Star Wars: The Old Republic's free to play option will be fully armed and operational by next week, launching worldwide on Thursday the 15th of November. It's arriving as part of the MMO's Update 1.5, which also includes a new area, new quests, and a new companion character - HK-51, a successor to Knights of the Old Republic's fan-favourite murderbot.
The restrictions on players who opt not to pay range from content limitations - the amount of Flashpoints, Operations, Warzones and Space Missions you can do - to convenience and customization features. Free accounts by default are limited to two action bars, cannot use Artifact (purple) items or better, and can't display titles or a Legacy surname. Even the option to hide your character's head slot - useful, given SWTOR's propensity for deeply silly hats - is a premium unlockable. That's right: where most free to play games are desperate to sell you a hat, The Old Republic will be the game where you pay to take your hat off.
The action bar restriction seems strict, given the amount of abilities the average SWTOR character picks up as they progress. The limitation has actually been relaxed as part of the update's public testing process - originally, free players only had a single bar to work with - but producer Blaine Christine believes that the current level represents a reasonable middle ground. "We feel like it is certainly possible for people to play and enjoy the game all the way to level fifty with two quickslot bars," Christine says. "That said, if you want more than two you'll need to purchase your way out of that limitation. We understand some of the concern around that but hopefully by the time you get to the point where you need three or four quickslot bars... hopefully you're invested enough to pay the roughly $1 to purchase another quickslot bar."
There have also been changes to the way free players will access Flashpoints and Warzones. According to Christine, the restriction on PvP Warzones was deemed to be too harsh and has been increased from three weekly matches to five. Similarly, Flashpoints are such a central part of the social life of the game that limiting access to them counteracts one of the core reasons for the free to play transition - namely, to increase the amount of players available for exactly this kind of content. For that reason, free players will be able to do an unlimited number of Flashpoints but will only be able to claim boss loot for their first three runs in a given week. Weekly licenses can be bought to lift this restriction, and these are in-game, giftable items: Christine anticipates a scenario where subscribers use a slice of their Cartel Coins (SWTOR's new microtransaction currency) to purchase licenses for their friends.
Subscribers won't need to deal with any of these restrictions, however, and will receive new content and an allowance of Cartel Coins as part of their monthly fee. The limitations of the free mode does raise questions, however, for lapsed SWTOR players - those looking to jump back into the game but who aren't necessarily keen to pay. Returning to find your UI setup hamstrung and your character locked out of equipment you've already earned could be frustrating. For that reason, BioWare are granting all returning players 'preferred' status within the free to play system. This means that you'll be able to use any of the equipment already in your possession when free to play launches, although new drops will locked off as they would be for any other non-paying player. Preferred players will also bypass the chat, mail and trade network restrictions applied to free accounts. It's also worth noting that preferred status will be granted to any account that spends more than $4.99 on SWTOR after the update goes live.
BioWare and EA have been unwilling to tell us exactly what the conversion rate between Cartel Coins and real money actually is. This makes it impossible at this stage to gauge the value of any of the items available in the store, or the value of buying the various content passes versus simply stumping for a subscription. We would have preferred the developers to disclose this information much, much sooner - hopefully the long silence is down to a marketing misstep and not a deliberate attempt to avoid a serious assessment of the game's initial free to play offering. In either case, it warrants a healthy amount of skepticism.
As for the store itself, the majority of its offering is split between purchasable items - such as pets, vehicles and armour kits - and 'packs', which are essentially random loot chests containing crafting materials, consumable XP boosters, companion gifts and unique equipment and customisation items. Below, you'll find a video going through a few of the items we've found on the public test server. Highlights include an invisible piece of chest armour that allows you to slot modifications directly into your character's rippling abs, a pink speeder, an ugly bat of some kind, a holographic Rancor, and the ability to freeze yourself in carbonite to regain all of your health.
At the end of the video you'll notice that I've kitted out my operative in full Jedi Guardian armour. As part of this update, it's possible to equip Cartel-bought armour regardless of type, class, or faction. The stated aim is to increase the player's creative options, although there's a clear risk of the visual identity of each class being lost. I asked Blaine Christine whether or not this was considered to be a problem. "That was a concern with some factions here in the studio," Christine says, "but ultimately it just came down to giving players as much freedom as we possibly can... we would rather err on the side of giving players more options."
Items received in this way are bound to your character for a limited period, after which they can be freely sold on the Galactic Trade Network. It remains to be seen what impact this has on the economy, particularly the price of rare speeders.
Personally - as someone with a history in Star Wars online roleplaying communities - not very much of what I've seen in the store particularly appeals to me. It's Star Wars as theme park, rather than Star Wars as believable universe. When Han was being loaded into the carbonite freezing chamber in the movies, he wasn't expecting to pop out fully healed in a couple of seconds. It's a fun novelty, but that's all it is - talking to the press yesterday, Blaine noted that the chamber "not only looks cool, and reminds us of the movies, but has a benefit to players." Honestly? I'd be more strongly reminded of the movies if it didn't have a benefit to the player - and ideally, I'd rather not be reminded of the movies at all. I'd like to be reminded of the world I'm ostensibly part of. That's a personal objection, however, and this content is not only optional but locked away behind a paywall.
"We're just very excited to be getting more folks into the game," Christine concludes. "The net result that you should see, for subscribers, is they should only get benefits out of this. Their experience is not really going to change other than the fact that they're going to get free Cartel Coins via our rewards program which is a great thing for them as they don't need to spend a dime over what they currently do. Then we're opening the game to a whole other group of players that really wants to get in and play the game and, for subscribers, that should also be a benefit because they're going to see group finder popping with more regularity than it does now."
If moving to free to play repopulates The Old Republic's rather sparse servers then, the hope seems to go, subscribers will embrace the presence of a gold premium store icon at the top of their screens. If it allows BioWare to continue expanding the game and building upon the solid narrative foundation in place, then all the better. As it is, SWTOR's free to play offering is restrictive in some ways but ultimately gives access to a fairly mind-boggling amount of story content for absolutely nothing: as demo versions go, it's incredibly generous. At its best, The Old Republic features some of the best Star Wars storytelling BioWare have done: the Imperial Agent storyline is a belter, but every class has its highlights. If you missed it the first time around, it's worth checking out for that reason alone. For those of us thinking of returning, however, the question is harder: is the new content worth returning for? And if so, do you hook up the direct debit once again - or do you brave life as a member of The Old Republic's brand new and burgeoning underclass?