I had been thinking about writing a blog post predicting that Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) subscriptions were at risk of falling like my previous post Are WOW Subscriptions About To Crater. Electronic Arts (EA) just seemed to be doing everything it could to boost or retain subscribers, yet every time I logged in, I saw fewer and fewer players online (even across multiple servers). Then yesterday, came news that SWTOR subscriptions had dropped by a quarter. They declined from 1.7 million to 1.3 million. I want to look at EA's moves over the past few months and discuss what this means for subscription and Free-to-Play (F2P) models.
SWTOR started off with a blast hitting 1 million subscribers within three days of launch. Then, just six weeks later on February 1st, SWTOR hit 1.7 million subscribers. It seemed like SWTOR was off to the races and could do no wrong. A month later on March 1st, SWTOR opened to the Asia / Pacific region. Then, on March 13, a strange thing happened to the hyperdrive. They started letting people play whole weekends for free. They continued these weekend passes for about a month. Then, they greatly increased the friends trial so that you could invite up to 25 people to the game free for seven days. Previously, you could only invite three. Next, with the release of game update 1.2 in mid-April, they gave away 30 days of game time to dedicated players. These moves look like a company trying desperately to boost and retain their player base.
Then an analyst published a report suggesting that SWTOR subscribers are falling. This prompted EA to speak out through various game articles about the game here and here. But, there was no mention of their subscriptions possibly dropping by a quarter. Until yesterday. What could be going on?
You see a lot of reasons for SWTOR's declining subscriptions: the end-game is weak, the gameplay is too derivative (e.g., WOW with lightsabers), weak PvP, lack of mature MMO features, etc. All of these are possible factors. However, a big one is how fast you can get to max level. Players can achieve max level in the fraction of the time it typically takes in other MMOs. If there is any weakness in the end game content, players will start leaving once they are done. If they had slowed down the leveling, they would have had more time to devote to the end game before players started leaving. Another big factor is the F2P phenomena.
Much like I expect WOW subscribers to drop, I also expect SWTOR subscribers to continue to decline as well. Because EA charges to start playing the game and then charges a subscription to continue playing the game, they have created a very expensive game. Given the current state of the economy and given the amount of choice in the market today due to the F2P model, not everyone is going to want to pay what EA is charging for SWTOR. It goes right back to why the F2P model works so well. F2P lets the player decide how much he is willing to spend on your game. Many will spend nothing, some will spend a little and some will spend a lot. When you charge for the game and charge for a subscription, you are expensive. You will have fewer customers. If WOW was released today, given the economy and given the plethora of F2P games, I don't think it could have hit 10 million subscribers. It is not that subscriptions are dead. For example, Eve Online still has subscriptions. But, they have roughly 450,000 subscribers, as opposed to millions.
Given the environment, I do not see SWTOR increasing its subscribers from its current level unless it makes pricing changes. At this stage, I do not think additional content or game changes can boost their subscriptions (at least not appreciably). It can either decide to stay premium and settle for less users paying it handsomely, or reduce its prices to serve more customers. Probably the best way to reduce prices is to reduce or eliminate the game's initial price (just have the subscription). Of course, long term I see SWTOR having to go F2P with micro transactions.
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