Tuesday, April 23, 2019

You Can Leave Your Hat On: SW:TOR

When Star Wars: The Old Republic transitioned from the original subscription model to Free to Play, the climbdown was widely seen as an act of desperation. The game cost an estimated $200-300m to develop and was fronted by one of the biggest global I.P.s in existence, yet it had failed to pick up significant traction, either with the wider Star Wars audience or within the MMORPG genre itself.

By 2012, subscriptions had fallen below a million. With numbers continuing to slide and the confirmed break-even point standing at 500k subs, something had to be done.

The humiliating climbdown almost certainly saved the game but any P.R. bounce the developers might have hoped for was undermined by what were widely seen at the time as some of the worst F2P restrictions ever. Re-reviewing the game on the back of its new payment model, Eurogamer concluded:

"Over time, yes, all of this may be fixed and improved. As a starting point though, it's impossible not to see most of it as an acknowledgement that The Old Republic isn't a good fit for the free-to-play model and that BioWare isn't really that interested in it anyway. It's less like they've set up a stall than actively taken offence that the game failed."
Of all the petty restrictions against which people took umbrage, the hill on which many commentators chose to die was
the sale of Hotbars. Chopping up the default UI and selling it piecemeal through the cash shop was seen as a sign that these were people who would sell anything. Probably their own grandmothers. To The Hutt.

By the time I finally got around to trying TOR the game had been free to play for more than six years. More than enough time to let the payment model bed down, sand off the rough edges, fill in the cracks. You'd think.

According to the comparison chart on Reddit, you still have to buy your Hotbars. You also have to pay for extra character slots, races and storage. You get crucial utilities like Sprint and Fast Travel later or on longer cooldowns. You don't get Rested xp at all. You're limited in who you can talk to, how you can trade, what mail you can send, who you can have in your guild and how many Operations, Space missions or Warfronts you can go on. Oh, and everything costs more.

Those are the highlights. The list purports to be exhaustive but actually it's not. There's at least one more thing F2P  scrubs can't do: hide their hats.

I knew this going in. I read it somewhere a while ago and it stuck in my mind because it seemed to me to trump even selling pieces of the UI for outright miserliness. It also lingered because I'm in the habit of hiding the headgear of some characters in some MMORPGs I play. Usually the ones who wear heavy armor.

I love hats, in real life and in games. Can't have too many hats, I say. The problem when it comes to many games is that "hat" ends up meaning "helmet" and I hate helmets. Most of them  make my characters look like they have a bucket on their head.

I was aware there might be a problem but the first twenty or so levels passed without incident. At first I had nothing in the head slot anyway and then, quite early on, I got a tracker device that displayed as an earpiece and mic set. It looked cool. I liked it.

And then, at Level 27, I got a drop. The Alderaanian Engineers Cap. It sounded great. Caps always look good, don't they? I moused over it to check the stats. It was a big upgrade. I put it on.

When I was a child we had a thing we called a "meat safe". It was used to cover meat or any other food, protecting it from flies while it waited on a table to be cooked or eaten. It was a rhombus with gauze netting stretched between struts. You could pull a central cord to collapse or extend the sides.

I haven't thought of that meat safe in fifty years. When I saw my Scoundrel wearing the Alderaanian Engineers Cap the memories came flooding back, all jumbled up with Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus.

I know very, very little about Star Wars lore. I have not the vaguest idea who the Alderaanians might be. All I can say is, if this is what their engineers wear to work, they must be a deeply, deeply twisted people.

The Alderaanian Engineers Cap is so utterly hideous, so entirely ill-conceived, that from the moment I saw it I developed a conspiracy theory. Did some nefarious designer, either out of personal spite or acting on instructions from some shadowy suit, construct this atrocity with the purposeful intent to create something so obtrusive, so vile, so utterly impossible to ignore that players would be forced to pull out their credit cards and subscribe just to retain their dignity? Not to mention their sanity.

