“Free-to-play… it’s the better business model.” says Mike Donatelli of Carbine Studios, pulling a long face. “Fact. There are no barriers to entry. Pick a forum, any forum, go there and there’ll be people saying ‘ I like the game, I’m just not paying you any money for it.’ And that’s every post… we absolutely acknowledge that the MMO community has evolved past the (subscription) business model.” So, yes, Wildstar will be free-to-play soon.
Wildstar was NCsoft’s attempt to do a smart, lo-fi, fun MMO—a sci-fi WoW, essentially. We loved it, giving it 89% back at launch, but the game has struggled to get (and retain) players. The Carbine team won’t give subscription numbers, but looking at NC’s quarterly reports, the game made less money last year than any of their other games—sub-£30 million if my maths is right—and sales just fell off a cliff.
Donatelli is frank about the studio’s difficulties. “When we came out we had a plan in our head and it became readily apparent that the studio that had been working so hard, so long to make Wildstar was not the same studio we needed to… do all this post-launch stuff.” But the studio hopes free-to-play will reinvigorate the player base.
After all, despite the low uptake, the game has been heavily expanded since launch—with updates happening not along the frankly-unrealistic monthly schedule promised, but at a more leisurely quarterly rate. The Mystery of the Genesis Prime finished the main world storyline and revealed a new threat to the factions, whilst the Protogames PvE dungeons and raid content have been heavily expanded. “I’m not afraid to say that we can continue to do quarterly updates until the cows come home.” says Donatelli.
Of course, that change to free-to-play will necessitate some mechanical changes too. Firstly, the game will have even more currencies, on top of Cred, Gold and convenience tokens, with cosmetic and convenience items up for sale by ‘Omnibits’ or an unnamed real-money currency, but players will be able to grind for these too. There’s also a loyalty programme, so continuing to pay a subscription fee gives you loyalty currency letting you buy gear from the loyalty store.
Also on the loyalty side, there are various free in-game reward packages incoming for players who are subscribing when it goes free-to-play or who have subscribed since the start -presumably to try to hold on to those subscribers until the fall. “There’s a ton of stuff. I don’t know anyone who’s ever done that much stuff.”
Little else will change. Wildstar is the same game it ever was—except this time there might be some real people in the world when you play.