This past week SWTOR, BioWare’s Star Wars MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roll playing game), released update 2.1, an update catered toward character appearance released to much criticism, some positive and much negative. The release featured a lot of additional content and infrastructure in game that allowed for players to further customize their in game characters looks. This type of thing in the MMO world is generally referred to colloquially as a “Barber Shop”. I am responsible to questioning the legitimacy of the system on the official SWTOR forums, in a post titled “Why did Jeff Hickman lie to subscribers about the future of the game?” which has hence forth blown up to 52 pages, 517 posts, and roughly 28,000 views as of this posting.

But let’s get some background first.

When you start up an MMO you generally design your characters appearance, and then the tools inherent in the barber shop system give players the ability go back and make adjustments to character appearance once they are in game and possibly find they don’t like something about their character they want to change. For instance, skin color, hair style, scars, tattoos, height, weight, eye color… You get the idea. It’s a little post-character creation plastic surgery, if you will.

All of these changes, with the exception of color dye packs that allow players to change the color of their clothes are payed for with a system known as Cartel Coins that are used in the Cartel Market. To be specific, certain color dye packs are only available via Cartel Coins in the market or second hand on the games auction house. Generally speaking, and this is my bias, the more attractive options are exclusive to the market.

The Cartel Market was introduced with version update 1.5 in November of 2012 due to ailing subscription numbers. The game moved to a dual service model in which a player could subscribe and have access to everything in the game, or they could play the game for free and purchase weekly subscriptions to content through the Cartel Market. The Cartel Market became the door way of access to those without a subscription by way of purchasing fake currency, Cartel Coins, with real money, that could then be exchanged for items that would give access to in game content as well as vanity items (clothing, pets, mounts, etc) that could be purchased by any player. Aside from a brief blunder with the ability to purchase ship parts that would improve a players space crafts performance in the space simulator within the game, BioWare has remained true to the notion that the market would be specifically for vanity items and that no one would be able to purchase equipment that would allow them to perform on par or better than players who earned their gear through in game questing.

So, what’s the problem?

Well when the Free to Play option was officially announced on the website, Executive Producer Jeff Hickman wrote a blog post informing the games subscribers of the upcoming change and what could be expected. And in that post, he happened to say the following:

…you can continue as a subscriber, which gives you unlimited access to all game features and future Game Updates at no additional charge.

This is what my post on the forums was about. Now right off the bat, let me be honest and clear about something. I don’t think Hickman lied to the games subscribers. I do not think Hickman purposefully misled anyone, and I believe when he made these comments he was acting in good faith. As a journalist I know how to get peoples attention. I’m trained to do so. Some may feel I’m remiss in doing this, but the purpose of the post was to draw BioWares attention to the issue, make sure they know there is a line in the sand that they can’t cross, and to remind them that subscribers are going to build a wall there so that we are not abused as consumers of their service. If we are, then folks will take their money elsewhere. That’s just the nature of the free market.

But let’s first be rational about what Hickman said and what he didn’t say. When Hickman says subscribers will receive access to all game features and future game updates at no additional charge there are a few things that I feel he is clearly not including. He isn’t including expansions in this. It’s an accepted norm in MMO gaming that expansions are game add-ons. They aren’t a part of the normal game updates and content expansion and at no point should a subscriber be surprised that they have to pay for an expansion. (I’ll get to Rise of the Hutt Cartel in a moment.) Another thing Hickman was clearly not referring to was updates to the real currency trade market. Yes, these are updates, but the point of the cartel market is to bring in vanity items for real currency trade. They have to be introduced through an update. That should be obvious. And frankly, without these, the game would probably be on its last legs. Instead, due to the market, the game is thriving, drawing new players, and becoming a more vibrant and enjoyable experience.

So what did Hickman say that drew my ire with the introduction of patch 2.1? Mainly the fact that the barber shop is a part of the in game infrastructure. A player does not use the cartel market to make the majority of the changes to the customization of character appearance. Rather, a kiosk was placed in game. In my mind, the Cartel Market is not “in game”. It is a little window that pops up on a button press that launches what might as well be thought of more like opening a shopping website. A player makes their purchases in this sort of separate thing and then the items are delivered to the players in game inventory. Whereas the kiosk is something a player walks their character up to and uses like they would use any other kiosk in the game. There is a bit of psychology to this and how game mechanics draw a player in and whether or not the player feels like they are doing something or their character is doing something. But I’d rather not chase that rabbit trail too much. The crux of the matter is that this kiosk is without a doubt an in game feature. So not only was this part of a post-F2P game update that was not included in a separate expansion, but it is without a doubt a game feature, which subscribers were promised to have access to without further expense beyond their monthly subscription fee. Instead, one walks up to this kiosk, makes character appearance customizations, and then clicks what is essentially a check out button which charges them Cartel Coins that were acquired via real currency exchange.

