Amazingly enough, Tobold and Syncaine agreed on something last week, that Star Wars: the Old Republic is doomed to financial failure. I suspect this was because it's too much like WoW (classes, quests, levels, PvE focused) for Syncaine and it's not enough like WoW for Tobold (who argues that no-one plays MMOs for the narratives). However, Ardwulf also weighed in, and running some off-the-cuff numbers also concluded that the situation for SWTOR looks pretty grim. I think Ardwulf actually raises some good points.
To be sure, at first consideration 100+ million looks like an utterly insane budget for any game, even an MMO. However, budgets for sub-free games are hitting 100 million in some cases, for example Grand Theft Auto IV. Those games make zero from subs going forward (though in some cases they sell optional content packs). Admittedly, all the games listed on that website cater to bigger markets than SWTOR because they are on both consoles and the PC. Further, if Bioware really has spent 300 million, I'd tend to agree with Ardwulf that Bioware and EA are screwed. However, with all those qualifiers, I think a budget of around 100-200 million would not be completely insane.
I think it will come down to how well BIOWARE executes the MMO part of SWTOR, and that's what we know the least about at this point (almost nothing really, I'm not even sure if there will be an auction house as I type this). A lot of commentators seem to assume that we are about to see another "sell a million boxes and then crash to 100K steady subs" fiasco ala Warhammer Online and Age of Conan (the last two really big budget MMOs). However I really doubt that.
Both WAR and AoC seriously fell down on basics at launch (for example, AoC was missing features listed on the retail box!?!), and despite that still managed around 100K steady subs. In contrast to those games (and modern AoC for that matter), I expect SWTOR to have a polished and enjoyable leveling game at launch. I don't think we can really generalize from the launches of WAR and AoC to what will happen with SWTOR.
SWTOR is going to be an important test for "PC alone" as a target for big budget games. Based on the fact that it's the unofficial sequel to the much beloved KoTR and KoTR II games, if Bioware was set to release SWTOR across PCs and consoles I think everyone would be a lot more comfortable with it having a big budget. Just on box sales, which would undoubtedly be in the millions, they could expect to recoup most of their budget. Any subs on top of that would be gravy.
However, by choosing to stick to the PC market...they are likely looking at initial box sales of no more than around 2 million. I do think they can top the 1 million boxes that WAR and AoC did, but not by a ton. Maybe over the first year they will get up to 3 or 4 million if the word of mouth is really good. Regardless, on box sales it seems obvious they are not getting back 100-200 million.
What success or failure will really come down to is how many of their users they retain, and whether the steady population grows or shrinks in the year after launch. At this point, there are too many unknowns to judge what is likely to happen. For example:
- What will be the population momentum of a game that sells 1 million + boxes and is actually polished and playable at launch? WAR and AoC certainly haven't given us a clue.
- How many people will stick around to play an MMO that emphasizes an engaging solo experience over typical MMO mechanics?
- How many fans of the rich narratives of single player RPGs want to play an MMO but find a market that doesn't really cater to them?
- How many Star Wars fans will play an MMO that isn't a sand box? Star Wars galaxies was north of 200K subs until the NGE according to most narratives, and to say it was (and still is) a niche product design would be a huge understatement.
There are a lot of unknowns in play that could shake out either way. In many ways SWTOR is aiming at a market that isn't well served by the current generation of MMOs, and really never has been well served : players that want a moment-to-moment play experience as polished and engaging as a big budget offline RPG in an MMO. Whether this will be enough to make a it a breakout hit is anyone's guess. However, I'm not ready to start composing pithy phrases for SWTOR's tombstone just yet.