Massive Online Anthropology

Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Implications of Going Free-to-Play

Star Wars: The Old Republic will be going free-to-play this fall. Alongside this change the $15/mo subscriptions will still be available and will open up the game world over people who run through the Star Wars worlds and galaxy for free. For those not interested in the subscription, services and missions can be opened up with a freemium currency called “Cartel Coins.” This freemium model as worked extremely well for other free-to-play games and may open up Star Wars to an entirely new culture of players.

Likelihood is that it will also breathe an influx of new life into the ailing game, which although it only managed to pull in about a million users (and sold a lot of copies) has been bleeding population since its launch and it’s further threatened by other significant subscription-based MMOs such as World of Warcraft and their upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion.

As with any transition from subscription to free-to-play there will be some disruption in the entrenched community especially guilds. However, SWTOR has not been on the market as long as other subscription-based MMOs and as a result will not suffer as greatly under this disruption.

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I’ve written on the disruptive implications of free-to-play before when examining what might happen to Star Trek Online, where it has done an extremely good job of embracing the new model, and the newcomers have integrated well into the existing culture. Guilds in STO have been able to augment their cultures with new blood, bolster their game play, and Cryptic Studios themselves have seen a huge boost in the need to pay attention to guilds and in-game groups.

The experience of Season 6 which includes fleet starbases (guild housing) is a testament to have they’ve shifted their attention to how players play the game together moreso than how they play the game alone.

SWtOR Illum Patch 1.1, Factional Imbalance and Player-vs-Player Communities

Many multiplayer video games, not just MMO games, function by providing competitive gameplay in order to engage and retain players. Players seek out these games in order to fulfill a desire for entertainment while also fulfilling a desire to interact with and engage with other players in a social venue. Together these make up the activity of game playing as a socialization tool within a multitude of human cultures; MMO gaming is no exception to this and through understanding this attempts to bring small-scale competitive gaming up into large-scape competitive gaming.

Players approach player-vs-player[1] gaming often as an alternative game mode from the narrative-paced and highly cooperative game play that mimics standard non-multiplayer game modes of the video game genre. They do so because player-vs-player content is focused much more on the merits and skills of the individual player and less on their capability to play solo against the environment or cooperate with other players (who could fail them.) Moreso, player-vs-player content also provides a dynamic and changing challenge.

Player-vs-player content also gives players a merit-based hierarchy that they can progress through as they hone their skills. Through this hierarchy—and the likelihood that they will see counterparts in the opposing faction rising through that hierarchy at the same time—delivers a goal-based progression as well as social status to players who take to player-vs-player battlefields and open world play. It also gives them outward indicators to other players of their own individual merits (or at least time-invested) in player-vs-player combat.

In the case of MMO games like Star Wars: the Old Republic and World of Warcraft, players are forced to choose between two factions—they will remain in these factions during the entire lifetime of their character (although in most games players may have characters across both.) As a result, they tend to find a cohort amid the faction that they initially chose and tend to choose into the faction that their outside cohort has already chosen. For example, a new player to WoW is more likely to choose Horde over Alliance if their friends are all Horde.

In SWtOR the two factions are the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic—in WoW they are the Horde and the Alliance.

Once chosen, players develop a tribal sense of factional loyalty. The games develop a narrative that paints the opposing side as an alien enemy and their own side as a complex social group with its own culture and nature. This is especially true between both WoW and SWtOR where the two factions are in fact at war with one another and cannot participate cooperatively (in fact in WoW players from the opposing faction may speak aloud, but their words appear as gibberish; further cementing them as an alien enemy.) We see faction loyalty extend beyond the games themselves with players tending to identify with one side or another and using that as a criterion for later friendship or stereotyping of newcomers.

Due to this two-faction system, many MMO games that support it discover often that certain shards (or servers) give rise to an imbalance in population between them. The sociological reasons for this appear to be numerous and little research exists into precisely why; the current folk wisdom on the subject suggests that some factions appeal more broadly to the audience of gamers and that it’s generally the side expected to be more “evil.” In WoW that happens to be the Horde—which is stereotyped as having the more mature players and the Alliance the  least; and in SWtOR that’s the Sith Empire, although no character has been given to the population who choose their side.

According to game journalism reported statistics, the imbalance is prevalent in SWtOR and in some cases reaches 6:1; Empire:Republic.[2]

Both SWtOR and WoW provide game modes that pit the factions against one another in instanced scenarios called battlegrounds that are designed to balance the opponents. However, in both games there is also the presence of what is called Open World PvP (or even PvP servers.) On these shards or in these open world areas, no balance is mechanically effected by the game and all comers can arrive to do battle. As a result, a persistent faction imbalance in PvP-willing players may be greatly amplified, especially if 600 Empire players show up and only 100 Republic players arrive.

