WildStar Goes Free, Gets Biggest-Ever Update Today

Q&A: We talk with Carbine Studios about the business model transition and the release of WildStar: Reloaded.

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The world of WildStar has changed. Carbine Studios on Tuesday re-launched the PC MMO as a free-to-play game and pushed out its biggest-ever update, which the studio is calling WildStar: Reloaded.

WildStar launched with a subscription model in June 2014. But, after seeing initial player figures and assessing where the game stood in the overall MMO market, Carbine decided just months after launch to transition to a free-to-play model, which was announced back in May. That transition has now taken place, representing a major milestone in the game's history, product director Mike Donatelli says.

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Veteran WildStar players will receive bonuses for their loyalty, while anyone who wants to continue paying a subscription fee can do so to earn "Signature" status. Although there are no restrictions placed on free players (every zone, dungeon, raid, and battleground is accessible), there are some limitations to free accounts in terms of character slots and auction house functionality. For a full breakdown of the differences between free and paid WildStar accounts, check out this detailed free-to-play FAQ.

Don't take WildStar's business model transition as a sign that Carbine is backing away from the game, however, Donatelli tells GameSpot. He stressed that Carbine's commitment to WildStar and creating more compelling content for it to keep players engaged has never been stronger.

"Just because we're going free-to-play doesn't mean we're going to be stopping on developing the kinds of unique and compelling content that have made a good name for us out there in the community," he said.

On top of the business model switch, Carbine also today launched WildStar: Reloaded. This major update, described as the "most comprehensive" to date," adds a variety of new content and accessibility features (including refined starting zones and more) that should appeal to newcomers and veteran players alike.

To learn more about WildStar's free-to-play conversion and Reloaded update, we spoke with Donatelli. Among other things, he tells us that, while WildStar now has more microtransactions, these are aimed at convenience and have been designed to be fair; you can't buy power. In addition, everything in the game can be earned through gameplay, provided you play long enough. Below are some highlights from our interview with Donatelli, while we'll have more from our discussion later in the week.

You can start playing WildStar for free right now by signing up for an account at the game's website.

What was the leading factor in going free to play? At what point did you decide on it?

That decision was made pretty soon, I would say within a few months after we launched, back in June [2014]. We looked at some of the numbers, how many people we were getting into the game, what people were doing once they got in, and then we kind of looked at the market, where it stood, and it became a pretty obvious decision for us. The main driver behind that decision was really, anyone who wanted to play WildStar we wanted to make sure that they were able to do that.

"If you look at the MMO market, there are just not many subscription games that are left" -- Donatelli

So basically, we got rid of all the barriers to entry. And we've also over the last year getting rid of a lot of the in-game barriers to our content, working on accessiblity, making sure that we have tons of content for all different kinds of players whether they be casual or the dungeon and raiding crowd. If you look at the cadence of releases that we had since January and February, everything that we've been doing has been to get as many playes into the game as possible and have as many players as possible enjoy that content. And I think we've done a pretty good job with that.

What do you think free-to-play allows you to do that you couldn't before? Basically, why is it in the best interest of the game to go free-to-play?

I think the number one answer to that question is if you look at the MMO market, there are just not many subscription games that are left; it's an extremely competitive market. And so I think for us, our goal was to get as many people into the game as possible, it was just obvious that that was the best decision to make based on where the market is today. The majority of AAA MMOs right now are free-to-play MMOs and I think that basically put us in the best position to be successful and to offer the best experience for our players.

What are did you hear from fans when you originally announced the change?

I think at the very begin there is always concern. They might wonder what form your free-to-play model is going to take. I think unlike many companies who have done this, what we decided right from the get go was we were going to be as transparent and upfront about our plans as early as possible. We announced free-to-play back in May before we decided to flip the switch. Everything since that time has been about communicating to our existing players and our new players what is WildStar as far as a free-to-play game. I think that our free-to-play systems are more than fair; I think what we have tried to do is almost every case as far as our design is to not always take away things; especially don't take away things from players who have already been playing. But if you decide to make purchases in WildStar, we're just adding on top of that experience instead of taking things away from people. [Beta testers] almost across the board are saying, at least from a free-to-play standpoint, it's a really fair and compelling system for WildStar.

With this change, presumably you're going to see a huge upswing in players and in turn, server strain. Are you boosting the number of servers, hiring more devs, etc?

We learned a lot from our launch; we've got a really great operations team. Craig Turner is our director of operations, who has been with WildStar from launch all the way through. So they've got great plans to make sure that the servers are ready for the influx of new players that are coming once we flip the switch on the 29th. As much as we can, we want this to be a smooth transition for all of our players; it's always a great time, an exciting time to be playing an MMO, when something like this happens. It's going to be potentially millions of new players that are going to come in. That's just great for everybody. Queue times will be lower, lots of people around to group with and take on world bosses. I think it's just a great time to be playing WildStar.

WildStar wasn't designed from the beginning as a free to play game. What sorts of challenges did you run into with this transition and how did you overcome them?

A lot of the changes we made are obviously tied to the in-game store. We had to focus more time and effort on making sure that there's lots of things in our store for players to buy. And I think, there's a lot of in-game systems where, those systems exist--we had a rez mechanic in the game--but you look at some of thoese individual systems and you figure out ways where you can transition those to make more sense in a free-to-play model. So much of the experience that you get in a free-to-play game is about buying things that make your game easier or more covenient. So anywhere where there's an opportunity to do that, we had to make some changes to the systems. I do think though that the biggest chunk of work that we did was actually just not specifically related to the free-to-play transition, but was just more related to making the game better for everybody.

"I think that our free-to-play systems are more than fair" -- Donatelli

We totally revamped the character creation experience; we changed the tutorial level to be faster; you actually have the option at the very beginning of the game to choose how you want to start the game. Totally revamped what we call our world story in the game so we added a new story instance at level 15 to get players into that story much earlier [used to be level 35]. We've made big changes to our dungeons to make them more accessible. Raids used to be 40-man, now they're 20-man. We have lots of casual content at end-game; we have a contract system which is basically just a bonus objective system that drives players to different pieces of content and they get rewarded for doing that. So it's kind of a long-winded way of saying although we did make a lot of changes to the game to make it better for a free-to-play business model, I think the best and the coolest changes are in making the game more accessible and better for all of our players.

What is the extent of the microtransactions? Are there any limitations for free players?

We'll have the usual things; convenience items, mounts, pets, costumes, lots of general customization options. We have things, as you're playing through the game there will be other convenience opportunities so you can purchase immediate rez if you happen to die in an encounter. Instant teleporation across the map; those are the kinds of things you will be able to purchase with our microtransaction currency. What we definitely didn't want to do is sell power; so you won't be buying weapons or armor or things that are more powerful--we just don't sell those kinds of things on our store. We still want players to basically assign value to the time they play in our game; we don't want people to buy power in our in-game store. Something to take note of is we also have what we call a 'sweat currency' in our game, which is called Omnibits. This is just a currency that drops as you're playing through the game. If you earn enough Omnibits, you can actually buy the same exact kinds of items that you can buy on the microtransaction store with real money--you can actually buy just by spending time in the game. That again is just another one of the ways that our free-to-play systems I think are fair and reward not just players who are paying but players who just want to spend time and are enjoying WildStar.

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For more on WildStar, check out GameSpot's review.

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