolest thing I got was a pop-up Imperial banner. We promptly went to Ord Mantell where he dropped his rhythm augmentation droid and I popped the Imperial symbol in the middle of Fort Garnek. We had a great dance party and confused a whole lot of people, I’m sure. It was a good time but not worth real money.

For me, it has made financial sense to remain subscribed. I get access to any of my current characters on a whim and can make dozens more. At this point, that’s all I really want: to keep playing just like I have without paying more. The monthly coin stipend let me pretend it was cheaper than ever, in fact.

With the announcement of the Makeb expansion, however, I’ve come to a quandary. From interviews and other comments I believed that such new content would be made available for purchase via the cartel shop. Thrifty subscribers could pay for the new planet and level cap out of the free coins they had been granted and those who had blown all of theirs would have to buy more to gain access.

Now, however, I’m told that I must hand over ten dollars, cash, to play the new planet and levels. Had I been able to spend my cartel coins on it I wouldn’t have minded even a much higher price. It’s a fairly insignificant amount of money, after all. Anyone who has spent all of their cartel coins, or is free-to-play and doesn’t get a monthly stipend, would have to lay out cash to get more coins to buy the expansion anyway. SWTOR still gets more money from the vast majority of their players.

The issue I have is that my subscription is now worth less than it was. I still have a pile of coins with which to pay for some of those convenience unlocks and now BioWare tells me that they’re not good for anything else. The packs don’t contain anything exciting enough to tempt me to gamble for them and I cannot buy new content with them. So why am I paying for monthly access that I could be getting for free?

As much as I would love to be optimistic about this being a rare occurrence, I fear that the future holds more of the same. How much can they bundle to call it an expansion for which they’ll charge more money? How often will I find them releasing content that I have to pay more to play? We were told that the Cathar skins would appear in the cartel market but now I cannot help but suspect that they might be a cash-only addition, as well, tucked in with operations I’ll never run and war zones I’ll never play as a reason for the separate charge. What about same-gender romance companions?

There’s also the question of server transfers, which have been long promised. Many subscribers have expressed their willingness to pay to consolidate their characters onto a single server. I’ve done so myself, as I have people spread across three servers, as I had before the mergers. I assume BioWare will take us at our word and charge cash for the service, someday, rather than letting me spend cartel coins to do so.

As I said, the ten dollar price tag for the expansion doesn’t faze me. It’s nothing considering what I’ve spent to play to date. The problem comes in my evaluation of the worth of continuing my subscription. If I have to pay for access to the full game anyway I might as well save my cash and use it to unlock only what I use.

Should the Makeb expansion be released in four months I could pay for the expansion and then unsubscribe, saving almost sixty dollars in sub fees to spend on those item unlocks and character slots. I’ll buy access to Cathar because I want more species in the future. I’ll move everyone to a single server as soon as they let me. I’m willing to spend money on SWTOR because I enjoy playing.

I may decide, however, that I’m not willing to cough up the extra cash on top of a monthly subscription for what I consider to be central game features like a level cap. I already paid for the box and a year’s worth of subscription fees. Yes, I have gotten what I’ve paid for, but with the Makeb release that may no longer hold true.

I’ll have to do some math with the unlock coin prices and see how the numbers shake out over the next few months. From the uproar in the SWTOR forum, I’m far from the only one. That, much more than the move to the hybrid free/subscription model, raises concerns about the future of the game.

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