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Opinion: Where Star Wars: The Old Republic went horribly wrong

Opinion: Where Star Wars: The Old Republic went horribly wrong

Failed MMO Star Wars Old Republic

McKayla is not impressed

By now you’ve probably heard the news that Star Wars: The Old Republic, the spiritual successor to the Star Wars Galaxies MMO, is going Free To Play this November. (Right around the time Blizzard will be releasing the latest expansion to World of Warcraft.) That means that instead of being free to level 15, it will be free to max level, and free players will have access to almost the entire game. What people may not have heard is that The Old Republic actually only made it 7 months before introducing a limited F2P experience—download the game and play to level 15 for as long as you like. World of Warcraft, by comparison, held out for six years before offering anything other than a 14 day trial. So what is it that drove SW:TOR to Free To Play so quickly, and why do I think it’s ultimately a failed MMO?

Hint: it’s not the market

Any way you want to try spinning it, Free To Play is increasing—generally supported by microtransactions, including completely absurd anything-but-micro ones like EA’s $60+ roller coasters in Theme Park—but these are in games which are designed around small budgets (and were Free To Play from day one). This is very much not the case with SW:TOR—it was designed as a subscription model with the budget to match. The market didn’t demand it go F2P . One could argue that the market stopped caring months ago either way.

There is no disputing that there is a thriving market for Free To Play, and gamers eat it up—see Tribes Ascend, League of Legends, and Team Fortress 2, just for example. That’s not to say a game can’t survive on a subscription model, though—there is also a huge player base for Everquest 2 (an MMO from 2004). EQ 2 is severely limited if you are a F2P customer, and millions of people pay $15 per month to have the full experience. Eve Online is still subscription-based and counts hundreds of thousands of loyal customers. World of Warcraft has been hemorrhaging customers since it’s heyday,  yet still boasts over 8 million people paying $12-15 per month after a peak of 14 million. The subscription model is anything but dead or dying.

Here’s the important bit: People leave subscription games because of the game, not because of the money.

The most accurate explanation for why subscriptions will continue to work came from a friend in WoW. “I can spend $15 a month for at least 20 hours of entertainment, or I can spend $15 for a movie and another $10 for soda and popcorn . It’s a no-brainer.”

The failure of Star Wars

The number often bandied about for SW:TOR’s development costs is “at least $200M.” Prior to even the closed beta, I had the privilege of discussing some of the work going on behind the scenes with someone at Bioware (which included SW:TOR among other games.) Servers and workstations aren’t free—they are very expensive, and very necessary for game development. For a game of this scope, there are a lot of them. Based on the various discussions, things I’ve heard, and marketing I’ve seen, I honestly believe that the real cost of SW:TOR was most likely in excess of $250M—shattering the estimated $145M record spend on Final Fantasy VII.

When release came, the numbers looked solid. Not insane, but definitely solid—2.1 million units with 1.7 million subscribers a month later, according to EA. If they stayed at about that level, they could potentially recover those costs over time—but the subscribers didn’t stay with it. Within the first six months, it’s estimated that they lost as much as 40% of their subscriber base. Their concurrent player numbers have been continuing to decline—their first set of server mergers occurred in May, and their second set happened just last month. These are never good signs for subscriber health in an MMORPG.

Development hits a hard deadline

A fact that people often overlook is that SW:TOR had an absolute hard deadline for launch of December, 2011. Why? That was when the license for Star Wars Galaxies (another disasterpiece in its own right) expired. Lucasarts required them to launch no later than that date as part of obtaining and keeping the license for the Star Wars intellectual property. Lucasarts was apparently rather determined to not have any gap in availability of a Star Wars MMO.

Six years—that’s how long it took to develop this MMO. Private conversations long before launch with folks in the know seemed to be excited about the prospects, but less confident about being able to execute. There were multitudes of development problems. For example, issues came up with requiring everything to be voiced—if you’ve played, you know what I mean there—there were rumors of having to re-record massive amounts of it for various reasons along the way. Rumored plans for a streaming client—meaning one with a minimum of local files and most content downloaded on the fly—didn’t work out, requiring it to be replaced by a more traditional installation. There were server requirement and specification changes throughout. It wasn’t six years just because of the size of the world and work—there is no question there were significant problems and delays in there as well.

