Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Being Too Greedy Too Early

One of the things I’m very proud of when we monetized SWTOR, is how generous we were to the new users.  Players don’t get asked for any money before level 10 in SWTOR (roughly 4-5 hours of gameplay) – a design stance I had to defend hotly a few times.  My rationale: we had done focus testing out the wazoo on our newbie experience, and gotten the test scores as high as the various meters would go.  Why mess with a good thing?  As such, I tried to make it that the only change a free player saw below levels 1-10 was the button that opened the store.  Hopefully, by the end of newbie planet, you’ve decided you want to live there – then it’s appropriate to suggest some upgrades.

It seems like more game companies should see the light in this regard.  Gamasutra did a recent article where they did metrics on people who quit after playing first.  One finding: 70% of the games that people quit early are noted as being overly aggressive in their monetization.  Asking for money before there is even a remote chance you have earned that devotion is a huge turn-off, but still one I see all the time.  A few weeks ago, I played a game where how to spend money in-game was the second tutorial!  This communicates to the player that the game ISN’T free.  When a game asks for a dollar in the first two minutes, the player extrapolates that outward – the game will ask for $30 bucks in an hour!  $150 bucks in 5 hours!  Christ, this game is expensive!

The most successful free-to-play games are uncommonly generous.  Consider League of Legends and Candy Crush.  They let you play, often without fear of timers or energy mechanics, for as long as you want.  They offer pathways to experience most of the important parts of the game without paying a cent.  And most importantly, they allow you to fall in love with the game before they ask you for money.  Most people love to spend money on hobbies that they love.




  1. What got SW:TOR such a bad reputation as a F2P MMO (besides the whole we focused so heavily on the 4th pillar we forgot to realize a tripod is more stable than a table with 3 stubby legs and one 2m one thing which was there as a subscription game too) wasn’t at which level Bioware started charging money, it was that they sold hotbars. Oh and the ability to not have to see your Twi’Lek’s lekku stick through some ugly headpiece.

    Both of those can become an issue prior to level 10 by the way.

  2. I don’t want to degenerate into a tit-for-tat retaliation but on both of those points…

    Just how many hot bars do you need before level 10? Surely 24 ability buttons is more than enough to cope. You certainly haven’t been overwhelmed by abilities, vehicles, pets, emotes, consumables by this point.

    Worried about lekku sticking through headgear, don’t be cheap and purchase a ‘nice’ piece of orange gear off the GTN. As far as I recall the first piece of headgear you get as a quest reward is from a level 14ish quest on Drommund Kaas (sorry, mostly an Imperial player) where you run around defusing bombs.

    Overall SWTOR has a great balance for its hybrid subscription model. I haven’t seen any indication of ‘Pay-to-win’ creeping in. Pretty much every item/ unlock that can be purchased using cartel coins (real money or from subscription/ achievements/ loyalty rewards) can be placed on the GTN for a price in credits. That is, a player is not forced to pay real world cash to upgrade, they can get the unlocks off the GTN for credits.

    At the end of the day, if you are willing to spend hours of your life (a non-refundable commodity) playing a game, don’t be cheap and go pay the subscription (last time I did the calculation for the six month sub it works out at about £0.13p per day taking into account the complementary cartel coins)

    I think EA or Bioware could have done a far better job educating people where the subscription money goes. Physical servers and technical staff costs are ongoing investments and the money is not just going towards the obvious new in-game content. I look at subscription based games as I do a golfclub or gym subscription, I get preferential access to the facilities above non-members and a discount on restaurant/ personal trainer fees.

  3. Players don’t get asked for any money before level 10 in SWTOR (roughly 4-5 hours of gameplay)

    That’s not really true though, considering it only takes a couple of quests to run into the first mission reward you can’t accept as a non-subscriber, and things like being unable to expand your inventory without paying can also become an issue really quickly.

  4. I’m torn, because you make a lot of good points – being pushed for real money upfront and early is a big turn off. I’ve greatly enjoyed games like WOWP, or WOT, where I can battle as much and often as I want, and I have the option to improve on that experience by buying gold coins.

    As significant as that is with game marketing, SWTOR places a very very hard glass ceiling at L10. Unlike STO or LOTRO, you get no free bank space – and that alone was a huge factor in preventing me from continuing on. As much as quick solicitations are annoying, equally annoying is being able to see what the game would look like, and being gated and harshly limited when compared to a games competition.

    I want to play SWTOR, but breaking out of those early levels becomes increasingly difficult, almost to the point that it becomes monitization from frustration.

  5. Damion Schubert

    April 25, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    I’m not going to say that we got it perfect out of the gate – SWTOR definitely made a lot of mistakes based on learning, and in many (even most) cases, we’ve already reduced a lot of the early game restrictions. More will undoubtedly be removed as more time passes, and I hope that other games considering going free to play learn from our example.

    Deciding how much to give away for free is actually kind of scary. On one hand, you definitely want to preserve the value proposition that you are offering your subscribers. And on the other hand, you don’t want these limitations to hamstring your game’s chances of going viral. As more and more games go free to play and establish precedence, we’ll see more and more downward pressure on price, and fewer bad experiments.

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