I tried convincing a number of friends to play WildStar when it launched last year. Many liked the idea of fast, twitch-based combat in an MMO, as well as the idea of taking part in challenging large-scale raids, but they were too put off by one thing – the subscriptions. No matter how much I tried, the monthly sub was too much to get over in an age where most other online games had scrapped them. In the end I couldn’t blame them – hype for the game waned very quickly as the initial subscription levels dropped, and Carbine Studios seemingly went through a rather turbulent time during the second half of 2014.

There was something of a rebirth at the start of the year, though. New content began to arrive in the form of new instances and mission types, and then back in May Carbine announced that WildStar would switch to being Free-To-Play this year. In fact, by the time you read this article the switch will already have happened – you can download and play the entire game for free right now – but at the end of last week I was invited to speak to Product Director Mike Donatelli & Creative Director Chad Moore over the phone to discuss the imminent relaunch of their MMO title.

As always with anyone at Carbine, the conversation was fun, enthusiastic, refreshingly honest, and ultimately ended in talk of hats.

Free, free at last

I kicked things by asking how it felt to finally be at the point where WildStar was finally relaunching as a F2P game. “It feels like I’m on drugs,” Donatelli joked as he began. “I feel super excited. It’s, like, four days from now. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure this is going to be tight when we do it, but yeah. Super, super exciting.” “Yeah, I echo that, although I’m not sure if I feel like I’m on drugs…” Moore added. “Well, you know, it’s exciting!” Donatelli replied through the laughter. “The excitement of it… I imagine! Not that I have ever taken a drug, so I don’t know about any of that, but, erm…” Moore then continued his answer by explaining how it has been a long road since WildStar launched last year.

“We have gone through some tough times as a studio,” he began, “We’ve made some tough decisions, and we’ve worked as hard as we possibly can to get to this point today. My personal feeling is that we have never been more ready, and the game has never been better than it has been today. I think we’re going to have an awesome Free-To-Play launch.” Donatelli then interjected with “This game, I can honestly say, is 1012% better than when we launched it, so there we go!” I was then told I should be thankful he didn’t include the decimal point.

Opening the floodgates

Before I got into my main questions, I asked Donatelli and Moore to give me a quick rundown of why newcomers and former players should be playing WildStar in its Free-To-Play form. Donatelli began by covering what he referred to as the ‘grizzled veterans’ they hoped to win back. “We wanted to make sure that when we do this Free-To-Play transition that we were going to be accessible to a new group of players,” he began. “We’re casting a much wider net, so we know we’re going to get players in all across the board, but we wanted to focus on and make sure that we were taking care of the players who had ever bought the game, had ever spent any money on it, and make sure they were getting rewarded for sticking with us or ever having been involved.”

He was referring to the Cosmic Rewards program, which awards players with various tiers of in-game goodies for all the money they have put into the game. This would continue past the F2P launch, meaning newcomers can also earn these rewards, but Donatelli explained how the most loyal fans, who have stuck with WildStar since launch, would get plenty of spoils awaiting them. “If you stayed with us the whole time, you’ve built up so many loyalty points at this point that when you start playing the game the day after F2P you’ll have three of the six tiers filled out and get all those rewards from day one,” said Donatelli. He described it as “a cornucopia of badass stuff” awaiting the most loyal players, including “the coolest mount we have ever made.” I wasn’t told what it was exactly, but has to be cooler than hoverboards, which is rather exciting.

He then gave me a rather interesting fact – subscriptions numbers actually rose in May when the F2P announcement was made. That only goes to show how popular the customisation content in WildStar is with its fans.

Moore then stepped in to cover why newcomers should give WildStar a go. “I think there’s two parts to that,” he began. “The first part is just the overall improvements that we have made to WildStar. Mike touched on some of the things that we have done up until this transition build but once we actually go live with the F2P version there’s a ton of overall game improvements that are coming to WildStar.” Donatelli then pointed out how these changes would also be good for returning players.

