Every few months I revive my World of Warcraft subscription, go poking about the old haunts and decide that yes, things were better back in my day. Then I order the local kids off my lawn and wish I had my £9.99 back. This is WildStar’s target audience: people like me who yearn for the hardcore days of yore, too jacked up on happy memories to recall that a lot of what Warcraft had going on 10 years ago was a massive arse-ache. WildStar offered 40-man raids, a lengthy pre-raid attunement process and hour-long dungeon runs to a fickle, flighty bunch on a nostalgia trip, and so, after an opening surge in rose-tinted interest, wrestling with obstacles WoW patched out years back was judged not to warrant £12 a month. Servers withered, and NCSOFT’s earnings reports took on an unhealthy pallor.
Free-to-play, Wildstar's long-anticipated move to which was announced today, is smashing down the financial barrier to an old school reunion where the nostalgic can come and go as they please.
I’m underselling it horribly – despite the odd lapsed month, WildStar’s innovations have kept me logging in to planet Nexus since the head-start last June. It is a beautiful thing, drawn in an intoxicating comic book style and heavy with Whedonesque space cowboy lore. Combat is peerless, double-jumps and backflips complementing a telegraph system which sketches attacks to be evaded or fired off on the ground. WildStar aims to make you breathless, bouncing between activities in a state of suppressed hysteria.
These activities require people though, and WildStar doesn’t have many of those. I’ll get flak from the WildStar forums for saying so – they have, for several months now, been buoyant with optimism at the reappearance of former players and healthy congregations in the new ‘elder game’ zone, Star-Comm Basin. After the population imploded, developers Carbine acted to make WildStar less hardcore (to the purists) or less of a pain (to everyone else), and the toned-down attunement, a health increase for all and the replacement of the 40-man organisational migraine with a 20-man raid seemed – seemed – to be pulling it back from the brink. That’s why I can’t begrudge WildStar recanting the hardcore bluster it was sold on – it was adapt or die off; a different MMO or no MMO. And that’s what we’re dealing with now it’s heading free-to-play: WildStar’s drear first-quarter earnings silence anecdotal evidence of growth.
In fairness, elder game events are packed out and guilds make good progress now they need only maintain a 20-man raid roster. As someone drawn to WildStar for boss fights on the edge of sanity, it’s pleasing that, for all Carbine’s nerfs, mid-level guilds tend not to have cleared the two raids it shipped with. But step out of the max-level zones, even into the Dominion’s capital city, and you begin to feel very alone. Most of WildStar’s unique public events fail on their first phase due to lack of participants – not a lack of interest, but a lack of bodies in the zone. The Group Finder, meanwhile, is slower than asking in the player-created LFG channel. WildStar’s quest pane has the nice touch of displaying nearby players that might have encouraged group play in happier times but now points out how few nearby players there are.
Simply, free-to-play means more players collaborating to get the most from the planet Nexus’s fabulous toy box. More people means more events, more groups, no howling silence in cities and PvP. Zones like the low-gravity, Alien-inspired Farside on the moon far above Nexus deserve to be savoured, not bombed through just to see faces again. Madcap shiphand missions, including one that casts you in a gladiatorial ‘80s gameshow, can be ploughed through solo, but why chuckle to yourself when you could be belly-laughing with friends? More players means access to content which is currently as good as locked – free-to-play is practically an expansion pack.
It’s not all about pragmatism, though. The concern among loyal followers is that the coming transition will twist the game into a form it was never meant to hold, but I suspect otherwise: WildStar, in its hyperbolic pursuit of space badassery, is tonally and psychologically a free-to-play game already. Like Candy Crush provoking your pleasure neurons with a tinkle and a flash, every inconsequential action in WildStar comes with pyrotechnics, a shower of loot and a thundering announcement asserting that you (as you suspected all along) are a Big Deal.
Free-to-play doesn’t need to change WildStar’s structure to keep people hooked long enough to blow cash on cosmetics – your brain is always alert for the source of the praise, eager to provoke more gratuitous celebration. Mining nodes damn near outnumber rocks, and missing out on even one wave of jingling, fluorescent ore demands willpower. Remove the paywall and WildStar will retain custom like a drug lord giving out uncut tasters.
Its reverence for loot puts WildStar in a good place to make microtransactions equitable. Costumes, mounts, housing and even PvP Warplots (though they see tragically little action) were designed from the start to support obscene levels of customisation. As a long-time mount-hoarder, having not only the mount itself but interchangeable front, back and side flairs to choose from has been a major incentive to play on in the downtime between dungeons and raids, and though it’s a pity the collection won’t ever be complete without substantial financial outlay, it’s heartening to know that Carbine have ready monetisation vehicles that don’t encroach on the business of killing stuff.
Mounts are small-time dealing though – housing is the real vice. Every player gets their own Protostar Nexus Housing Initiative smallhold on which to set thousands of decorations, furnishings, plants and pre-made plugs which include farms, excavations and dungeons in miniature. Days of player time are guzzled by virtual homes, so there’s room for a cosmetic supermarket. That might feel like a slap to subscribers used to decor on tap, but I feel we’re in good hands precisely because WildStar wasn’t intended to gate content. So much is hardwired into the game that any attempt to divvy up what’s there into paid chunks would end in madness. No, what we will get will surely be new; it will mean more stuff, and though it will have a price tag, there won'y have to a be a monthly tithe sucking at our bank accounts.
Free-to-play isn’t a drastic move for WildStar. It has plenty to sell without compromising its vision any more than it has had to to retain a scant subscriber base – vendors already dispense experience boosts for a virtual currency, while the C.R.E.D.D subscription alternative can be bought for real cash. Plus, it’s an ostentatious, loot-spewing, praise-lavishing space romp, which is all the staying power necessary to keep a hugely expanded player base spending money.
A crowd through the door is all it needs to thrive – a big crowd, mind: people will tend to drop in and out, and that’s why I think Carbine and NCSOFT were right not to go with the “buy-to-play” (double quotes for disgust) model many have asked for. To get momentum going there can be no barrier to anyone who wants to play nostalgic space cowboy.
Numbers are what WildStar needs to survive, but though I welcome that new rush of Nexians through the transmat terminal it is, in a selfish way, a bit sad. WildStar subscribers are endangered, and as a result they stick together like genetically enhanced honey from an ill-advised Protostar business venture. It has been refreshing to be part of a community which goes out of its way to be warm and patient, in-game and on the message boards, in the knowledge that there can only be a few hundred people left to team up with.
Putting out calls for groups the old fashioned way, participating in weekly server-wide events organised through the forums and tuning in to the global chat channel reveals a bunch of people who love their game and are intent on making the most of a bad situation. They’re going to be outnumbered soon, and though it will almost certainly rescue WildStar, going free-to-play may take the biggest toll on those who boldly stayed where they were.