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.