DC Universe Online's done it. Team Fortress 2's done it. World of Warcraft's done it (sort of). 2011's seen some of the biggest most ambitious massively multiplayer online game abandon the subscription-based business model and go free-to-play. Valve's shift to an F2P model takes advantage of a game already chock full of microtransaction content. And, in the case of DCUO, Sony Online Entertainment's been rewarded with an exponential increase in their player base. There's apparently plenty of upside in very big games going to F2P. So why is the freshly-launched Star Wars: The Old Republic charging a monthly free to engage in its online adventures?
"We think we've built a premium experience with The Old Republic," answers BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk. "We're launching with 19 huge worlds, and hours and hours of story and content to explore. And we're going to be adding to that for months to come," adds co-founder Ray Muzyka. Zeschuk argues that, despite Blizzard's decision to offer the first 20 levels of World of Warcraft as free-to-play, it's still subscriptions that power the game. WoW pricing's plans and those for the Old Republic match exactly: $US14.99 per month for a month-to-month recurring subscription, $US13.99 per month for a 3-month recurring subscription and $US12.99 per month for a 6-month recurring subscription.
The argument they're making is that TOR is a big-budget, broad appeal online experience built on an entertainment franchise that's captivated millions for decades. It's not the kind of thing that you offer gratis.
But, more than any economic realities surrounding MMO games, the partners say that a free-to-play model may not necessarily be a good fit for a game that switches to a no-subscription template. "Free-to-play works best when a game is built that way from the ground up," offer Zeschuk. "It affects the way you build the experience, how much time and detail you put into content and how you roll out and update." So, if Zeschuk knows all of this, could he or his partner envision The Old Republic making a move like DCUO or TF2 did? "We're not saying never ever, but we certainly have no plans like that in the foreseeable future. We're going to support the game to make it better and better as it goes on. It's going to be worth showing up for."
So there you have it. Muzyka and Zeschuk think that they and their compatriots have made a game that merits your $US15 a month. Now, of course, they need to prove it.