“Many of the changes that we’ve made were specifically keeping in mind that once the game goes F2P we have millions of new users in there,” Moore continued. He went on to explain how the core of this was in what the devs call the ‘new player experience.’ “We totally revamped our character creation process, letting players really make informed choices about their class and their path.” The explain Moore gave me was how WildStar new includes small videos that visually demonstrate most aspects of the game. In character creation, you will be able to see how a Spellslinger differs from a Engineer, or what the Soldier player path provides over the Settler player path. As a result, “the overall flow of character creation is just much better,” Moore explained.

He then gave another example of early-game streamlining in the multi-tiered tutorial. Newcomers could opt for the full thing, learning all the gameplay mechanics on offer, while more experienced MMO players could opt for a lesser tutorial or none at all, being dropped right into the game world instead. “We’ve [also] revamped our dungeon experience, to get more players into that [and] engaging with that content at our top levels” Moore continued. “We’ve made lots of quality of live improvements. “We’ve revamped our sprint mechanic, we have a navpoint system, we’ve smoothed out our play spaces, adjusted kill counts that weren’t necessary, tried to focus less on the grind and more on fun moment-to-moment gameplay at almost every level of the game. So, if you’re not getting the message, then the message is ‘WildStar is an overall better experience for all of our different kinds of players,’ and that was our goal going into F2P.

The long road to Free-dom

As you could already tell by what has been said, there has been a lot of work put into the F2P switch by the devs, so I asked Donatelli and Moore what they considered to be the most challenging aspect of getting the game ready for the relaunch. “Man, that’s tough,” Donatelli replied. “I mean, it’s crazy. After we launched, within the first three months we were talking about F2P as an option just because, when we started making the game years ago, we built the systems with the idea of a subscription. When we started making the game about going on five years ago there were a lot of subscription games on the market, so it wasn’t a bad idea at the time, and [if] you’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound at that point. By the time we had gotten closer to launch, we had already designed all of these systems with the idea of a subscription model, which is completely different [to F2P.]”

“I’ve talked about it before, but when you launch an MMO and you’ve been crunching for a whole year up until that point and then you launch, there’s a sign of relief and you can start planning what’s next and what the expansion looks like, what’s this, that and the other thing” Donatelli continued. “For us, we had this kind of little bit of a lull but we’ve been literally busting ass for a  year to make this transition, so trying to pick out one specific thing about how hard it’s been… I guess, if you held my feet to the fire I would say re-itemising the entire game, and re-stating everything and creating new stats from the old ones because, well, the old ones were super WildStar-vibey but they weren’t easy to understand. So yeah, re-itemisation and re-stating everything was a gigantic test for us, but we had to do it.”

Content is king

I’ve said it several times on-site, but I still stand by the 9/10 review I gave WildStar for its launch back. However, at the end of my review I did stress that it all depended on regular updates – something that appeared to be working initially and then very quickly changed due to a number of reasons. I asked what Carbine had planned to ensure that the content kept flowing at regular intervals for once newcomers had levelled and veterans had experienced content they had missed out on in recent months. “The mea culpa on that for me is I fully believed we could do [laughs] a monthly cadence of updates,” Donatelli began. “I really thought we could. All that kind of stuff was planned out a year in advance, and it was really hinging on the idea that when you’re creating an MMO everybody’s pushing towards a goal or specific date.”

“But transitioning from a studio that’s made a game to a studio that’s trying to manage a live product – those monthly updates, just the QA time alone to make sure they weren’t going to be really buggy and all that stuff, kind of pushed us into a quarterly cadence. This release, our F2P release, will actually coincide with our fourth quarterly update, so if anybody’s been following we’re released four quarterly updates right after the other and they’ve been successful. We have every intention of continuing on this quarterly update process because we know we can hit it! It’s the perfect amalgamation of getting players new content.” Donatelli went on to explain how smaller updates for the microtransaction store would occur very regularly, so new consumables, mounts, and costumes would be added all the time.

“Lore, man!”