No, I don’t know how or what they changed during the development process. But I do know that many things were drastically changed throughout, some requiring major code rewrites, reshoots of motion capture, and re-recording of audio. These things cost money in terms of time spent, resources, and storage. The more work you have to redo, the more difficult it becomes to release on schedule. And unlike other games, TOR could not say “We’re delaying release for six months.” They had to release the day they did. That was the last possible date—or they would lose the license to publish the game. The end result is that what was released last December wasn’t truly finished—and the players knew it within the first week. There really was nothing that could be done about it.

Content is King

Because they didn’t have time to really finish the game, things like end-game content and PvP content get pushed back. When you have power players who will rush from level 1 to level 50 in two weeks, not having end game content for them means they’re out the door right away. They may or may not come back, but they won’t hang around when there’s no challenging foe for them to defeat and nothing to do. Many players also won’t tolerate having their progress deliberately slowed. In World of Warcraft, when it was originally released in 2004, going from level 1 to 60 was an epic journey that took ages and players loved or loathed it. Now, virtually every player expects to be able to roll a character and get to maximum level in two weeks or less. If your end game content isn’t up to snuff by the time they’re hitting max level, they’re cancelled by week four. And once a set of raids have been cleared by enough players, you’d best have the next set ready to release—or they’re gone, at least till those are released. If you make content easier to clear, that means players get to it quicker, and get bored of the “same old raid” quicker.

Tying storylines to classes also has a potential negative impact on players, one that people are quick to miss or forgive—until they run into it. To get new stories, you need a new alt—not a big deal. But to see the Bounty Hunter line requires playing a Bounty Hunter—and what happens if you can’t stand the way that class plays? You end up not having that story line available, because it’s just not fun. Similarly, there’s really only 4 classes—they’re mirrored between factions—because not many folks want two tanks that play about the same. It can quickly hit the point of “no more fun to be had here.” And adding quest lines in TOR means writing them, getting the OK from Lucasarts, recording new audio, getting the OK from Lucasarts, and so on. They can’t just recolor someone, write new text, and throw it up next patch. Any sort of expansion requires a massive undertaking on the level of the original game, for the same reasons. In other words, don’t expect to see quest lines expand any time soon.

TOR amplified this problem by initially doing a horrible job with raids (or “Operations” in TOR parlance). In February, they were still missing critical tools that most raiders now consider standard and/or mandatory according to a number of forum posts I found. Operations had numerous bugs that made it impossible for players to progress. Rewards for highest difficulty were the same as lower difficulties. It was possible for your personal loot chest (the one all players get) to contain tokens you couldn’t use. Difficulty overall was tuned around 8/16 players, more or less being able to Zerg through it with no coordination. Players seem to have been complaining since April of unresolved raid-stopping bugs, unresolved latency issues, a lack of new content, and a lack of variation. A quick look at the official forums covering Operations and Flashpoints showed 9 threads on the first page complaining about problems or requesting basic features that almost every other MMO has had for years. It would be fine if it was the significant minority of hardcore raiders—but it’s not. It’s pretty clearly across the entire spectrum of players.

Another complaint oft-repeated is the PvP in SW:TOR. I’m not a huge PvP player, but I do know that the PvP oriented players hate large swings in balance. If you promise them massive open-world PvP, you’d best deliver. There’s no question that TOR failed on open world, simply due to low population. But when players have been complaining about the same issues from beta through today—things like excessive stunlocking, crowd control, and persistent balance issues—well, something’s gone off the rails in a very bad way.

It’s not the MMO market in general: Star Wars failed on its own

People are continually comparing SW:TOR to WAR, to RIFT, to Aeon—the list goes on. The fact is that SW:TOR stands on its own and failed for its own reasons. First and foremost, no matter the failure or success, SW:TOR was a new and epic undertaking in the world of MMOs, most particularly in the sheer scope of voice acting. The Light/Dark choices were another unique and new aspect. They decided at the outset to make the end game content more accessible to everyone, rather than catering to the hardcore raiders who often have, frankly, insane demands and expectations. I never once heard it referred to as a “WoW killer” by anyone other than the press—it isn’t even the same genre.

