This is a post about SWTOR and Micro-transaction Immersion
I used to joke that I’d never try Star Wars: The Old Republic, because as a gaming Star Wars geek, I was the perfect example of someone who’d have their life taken over by a Star Wars game with no ending.
I’m decent at telling jokes – most of the time they don’t come true.
When I started, I tried to ease into it. That didn’t work. The game, like any MMO, is geared towards driving you to a primary objective – more. But not too much more; that would be daunting. No, specifically, one more. One more quest, one more loot grab, one more armor piece, one more group operation, one more level – always just one more.
But what SWTOR adds to that medley of more, unlike most MMO’s, is story. Story is crucial to my experience with a game. One more story, I’d tell myself at 2AM, eyes already drooping, bloodshot and Sith-like. That’s what every MMO I’ve ever played was missing – deep, pervasive, cinematic storytelling.
Although not a “pure MMO” in the eyes of critics, SWTOR has opened a branch of audience that World of Warcraft and others have always been shut off to – the single-player story lover.
The snowy peaks of Skyrim, the warm fields of Hyrule, the glowing groves in Albion – they all have a lonely echo to them because you venture them (mostly) alone, but the solitary hum also bodes of adventure in a way that an RPG should. Being able to play your class storyline and all of the planetary quests in SWTOR solo adds this mysterious draw of the lonesome adventurer to the MMO space. But unlike those other example, you can choose to add a few other players easily.
I mostly play by myself. It allows me to focus more on the story, and strive for the thing I typically enjoy most about any game – immersion. From the moment I set foot on Tython, amid the jungle and the Jedi temple, I was bent on being sucked into this galaxy.
First, it meant being able to play the game on higher graphic settings, while maintaining a decent frame rate. That meant buying a new graphics card, and the one I wanted meant buying a new power supply to go with it. My wallet grumbled a little, but I convinced myself it was worth it for the immersion.
I hit level 10 fast, and subscribed. My first character is Dejà (once called Dejàh, but she changed the spelling when forced to relocate in the great server migration), a Jedi Shadow, who wields a double-bladed emerald green lightsaber and now sits on the Jedi Council. When she started she was the perennial overachiever – bright, eager to please, naïve. On her path to becoming Barsen’thor and then a Jedi Master, she lost some of her innocence, but she gained a sage wisdom that she now carries solemnly.
She’s had many stories, many allies, and several enemies. To avoid spoilers, and turning this into a diary, I won’t go through them all. Suffice it to say, I spent hours and hours running Dejà through the galaxy, occasionally taking on a Flashpoint with a group, or having to grind to gain levels, but mostly just role-playing in a huge, vast galaxy with what felt like purely organic happenings.
Then without warning, I just started losing interest. I don’t know why; maybe I burned out. Just before the point when I stopped playing SWTOR, I was spending an unfortunate amount of time with the game. Jokes aside, I wasn’t getting a lot done and feeling bad about it. Maybe that’s why I stopped, but I imagine it had a little to do with getting obsessed with leveling crew skills and cornering the market on certain items in the Galactic Trade Network. Those micromanaging elements started to drag down the fun of the story and I think I forgot why I got hooked in the first place. That and the storyline on Hoth started flat and uninspired.
Other games came out, and paying the $15 monthly subscription for SWTOR didn’t make sense if I only played occasionally. I cancelled, and left a nice note in the box where they ask you explain why you’re leaving. I said I’d be back. A couple months after that, entirely recovered from my SWTOR binge, I was sure I’d never be back.
I can’t explain why, but for a while I had no desire to play. It happens I guess. For the same reason I go on binges of Batman, Halo, Mass Effect, a certain genre of film, or anything else, I guess.
When free-to-play (F2P) was announced, I was intrigued but not hopeful. I didn’t plan to return, didn’t keep up with the launch date, and didn’t listen to anyone’s thoughts on it. I still follow some SWTOR players on Twitter, and I saw HelexZura (who had dropped his sub in favor of Guild Wars 2) saying how much he enjoyed the game. It made me wonder.
So I logged back in, and tried to step back into Dejà. I could not. At every turn, there was that little black and gold icon that represented an unlockable option otherwise available to subscribers only. Even something as simple as hiding the head slot on your character’s armor was now a paid option. I loved the stats of Dejà’s helmet, but no Jedi in their right mind could walk around with that on their head.
