SWTOR: A New Hope (For Numbers?)

Star Wars: The Old Republic is the subject makings the rounds.  We have the speculative “It took 300 bazillion dollars to make” and the “We need 1 million subs to break even” statements turning heads and attracting the obligatory responses.  I figure, why not throw in my own obligatory commentary on the subject?

Looking at it from a matter of fact perspective, the game has a healthy pool from which it will draw subscribers:

Star Wars fans
Lucas Arts game fans
EA fans
Bioware fans
RPG fans
MMORPG fans
bandwagon “this is the next big thing” fans

They’ll breach 1 mill easy.  If that’s all they need to break even, they’ll crush it.  But I have a different perspective to look at this from.

It’s a bit disconcerting that they’ve had to spend so much to accomplish the projected/expected ease of obtaining those numbers.  It doesn’t bode well for anyone else wanting to break in and have a hit — they’ll think they have to spend on this level.  I really wish that I had some factual numbers to work with, but as in many industries where they aren’t available I will just have to work with what I understand. DAOC had a very solid number of subscribers for its time.  Proportional to how many people now play MMOs today, I feel it could easily be similar to saying that it controlled a share of the market equal to what we would categorize as a million subs.

Launch a game today with the budgets of yesterday and you won’t break 100k — at least that’s what I’m afraid will happen. I really, really want SWTOR to be a great game but part of me (perhaps a little devil inside) wants to see some sort of backlash for such a high budget just to prove a point.

The gameplay of SWTOR will not justify the price.  It just won’t.  It’ll be the name, the new technological stunts, the marketing, and the ability to claim these amazing feats that brings about the price tag.  What I want to see is gameplay that justifies the cost.  You could cut the price more than half and achieve superior gameplay without question, then spend that money actually innovating or improving upon/reviving the virtual world feel.

Without straying off the subject, I’ll just end it by saying that I don’t get what all the anti-hype is about given that I don’t see the reason for the hype (nor any actual hype yet).  I see a game with a huge natural following making the appropriate noise given its size.   I’m more worried about the collateral damage (false perceptions) from this launch than anything else.

(I’m reserving “The Numbers Strike Back” and “Return of the Numbers” for future SWTOR posts.)

  • I agree that they’ll breach 1 million box sales easily; I disagree that we can yet judge how many subscriptions they’ll retain.

    I’d be willing to go out on a limb and predict that it’ll probably be something between 100k and 5 million, though.

  • I won’t even speculate on retention (and didn’t). There are way too many things that can go wrong and too many unanswered questions. Being able to draw upon so many fans will draw huge numbers — how many enjoy what the ultimate (and unknown, at this time) product turns out to be is completely up in the air. I think that, unlike WAR, they’ll see growth in their first few months though; that much I will speculate.

  • Long and short of it: If box sales are all that matter, they’ll be fine. If subscriptions matter, they are in trouble like the rest.

  • I’ll buy it, I’ll play it, but from the companion NPCs to the emphasis on story I’m expecting the ‘gameplay’ to be garbage =( I’m sure there are a thousand other people who get the feeling it’s going to be a single player RPG with great graphics, great voices, a social tab, and a link to Facebook =( I’m afraid PvP will be terrible =(

    I want desperately to be wrong.

  • About a year ago EA said 66% – 75% of a games budget was the marketing, these numbers just got really scary. EA could be in over a billion dollars they’re not careful.

    For all the people wishing EA would just die, this game failing could very well do that. 🙂

  • I’m worried that it will prove to be a WAR / AoC spike, where at first they have 1 mil subs, only to rapidly deflate, leaving server merges and forums full of ragequit posts in their wake?

  • I’m also a huge Bioware fan and in years past this would be an automatic pre-order. These days I won’t even bother without trying it first.

    Sadly, I just haven’t read anything lately that makes this title stand out over past MMO’s. I hope they prove me wrong.