The Old Republic, simply put, was always intended and designed to stand on its own and make its own way. Sure, there are common elements between every MMO, one way or another. That doesn’t make everything a “wannabe WoW killer” or even a WoW competitor. And TOR was definitely neither of things, nor was it ever intended to be. That has always been reflected in the design and marketing.

There is no question that Star Wars: The Old Republic has now effectively joined the heap of failed MMOs—it took less than one year to lose more than 50% of its subscriber base despite a launch that, by all measures, seemed to be on track for a grand success. It seems increasingly unlikely that EA/Bioware will ever recover the development costs directly—converting to the Free To Play model isn’t forward thinking, it’s simply an attempt to keep a failed asset commercially viable. And maybe it will succeed—or it could have no effect at all. Certainly, the current subscribers are already livid about the prospect of “F2Ps” and “freetards” invading their game—but that’s nothing new. It remains to be seen.

The game will go on sale in November for $15, including one month of “premium” access, while users will be charged a monthly fee for “premium” access (what that will entail is still unknown) or a per-item / per-feature fee, likely to be similar to Everquest 2.

Comments

  1. Soda
    Soda The last MMO I remember like this was Warhammer Online. Oh mmos, why do you look so good and promise so much, only to deliver us neatly packaged turds. I'M LOOKING AT YOU GUILD WARS 2. DON'T YOU DARE DROP ME A TURD.
  2. rc1974
    rc1974
    "When you have power players who will rush from level 1 to level 50 in two weeks, not having end game content for them means they’re out the door right away. They may or may not come back, but they won’t hang around when there’s no challenging foe for them to defeat and nothing to do. Many players also won’t tolerate having their progress deliberately slowed. In World of Warcraft, when it was originally released in 2004, going from level 1 to 60 was an epic journey that took ages and players loved or loathed it. Now, virtually every player expects to be able to roll a character and get to maximum level in two weeks or less."
    A co-worker and I both agree that this here is the core problem with many MMO games. We've both seen it in several games. People are too quick to blame the game, but what about they player? These "power players" usually are the first to complain and the most vocal about it.

    I sort of knew that SWTOR was going to be a dud based on the same experiences I had with Rift. Power players rushed to level cap, complained there was nothing to do, and within a month or two, the game is dead. Then again if the leveling process was slower, they'd still complain.
  3. Theironhand
    Theironhand
    "When you have power players who will rush from level 1 to level 50 in two weeks, not having end game content for them means they’re out the door right away. They may or may not come back, but they won’t hang around when there’s no challenging foe for them to defeat and nothing to do. Many players also won’t tolerate having their progress deliberately slowed. In World of Warcraft, when it was originally released in 2004, going from level 1 to 60 was an epic journey that took ages and players loved or loathed it. Now, virtually every player expects to be able to roll a character and get to maximum level in two weeks or less."
    A co-worker and I both agree that this here is the core problem with many MMO games. We've both seen it in several games. People are too quick to blame the game, but what about they player? These "power players" usually are the first to complain and the most vocal about it.

    I sort of knew that SWTOR was going to be a dud based on the same experiences I had with Rift. Power players rushed to level cap, complained there was nothing to do, and within a month or two, the game is dead. Then again if the leveling process was slower, they'd still complain.
    I totally, agree with your co-worker and your opinion. People do rush, and then complain about nothing to do.
  4. azraelw3x
    azraelw3x "Based on the various discussions, things I’ve heard, and marketing I’ve seen, I honestly believe that the real cost of SW:TOR was most likely in excess of $250M—shattering the estimated $145M record spend on Final Fantasy VII."

    FFVII? That was quite a while ago, and not MMO... perhaps you mean XI or XIV?
  5. Thrax
    Thrax People rush to get to the end of MMOs because that is the model people have come to expect via WoW and EverQuest. These were/are very, very top-heavy games, which incentivized completion of the leveling process by rewarding the player with the bulk of the game's content.

