When I sat down with Star Wars: The Old Republic's game director, James Ohlen, at E3 last week, we talked about the free-to-play model and how well it can work for different types of games.
The big question I had for him: can it work for TOR?
Thankfully, free-to-play has become less of a dirty word in recent years. Games like League of Legends and Tribes: Ascend have proven that the free to play model is valuable because it allows players to consume your game on their own terms, not because it punishes anyone unwilling to spend real money to succeed.
When I asked Ohlen about the free-to-play model and how he felt about it personally, he told me, “I think it can work for different games. It really depends on how you go with your game. Games that have been built to be free-to-play from the start definitely work out. Now, there have been games that weren't free to play from the start and transferred over to becoming free to play that have worked as well. But it's definitely not something that's super easy to do.”
The examples Ohlen is likely referencing are Turbine's Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online. Both games were struggling to maintain their subscribers, similar to how The Old Republic is now. Turbine's solution: re-enter a beta phase to retool their games to work under a free-to-play model. When LOTRO and DDO reopened, Turbine reported that their number of active accounts and total subscribers both skyrocketed far beyond what they ever reached as a subscription game.
Dungeons & Dragons Online gained over one million new players in its first five months after reopening as a free-to-play game back in September 2009, with a 500% increase in total revenue. Lord of the Rings Online saw its player base grow by 400% and its profitablility double in only one month.
Is it too early for The Old Republic to be thinking of free-to-play? It's true that Star Wars: The Old Republic has had a rough couple of months, but it's still a top player among subscription-based MMOs, including Rift—whose subscription numbers have been kept private since launch—and Blizzard's World of WarCraft, who holds steady at 10 million at last report.
Late last week, SWTOR's lead designer indicated that free-to-play may be in TOR's future , but it sounds like either Bioware or EA may not be fully on board with that plan yet. The interview on GamesTM was pulled down and EA downplayed the lead designer's comment. Bioware did however announce a little dabbling in the free-to-play space with the addition of a new unlimited-time trial that lets players play all the content up to level 15 for free.