Changes and challenges lay ahead in a galaxy far, far away.
I can't really say that this has come as a huge shock, given that there's been rumblings regarding this potential change for quite some time. As of the first of this month though EA decided to make it official and announce that Star Wars: The Old Republic is going free to play ... sort of.
According to their announcement, SWTOR will be free to play up to level fifty, which I believe is the current level cap. However, they mention that "you have the option to play free to Level 50, with game play
restrictions that limit game options and access to certain game content" currently there is no word on what these restrictions and limits will be, only that they will apply to the free to play users.
People can also keep paying to play, which allows unlimited access to all the content and also now grants an income of new currency called "Cartel Coins". These coins will be used for "convenience items, boosts, visually unique gear, collectibles, and more.
The new Cartel Market gives you the option to add to your game play
experience with items that fit your play style and allow you to
customize your character." Anyone who has been subscribing already will receive retroactive currency for their months subscribed, and it can be assumed that the monthly allotment will continue for people that choose to keep paying.
The move to a free to play vs. freemium set up was no doubt motivated in part due to the fact that a lot of people simply aren't sticking around anymore. SWTOR has lost a great deal of its subscribers. I can't find exact numbers, but this Game Politics article that talks about the decision states that, "the subscription numbers for the MMO developed by BioWare had fallen well below one million registered users." The highest level of subscribers that I can find is 1.7 million earlier this year, after which the game started losing players at a disheartening pace.
The decision to allow people to play without paying may very well bring some people back and also entice some people who may not have tried it otherwise, which will bolster the numbers for at least a little while. However, it's worth noting that there will be a lot of challenges with this change, especially since both free to play and a more freemium like subscription service.
There's probably going to be a massive influx of new users when the free to play option goes live, and while it isn't generally good to lump a group together as completely undesirable element past history has shown that it's unfortunately exactly what tends to happen. Some of the incoming players aren't going to bother to learn the ins-and-outs, and some will simply be petulant children that expect handouts simply for showing up. I'm not saying that these users will be indicative of the whole, but they are the ones that players who were around before the change will mention and rally against.
This backlash will unfortunately also likely extend to free to play people who are legitimately interested in the game, who will have to fight against the doubts of the more entrenched members of the community in order to gain any sort of presence therein.
On the flipside, there's also going to be the issue of keeping those currently paying interested in doing so. The content gates will have to be carefully managed, and the currency for subscribers will have to be balanced so that it provides them with motivation to keep putting money into the game without completely blowing all access items out of the water.
Like the Force, this thing is going to be difficult to balance, but not impossible. We'll have to see how EA handles it, and whether this can help rejuvenate the franchise beyond a wave of people who might try it out of curiosity only to drop it after a couple of weeks when they find that it's not what they were looking for, or worse, that the community was completely impenetrable to them.