    That's the issue with levels being the primary funnel through which player experiences content, because players will automatically want to know what's at the end, and rush to get there.
  6. RahnalH102
    RahnalH102 I agree with RC1974. When I've talked with some friends about various aspects of WoW and others. More often then not the game or it's developers were cited as the flaw. Sometimes for obvious reasons. "If the game itself was that bad, then why are you still playing it?" was my mindset. And sure I've had my wrath against technical stuff. Bugs and changes, but they were nothing permanently game breaking. The bugs were dealt with and the mechanics I got used to. The constant complaint I have had has been against parts of the playerbase. To the elitist power gamers and jerks in general I would just be a "bad" complaining about how my own efforts are basically !@#$ and that is why I can't progress in the game. When it's really me not being allowed to participate just cause I've only seen the fight but not actually completed it. On a small population server, it gets flipping annoying when this player induced content lock occurs. At least I've got good friends on to keep tings interesting and still do stuff with.
  7. BuddyJ
    BuddyJ


    That's the issue with levels being the primary funnel through which player experiences content, because players will automatically want to know what's at the end, and rush to get there.
    I think that's why EVE has succeeded in steady growth versus many of these games with short peak and burn lifecycles. Unfortunately EVE is such a niche product. The aspects of it that make it different are the precise reasons it will not achieve anywhere close to the number of users something like SWTOR or RIFT had.

    I think this article underestimates, or at least is too quick to dismiss the effect so many MMOs releasing in such a short time had on the lifespan of the game. At my office, we had 10 people start RIFT together, only to see 6 leave upon the release of SWTOR before dropping that to join the Reddit PvE Minecraft server for a change of pace. So many gamers are quick to jump from game to game looking for something new, only to find the games are just more of the same "killing boars in the forest" missions.
  8. RootWyrm
    RootWyrm
    "Based on the various discussions, things I’ve heard, and marketing I’ve seen, I honestly believe that the real cost of SW:TOR was most likely in excess of $250M—shattering the estimated $145M record spend on Final Fantasy VII."

    FFVII? That was quite a while ago, and not MMO... perhaps you mean XI or XIV?
    Nope! In case you forgot, FFVII is the one with the polygon characters that were all animated with motion capture and such. But you didn't. Why? Because Sony and Squeenix is estimated to have spent over $100M (in 1997) just on marketing.
  9. Snarkasm
    Snarkasm I'm confused how going from 1.7 to 1.3 million subscribers is a 50% drop rate. Care to explain your math?

    Moving F2P is clearly an attempt to get people hooked on the story so they buy into the end game content (F2P excludes a lot of PVP, flashpoints, and all operations, as I recall), but to write it off as a failed MMO right now (when you even admit you don't play it) is overreaching a tad. A change in course like this does indicate a deviation from their plans, but 1.3 million subscribers is nothing to sneeze at. Server merges also did a lot for improving server populations (as expected).

    So tl;dr, good opinion piece, it just seems a bit hyperbolic (and a little sketchy on the math above :P ).
  10. Snarkasm
    Snarkasm Also: the game goes on sale for $15 starting August 15th, not November. It goes fully F2P in November, with the full 1-50 available for no investment, and the limitations on the free vs subscriber benefits are listed out in their F2P FAQ.
  11. Cliff_Forster
    Cliff_Forster Funny thing is, I forgot this game even existed until I read this article. Now I'm downloading it to give the first fifteen levels a try. Maybe the PR marketing machine looks at it and says, any news is good news at this point? Get's people talking about the game even if some of it is criticism, it's probably better than nothing in the gamer news cycle. I'll know what I think of it soon enough. Downloading main assets now.
  12. Bandrik
    Bandrik Interesting arguments. Personally I'm delighted to hear it's going free. I'm interested enough to see the "shinyness" of the game (the voicework, story, etc), but I'm not at all interested in the real "guts" of the MMO itself (end-game, raiding, and so forth).

    Yes, I'm going to be a leech, and I'm okay with that. This is a winning situation for me.
  13. RootWyrm
    RootWyrm
    Also: the game goes on sale for $15 starting August 15th, not November. It goes fully F2P in November, with the full 1-50 available for no investment, and the limitations on the free vs subscriber benefits are listed out in their F2P FAQ.
    Actually, per EA on their earnings call, it goes full F2P November 15, 2012. (Remember that EA is the publisher, so that's under their control.) This was covered on their conference call on July 31. August will see the introduction of the "first step" - selling the game for $15 with one month of free subscription - purchase and subscription still required. It will not go entirely free to play until November; till then, it still requires a subscription. (But it's academic if you fork over the $15 in August.)
    More than a half dozen analysts, press, and reviewers with a number of sources inside and outside of Bioware as well as EA and Bioware themselves reported a ~400,000 subscriber drop between February and May alone. EA also stated on their earnings call that subscribers are below 1M without giving a specific number; 40% is 1,020,000. Even generous estimates from independent research say it's below 900K, possibly below 800K - especially when EA stated they consider 500K subscribers "substantially profitable" and numbers are "well above" that figure but "below 1M". That's not exactly a wide range there.
  14. Cliff_Forster
    Cliff_Forster I just played a little. Sweet cut-scenes! Terrible manual camera controls! Frustrating, GRRRRR!!!!
  15. Snarkasm
    Snarkasm @RootWyrm I was clarifying the last statement in the article that says it goes on sale for $15 starting in November - it doesn't, the $15 sale starts in August. Or have we misinterpreted each other again?

