The Free Side of the Force

In February, EA announced that SWTOR had sold 2+ million copies and retained 1.7 million subscribers.  Executives claimed that 500,000 subscribers was the break-even point, and that "At a million, we'd be making a profit but nothing worth writing home about".

In May, they announced that the number was down to 1.3 million.  This was followed by two rounds of layoffs - the first rumored to be 40% of the staff - and mergers of 90% of the game's servers.

On today's conference call, EA described the numbers as below 1 million but "well north of" the 500,000 subscriber break-even point.   It's not clear whether any writing home took place, but they did end the lengthy and unusually public discussion of the game's business model by announcing that it will go free to play sometime around November. 

The Path to the Free Side
Just from the public and not especially hard numbers, we now know that the game has failed to retain over half of its customers and has almost certainly set an all-time record for fastest MMO to lose a million customers (in fairness, partially due to how few games have sold a million copy).  If you make up numbers of 2.1 million total copies sold and 700K current subscribers - which are completely fake but plausible given what we've been told - you're looking at more like two thirds attrition within six months. 

In response, they will be converting the game to a payment model that the studio heads had previously said would not support the scope of their product. Let's be clear, the studio didn't go bankrupt and leave the state of Rhode Island on the hook for a nine-digit bill.  Setting aside the connotations of the word "failure", reasonable people can agree that this was not the outcome that EA had in mind when they ponied up a nine-digit sum of money to have this game made. 

As I wrote last week, the game may be a victim of its times.  Non-subscription payment models are lowering the cost of switching games and may be diminishing the appeal of the repetitive mechanics that previously sustained subscriptions.  It's certainly possible that large numbers of copies were sold to non-MMO players - fans of Star Wars and/or Bioware's single player efforts - who were predisposed against paying a monthly fee.  Even so, the numbers EA cited today are staggering.  If 40% of players who quit cited the subscription on the survey and over a million players have quit, you're talking about potentially hundreds of thousands of votes specifically against the subscription. 

(If memory serves, you're required to complete the survey in order to cancel your subscription, obviously the impact of the number would be greatly reduced if I'm wrong and this step is optional.)

The details are sparse, but the forthcoming SWTOR free to play model appears to be the industry standard for F2P conversions not owned by Turbine - no fees for content or the level cap, with restrictions on quality of life for non-subscribers (races, currencies, etc) and possibly a complete lock-out from endgame group content.  If the game's problem was that players were finishing the game's single player story and then quitting, I fail to see how a payment model that does not charge until players have completed the single player story is going to work out for them. 

While I personally will most likely pay less for SWTOR under the new model, I'm not celebrating.  SWTOR is a quality product, albeit one that may have been especially ill-suited for the subscription model.  The quality and direction of the game's future development, with the reduced staff and revised business model, are likely to suffer. 

More generally, if you are a subscription MMO that has been around for at least a year and you are not named WoW, Eve, Rift, or possibly Final Fantasy (the jury remains out on XIV after it launched so poorly that Square had to decline to charge for an entire year), you're either trying to retrofit a new payment model or abandoned in maintenance mode.  I get that there is more to the current MMO scene than the catastrophes of Copernicus and Prime and the disappointments like SWTOR and DCUO.  Even so, as someone who has very much enjoyed and benefited from playing in an era of multiple high profile MMO's, I can't say that I'm liking the way things are going.