My SWTOR subscription expired last week and I don’t intend to renew it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the game, on the contrary I had a lot of fun playing it and would like to continue playing it. As a long time single player RPG gamer, starting with Might and Magic in the early 90s and going through to just about every Interplay/BioWare game after that (along with a smattering of Euro RPGs like Gothic and The Witcher). SWTOR really stood up as a solid single player RPG game with the MMO trappings to add that extra dimension. In addition to the obvious benefits of being able to group up for heroic quests and the occasional flasphoint or warzone, MMOs for whatever reason seem to do combat mechanics, class/skill balance and loot progression a lot better than single player RPGs. On the RPG and story side of things, SWTOR was a huge cut above what I’ve experienced of the MMO world. Questing in LOTRO unfortunately is just so bland in comparison, I’m looking forward even less to the level 75-85 grind now.

So why did I quit? The fact that I only had one character which was just level 43 after four months of subscription might give you some idea. The basic fact was I don’t have enough time to play it. I raid in LOTRO typically two nights a week (if I’m free) which leaves me with not that much other solid gaming time in between family, work and social commitments. I’d end up playing SWTOR maybe one night a week, and in April I think I played maybe a total of four hours. But SWTOR is very consciously not devoted to people like me. All of their content updates, from end game instances/raids to the all-pervasive legacy system (which seems to assume that the player base has multiple level cap characters of different classes and factions), are devoted to someone that plays SWTOR exclusively and has a lot of time to do so. I realised that I was paying US$15/month to support the constant production of content which I was never likely to experience, because even if I ever hit level cap then half the content they’d shipped would already be obsolete by their more newly released content. It wasn’t so much the financial cost either, it was simply the fact that I don’t like paying for something that I don’t use, it just doesn’t sit well with me. Which brings me to the actual point of this post.

It’s been said many times before, but the real beauty of the F2P model, as implemented in LOTRO, is that it supports a number of different play styles. If you have the time to experience every piece of content that gets shipped then you can stay a sub and just access the core game content continually. But if you like to spread yourself across lots of games, or dip in and out, or if you have a sporadic gaming schedule then you have choices. You pay for landscape content as you go, pay for instance content if you do instances, pay for raids if you raid – or don’t if you don’t. I would love to have the option of casually progressing my way through SWTOR, buying one planet at a time as I progress, and then thinking about buying relevant end game instances if and when I got up to them. But It’s not an option for me so they’re losing my business. In economics, this sort of thing is called price discrimination which sounds like a bad thing, but economists will tell you (and I think they’re right) that it’s actually a win-win. For customers with a higher level of involvement in the game, the company gets potentially even more per month than the old subscription price from those customers and those customers are happy because they get even more additional features (“convenience”/grind skipping, cosmetics etc.) than they would have under the sub model. And for customer with a lower level of involvement, they pay more than they would have in the alternative ($0) but still get to enjoy the parts of the game that they like and again it’s a win-win.

The biggest complaint that you hear about F2P is that it creates an incentive for the company to design the game around the payment model. Add more currencies so people buy your barter wallet, add more grind so people buy your grind-skipping items etc. This argument has some attraction until you realise that the alternative is just as bad, if not worse. If you don’t think that MMO companies have been designing their content around the subscription payment model since day 1 then you’re deluded. A large number of core MMO game design features are there solely to keep players in the game longer and thus continue subscribing, something which is very obvious to me coming from a single player RPG background. I would argue that the primary purpose of all of the following standard MMO features is to support the subscription model:

  • Quests with cooldowns (dailies, weeklies etc.)
  • Limited loot (ie not having the reward drop for everyone in the group, but requiring rolls for it)
  • Currency-based rewards (ie not being rewarded with the whole portion of a piece of loot, but having to work over time towards it)
  • Rep factions which require a grind beyond simply questing in the region
  • Most non-instant travel (including cooldowns on map skills)
  • Quest chains which re-use the same piece of landscape multiple times, or which involve an excessive amount of travel (Vol 1 books 10-15, I’m looking at you)
  • Grind-based crafting levelling

You find hardly any of these features in single player RPGs because single player games aren’t trying to convince you to stick around and play the same piece of content time and time again. Now, certainly some of the above features help promote cooperative, social and multiplayer gameplay but there’s other ways of reaching those goals which don’t just involve time-sinks, which is basically what those features are. So whichever way you cut it, MMOs are going to be designed around their payment model, so it comes down to which payment model is better for the customer. And in my opinion, it’s pretty clear that F2P wins out here, simply for the variety of playstyles and budgets that it supports.

All in all, my recent experiences with SWTOR have definitely confirmed for me the benefits of the subscription model and I feel more and more that it’s the way of the future for MMOs.