    The latest data I've seen from the beginning of August is that subscribers are down to 1.3m. I haven't seen any data that would indicate numbers lower than that, so if you have a source I could read on your independent estimates or the numbers direct from EA, I'd be interested to see it.
  16. RootWyrm
    RootWyrm
    I haven't seen any data that would indicate numbers lower than that, so if you have a source I could read on your independent estimates or the numbers direct from EA, I'd be interested to see it.
    Apparently Google is too difficult for you?

    So what next? You need George Lucas to deliver it to you personally in the form of a singing telegram before you believe it?
  17. JBoogaloo
    JBoogaloo
    I haven't seen any data that would indicate numbers lower than that, so if you have a source I could read on your independent estimates or the numbers direct from EA, I'd be interested to see it.
    Apparently Google is too difficult for you?

    So what next? You need George Lucas to deliver it to you personally in the form of a singing telegram before you believe it?
    You don't think that'd be going too far, do you? :)
  18. RootWyrm
    RootWyrm
    You don't think that'd be going too far, do you? :)
    As compared to the 10 seconds it takes to Google it?

    Naw.
  19. Annes
    Annes @RootWyrm, I don't understand why you're being so catty. As the author, isn't the onus on you to prove your claims?
  20. Ryder
    Ryder or would it have been so bad to include your sources instead of getting pissy about Google?
  21. Snarkasm
    Snarkasm Especially considering I was at least linking my counterexample (with a date of August 5th, so not exactly ancient) and not being a pompous insider know-it-all in my opinion piece.

    All I wanted was information to back up your 50% drop claim, and to provide a friendly correction to the little blurb you entered at the bottom. You're certainly within your right to bash on the game, but when you reach into the realm of fact in your opinion piece, I'd like more than "insider figures" and "thanks to my even pre-closed-beta access" platitudes. Sorry I don't trust everything I read immediately.
  22. Thrax
    Thrax All of these guys are right. I like this article, but I noted it was curiously devoid of any substantiating links. It would be nice to see that.
  23. Rexxar
    Rexxar

    Listen to the first question. A new type of MMORPG generation is coming and a lot of gaming companies aren't understanding that. Hopefully GW2 doesn't make the same mistake.
  24. Cliff_Forster
    Cliff_Forster There is conflict on the Icrontic boards and I'm not in the middle? What kind of alternate reality is this?
  25. Brax Kedren (@BraxKedren) "Now, virtually every player expects to be able to roll a character and get to maximum level in two weeks or less."

    THIS is the mentality that kills games. NOTHING Swtor or any other MMO has come out has changed. They ALL shipped with hardly any end-game content, even WoW.

    The difference with WoW is this new generation of MMO was based off of them, so if you weren't playing WoW (easy to play/level) you had to go to other games like EQ2 (grind/grind for levels) that weren't as easy to play.

    So that's why everyone tends to forget that WoW had no end-game content at launch and that it had one of the worst launches an MMO can have with all the downtime and server issues.

    So what did Swtor do wrong in it's creation? It catered to a player-base that they thought would be happy with the game if they mimicked WoW at launch but had a smoother launch, that's what. The problem is that they didn't update that to include tons of end-game content( correct) for players that demand to be max level, BIS geared in a day.
  26. Susurro
    Susurro I subscribed to SWTOR for a while, and while I love Star Wars, I got a bit bored with the overall gameplay...maybe that's just my altaholic view, but I'm not much into endgame content. I'll start again when FTP starts up and play through the class storylines, which is all I really care about.

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