It's not even just about looks. The hat is so vast, so monolithic, it literally endangers life. On several occasions I've been rendered blind as the flat canvas back of the awful hat filled the entire screen, blocking the camera, leaving me at the mercy of RakGhouls and Pirates.

It even obscures the faces of my conversational partners in cut scenes. It has no redeeming features of any kind. It is the hat from hell.

So why am I wearing it? Well, it's an upgrade, isn't it? You want me to take a stat hit? Do I look crazy? Ok, don't answer that - at least not while I'm wearing The Hat.

I have this weird feeling there's someone behind me but for some reason I can't see anyone...
At Level 33 I'm hoping another hat will drop soon. If not I might have to look into buying one. So far I haven't needed (or even thought about) buying any gear at all but I can't go on wearing this thing indefinitely.

I have already decided to subscribe to TOR for a single month to bump my account up to "Preferred" status. That gets me permanent access to much of the post-50 expansion content and relaxes a number of restrictions, among them the toggle to hide the head slot.

That's fine, but I wanted to get to 50 first to see how the run feels as a full F2P player and I really don't want another seventeen levels of screenshots featuring my Scoundrel looking like a pantomime nun. Also it's very unclear whether the ability to toggle is something you keep as a Preferred player or something that freezes in whichever state it happens to be when the money runs out.

The cost of unlocking the toggle for the head slot is 280 Cartel Coins per character or 775CC per account. Obviously I'd want to take the account option, which would work out at something like $7.00.  That is quite a lot of money to ask for something almost any other F2P game gives you for nothing. I still might pay it, though.

I was planning on waiting until I hit 50 to post on my impressions of the F2P experience. It's very generous in some ways, giving you what amounts to hundreds of hours of AAA quality single-player narrative-driven RPG gameplay entirely for free. So far I haven't found the inventory or travel restrictions to be significantly more arduous than those in many other F2P MMORPGs. At a level of basic accessibility and enjoyment TOR's freeplay model seems quite attractive.

All that good work and generosity, however, can be undone in a moment by something like this. Nickel and diming F2P players with expensive unlocks for basic UI utilities that virtually no other game charges for just leaves a bad taste.

It absolutely isn't going to put me off playing the game but neither does it make me want to subscribe. Yes, subbing would remove these little anoyances but they shouldn't be there in the first place. Subscribing should get me more, not take away less.

After six years you might have thought that would be a lesson learned but I guess the money must be coming in okay because here we still are. I don't imagine much is going to change now.

There is an other solution, of course. Failing another perks revamp, maybe they could just give the guy who designed the Alderaanian Engineer's Hat a job in the mail room and hire someone who knows what a cap looks like instead.


  1. Well, that was good for a chuckle during my lunch break! I've seen gear like this get compared to many things, but "meat safe" is certainly a new one.

    I can exonerate the devs of the accusation of just having put hats like these in to force free players to subscribe as they were all in game from launch. They were generally designed for Jedi consulars, with the height of weirdness being the original tier set, which features a fan for your head and various banana-shaped appendages for your shoulders and gloves. My best guess is that the designers' intent was to draw parallels to Queen Amidala's various crazy outfits from the prequels - because Jedi consulars are diplomats and so was she! Is my guess.

    The one bit of good news I have for you is that while you can't hide your head slot as a free player, you can change its look to something else. On your character panel on the right there should be a tab labelled "1" I believe (going from memory here), which is your first outfit slot. In this you can paste the look of any other piece of gear you own over any matching gear slot. So you could make it that you always show as wearing that little headset if you still have it. (Here's the obligatory Dulfy guide to the system if you want more info.)

    1. Oh thanks for that! I have already looked at that tab in game but I couldn't immediately figure out how it worked. I'm going to go read Dulfy now and then get my headset back!

    2. I'm actually surprised that system isn't also locked away from F2P players.

    3. What Shintar said. We actually had to kill raid bosses to be rewarded with that ugly thing. I am pretty sure I got one of those in the early raids at launch. The meat safe one, not the nice raid one she linked. But I also have one of those :P

  2. I laughed quite hard at this, thanks!

    I was a subscriber for the whole time I played the game, and yet I greatly disliked the gearing during the first 49 levels because you always looked like you'd raided a second hand store and just cobbled stuff vaguely matching your size together.

