Interview: BioWare's new republic
30th Aug 2012 | 09:51
It was a producer at another EA-owned studio, Playfish, who once told me the golden rule of free-to-play is that you design the payment model and the content at the same time. Building a free-to-play game and then trying to figure out how to monetise it, he told me, is like organising a house party and inviting your friends at the last minute.
But EA studio BioWare Austin is attempting to prove the theory wrong. It has, in an act of desperation or perhaps opportunism, rebuilt its Star Wars subscription MMO as a free-to-play title.
The Old Republic, which peaked at 1.7 million users and now holds less than a million some nine months since its launch, has adopted a fairly unique hybrid model. Those with a curiosity for the acclaimed game can play it all for free. Others who are obsessed can still pay for a subscription.
Such drastic changes represent an almighty balancing act for BioWare Austin. The responsibility for this falls on Matthew Bromberg, who recently took over as general manager at the studio (co-founder Greg Zeschuk is now working on other unknown projects at EA).
In an interview with CVG, Bromberg discusses the challenges and opportunities that come with reinventing the Start Wars MMO.
CVG: How was the decision reached to make The Old Republic a free-to-play game?
BROMBERG: We looked at where the market opportunity was, and it seemed clear to us that a game as big and broad as Star Wars was well suited for the free-to-play model.
Yes but what factors did you bring together? What was the context?
Well we looked at it and thought, what is the size of opportunity for your brand? There are tens of millions of Star Wars fans, how many have tried our game? How many would like to try it? Clearly the awareness of the brand is really high so what's standing in the way? We did a lot of research and found that people who gave it a try but left found the subscription to be the biggest barrier. So it was a pretty straightforward decision for us.
Certainly it's a straightforward decision on how to make a game more popular, but is it so straightforward in terms of monetisation? Is there not a risk that your existing paid subscribers will lurch to the free edition?
Yes there is that risk, but we feel our existing subscribers see the value in the premium experience we are offering. We want to keep that full experience for them.
One thing we're doing is rewarding subscribers with in-game currency for all the time that they've been subscribers, and lapsed subscribers will have currency for the time they were there, which offers them a reward for coming back.
So our subscribers are going to be advantaged in this world, and from the feedback we've got from our subscribers they seem to be happy with it.
But it's not just about how we are charging people for the experience; we are also looking at creating very frequent content updates as well.
I also wanted to know how LucasArts was involved because obviously it holds the licence and therefore gets a royalty on subscriptions. How involved was the license holder in changing the direction of The Old Republic?
I'm not at liberty to discuss the nature of the business partnership we have with LucasArts. I can tell you that they are very involved in everything we do.
It must be a remarkably complex task to price all the in-game items. You can't, for example, allow free players to buy all premium must-have items for a sum cheaper than a monthly subscription. I imagine there's hundreds of such problems you have to avoid.
Yes absolutely. Games are certainly an interesting mixture of art and science. In-game economies are hugely complex, and with all the will in the world you'll never get them completely right.
However, the great thing about online is you get feedback every day and an opportunity to tweak things every day.
Do you think you'll make more money converting to this model?
I don't know.
Well, what is the objective?
Obviously we are a business and we have to grow that business, but my primary intention is to make as many people play this beautiful game that we've made. It just so happens that the business will naturally grow as more people come to play the game, but we're not trying to squeeze every single penny out of it.
Do you feel there is opportunity to increase the subscription base?
Well there are lots of Star Wars fans out there, but really I don't know what to expect. A lot of other games that have moved from subscription to hybrid haven't lost as many customers as you might think, in fact a lot of them have gained subscribers.
But you must be preparing because this is as much about server capacities as it is about showing investors your numbers.
So there must be some kind of internal target or guideline.
Yeah there is but I can't say what it is. But also because I'm not sure. You have to plan for this but you can never be sure. We do think the numbers will grow steadily but we're not looking for some enormous surge on day one.
Generally speaking, what do you think the future holds for the paid subscription model?
I think it's different for every game. In general it appears that most MMOs are moving in the free-to-play direction, but I still think there's an opportunity still for some more specialist MMOs.