To better understand the impact of open-world PvP on the community of games like WoW and SWtOR interviews will need to be conducted with players who are both casual and highly competitive in that mode of game play. Currently, on most PvE (non-PvP) shards of both games world-PvP is largely ignored by the players except when the game asks them to partake of quests to engage in it—most game play is sought out in instanced battlegrounds which provide server-agnostic cross-faction battles and as these are not as affected by faction imbalance they don’t suffer as much.


BioWare Suspends Users in Star Wars: The Old Republic, the /getdown Exploit and Looting Ilum

Recently, an exploit in Star Wars: The Old Republic developed by BioWare was revealed by a forum user who discovered that triggering the /getdown in game emote (causing a character to dance) would also cause enemies to fail to damage them. Upon creating a video of this effect[1], the poster alleges that their post had been taken down by BioWare quoting policy that they don’t allow the publishing of exploits on their forums. Later, another user alleges that BioWare banned them from the game for looting security chest spawns on the high-level PvP world of Ilum.

While no players have faced banning or suspension for using the /getdown explot—and as of this publication it’s been fixed by BioWare as of 2012 Jan 5—this facet of gaming and the reaction of the community merits some study. The presence of exploits and bugs in MMO games is well known and well documented and as with any large amounts of computer code, such exploits will always arise. The reaction of the developer and the community to them, however, may become a point of contention. After having their video taken off the SW:TOR forums, the video rapidly spread onto blogs such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun and users became aware of it anyway.

The bug has been patched and there are no reports of anyone being banned or suspended due to using /getdown to prevent a boss from targeting them. It would have essentially rendered the target invulnerable to attack during the dance animation. It does so by repeatedly interrupting the cast of the enemy by de-targeting them.

An enterprising user attempted to gain notoriety by claiming that they had been banned by BioWare staff over exploiting the /getdown bug and posted the notice of their suspension to Reddit[2]; but this has been met with broad skepticism and appears to be an outright fake. To date, BioWare has gone on record saying that they have not banned or suspended anyone for using the /getdown exploit.

In another set of stories, a user has alleged that BioWare banned him for looting high level items from security chests on the open PvP world of Ilum in game. To this, BioWare has mentioned while they have not put out any actual bans they have in fact suspended users for this behavior[3]—although they have handed out permanent bans to those people directly destabilizing the in-game economy by gold farming (a non-controversial violation of the Terms of Service of many games.)

According to an article in Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Stephen Reid, Senior Online Community Manager, laid out a message in the forums[4] that BioWare takes permanent bans and suspensions very seriously:

“It’s important to remember that our Terms of Service team is extremely careful and thorough in their investigation of any potential exploit or unusual activity in-game. Working closely with the development team and using extensive metrics based on player activity, they are able to determine what is normal player activity, what is unusual and what is exploiting. Our goal is always to ensure a fair game experience for all players while also protecting the rights of individuals, and if people are disrupting the play experience for others action will be taken.”

He stresses in the post that the customer services team banned only those people engaged in credit farming (aka gold farming) and “also warned and temporarily suspended - but did not ban - a smaller number of accounts for activities on Ilum that were decided to be game exploits.”

Due that many MMOs have thriving economies based on in-game currencies often it is incumbent on the customer service to take action when game exploits are being used to destabilize those economies. While in extreme circumstances this takes the effect of outright and permanent bans; people who have merely been exploiting the boxes on Ilum as previously reported have not been banned for doing so. They were only temporarily suspended as a warning.

The MMO gaming community has taken this action by BioWare so far with a grain of salt. There is a huge tradition in MMO gaming culture to take to the thrill of getting to places obviously not intended by the developers. Being able to go to a high level planet at a low level and looting high level gear sounds like the sort of adventure that players might get themselves up to (even if it violates the apparent Terms of Service.)

However, it seems that BioWare is not responding to the adventurous, nor are they responding to the curious; they’re taking action against those who systematically exploit these holes in the game in order to farm credits. A far less defensible position to be in and the gaming community by and large appears to consider this action.

It is speculated that BioWare will bring an end to this controversy in a later patch by locking loot boxes on Ilum according to level. As a result, low level characters will be unable to access the contents of the boxes and therefore won’t have reason to jump there in order to pilfer the contents., “/getdown”, “BioWare banning The Old Republic players for exploiting /getdown dancing glitch that interrupts enemy boss attacks”, “Recent actions against some customer accounts”, “SWTOR Ilum Bans Were Real, Nuanced”

Since I’m trying to get on a roll here, I figured that I’d do another in-front-of-camera episode — even if it’s really not that flattering most of the time. I decided to introduce where I want to go with this series, aside from rendering my throughts on in-game events such as with World of Warcraft and others; but also that there’s an entire gamer community here on YouTube we can tap into and look at.

There’s numerous examples of people who generate Let’s Plays and other artifacts of their time spent in games that everyone can enjoy and become part of. I hope to bring them to the forefront and describe their behavior in how it implicates overall gamer culture.

To thank him for that lovely intro animation here’s Chris Warren: