Digital Tabletop: Free to Play is not a Death Sentence

A lot has been made of Star Wars The Old Republic going free to play. The forums there are abuzz with what some vocal players and some of the media are considering the death knell of the game. “Free to play people will bring down the experience! Shopping for things in a store with real cash will destroy the game!” The list goes on and on and on. And it’s utter crap. There’s precedent set by other companies by offering a pay to play and free option side by side. They can co-exist, and even flourish together. Here’s why.

When Dungeons and Dragons Online went free to play back in 2009, Turbine was looking to turn what was basically an MMO on life support around and give it a nice jump start and see where it could take them. I didn’t play the game until it did go free to play, but I’ve gone back and read the forums and talked to the “Ëœold guard’ about the state of the game at the time. Most of the servers were ghost towns, there was a long dry spell with no content, basically the game had gone stale and no one was hanging around to play much anymore. Then they started testing a free to play option with a store where you could buy questing items, character boosts, and quest packs that contained all their updates since the game launched. There was a panic and uproar over what going free to play would do to the game. Turbine was smart about it with DDO and pressed on. It went live giving people two character slots for free and all the content the game shipped with originally up to level ten, which is still a substantial amount of content for free, and then the ability to unlock quests from their updates as packs on the store. You could even grind out the points to unlock the packs if you chose to do so, including upping how many character slots you got and other nice perks that people who were paying the monthly fee got with their monthly or you could go Premium and buy the points to unlock things without grinding all those points out and get a few perks for going Premium over free.

Suddenly there was a massive influx of players. So many players that instead of closing servers and consolidating, they had to open up a new server and tried to encourage new people to create characters there to control the flood. In just a few short months, Dungeons and Dragons Online went from a game on life support to a thriving MMO flush with new and old players, a thriving community and regular content updates. You could really see it as this version launched next to the Codemasters version that was running in Europe. DDO’s relaunch in the U.S. with free to play coincided with a new content update and a raise of the level cap, an update the Codemasters version wouldn’t see for almost a year after its release on Turbine’s version and after that, nothing. The European pay version was eventually shuttered and Turbine took over sometime after moving the European players over to their servers. While there’s still some moaning and groaning and even griefing by the old guard in DDO, most players realize that going free to play saved the game they loved to play and kick-started a rush of regular content updates, some of which were free, but most you buy to play, unless you’re paying that monthly fee as a VIP.

The approach they took in DDO worked so well, Turbine decided to turn it to their other major MMO, Lord of the Rings Online. The execution is slightly different, and it’s much harder to grind out Turbine Points in LOTRO as it’s achievement based (kill x amount of critters, use this skill so many times) instead of quest based (run x quest on hardest difficulty for most favor which helps unlock more points). Much of LOTRO‘s game world is wide open for players to get into. It’s a little easier to pick and choose which areas you want to buy to play in and there are leveling guides out there for free players so they know what areas are the best bang for their buck and what to avoid. This prompted Turbine to actually go in and revamp one of their areas and actually made it go from a meh status for most players to a must have for the free and premium players as the gear and experience in the area made it all worth the price of admission.

LOTRO‘s change over was not without its griefers either. It actually took a bit of work for my wife and I to find a guild that didn’t mind we were coming in as free/premium players when we were giving that a go and buying the content as needed instead of going VIP, Turbine’s name for their players in DDO and LOTRO who pay the monthly fee for full access and perks. Overall though, if you’re paying the monthly fee for LOTRO your experience is the same as if you were paying it before. You still have to buy the expansions, regular content updates are free, but now you get a monthly bonus of points to spend for gear perks in the LOTRO store. It works the same in Dungeons and Dragons Online. Even with the free monthly points, I’ve found that lots of people who pay for VIP will actually buy more points on top of that to get little perks like armor kits or questing items that they’ve already blown through their monthly allotment on.

Star Trek Online has basically gone the same way as LOTRO, but seems to be even more reliant on people buying gear and trinkets from the store than LOTRO is. Star Trek Online doesn’t seem to get updated as much by Cryptic as Turbine does for LOTRO or DDO, which I think is hurting them in the long run. You can pretty much expect a new bit of content to run through every 3 or 4 months in DDO and LOTRO, just enough time to run all your toons through a bunch of times to get all the new gear before the next content hits. Star Trek Online has been more reliant on their Foundry and fan created content which has been problematic as the Foundry is down more often than it’s up from what I’ve seen.

Now with Star Wars The Old Republic, I can see them going more the LOTRO or STO route than the DDO route, and I’m hoping with regular updates every few months. The bulk of the game is already out there. So make any new stuff coming down free to your monthly crowd, and then give a pay option for those people playing free to play. Then throw in a bunch of cosmetics that people actually want to buy, timed bonuses for questing, unlocks you can spend points on for your Legacy tree instead of forking over that million or two of in game credits for an unlock. There’s potential there and the best part of that is, as a free player you’d never have to touch it, but the option is always there. This isn’t a death knell, this is something that the game should have launched with, in my opinion. I made mention of Free to Play becoming the new standard for MMOs last year, and it really is. It’s actually the reason I’m not playing TERA right now. I’m paying monthly for access to Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Paying for a third game is not really an option for me right now even though I thought TERA had some good stuff to offer.

Will I keep paying for The Old Republic? That really depends on what rewards you get for that monthly fee other than credits in their shop. Dungeons and Dragons Online give VIP players the option to open quests on their hardest difficulty which not only gives out the best rewards points wise, but also experience wise which is a big boon if you’re running your character through a second or third life and need all that extra experience to level up to cap. On top of that there’s a rumor I heard of VIP players being able to run faster through town areas as well. They also get access to a shared bank between characters, lots of extra character slots, and so on. Given how much I play Dungeons and Dragons Online with my wife, that’s a nice bonus. I think this will be a good thing for Star Wars The Old Republic. People who have balked at the price tag get in for free and you get a better taste of the game, as honestly, playing to fifteen barely gets you through your starter areas and home world which are learning areas and aren’t necessarily the meat of SWTOR but set a few things up and teach you the basics. I’m curious how they’ll deal with it but either way I’ll still be enjoying the game and more people to play with and against won’t hurt anyone.


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