    Using customizable gear (with slots for modifications in them, where the actual stats come from) just wasn't practical before reaching max level because you grew out of everything so fast even back then. So you just wore everything the quests gave you, which rarely was customizable, but most often hideous.

    That hasn't changed much since I left it seems.

    It's a shame because I actually liked the game's style a lot, but even at max level and with an active subscription the game always made it much harder and/or more expensive to make your characters look how you wanted them to than pretty much every other MMORPG.

    1. Things must have changed quite a lot since you played. For as long as I've played SWTOR, it's had one of the most generous, flexible, and easy to use outfit systems of any MMORPG I've played.

    2. The appearance system seems fairly approachable. I've only just started to look at it since Shintar pointed me to Dulfy. I had seen it before but I didn;t find it very intuitive and I'm avoiding looking up guides and so on until I hit 50 so I left it.

      So far, my main concern hasn't been accessibility of appearances - it's more that I haven't really seen anything much I would consider attractive or stylish. It's partly the design but mostly it's the graphics. All clothes and armor look fuzzy and undefined in normal gameplay and in the Preview window. About the only time I get a clear impression of what my Scoundrel is wearing is in cut scenes, where they seem to be rendered in a lot more detail, albeit often with peculiar lighting.

    3. "All clothes and armor look fuzzy and undefined in normal gameplay and in the Preview window."

      Yeah I've been ranting about how much an "HD Texture Pack" would improve the look of the game. I'm no developer so I don't know how much work such a thing would entail but it seems like the textures exist since, as you say, they look sharper in cut scenes.

      Sorry, I've been kind of using your blog as a discussion board recently. It's just a treat to be playing the same game that you're playing, for once.

    4. Feel free! I'm finding it really interesting to see how many people have played TOR and how much they have to say about it. It's not as though no-one writes about it - Shintar does, obviously, and Syp used to that I can thnk of straight away - but it doesn't get an awful lot of attention. I'm loving all the comments! Plus I'm getting loads of good advice.

    5. It's the classic conundrum of do you spend resource on updating old content that will get (now) quickly leveled through or devote your efforts to making the new content as cool as you can? Those types of art assets are quite expensive to update because of the developer time involved.

      Also the engine is still DirectX 9 and 32-bit I bet some of those design choices still matter from a performance perspective. I imagine at some point the engine will need to be updated to a newer version of DirectX and go 64-bit, but who knows when Bioware Austin will be able/allowed time to do that?

  3. When first confronted with it, SWTOR's free to play model turned me off so utterly it took me years to give the game another try. Now that I've spent more time with it, my views have changed somewhat. I still think it's a terrible system, but for entirely different reasons.

    When we talk about heavy-handed F2P models, usually the image is of games that seem generous at first but then require you to pay more and more to keep progressing. SWTOR is the exact opposite of that. All the pain is frontloaded. The more you play and the more you pay, the less you need to keep paying in the future.

    Making any purchase whatsoever permanently upgrades you to "preferred" status, which removes many of the worst restrictions. One month of sub gets you all expansion content to date, permanently. Sub for a few months and you'll get enough Cartel Coins to remove most of the restrictions of preferred accounts. Along the way you'll earn enough credits to buy whatever other unlocks you might be missing.

    I'm at the point now where I have almost no restrictions left on my account, and I no longer need to spend on the game at all. I'll need to sub for a month to unlock Onslaught in a few months, but that's it.

    I've come to the conclusion SWTOR is not so much a free to play game as it is an incredibly wonky buy to play game. I still dislike the business model, but now I dislike it because it's so convoluted and confusing, not because I think it's greedy or punitive.

    1. As I said, I really wasn't planning on addressing the payment model this early. It was only The Hat that made it seem like the time to mention it. From what I've seen so far, though, I agree with you, by and large. I think the Eurogamer quote above nails it, too - it really does look like a system cobbled together in a bad temper by someone who never wanted to do it in the first place.