  • I think they will indeed sell a million boxes, if not double or triple that; remember that WAR apparently shifted 1m boxes and that IP has nothing like the recognition of Star Wars.

    I won’t even try to estimate the Conversion Rate until I’ve played it.

    PS: Like Blizzard, Bioware is just one of those companies I trust to consistently create brilliant games. Let’s hope they continue in that tradition 🙂

  • In all honesty, I am going to reserve judgement against because Bioware has had such a long history of quality games that I have to believe that they are going to create something worthwhile. The viewpoint I take is that Blizzard was strictly a single player game outfit prior to making WoW that was renown for making REALLY good high quality single player games. The MMO market was much different back then but I tend to believe that the quality of Bioware is going to tell. If I have to guess, I think SWTOR is going to stand out in execution, polish, content and the ‘little touches’ that make games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age awesome. Just my two cents.

  • I think SW:TOR will do well so long as they stick to the same formula as Blizzard. And by that I don’t mean carbon-copying the gameplay of WoW, I mean they need to put in gigantic amounts of polish and content. If they can manage to do that, combined with the Star Wars license, then they could have a real killer product on their hands.

  • I too think it will do well, if it will be a big success depends on the budget, which we probably will never know for sure.

    I could be mistaken but i think i read somewhere, that they are aiming for a broad audience, thus i expect a more WoW-like approache to accessibility. I will buy it, to try it out myself, but the last thing i want is another stupid themepark game for sheeps.

    Oh yeah, WoW´s content and polish. Polish, nothing special, and most content consists of old, outdated and useless dungeons. I hope they don´t make the same mistake. Something like LotrO´s scaling would take care of that.

    Another thing, that makes me very sceptical about the game is, that as much as i was a “fanboy” of Bioware in the past, and i have every game they made and was madly in love with their RPG´s, they are now EA/Bioware. And when i look at the DLC, DA Awakening, ME2, it is clear, at last to me, that their games lack a bit of the “polish” (jesus look at DA:A…), depth and RPG elements. Compared to their older titels i mean.

    I will buy it, but i have lowered my expectations.

  • LOTRO had a similarly large built-in audience, and presumably never hit a million paying players. I’m not sure whether I’d take the over or the under on 1 mil for TOR.

    And yes, I agree that the market is currently spending unsustainable amounts of money on bells and whistles that are not necessary for gameplay. This is doing a lot of damage to the industry as a whole, especially anyone who wants to do anything different, because it’s using up the budgets that would be needed to actually get the game up to market-acceptable standards by launch.

  • I have faith in Bioware, they have never let me down up to this point, so why would I doubt that anything they produce will dissapoint me ?

  • Joy,

    because prior to WAR’s rough run, Mythic was viewed similarly by their fans?

    What makes a good single player RPG doesn’t necessarily make a good MMO. In some ways, Blizzard already knew lots of things that would work from Diablo.

  • Well I’ve already played SWTOR and I think it will be the WoW killer. The game is amazing and immersive having even single Npc voice overed really makes the game good. And companions are cool too you can outfit them etc.

  • I truly feel that the only thing that will kill this game, just like so many others, is the hype that precedes it. That’s typically the killer of most games. People tend to have these overblown notions of how good a game will be. Or that it will be a “WoW-killer”, so forth. Then, those games release. They’re good in their own right, but they’ll never meet the expectations set out for them. So people immediately label them as a bad game. Aside from those few that took the game for what it is was and realized it was pretty decent.

    This won’t be the first game it’s happened to, and it definitely won’t be the last.

  • “The gameplay of SWTOR will not justify the price.”

    This is true of pretty much every MMO at this point, IMHO. The only price that justifies the gameplay of this month’s WoW clone is $0. One of the many reasons we’re seeing so many F2P/cash shop games.

