In an interview with Polygon prior to this announcement, WildStar product director Mike Donatelli pointed toward a "state of the game" blog post he made at the start of 2015. In that post, Donatelli laid out three major goals for the team at Carbine Studios: to encourage and act on player feedback, to create content for all types of players and to grow the game.
Donatelli believes that recent patches like November 2014's Mystery of Genesis Prime, February's Protogames Initiative and this month's Invasion: Nexus update have helped fulfill those first two promises. The third goal — growing the game — has proven more elusive. The move to free-to-play, he says, will help.
"The only real way to grow the game and get more people into the game is by getting rid of the box cost and the monthly subscription," Donatelli said.
WildStar creative director Chad Moore said the shift to free-to-play was "not a decision that we went into lightly." He stressed that the change will not affect WildStar's overall approach.
"The only real way to grow the game ..."
"We have always considered WildStar to be a AAA game," said Moore. "We're continuing to release AAA content. That is not going to change one iota as we move to free-to-play."
More also noted that Carbine Studios will not be locking any content behind paywalls. "All dungeons, new zones, new shiphand missions, new adventures — none of those things will be inaccessible," he said. "All of it will always be accessible to all of our players."
To accomplish this, Carbine will add two new currencies to the game. First, there will be NCoin, a real money transaction currency that can be used to purchase "convenience and cosmetic items." Donatelli brought up examples such as mounts, costumes and potions that give the player an increased rate of experience gain for a set amount of time.
"... is by getting rid of the box cost and the monthly subscription"
"The most important thing to call out is that we're not going to sell power," Donatelli said. "That was a team-wide declaration. We had some ideas that we cut just because a few members of the team thought it could be construed as selling power. We are real serious about not selling power."
On top of NCoin, there will be a new currency called omni-bits that players earn alongside gold. Most of the items on sale for NCoin will also be purchasable with omni-bits, if players are willing to put in the time to earn them.
"For players that just want to play and spend their time, they can get almost all of the same things as players who buy NCoin," Moore said. "Philosophically, we don't want there to be something those players can't get."
Along with the real money transaction items, Carbine will be introducing a replacement for the current subscription system that it's referring to as "a signature membership." This will open up new bonuses for players who choose to continue paying a monthly fee, though again Moore and Donatelli stressed that nothing would be closed off from players going completely free.
"We wanted to make sure that in this transition we didn't do things that were painful," Donatelli said. "Like, oh, you can't sprint now. You can do all the things you could when you had a subscription for free. We just added a whole bunch of things on top of that, additional things that you get from being a signature member."
Carbine is also looking to reward fans who have stuck with the game during its first year. Players who have maintained a subscription from the WildStar launch last summer up through the free-to-play launch this fall will receive an exclusive new mount. Those who subscribe through the summer leading up to the free-to-play launch — regardless of whether they were around when the game launched — will get a companion pet, a special housing item, a title and four months of Signature membership for no additional cost.
Carbine plans to sweeten the pot for longtime players even further with a loyalty program. The longer players have been subscribed — whether to the current subscription-only system or the future signature membership system — the more loyalty points they will earn. Players will be able to redeem them for special prizes. Donatelli says non-subscribers will be able to get these gifts as well — it will just take a lot of work.
Speaking to both current fans and new players interested in trying out WildStar, Moore stressed that the game "was the best reviewed MMO of 2014 according to Metracritic, and it is a way better game today than it was when we launched."
"Our plan is to drive millions of players into the game"
He added that the update that enables free-to-play will include a lot of new content as well, including revamped tutorials, a complete overhaul of the player stats and itemization in the game and tweaked dungeon progress to make the difficulty ramp-up smoother.
"The dungeon content in our game has always been really well-reviewed and well-received, because it's very unique and challenging in its own way," Moore said. "But after listening to players and looking at the actual analytics, we saw players were getting into dungeons and wanting to play them, but they weren't being as successful at the beginning, which drove some players to not try them again."
Moore says endgame dungeons will have the same high level of difficulty that WildStar's hardcore fans love, but it will build to that level of challenge more gradually throughout the leveling process.
Donatelli doesn't believe the shift to free-to-play will impact Carbine's ability to continue pumping out massive, game-changing content patches. He says the developer has learned how to listen to its community and will continue to do so moving forward.
"We're going free-to-play in the fall," Donatelli said. "We're in no rush to do it. We're going to do it right, or we're not going to do it at all. That's why we're announcing it now. We could have just waited like everyone else does and pulled a switch and said, 'Surprise!' But we want to get it on the public test realm. We want to test it. We want players to give us feedback so we can make it better for them.
"Literally our plan is to drive millions of players into the game. That's the best part."
Carbine Studios and NCSoft have not provided an exact date that WildStar will change to free-to-play, but it's currently planned for this fall. For more on the game, check out our overview video below.
Correction: An initial draft of the title referred to WildStar's upcoming real-money transaction currency as "Carbine Coins." This was the title referred to in our interviews, but NCSoft has informed us that the currency will actually be called "NCoin." We have changed all instances of "Carbine Coins" in the article to "NCoin" to reflect this.