      Much worse than that, though, is the insane level of complexity. Just look at the Reddit comparison chart I linked. It's demented. And as I pointed out, it's not even complete. Who knows what other little odds and ends aren't included? Once again, it smacks of a system (if you could even dignify it with such a term) that's been hacked together by someone who knows what all the parts do but has no clear idea of how they fit together.

      What the whole thing needs is a serious sanity check and the people who need to be doing that are SW:TOR's Marketing Dept. I'm of the strong opinion that few MMORPGs give anything like enough control to Marketing or if they do they seriously need to hire more competent and experienced Marketeers. Most of the embarassing gaffs I can think of, many of which inflicted serious damage on the brand of either the game or the company in question, could have been entirely avoided if someone whose job it is to sell things had been given oversight of the final version.

      Anway, I have too much to say about this for a comment. I may well come back to it in a week or two, when I'm in a position to assess how the F2P offer feels after leveling a character to 50.

    2. The F2P conversion felt like a rushed "Hail Mary!" effort. I think a number of the restrictions just never really got thought through properly and just continue to exist due to inertia. That said, from some of the stuff Shintar posted about, the restrictions have been enough of a motivator to get more people to subscribe or, at least, pay some money to go preferred.

      I have really enjoyed your posts on Swtor. It is nice to see a new, but experienced player's reactions to the game. :)

    3. Thanks! I was hoping that starting TOR now would mesh well with the few weeks of rest and recuperation I have to take after after my operation and also give me something meaty to blog about and that's turned out even better than I hoped. Plenty more posts to come, I would guess.

  4. This may be outdated, but the Orange gear was customizable. I wore mostly Orange gear and would mod them as I leveled. That way, once you found one you liked, you could wear it as long as you could keep up with the different mods. Think of it as empty shell for the look and then just upgrade the stats as you go.

    And Alderaan was Leia's planet that was blown up in the original movie. Maybe it was because of their fashion.

    1. I *knew* Alderaan was Leia's home! I may not be much of a Star Wars fan but I do know the basics. But then, before I wrote anything, I thought I'd just better fact-check so I googled "Alderaanian" (not "Alderaan") and got a bunch of entries that didn't mention Leia at all so I thought I must have misremembered it. Sloppy research. Must do better.

      As for the mods, yes, I've noticed that and I did get some kind of tutorial pop-up about it, but it's one of many, many systems I have yet to look into. I know there's a lot to learn here but I'm trying to put most of it off until I hit 50 on my first character. Although I'm beginning to ask myself whether that's a good plan now leveling has slowed to a normal rate.

    2. The modding system still exists but has largely become redundant because of the outfit designer, which lets you craft a look using any type of gear and is much easier to use. The one exception are weapons, because they aren't currently included in the outfit designer. It's all a bit confusing unfortunately, the way things get when new systems are stacked on top of existing ones over several years.

  5. I bought the game at launch, or shortly afterwards, so I never experienced the true F2P experience. But I did create and level an Imperial Agent to level 50 without being subbed. I even enjoyed the story along the way.

    1. Everyone seems to think Imperial Agent is the best story. I might do that next. Or maybe I'll save it and do one of the not-so-great ones first.

  6. So, it wasn't technically this post of yours... the idea hatched when I read your first recent one on SWTOR, and then came to fruition until I downloaded the game yesterday... but I just wanted to tell you EA can thank you for bringing me back to the game. Your descriptions made me interested again, after not being happy at all with the game at release. At least my graphics problems have been solved: either the engine got optimized, or it just solved itself the way computer performance bottlenecks always solve themselves over the years.

    I also rolled a scoundrel because, hey it sounds interesting. Couldn't resist rolling a male one with a Rhett-Butler-like moustache though. Gotta play the charming scoundrel card!

    As to how long it will last, who knows. Maybe if you keep posting, I'll keep playing!


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