  • Keen,

    My main issue with your argument… or perhaps concern is a better phrase, is that you’re comparing 2010 dollars to 2000 dollars (I know the game came out in ’01, but it was obviously thus produced in the 1999-2000 time frame). There has been a massive amount of inflation since then. I’ll throw a figure out there that I’m at least semi-familiar with to give a sense of scope. In the pre-9/11 world the US Dollar was competing at ~110 yen on the buck. And the Euro was still in its conception-phase. Now the dollar is trailing about 75 cents to the Euro, and about 79yen to the buck. What I’m trying to get at is that if you wanted to do an accurate price-comparison on dev costs for DAOC v. dev costs for SWTOR you would need to do a dollar-value translation from 2000 to 2010. The difference might not be quite so staggering then.

    Some other things to think about: as you said, the MMO market is much bigger now. There is way more marketing and advertising that has to go in to the budget to make any sort of splash at all. Back when there were 3 to 6 major titles, you didn’t have to make much noise. A new entry in to the market basically made itself known. In our currently-flooded market one needs to literally slap consumers in the face to get their attention, and reaching through the internet to poke a consumer in the eye is expensive.

    Finally: SWTOR is also fully voiced. Voice actors cost money, a lot of money when you’re going for the talent Bioware usually snags. You’ve single-handedly added an entire new facet to the SWTOR budget that didn’t exist in the DAOC days. It costs way more to get people to read thousands of lines of dialogue than it does to take a developer, put a mic in his face and say, “Grunt like you just got hit with an arrow. It’s for the game.”

    Sorry if this is long, I’ve just been vomiting out ideas as they came to mind. Hopefully this will at least produce some talking points, though!

  • that might be an exaggeration but it was a lot. I know they said the voice over dialogue is 40+ novels worth.

  • @Bartillo: oh you might regret your words, as much as i dislike WoW, it´s unlikely any other mmo will kill it off 😉

    @Shadrah: good point, haven´t we all seen the hype on many games in the last years, which just lead to exaggerated expectations, followed by the inevitable disappointments?

    @Wren: Some good points there!

    Yes the MMO market is much bigger now, but do you really have to put so much money into marketing? With an IP like this? As soon as the news hit the net that SWTOR will come, every game related site reported it like crazy, it practically “marketed” itself. I´m not sure if a big marketing campain is necessary in this case.

    The inflation point is very good, and i agree a dollar-value translation would be interesting. Still if the budget is really that big (which we don´t know for sure) it´s insane. Working in the IT/Software business myself, i can only shake my head and wonder where the money goes in the game industrie. Not just in mmos, and it definitely doesn´t go to the underpaid and overworked coders.

    Agree, the full voice over will cost them a ton of money. And will continue to do so with every update!

  • since 2000
    Inflation overall has gone up very slowly. Wages have gone up very slowly. Health care has gone up massively, gas prices have tripled. The average house here in the US has less spendable income in 2010 dollars than they did in 2000.

    It doesn’t matter that 2010 dollars are technically less than 2000 dollars. People have less discretionare income and are far tighter with what they do have. The recession will diminish box sales. The only question is by how much. And if the game doesn’t get glowing reviews right off the bat, negative publicity + recession = dead.

  • I am one of those players who can’t wait for SW TOR to hit the shelves. I hope it will be what I want it to be. They will never be able to please everyone. I just hope they make it fun for me.

    The problem with the gaming industry is that it takes for ever for a game to be released. Companies, share holders, banks etc… want a return on their investment as fast as possible. The gaming industry does not allow for that quick return. Investors really don’t care if the game is cool, something new, a WOW killer etc… they want a good return on their investment.

    That is why companies join forces to produce these huge projects. That is why so many spoons are in the pot. They all want a taste. EA, Bioware and Lucas all have their private projects but it takes several companies to work together to make something this huge. They effectively spread out the risk involved in creating the game.

    Gaming companies have been spreading out the risk for years and they will continue to do so in the future. It is what it is.

  • My problem is that everything I’ve seen from SW:TOR is just KOTOR online. Nothing about SW:TOR has made me think, yeah this is why they are making the game a MMO and not just a single player game with online features.

