Monday, October 18, 2010

Is Star Wars the Old Republic doomed?

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.


  1. It's really hard to say. What I believe is that SWTOR will manage to sell 1 million copies or more, but it's how many will keep subscribing that's the question. Somehow, I don't think whether or not it's like WoW/unlike WoW that is going to be issue; that's just a too simplistic way of looking at things.

    What I think matters is accessibility and depth. SWTOR is probably going to attract a lot of non-MMO-gamers, likely more so than any other MMO. Star Wars fans and Bioware RPG fans may be checking this one out, some of whom may never have even touched an MMO their whole lives. Consider how millions picked up Dragon Age and the Mass Effect games; if SWTOR can manage to keep even a fraction of this demographic playing and subbing, then it is going to be a force (heh) to be reckoned with. But while the game has to be easy enough for new players to understand, it also needs to have content and substance that will keep MMO veterans interested as well. And we really don't know enough about that yet. So for now all predictions on the longevity of SWTOR are going to be just that -- predictions. I'm not ready to call financial doom or success either way.

  2. @MMOgamerchick: I'm in pretty much the same boat. The fact that they are going after untapped markets gives them a better chance of success than other recent big budget MMOs in my mind. The last MMOs to really go after untapped markets were WoW and a series of FtP MMO aimed an children and tweens. All of them have done really well.

    However, we aren't sure how much Bioware/ EA have really spent and what proportion of the new market they are tapping will stay subbed more than a month or two. It's really hard to say either way how SWTOR will do. I do think pronouncements of doom are premature, however.

    I also think comparisons to WAR are a bit ridiculous. All indications are that SWTOR is going to be a more engaging game out of the gate than WAR was, particularly to fans of Bioware RPGs (and there are a lot of us).

  3. Yeah, I don't get the comparisons to WAR. They are very different games, in almost every angle I look at it.

    And I have no doubt a lot of money has been pumped into making SWTOR, but $300 million still seems a bit high...

  4. If the game has a strong narrative and is online multiplayer in some form, it can do well.

    The expected target audience would likely be whoever played the KOTOR games before (and liked it), other Bioware fans, plus perhaps some additional MMO players.

    I do not think they have any hardcore or typical enthusiast MMO players as their main audience.

    With a strong story focus I think a comparision with Guild Wars would be more relevant than some other MMO titles mentioned by others. Despite no subscription fee that game would probably be in black numbers even with a large chunk if some of the speculated SWTOR budget numbers.

  5. @Sente: I think you are exactly correct, they are not really going for current MMO enthusiasts (at least not primarily). I suspect they are hoping to have the Guild Wars "strong and steady box sales" effect, where they don't budge on the price of a box even a year or two out, and combine that with sub fees for some subset of those players.

  6. I still say SWTOR should monetize like Guild Wars and just totally ditch subs. The design fits that far better than the "standard" subscription model. I wrote about that a while ago, and I stand by it.