This frankly just didn’t feel okay to me. And worst case scenarios seem to pop up in your head when this occurs. i.e. If they are willing to do this with in game systems, is this just a foot in the door? Will they begin limiting content access next and charge for access in some way?

I expected the post to get some attention. I didn’t expect it to gain the traction it did, or find it brought up on off site articles like it did on TORwars.com, or spreading like wild fire on Twitter.

But maybe there is a reason for this. When Free to Play was announced, there was always concern about the direction it would take, how many resources would be focused on it, and whether subscribers dollars were going to fund the creation of Cartel Market items rather than going toward the creation of new content for the actual game. But realistically, no one but the folks at BioWare know the answers to those questions. However let’s go back in time a bit and consider some things that subscribers were previously promised that has likely added to the confusion and frustration at hand. At the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2012, the BioWare team announced the addition of a new planet to explore with an increased level cap that would be provided to subscribers in a upcoming patch for free. Additionally, was the announcement of a new race that could be played, the cat like Cathar race from the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The Cathar was also slated to be a free addition. Then the announcement came in December of 2012 for Rise of the Hutt Cartel, a digital expansion that ended up being the previously promised free Makeb planet and level increase content. Instead of players receiving the new planet for free, they would instead be required to purchase the digital expansion at $10 for subscribers and $20 for Free to Play players.

Now the problem here is the same as with any Downloadable Content (DLC) since its inception. Which is the question, “How do I know what I was going to get originally?” That is to say, the developers at BioWare determined that they had greatly expanded the included content of the free Makeb patch to the point of it now being so expansive that they would need to charge for it. But as a consumer I don’t know what they were originally planning to give to the player base for free. What exactly was added to require it to be valued with a dollar figure beyond the normal subscription fee versus what they originally planned to include that was acceptable as a free patch? Who knows.

Then came the previously mentioned ship parts fiasco which included the sell of ship parts via real currency exchange in the market that would improve players performance in space flight sim missions. Then came the announcement that the Cathar race would no longer be free but would be sold in the market as well. And finally we arrive to last week where an in game barber shop kiosk that is clearly an in game feature required real currency exchange. And much of this has been exasperated by the fact that items in the market can’t be straight out purchased, but rather come in lottery crates. The idea being that one doesn’t purchase the item they actually want, rather they purchase a package that includes the possibility of receiving X, Y, and Z item. You may want item Y, but after you purchase the package with real currency, the lottery draw only provides you with items X and Z and the player must keep spending money on package after package until they receive what they actually wanted. BioWare counters this with the fact that all of these items can be resold on the in game auction house, so if a player does not get what they want, they can use the games in game currency system to purchase the items second hand. Though the randomness and low percentage of drops causes this to be a high burden on a players in game pocketbook. Sometimes highly sought after items are sold for millions of in game credits, and the player is forced into a corner to play the lottery system with real world currency, or spend hours earning millions of in game credits to buy something second hand off the auction house when they would have gladly paid real currency for what they wanted in the first place. It’s like if you went to an ice cream shop and asked for vanilla and they gave you chocolate and said, “Try again.” It’s frankly dishonest because just like real life lottery systems the desire for something you want and don’t need psychologically pushes people into spending more real world currency.

To be fair to BioWare, subscribers who also have a security key attached to their account receive 650 cartel coins free in a monthly stipend. So while the lottery system is corrupt in my opinion, BioWare is essentially reducing the players subscription fee by $6.50 and saying, “Here’s some free tokens to throw in the slot machine”. It’s without a doubt a nice bonus, and I’m not a vanity item purchaser, but this has allowed me the ability to grab some experience boosting items to level some alternate classes up a bit faster. But on the other hand, it’s also sort of rubbing the issue in the faces of the subscriber base, knowing there is a bit of dishonesty in some of the lottery systems and tossing money at us to shut us up. Sort of like a Chicago mobster on election day.