    I fully believe SW:TOR will break 1 million box sells. Honestly in the first 6 months it will probably hit 1.5-2mil. 2 years after launch though I suspect it to be 500K or less subs. The game looks like they are desiging an online SINGLE player game. Even the best story gets old after 1 or 2 play throughs. If Bioware doesn’t put more effort into the being a part of the world it will fail.

  • I’ve always said that MMOs that focus on story (story and lore are two different things) are doomed from the start. A developer simply cannot create enough additional story content quickly enough to keep the subscribers happy. That is way too much upkeep.

    Of course, my theory hasn’t really been properly tested yet. SWTOR should be the perfect test subject.

  • I’m simply not in this game’s target profile, methinks – not a big SW fan, not a big Bioware fan… just not doing anything for me. I couldn’t get more than a handful of hours into Mass Effect, and have never played any of the Kotor games, etc.

    That said, as a total outsider, I think there’s a good chance SWTOR will do quite well for itself. It seems safe, kind of boring, easy to solo, and it’ll allow the casual players to make a smuggler named xX_HANSOLO_Xx and run around with a Wookie. Basically the big pitfall they need to avoid seems to be releasing the game buggy or unfinished, and or sans enough content. Other than that, given Bioware’s (mostly proven) ability to ship a finished, bug-free game, I don’t see many ways for the game to self destruct. “It’s not original enough” simply isn’t a big problem for most people, I think.

    On the other hand, I kind of have this spiteful hope that it flops, because this game represents everything that is wrong with the direction that MMORPGs are currently going: Expensive to make (and thus unrelentingly conservative), gameplay crammed into a linear story, heavy emphasis on AI/NPC companions, 2 faction PvP, and this tiny selection of classes to choose from.

    I’m nervous, as Keen seems to be, that if this game does well it will further drive progress in the genre away from sandbox, non-linear, player driven games. I guess it’d be hard for things to get worse, at this point. : /

  • @Sisyphean: I wasn’t even thinking about the idea that this game would push the genre further from the non-linear gamestyle. That might be true.
    I have only two things to say about that:
    1. Star Wars has always been by and large about the story, about the characters. It has fancy technology and lots of flashy and strobe lighting, but in the end Star Wars is Star Wars because of the narrative. Not many other universes can say that. As such I think that, conceptually, what they’re doing with the Star Wars MMO is the proper direction for this particular game. What other MMO-company investors think when they see potential success remains to be seen. Hopefully it won’t drag the industry as a whole that direction, but you’re right, it may.

    And number two…
    2. At least they’re going subscription, not doing F2P. 😛

  • Good responses, Wren – honestly my opinions aren’t very sophisticated or deep at this point, and I really just have to think about it some more.

    For that matter, I may have simply been overly harsh in my first post. Honestly I don’t know a lot about the game, so maybe I should just hold off on commenting for now…

    As to what other company / investors will see? I assume they’ll look at the big stuff: “The mechanics are like WOW, people like that”, “Using a huge pop-culture IP is good, don’t let developers make an original universe”, “people like the story and a ton of voice acting, let’s do that”…

    On the other hand, there are some positives I can imagine (with a bit of a stretch) – “give them enough money to make it truly polished”, “let developers explore existing IPs outside the narrow confines of the original material and characters”, maybe something good about the faction warfare, I dunno enough about that to even guess.

    I dunno, truly. Maybe the story stuff in SWTOR will be really deep and offer a lot of branching story lines – which I think would be a great sort of… variation on the ideal of the open world MMO of olde times. If investors get it into their heads that it’s a good thing to allow players in MMOs to have truly unique individualized stories they could shape and affect, that’d be awesome.

    I’m not really trying to say “I think SWTOR will be bad for the industry if it does well”, I’m just afraid that it could be given a worst-case scenario. That’s all.

  • @Wren

    While Star Wars may have always been about the story a story driven MMO is doomed to fail given the rate at which gamers consume. If BioWare spent as much time on a system that encouraged, rewarded, and enabled the players to create stories this game would be a much larger success in the long run.