I directed my next question to Chad – the man with the Lore Bombs©  – by pointing out how the World Story was one of the aspects players enjoyed in WildStar. “Ugh, I am literally never going to hear the end of this,” quipped Donatelli before I asked if the World Story would be continuing, as well as if there were any teases Moore could give us. Moore then joked how Donatelli had just sat back because he knew Moore would be a while answering this one. “The direct answer to your first question is yes – the World Story is absolutely going to continue,” Moore began. “I think with all of the stuff that’s happened with the transition, and with our big focus on really improving the core experience that we had already released, there’s been less of a focus on new max-level content that continues that story. That is absolutely going to be changing here very soon!”

“We’ve already talked about the name of chapter two of the Nexus saga, which is Vault of the Archon,” he continued. “I have already played it in a very finished state, and it’s pretty awesome! It continues on with the big reveals of what is going on with Planet Nexus. It does involve two of our very famous, iconic characters… which I am not going to talk about but I would really love to tell you who they are!” Moore added how on top of this, the team were working on a new zone and a new raid, along with in-game events such as the Halloween-inspired Hallow’s Eve, and the hoverboard-based zPrix Invitational. “There is a very famous holiday that takes place at the end of the year that I can’t take specifics about [yet!], but I think, again, players can expect some really big and exciting new things coming out of WildStar.” Donatelli added how such events would break the ‘quarterly updates’ rule he had mentioned earlier, so the next three months would keep players very busy.

Being prepared

Back at last year’s launch, player queues made getting onto WildStar a challenging affair for a large number. The creation of last year’s Megaservers have lessened a repeat of such problems, but I had to ask if Carbine were ready for the sudden influx of players this time around. “Well somebody’s job depends on it so I’m going to say ‘yes’,” Dontelli said with a laugh. He pointed out that it’s a different situation this time around, and how the F2P nature meant numbers would probably grow over time instead of instantly. “We’ve been out for a while, so I’m hoping that with the help of NC West Publishing and these fine folks in PR that we’re talking with, and you guys [in the press] that we’ll get people coming in over a period of time, but even if the first minute it opens half a million people jump into it we’ll be fine.”

“I think, as Mike said, we’ve got a really motivated Ops team,” Moore added. “Craig Turner, who many know as Cougar (“You can’t stop the Cougs!”, Donatelli interjected) has always been very vocal with the community, giving them updates on what’s going on. He is assured that his team is ready to go. He feels he’s communicating with the community as this thing gets released and I think we’re at a pretty smooth launch here.”

The focus on PvP

I changed the subject to how the lastest PR push had seen less focus on the PvP side of things – something Carbine had previously wanted to make a big thing. I asked if the team would be turning their attention back onto PvP properly in the next few months once the new set of updates were live. “Well one way to answer that is that we’ve actually turned a lot of focus on to PvP internally, working on class design, making sure it is balanced and ready to go,” Moore replied. “We have a new PvP map, new PvP season, and new rewards,”added Donatelli. “Again, the new Rune system had a lot to do with putting very specific PvP Runes in the hands of the players and letting them tweak their characters, so hoping that’s a good bump right there when we go F2P. But you’re right – we can’t let it fall by the wayside, and I’m still on the PvP Megaserver. I’m just sitting there, waiting. I’m just waiting for the day of the F2P switch… [laughter]… come to papa!”

“Our hope when we when we flip the switch is that we get a big influx of players [to the PvP servers]”, Moore continued. “We’ve been letting all of our PvE players know that our free realm transfers are coming to an end, and we want as many people to get back as possible. I think there’s still some wriggle room in there depending on what they’re doing if they’re trying to finish the [current PvP] season out, but our hope is that with the launch is that our PvP servers are just as vibrant and robust as they were when we first launched [last year.]”

