With Knights of the Fallen Empire, the latest expansion for SWTOR, Bioware tried something different, and right now I'm not talking about all the gameplay changes I applauded back when it first hit in October. The game is in a better place than it was. Now it has to keep improving.
Though KOTFE did technically release that month, it wasn't complete then. It's not complete now. It won't be complete until at least August, when the final story episode hits. Adopting this episodic structure was clearly intended as a means to retain players — and subscribers in particular, since you have to be subscribed to have access to the expansion episodes. Yes, The Old Republic is free-to-play, but subscribing is still the best way to do SWTOR as a player.
The last few months have been a bit tiring, though. The first new episode since October is still a month away, and the in-between grind is not so fully formed as we'd have hoped. There's only one new four-person dungeon (with six versions that feature not-meaningful variations), and no raids. Sure, you can hit the new level 65 versions of old raids and four-person dungeons that are part of defunct storylines and which anybody who would do raids and dungeons probably already did a million times already.
You can grind old planetary heroic missions to upgrade your rebellion against the conquering Eternal Empire, though it's not clear if there are any story reasons to do so — or consequences for not doing so.
From February, Bioware has said they will be releasing one episode a month (there are six remaining), which should dull the pain a little. We don't know what, if any, changes to the in-between grind they will be making along the way. We don't know how substantial each episode will be (the nine released in October were about an hour or so each).
We do know they really, really want you to stay subscribed through August. Bioware has set up a tiered reward system to give you stuff for being subbed on specific dates as well as ranges of dates. If you're subscribed on January 11, you get HK-55 returned to you as a companion. If you're subbed on February 1 you get HK's jetpack for yourself. If you're subbed from January 11 to August 1 continuously you'll get a bonus chapter in which you play as HK-55.
Extra story content locked behind seven months of subscription time (that's $US105 ($151)) is devious but that's why it's a pretty good carrot to dangle. But it feels safe to assume either that the HK-55 chapter either won't have much substance or will be unlocked for everyone later because permanently locking out everyone who isn't subscribed tomorrow would almost certainly be a major point of contention among players down the road.
And if the other monthly chapter updates aren't particularly substantial it's going to be hard for a lot of us to justify paying every month instead of waiting until they all hit in August and going through them all at once. We need more reasons to play in the moment than just promises of rewards down the line.
How Bioware goes about this is going to be crucial as 2016 progresses. Because while players unsubscribing and forgetting about SWTOR until the next expansion is one thing, players feeling forced to subscribe for a long stretch even though they didn't really want to or feel like it was worth it would probably be worse in the long term. And if the rest of the time between episodes are like the last couple months, there are gonna be a lot of folks who come out bitter about that monetary investment.
The Knights of the Fallen Empire launch and the 4.0 update were huge strides for the game. Now Bioware has to maintain that positive momentum.