The point is that whether or not Hickman’s comments were innocent, the actions of the company in the examples above when viewed singularly sort of make sense as to why there is a charge, but combined they tend to show a trend that looks as if the company promises certain features to maintain their subscription base and then pulls the carpet out from under the subscriber time after time until what is apparent by the response to the thread I posted is serious frustration with that tactic.

Eric Musco, the games community manager popped into the thread to provide BioWare’s thoughts on the matter, and apologized for the wording of Hickman’s blog,

I will just be as honest as I can here, it was a poor choice in wording on our part. I know that players have made decisions around whether to remain a subscriber based on those words which makes it all that much more sensitive. I apologize if you feel that you were misled by what we said in that blog.

You can find his full post here.

I appreciated BioWare and Musco dealing with this head on. But this almost institutes a new issue which is that you can’t promise consumers something and turn around six months later and say, “Whoops, we made a mistake in our wording,” and then continue in the same direction. This would be like your telephone company agreeing to a service plan of 500 min/month at a certain rate and then coming back six months later and saying they changed their minds and your service plan will now only get your 250 min/month.

This past weekend I had the chance to attend the “SWTOR Cantina Tour” in Dallas. A little fan event held at hotels in various areas of the country over the past year and continuing on for the foreseeable future. BioWare provides food and drink, some trivia swag, and holds a Q&A session. They emphasized their intentions for the Cartel Market, and explained that the barber shop is in their opinion and presentation a vanity item. Because it is a vanity item, that’s why it’s being charged for. Several of the devs emphasized that a player will never be able to “buy power” in the market, i.e. be able to purchase items that give them an equivalent standing or higher performance than a player that earned equipment completing in game tasks.

Speaking to Musco after the Q&A he personally guaranteed me that they realized the issue that the market ship parts incident caused and that it would never happen again.

All of that is well and good, but it once again requires trust from the subscriber that it won’t happen again and trust that “vanity” isn’t conveniently modeled into a feature somehow so that it is not free. Because that’s what we are dealing with in this situation. There is a difference of terms between the subscriber base and the company. Hickman’s post indicates that in game features and content updates would remain free to subscribers while vanity items would be in the market as real currency purchasables. The subscriber base sees the addition of an in game kiosk barber shop as a feature, which therefore should be free to access, while BioWare sees this as a vanity item whether there is an “in game” function or not. Unfortunately, for subscribers, all we can do is argue our case or quit. But while many subscribers won’t get their way this round, what I believe can be taken from this situation is positive. The subscriber base held BioWare’s feet to the fire and reminded them of their promise. They’ve taken note of that, and even made mention at the Q&A that they were actively engaged in meetings due to this situation to come up with ways to show subscribers a little more love.

My humble suggestion to the SWTOR team at BioWare is for a little more transparency. Communication has greatly improved since Musco was given the reigns as community manager, but I would encourage this to keep progressing forward. Consumers are generally smart folks. If they are given a rational explanation as to why something is going in a certain direction, and it makes sense, they usually don’t have an issue moving forward with the company. This all comes down to communication and transparency of terms, motives, and movements within the services process.

This is going to be of dire importance for BioWare and their future because it was also mentioned at the Q&A that subscribers, rather than the Free to Play players, are the driving force behind Cartel Market purchases. In other words, for this game to remain afloat, the real currency trade market had to be introduced to support the game. But based on that comment, not only are subscribers acting as the foundation, but they are also keeping the pillars upright through real currency purchases beyond their $15/month subscription. Which sort of makes the addition of this latest content being introduced as a real currency system seem like nickle and diming the folks you know are keeping your game upright and your paychecks clearing each month. So if the game starts bleeding subscribers again because of real currency systems breaking the trust of the subscription base, BioWare will begin to lose both subscription fees and their up sales on those customers through the real currency market place.

Which seems to indicate that keeping subscribers happy should be a very big deal to BioWare right now.

A hearty thanks to the folks I met at BioWare and to Jeff Hickman. We might not agree on everything, but I believe the work that’s being done in the big picture is that of progress and I look forward to what’s around the corner for the game in the future, and hope to remain a loyal subscriber to a trusted company.

May the force be with you,

Nick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click That Awesome Button Over There...

...for op-ed requests, consulting, or just to drop me a note!