Experience points would come slower, loot would be limited, and the titles (superficial as they are) that I earned I would now have to pay for (so ‘Master Dejà’ becomes ‘Dejà’). As childish a response as it was, I didn’t like that one bit.
Of course the game has to make money. Every rational part of me accepts that. Subscriptions are a good way to make money, and offering a limited version of the game with constant incentive to either subscribe or spend some amount of money is another way to generate revenue. Businesses should do things to make money, that much I admit.
The only question, really, is whether they provide enough value that you would exchange some value (in the form of money) for what they’re offering. Immediately, my answer was ‘no.’
I had spent too much on Dejà, adjusting her stat/ability build just the way I liked it (DPS primarily for PVE), finding and making equipment I liked, and figuring out hotbars, keybinding shortcuts, and ability rotations that worked for me. Finding out I had only two hotbars on F2P was a major bummer. I couldn’t learn how to play my old character with these new restrictions, especially if she was going to be wearing that stupid hat.
I logged out, convinced resoundingly that I would never be back this time.
But again, for reasons I’m unable to explain, I considered returning. This time, however, I knew I could only come back one way – without Dejà. As much as we’d been through, it just felt like a different game on F2P. I wasn’t even sure I could play for an hour much less a week, or a month. A subscription was out of the question. If I was going to play, it would be F2P, and if that was the case I would have to start from scratch.
My logic was that I couldn’t learn to play Dejà all over again, but I could learn to play an entirely new character and maybe by starting with F2P restrictions from the start, I could manage. I had heard good things about the storyline for the Imperial Agent class, and despite my urge to be a Bounty Hunter, I went with the IA class.
His name is Tulleus, a Zabrak with hot bronze colored skin, subtle horns, an almost too-cool-for-school haircut, and the airy Imperial accent to top it off. They don’t give you a class backstory in the game, but the moment I heard him speak (voiced brilliantly by Bertie Carvel) I knew he had been raised in the Empire, by affluent parents, and that he was unusually gifted both in intellect and athletically. He’s a bit of a charmer, and mostly respects authority, as long as everyone plays by the rules. He’s mistrustful of the Sith as a whole, but his loyalty is to the Emperor, and he knows to keep his place amongst the Dark Council.
The opening on Hutta hooked me. The IA storyline was worlds different than that of the Jedi Consular. It had a seedier feel, that at the same time seemed to hold more immediate importance. You weren’t a Padawan being trained, you were an operative on a dangerous mission right from the start.
But eventually I bumped into similar walls as I did when trying to re-engage Dejà. The experience rate being slowed was a major deterrent. It seemed like hours wasted compared to what I could do with a sub. I did spend some real dollars on Cartel Coins, trying to cherry pick certain unlocks in hopes of getting close to the subscriber experience without paying as much.
If you do your homework, and some basic math, you easily see you’ll spend more not subscribing, and fast. And the game doesn’t really hide that from you. To the contrary, it puts it on front street and then some. It actually might do worse than that – it sort of throws it in your face. I think EA wants players to know emphatically that the more economical option is to subscribe. That black and gold icon taunts you then haunts you. It’s everywhere and it has one message – it’s not going anywhere until you pay the toll for your immersion.
Oh sure, you might squeak by some immersion here and there for a while, but eventually that icon will find you, and it’s not simple enough to just say no. If you’re seeing it, it’s won. You know what you’re missing even if you say no. Immersion = broken. That can happen other ways, sure, but none is more prevalent or frequent.
The message sets in, but so do other things. I like my new character, and I like Dromund Kaas, and being the shadowy, clandestine arm of the Empire. I like it as much as I did the first time I wield my own lightsaber as Dejà on Tython after completing my trials as a Padawan. I might even like it more.
So this past Sunday I re-subscribed. I fell off the wagon, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel that way. I always wondered more about why I stopped playing in the first place. I feel as excited about the game as I once did. And now I’ve learned some lessons.
Crew skills, selling materials, and crafting items are still important, so are Flashpoints and finding all the right loot. But I get it now, more than I did when I started. I know what I’m paying for.
That little gold icon wouldn’t bother me if all it represented was loot and XP. But it’s more than that; it’s a barrier to getting an untampered with experience. What I came to SWTOR for is what I stay with SWTOR for – the story. Not just any story, but one that’s pervasive and persistent. That’s what I’m paying for, immersion. And it’s worth the price, as long as you aren’t paying in Cartel Coins.