Gameplanet: How long have you been planning the switch to free-to-play, and when did you start working towards it?
Jeff Hickman: The simplest answer is that it’s been in the back of our head for quite some time. Probably even before launched it was questioned: “We’re going to be subscription, but what if?” It also comes in a lot of different flavours: “Should we be a subscription game with a microtransaction store?”
We’ve had that discussion for years. Is free-to-play the right way, or does subscription still have opportunity in the market? So there were a lot of questions and I don’t think we’d be doing our job right if we didn’t ask those types of questions of ourselves all the time.
The decision was made before we launched to give the subscription model a shot. There are benefits to the subscription model, but we knew even then that we would analyse, see where it took us, what it looked like, and play around.
This is what we always do: we look at the data in the game, the things that we know for sure are truth. How many monsters got killed, how long people play. Then we look at the feedback we get from consumers, whether it’s forum posts or emails or through the game itself. Then we compare the two.
As we did that after launch there were two things that became super-obvious. One was that players really do like our game. When we do surveys, people don’t say they don’t like it, generally. What they do say is things like, “I have a really hard time committing and giving you my credit card, and guaranteeing you a $15 a month subscription.” Or they’ll say, “I don’t mind paying for the game, but sometimes I only play two times a month, sometimes I play 10 times a week. I don’t have any way to give you a little this month and a lot next month.”
So that’s one thing: what is the barrier that we’re putting in front of our players or possible players by charging $15 a month?
Then we asked how often we’re giving players new content. You look at what we’ve done since launch, we’ve done some massive [content] patches. I’ve been working on MMOs for a while, I look at the size of the patches and the content we put out, and no one can look at that [and say we’re not creating enough additional content].
Gameplanet: Has the time passed for subscription-only MMOs?
Hickman: Here’s what I think the problem is: you look at the cadence of our content, we did some really quickly after launch, but then it was two and a half months, then it was three months. The players aren’t just looking at it and asking themselves whether they want to pay for it, but this generation of gamers looks at this month or two in between the content updates and asks itself, “What am I paying for?” We would say, “You’re paying for servers to be able to play the game with friends.” But that doesn’t fly very well with the 18-year-olds of today. They just don’t see it that way, and that’s fine.
So we looked at it that way and we got to about the six month mark, which is a mark we set for ourselves and we said, “You know, we can continue doing what we’re doing, it’s not unsuccessful, it’s just not having exactly the right reaction that we wanted to have. So we made the choice in that moment to commit fully to two things: free-to-play with microtransactions, and more frequent content updates. We’re trying to attack what I see as both the core problems in the way that we’ve attacked it before.
Gameplanet: One of the downsides of losing the subscription model is losing a guaranteed income. Does that have an effect on staff headcount, how quickly you’re implementing content, and what content you’re implementing?
Hickman: So first some background: If you look at our expectation, we expect that we’re going to retain most of the subscribers we have, because we have a subscription option. If you look at, historically, the MMOs that have done what we’re planning on doing, like Lord of the Rings Online – they retained the majority of their subscribers when they went free-to-play.
Will we retain the majority? I don’t know, but I know we’re committed to continuing updates for our subscribers. We also feel very strongly that by bringing in the free-to-play players, the opportunity for a significant upside monetarily is there.
So coming at your question sideways: I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for us. It all comes back to being a business: how much are we making? That helps us to staff the team and generate the content. Our plan is to remain stable or grow, not to shrink. We think we can do that. It’s not hubris, we’ve spent months analysing the market and figuring out exactly what we want to do. Who has been successful and why? Who hasn’t, and why? We’re trying to learn as many good things from both of those as we can.
Gameplanet: Has this affected your thinking on future expansions?
Hickman: Absolutely. We’ve completely rethought almost everything about our studio, literally. How the teams are structured, where people sit, what they’re working on and how they’re doing that. Everything from top to bottom – development methodology – team structure. We’ve basically structured the team around the initiatives, and it’s a fairly simple concept, but it wasn’t specifically how we were structured before. Different teams were sharing different things. Now we basically have four main game development teams.
We have a team that’s responsible for periodic content. This is the team that's building our frequent – let’s call it every six weeks – pieces of content. We have a team that’s focused on microtransactions and free-to-play, that’s all they are doing, they are the team that’s going to take us there. Then we have a team that’s called Space, because we believe in space for Star Wars and The Old Republic, it’s an integral part of what we’re doing, and we have some great ideas for the future. Then we have a team basically around continuing our story, and progressing the story for our players. This is where things like [the new planet] Makeb come in.
I think we’re focused in exactly the right way and we’ve made all these changes specifically to get to free-to-play, more frequent updates, and to provide focus to the teams working on these things.