Curt Schilling’s Game Would Have Been Free To Play

A couple of weeks ago, Electronic Arts, the mammoth video game company, announced a mammoth change to their hit game, Star Wars: The Old Republic. A massively multiplayer online game (MMO) of the same type that Curt Schilling was attempting to build with his failed startup 38 Studios, Old Republic would no longer charge users to play. Whereas before wannabe joystick Jedis were forced to cough up $14.99 per month, now they’ll have the option to play for free. Rather than rely on subscription fees, EA will try to make money by selling premium content and virtual items within the game.

Flagging that story on his Twitter feed, Ted Nesi, a reporter for Providence’s WPRI (and a must-follow on all things 38 Studios), wondered how the move would have affected Project Copernicus, the MMO that Schilling’s company was working to create. Nesi asked, “Would 38 Studios even have been able to charge for Copernicus next year?”

The answer is that they wouldn’t have tried. When I talked to Schilling for my story breaking down 38 Studios’ crash, he told me that the company’s plan was to make Copernicus free to play and to seek revenue from within the game, the same way EA is attempting with Old Republic.

“We were going to be the first triple-A, hundred-million-dollar-plus, free-to-play, micro-transaction-based MMO. That was one of our big secrets,” Schilling told me. “I think when we eventually showed off the game for the first time, the atom bomb was going to be free-to-play. When we announced that at the end, that was gonna be the thing that, I think, shocked the world.”

Though Schilling was initially against the idea, he said that he eventually came around. “You won’t find a more ardent opposition to free to play than me, and I went 180 degrees,” he said.

Shortly after our interview, I followed up with him over email on the subject. Schilling said that he believed free-to-play was one reason 38 Studios was closer than ever to a financing deal that could have kept it alive, if only Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee hadn’t been so public in his disapproval of the company. Schilling wrote, “NO ONE was expecting it, and it was another thing that changed the tenor of conversations with investors late in the game.” When I asked how exactly the tenor changed, he replied, “Most investors wanted NOTHING to do with subscription-based products, they were all on the social media, and free-to-play games as a means to revenue.”

Based on EA’s decision with Old Republic—and the many other MMOs that have also gone to free models, including Everquest, Aion, Guild Wars, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and The Lord of the Rings Onlineit looks like Schilling was right on that count. But of course, as my story on 38 Studios delves into, Schilling was apparently not as close to securing funding for the company as he believed, free-to-play or not. And it’s yet to be seen whether EA’s bold gambit with Old Republic will pay off.

Above all, though, considering that Schilling told me that Copernicus was not yet actually fun to play, it looks like whether free-to-play would have mattered will forever remain an open question.