The birth of the Dilithium black market.
Star Trek Online is going free-to-play. We've known for a while, but just when and why it's going free has eluded us, until now. Cryptic's decision to remove the subscription cost from their most recent MMO wasn't sudden, according to Stephen D'Angelo, Executive Producer on STO and Chief Technical Officer. "We've always wanted the game to be free-to-play," he says, "in fact we tried to make it free-to-play at the original launch, but our publisher [Atari] didn't want us doing that so we didn't do that." Instead of almost two years ago, the switch to free-to-play will occur on January 17, 2012.
Cryptic's experiences with their other subscription-based-gone-free-to-play game Champions Online "kinda got a mixed result." The system locked a lot of content out to players such as power sets (class abilities), and limited the number of character slots available. The developers found that players didn't really like paying for content, so for Star Trek Online Cryptic is taking a very different approach.
The process of making Star Trek Online subscription-free is a little more interesting than what we've seen in the past. It's due to STO's level of difficulty. Simply put, it's not very hard at all. According to D'Angelo, it's possible for players to hit the level cap and get the best gear inside of a single day. The end result is that totally sweet loot doesn't feel as totally sweet as it should. "A lot of the things people acquired weren't worth very much to them," D'Angelo says. So the plan leading up to the switch to free-to-play is to make the high-end stuff more difficult to acquire, and the low-end stuff simpler. Put simply, "[We're] revisiting the game's economy."
Star Trek Online's switch to free-to-play will come with a new opening cinematic
And that goes doubly with the switch to free-to-play, because a potentially massive shift to the economy is coming -- Dilithium. Dilithium is a resource used to get the high-end stuff in the game, and it will continue to be into the foreseeable future. However, come free-to-play time, Dilithium will be the only item in the game that can be auctioned off for Cryptic Points, the real-cash currency in Cryptic games. The idea is to allow players who have more time than money to acquire and sell Dilithium to players who have a little more disposable income but not as much time to grind out daily quests. Nothing that could cause an imbalance, like gear, is "created" by spending money. Someone somewhere has to earn it. "Dilithium buys you the cool gear. People who buy Cryptic Points can go to our store and can buy the cool ships, but they can't get the cool gear. We're going to let people sell their Dilithium to other players for Cryptic Points."
Players who get the Dilithium through normal means will, ideally, then have access to goods from the C-Store, Cryptic's in-game cash store. According to D'Angelo, "if you have no money and want to spend no money you can literally get everything available in our store." The C-Store lineup will not change very much for the free-to-play switch. It'll still primarily sell starships, pets and consumables like experience boosts. Things like gear will never be sold directly.
There's a limit to the amount of Dilithium a player can acquire through normal means in a given day, thus creating demand, however it might be opened up a little more down the track. The developer has a target price per Dilithium they hope the market hits, but they'll for the most part leave it up to the playerbase to establish prices.
It's an interesting system that could either work wonderfully well, keeping both skilled and paying players in the best gear, but it requires the community's acceptance of the system. It's also up for debate whether this conforms to the maligned "pay-to-win" model, as players can still theoretically "buy" the best gear, even if it's just from another player. I guess we'll find out when the switch happens early next year