    Given what SW:TOR is, based solely on the information provided, it is nothing more than an online single player game. That is the direction MMOs DO NOT WANT TO GO.

  • Star Wars fans –> May not be video game fans
    Lucas Arts game fans –> Do they even exist?
    EA fans –> Same as above, fans for major publishes a said from Valve/Blizzard (and it is obvious why) do not exist
    Bioware fans –> May not be MMORPG fans
    RPG fans –> See above
    MMORPG fans –> Are reading all the dirt on TOR and don’t want to play it
    bandwagon “this is the next big thing” fans –> Seriously? Wtf?

    This anti-hype exists because people KNOW they are not spending 300 million on progression the MMORPG genre, no it is going into the CGI trailers and the voice work. And of course because they know that with 300 million no risks will be taken… Risks that MMORPGs desperately need.

  • @ Epiny: I might disagree with your idea of “story driven MMOs” being doomed to fail. I think in some circumstances that might not be true, but it really depends on how you’re defining “story-driven” and what limits and features come with such a title. I feel like such a statement should be a little bit more specific, because as it is, it’s pretty general.

    For instance, WoW has some semblance of a story that continues from the beginning of an expansion to the end. It really depends on how you’re defining “story-driven”.

    Depending on the definition I may or may not agree. Though I don’t disagree that the simple, single-player game is not the model an MMO should emulate.

    However, I’m confident that TOR will have features condusive to continuous play (ie – their pvp arenas), and probably endgame. They have said that there will be multiplayer experiences in the game, but if you want to solo, you can. That’s not much different from the accessibility put forward by WoW. I’m taking the wait-and-see approach.

    Again, I think that a heavy emphasis on story is a good model for the universe, because Star Wars has always been about the story and about the characters. And I have faith in Bioware’s ability to make a game with features that will be geared towards the game’s longevity. But only time (or a beta invite) will tell.

  • @Anne: You are incorrect in your assessment of fans. There are Lucas Arts fans. There are EA fans. I didn’t say Bioware fans had to be MMO fans or RPG fans be fans of MMOs — the point was they would try it anyway because they’re a fan of some aspect of the game or what they feel will be in the game.

    And if you don’t know the impact of the bandwagon in this industry, then you do not know the industry.

  • I believe that Wren may have the right of it. In my opinion, I don’t think SWTOR is attempting to be the ‘WoW Killer’ but rather someone at Bioware probably studied what WoW did well and is attempting to mimic core gameplay along with the MMO bells and whistles and then overlay Bioware’s strengths (narrative, polish) over top of it (in other words, a complementary game). Bioware is not making a game that appeals to the thousands of hardcore players out there (who many will play it anyway), I think they are making a game that appeals to the hundred thousands of casual players that play WoW and thus I think familiar gameplay coupled with NPC companions and Stars Wars narrative is going to do them well as long as the execution is polished and good. I do share the concerns about being enough content over the long-haul but we will see.

    On a side note, as a gaming hobbyist, I am kind of waiting for the ‘next thing’ as well. Eve Online is out there and satisfies that ‘something different’ hardcore impulse for me despite the fact that I approach it rather casually (too many other games out there as well as RL). I think once someone figures out how to present something with EVEs depth with better presentation and interface, that will advance the genre. SWTOR is not going to be that but don’t hold it against it, it was never trying to be.

  • I’m morbidly curious about what will happen to the MMO industry if SWTOR launches and only manages to hang on to 500k subs.

    I keep hearing all this talk about needing to be “blockbuster!” to compete in today’s market. I hope this doesn’t turn out to be true.

  • @Snafzg: It would be business as usual, except it would be happening yet again to EA (big expectations falling far short in with their MMOs) and it would involve more money. Still, business a usual. We would go on with awaiting the next launch to watch it happen again; that is, until someone wises up and realizes it doesn’t work the way they want it to.

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