Looking back

With WildStar having evolved a fair bit since its original launch, and was about to evolve further with the F2P switch. With that in mind, I asked Moore and Donatelli if, given the chance and had they had more time, would they have wanted WildStar to be as it is now back at the original launch, or if they felt the team needed the experience of that first year to know this was the right path to take. “That’s a very insightful question. I wonder that often myself!” Donatelli replied with a laugh. “I think, honestly, had we had more time I can’t guarantee we would have come to this place that we are at now. I think designers, when they’re put in a box and you have some very serious hard limits, that you become very creative with what you have in front of you. So I’m afraid if we have more time we would have just meandered around even further.”

“I guess there are a couple of things, so I’ll say this – I wish we hadn’t gone with a subscription, for sure, I wish we hadn’t had 40-man raids, ‘cos that was kind of nostalgia personified, and 80-man Warplots… if 40-man raids were too hard to manage, then an 80-man Warplot match, with the way we had it designed where it was all guilds… We’ve made a lot of changes to that recently cut the size down, we’ve made so mercenaries can fill up more of the space, so we’ve made it more accessible – I guess that’s the thing. I wish we had made the game more accessible at launch than we did. But, that’s the past and I can’t change that. I can change the future, I have that power!”

And finally…

I then went to close the interview with my traditional final question – in your opinion, what is the most badass thing about WildStar Free-To-Play?

Moore went to begin answering. “Well, that’s easy for me-”

“Oh my god,” Donatelli interjected with laughter in his voice. “Chad’s gonna say ‘Lore, man!’”

“So I didn’t get a chance to talk about it before, Carl,” Moore continued, “but I should have, which is one of the big improvements we made to WildStar for the F2P transition is we brought the World Story way sooner [groans from Mike saying ‘Oh god’] into progression. Now you get a new story instance, completely new, called Alpha Sanctum at level 15 and, if you haven’t played it already, we even hinted at it in the very first cinematic in the game. That story that drives you through the mysteries of Nexus, the Eldan, Drusera, all of that stuff, is something that we put much more forward into progression so players get invested, and for me that is the most badass thing about WildStar.”

Donatelli was quick to follow-up with his answer. “Well, my most badass thing about WildStar is, and it’s killing me because I want to say the combat because, even as we’ve been changing it over time, I still haven’t played an MMO that has the kind of combat to the degree that we have. I never feel bored by the combat. I never feel like I’m pushing a bunch of buttons. I’m always feeling like ‘this next fight is going to be crazy.’ So I want to say the combat, but I say long-term, and this is what I would make a recommendation to everybody, it’s the customisation, right? I dick around with my house more than anything else – [even] my costumes – and when you see the F2P stuff where we’ve lowered the barrier to entry for costuming and costumes, and your availability, and having them account bound, it’s so much better. You can look pretty badass at level 3, so I say customisation.”

“Yeah, that’s great, Mike, but again… Alpha Sanctum, World Story, most badass thing,” Moore proclaimed.”

“I don’t see it, man,” Donatelli replied as Moore laughed. “I like the lore, I really do, I don’t mind it. I’m just more for ‘I look pretty damn badass!’”

The mention of customisation spurred me on to ask one more question – will there be all the cowboy hats to throw on my characters? “Hell yeah!” was Donatelli’s enthusiastic reply. “I love cowboy hats! There’s all kinds of cool hats coming!” I quipped that Donatelli had just sold me on returning as it was all about the hats. “It really is all about the hats!” he continued. “And wait until you see our [launch] trailer [which is] littered with cowboy hats!” Moore then confirmed that the launch trailer is “pretty badass” – and if you’ve played the video at the top of the article, you’ll already know that they are telling the truth.

Hopefully, this will be a rebirth of phoenix-like proportions for WildStar, as I really do rate the game for its combat and artistic style. Ultimately though, the decision rests on you, dear reader, to go and give it a go. After all, it doesn’t cost you a thing to download it, play through to level 50, and take part in some raids. The only thing that’s stopping you is time, but I honestly think it will be time well spent once you’re stomping around Planet Nexus.

A huge thanks to Mike and Chad for taking the time to chat to us! Be sure to stay tuned to the site for our impressions of WildStar’s F2P relaunch!