WildStar’s free-to-play shift: Too little or just enough?


WildStar has taken a drubbing in its first year of operation, and much as I don’t like saying so, it’s deserved it. The game had some really terrible habits that I discussed back on Massively-that-was (which I don’t want to link simply because, you know, that Frankengadget thing ain’t us), and it has watched its market share decrease to abysmal proportions. If there was ever a game that needed a salvation effort, it’s this one.

But I can see people arguing that it might be too little and too late. Sure, I’m writing this before the announcement has gone live, but I already know what’s being asked because I asked the same question. Does it even matter at this point what the game does? Has too much time passed? Is it time to just accept the fact that darn it, this game had promise, but it didn’t live up to that promise, so let’s pack it in and cut our losses.

I think I can answer that question. But to do that, I’m going to have to talk about Final Fantasy XIV.

At this point, Final Fantasy XIV is a game with a bright future. Hell, it’s a game with a bright present. It’s winning converts, it’s popular, it’s well-known, and in many ways it’s kind of creeping into people’s headspaces with a surprising amount of quality. This game was the success story of 2013, then it was the success story of 2014, and I think many people – including me – are expecting it to go on to be the success story of 2015. Even if it’s not to your personal tastes, it’s hard to claim that it’s not making a lot of people happy and doing lots of stuff right.

But of course, it didn’t launch in 2013. It relaunched. The game’s original launch in 2010 was… well, let’s just say it was bad. It didn’t crash on takeoff; it caught fire on the runway and plowed into a hangar. There’s a reason why the game has done everything in its power to distance itself from the game’s launch version, and it’s not just because the game that we’re playing now is functionally a completely different game.

Square-Enix, as a company, could afford to take the game down, rework it, and start over from the ground up. That’s a rarity in MMOs and gaming in general. This industry runs on momentum, and once you’ve lost momentum and find yourself on the back foot, it’s hard to regain your footing and return to glory.

If you asked me, at a glance, about WildStar‘s shift in business models, my knee-jerk response is that it’s too late. But – and the reason I bring up a completely unrelated game at all – I would have said the same thing about Final Fantasy XIV if you had asked me about the relaunch. I did, even. And I was wrong.

Nothing is ever simple.

So it’s worth a moment or two to think about what this actually entails before dismissing it outright.

First of all, it’s important to consider that this is the death of the game’s buy-to-play option, in all likelihood; I can’t imagine that the game is going to continue offering CREDD as an option to unlock membership via in-game currency. Odds are that microtransaction currency can be earned while playing the game through various means, but subscription time is out. I am a little sad about this because I thought that it was a noble experiment to try something different… but that experiment relied upon a success the game didn’t experience.

It’s also interesting to note – at least for me – that for all of the talk we’ve seen about earning more stuff with a membership, there’s nothing that’s been said about the almost expected currency stipend for a monthly subscription. So earning stuff in the store might be a little more difficult even for subscribers. But that’s pure speculation right now.

Cynicism aside, the game is definitely off to a rougher start with this deployment by slating the conversion for fall; there’s a chunk of time between now and then, and while there’s a nice bit of incentive to stick around, one wonders how much it’ll matter. I think the real winner here is the Ikthian Crawler mount, but if you’re not in the running for that already, you’re straight out of luck unless it turns out that you can earn it via the loyalty system, which itself is the sort of thing I find myself speculating about whilst hoping that the designers take a cue from City of Heroes. (The game’s free-to-play reward system was very well handled.)

That means selling the game a bit shorter now, and it means a few more months of limping along the way it is now. Once people can actually jump in, though, there’s positivity to be had. The game has changed a lot over the past year, and while a number of the poor design choices at the heart haven’t been outright reversed, there’s at least no longer the sense that the game is actively working against itself. The whole “play how you want” tagline isn’t fulfilled yet, but it’s closer.

More to the point, it gives people a means to get in, enjoy themselves, and get out without feeling that there’s quite the barrier to investment that’s been there in the past. Barriers to entry have always been WildStar‘s biggest problem with both new and existing players; it’s too easy to get stuck behind a gate that you just can’t overcome.

This particular tagline cannot hold.

The whole “never make things easier” philosophy, stated with varying degrees of seriousness, seems to be a hill that’s easier to die on when discussing a subscription game than a free-to-play one. In this case, that’s a good thing. Restrictions on entering raids have already been eased, but I think the very nature of a model transition makes it clear that what worked a decade ago simply can’t work any longer. The world and the game industry are different places.

On the one hand, I think this is a move that should have been made earlier. This is a shift that the game has needed for months now, and let’s be honest – WildStar needs to work. I think it has an uphill climb when an awful lot of people are still feeling burned, and some people just aren’t going to give it another shot no matter what they’re told about the free-to-play iteration. That’s not a great place for a converting game to be.

At the same time, it’s also restored my own interest in the game. It gives me hope for the title’s future because letting the game just die out would be an unfathomable waste. For all the things that it gets wrong, there’s lots to love in WildStar, and I’m hopeful that the conversion will do well and people will find out just how good it can be. I hope it prompts the designers, too, to listen more closely and understand more clearly what the game needs and how it can be improved.

Yes, I have some reservations. But I also think it can actually pull itself together and go on to bigger and better things. That’s always been the real test, and even if I think the shift should have happened a long time ago, the important thing now is seeing what happens once the world can jump in and see what’s going down.

Disclosure: As I’ve mentioned multiple times by now, I was flown out to California by NCsoft and had lodgings taken care of by them, along with some meals. I did not actually go to the Santa Monica pier while I was there. Bree has not been quiet about her displeasure at this state of affairs; she really wanted me to go to the pier. I lived on an island for two years! I know what tourist piers look like! Except mine were colder because again, north.
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