There was once a stigma attached to any big budget MMO that went free-to-play after initially charging people a subscription fee. It was seen as a sign of failure, as a last gasp effort to save games that had overpromised or underperformed.
More from Interviews
- ComboFiend Talks Tier Lists & Going Pro In Street Fighter V
- Interview With Cissy Jones, Voice Of Delilah In Firewatch
- Exclusive Interview With Earl Baylon (Jonah Maiava – Rise Of The Tomb Raider)
- Exclusive Interview With Laura Bailey, Voice Of Spartan Vale
- EGX 2015: Aaero Interview
It’s hard to define exactly when that stigma subsided for all but the most jaded members of the MMO crowd, but it had to be prior to the summer of 2014. When Carbine Studios launched its sci-fi extravaganza WildStar, it stood out as much for its inclusion of subscriptions as it did for its humorous tone and unique art style. In an era when almost every MMORPG of note had gone partially or completely free-to-play, it was the last real holdout.
As of September 29, “was” became the most important word in that last sentence. Carbine has taken WildStar free-to-play, allowing anyone who’s ever had the slightest curiosity about the planet Nexus to pay it a visit. Naturally, that’s not all that’s new with the game, which has received graphical and content upgrades significant enough to earn it the new title WildStar: Reloaded.
If history is any indication, Carbine should expect a flood of newcomers now that the subscription barrier has been removed. For the WildStar team, that meant rolling out the red carpet for beginners, as Creative Director Chad Moore explained to GameSided in a recent phone interview.
“For us, going free-to-play basically means that we’re casting a much wider net into the MMO community, and hopefully beyond the MMO community,” Moore said. “People will see that the game looks awesome, and they can try it, jump in and see what it’s all about. What that means is that you really need to hook those players early on with compelling systems and compelling content and gameplay.”
The first of those hooks is a revamped character creation system, born from the realization that players “are making some very serious choices at the very beginning of the game.” To help people understand the WildStar system of six classes and four paths, each one has received a video that both explains and demonstrates the gameplay style and content that go along with it.
Character customization, which has always been a selling point for WildStar, has become even more impressive. And in an interesting twist on the time-honored concept of MMO starting zones, the game now offers multiple entry points based not on your character’s race or class, but on how much the player knows about the genre and this specific game.
“As part of that revamp, we also now give players three different tutorial choices, three ways that they can start the game,” Moore said. “So if you’re a complete newb to MMOs in general, then there’s one starting point. If you kind of know MMOs but you’ve never played WildStar, then there’s a different starting point, and if you’re just like, ‘Look, I know enough about MMOs or I’ve played WildStar a ton before this, I just want to jump into the action,’ then you can do that too.”
Once players sink some time into WildStar: Reloaded, they’ll also find that they’re getting introduced into the overall story of Nexus a lot sooner than before. Moore noted that player feedback indicated that the World Story was popular, but that it didn’t really kick off until a character reached level 35 — in a system with a level cap of 50.
That was too long, so the free-to-play update lessens that wait dramatically.
“We created a new story instance at level 15, and then re-leveled all of the existing instances so that they take place at more regular intervals from 15 to level cap,” Moore said. “It’s just another way for us to draw players into that epic story much, much earlier in the game, so they get not just the gameplay and the game’s personality, they get invested in the over-arcing epic story about this special planet and the sometimes frightening things that took place there before they arrived.”
“The game we have today is just a million times better than the game that we had at launch.”
Another philosophy that guided the free-to-play transition was the idea that a sizable chunk of the MMO community, perhaps the majority in 2015, doesn’t spend the amount of time it once did playing a single game every week. Moore wondered during our conversation if that wasn’t one of the driving forces behind the free-to-play shift in the genre over the last few years. Why spend $15 a month on a game you’re only playing a few hours a week?
With that in mind, Carbine has made sure there’s more to do for players who approach WildStar in a more casual fashion, even (and perhaps especially) once they’ve reached the level cap. Don’t want to do dungeons or raids? There’s still something for you to do.
New systems are designed to reward both casual players and long-time subscribers. Cosmic Rewards accrue with every real money purchase, from subscription time to in-game store items, made prior to or after the free-to-play transition. With six tiers, there’s something in it for any financial investment in the game.
Moore said time is an investment that should be recognized too, which is why there’s an additional “sweat currency” called Omnibits that will drop regularly as you spend time in the game. They can be used to buy cosmetic and vanity items that can also be purchased for real money, albeit undoubtedly after some pretty serious gaming sessions to rack up enough of them.
Keeping track of multiple currencies sounds like the one non-user-friendly aspect of WildStar: Reloaded, but at least it’s possible to see the method behind the madness. The hope is that everything in the free-to-play update will convince newcomers to stick around after sampling what the game has to offer while keeping veterans around who have been playing since the game launched last June. Many of the changes have been made based on suggestions from those stalwarts, so Moore is confident they will feel valued enough to stick around.
“The game we have today is just a million times better than the game that we had at launch, and a huge part of that is our loyal players who have continued to play, continued to work with us, and to communicate with us to help us improve the game,” he said. “For us, the most important facet of this transition is making sure that those players continue to be happy with WildStar.”
Whether the mix of new and old players that is about to descend on Nexus really feels the game has improved that much is anyone’s guess, but one thing that talking to Moore makes clear is that none of the changes made to WildStar were taken lightly or made without some careful thought behind them. It’s going to play differently in some ways but remain the same in many others, and while it won’t cost anything to try, it’s not going to lose the unique tone or storytelling voice that has always been its calling card.
As the Carbine team waits to see what the free-to-play launch brings with a mixture of excitement and anticipation, its members can at least feel secure in knowing that if this new version of the game doesn’t catch on the way they hope, it wasn’t for a lack of vision or effort.
“I played a lot of sports when I was younger, and it doesn’t matter how well you prepare or how much you practice, when it comes to game time, you’re always going to have a few butterflies,” Moore said. “Sure, we’ll be nervous, we’re excited, we’re waiting to see what happens when the game starts. But I can say, I think, with pretty complete confidence, that we have done everything that we can as a studio to prepare for this moment. As a team here at WildStar, we believe in this game, and we are really excited to see what players think of it once it goes live.”