Looking back at MMOs it is easy to say they fail and it is easy to say they did not. The problem might be definitive. How does a game fail? Out of this series only two of the games I have covered have fully closed up shop, these being Prius Online Anima Redux and Faxion Online. In a sense those articles might give more meaning to the word fail because these are MMOs that failed and did not have the financial backing to try and revitalize them.
An MMO like DC Universe Online failed after a month of downtime. Currently it is one of the most popular free to play MMOs out there. The same can be said for Age of Conan which went from 1,000,000 subs to 100,000 subs in a month, now it sit at over 2,000,000 players as a free game.
I will say that just because a game is still around does not mean it did not fail. Fail in an extreme approach means that a thing stops functioning. In this sense there can be no failures. Even The Failship which has ran into a bridge wouldn’t have failed under this definition because the ship is still in tact.
No before considering this remember that failing can refer to intense mistakes, failing to meet objectives, not meeting demands, or closing down.
With SWTOR I am looking at this from the perspective of the corporation as they did not meet the objectives they set out.
SWTOR in a Nutshell (A Big Nutshell)
In 2002 Star Wars Galaxies released and was a massive…. flop. This was nothing new for LucasArts head George Lucas as most of his games although commercial successes were also miserably terrible. Lucas was forced into a 10-year licensing deal with Sony Online Entertainment in which SOE would get exclusive rights to the Star Wars MMO license.
In the mean time Lucas saturated every single sub-market of gaming with a Star Wars game. Included was the very popular Knights of the Old Republic RPG series. This series established a new Universe for Star Wars, a world before the one we know. Because of this Lucas was able to grant a license for the Star Wars exteneded universe while maintaining the exclusive license for the Star Wars normal universe.
Bioware had gained such a great name for making quality games in the industry that Electronic Arts bought them out and started transforming all of their own studios into Bioware studios. Bioware-Austin was created specifically for making MMORPGs. Some of the EA-Mythic team (now called Bioware-Mythic) was shifted over to this studio to begin work on Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The game started development in 2006 based around the earliest form of The Hero Engine, an engine designed specifically for production of MMOs. Bioware tweeked around with it a lot. $200M in development later the most expensive video game ever made was released.
The world would launch with three full raid encounters, three PvP modes, four high tier 5-man dungeons and interesting jumping game hunting quest series called “Datacrons.”
It was shaping up to be a big deal, but alas there was trouble in paradise.
#1: Shaky Launch
I will say that I don’t think the launch has much at all to do with the failure of the game in total. But I will bring it up for the sake of mood setting.
Pre-ordering was something people did in the past in order to get a copy of a hot game. It was presumed when a game was really really popular that if you did not pre-order the game, you would not get it. This was true of so many different games. I can remember waiting a week to get World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade because there was no outlet for pre-ordering in my small town.
As well pre-ordered games were more often cheaper. Because of this people who pre-ordered were getting some value-added product.
Star Wars: The Old Republic pre-order actually cost $5 more than the regular non-pre ordered game. That’s odd, right? In the promise of pre-ordering was an early start bonus. It was stated in the 1000 page contract that you would get early access depending on server availability and the time of your pre-order.
So a person who pre-ordered a year in advance would get first dibs on early start while a person who pre-ordered two weeks before game launch might not.
Well it all worked out pretty terribly. Some people who paid extra only got a one day head start. Some people who paid extra got a one hour head start.
Next on the list of problems had to do with texture packages. The game in beta had higher resolution textures than the game that went live. That’s just a little odd. The argument Bioware stated was that your computer would explode if it used the high res textures.
This however did not stop the folks at Bioware from using high res texture screenshots in all of the publicity information.
A third controversy unfolded when people who were reporting bugs, complaining about the game, or just trolling on the Bioware forums had their accounts banned and were ejected from the game. People who swore in text as well were ejected from the game.
A fourth controversy unfolded when people realized that if you typed /getdown you could never be hit by any shots. This allowed people to take down very powerful out door raid bosses with very small groups. It also got a little silly in PvP when people would type /getdown and no one would kill anyone. Anyone caught typing /getdown was ejected from the game for knowingly exploiting the game.
#2: Content Locusts
Locusts are swarms of miserable inserts that devour plants in seconds. Unlike a pride of lions the locust hunts itself into extinction. Instead of slowly and gradually hunting, the locust feast or famine. Their cycles involve mass reproduction when there is a lot of food and mass death when there is none.
For this reason someone who is a content locust has a zero sum end game. By this I mean that it is all or nothing for them. If you are not constantly providing new content then you are actually producing nothing.
My second argument is thus that the problem with SWTOR wasn’t that it didn’t have enough content, but that people devoured it too fast.
This is a two fold problem. On the one hand the people playing the game are the problem. Much like how you would not want to give an unlimited movie pass to a guy who spends 20 hours a day watching movies, you also really do not want these kinds of people in your game.
On the other hand this is a developer problem. The general solution to content locusts is to produce content so hard that only a select few of them will be able to do it. This is something that I think a lot of developers miss out on.
Hard content is not a selling point to try and attract hardcore gamers. No one at Blizzard ever claimed that content was going to be super hard. They just made hard content and gave it to gamers. There is a lot more respect for developers who try and make super hard content for the content locusts.
Instead Bioware tried to sell it on having hard end game content. Much like other people who try to sell on that point it is bound to fail when it is beaten.
The truth is content locusts do not actually want hard content. The people who want hard content are those that are challenge oriented. A challenge oriented people will do the hardest difficulty of any game. Skyrim is an easy test of this. If someone cannot do a quest do they reduce the difficulty, or look for new approaches?
#3: All is Fine Drink the Wine
So often the metaphor is used in cults of a righteous leader who drinks the wine he is serving his guests. Of course in this scenario the cultist leader who is supposed to be looking out for his follower’s is preaching to everyone the suicide that he is suggesting.
Bioware was definitely serving the wine they were feeding people. It’s a little harder to follow people who just seem deluded.
There are some things that were honest and should be made clear. Electronic Arts is a publicly traded company and any lies they would tell the investors is considered a capital crime punishable by prison sentence. So there is no reason to believe that what they were telling people were lies.
Bioware probably did register 3M accounts in their first year. They probably were hovering around 1.7M players around the four month marker. They probably did drop down to 1.3M around the six month marker. But it is not these claims that really upset the people who are playing the game. Those are the claims that upset people who quit it.
MMOs are kind of weird. It’s like a sports team. If you feel spited by your favorite sports team you become a venomous troll out to get them. So any news of success of that sports team hurts you so bad.
No the wine they were serving came in the form of a guild summit help in Austin, Texas (home of their studio).
The sound of the guild summit was promising. It sounded as if the developers at Bioware were trying to take a CCP approach where they ask the community for direction. They invited guildmasters from around the world and the 400 guild leader convention, the largest of its kind began.
The opening of the summit was a Q&A section. This allowed guild masters to ask developers questions. I thought this a great opportunity for Bioware to talk with guild masters and really get a strong grass roots. The panel Q&A was a disaster.
Every single suggestion made was either ‘not on the timeline’ or was due in a year. It was kind of pitiful. In the least they could have tried and looked like they cared. Instead they used the show to
People paid money to fly to this conference and all it ended up being was a fluff show. That turned off more people than worked on creating a community.
#4: Electronic Arts
Something has to be said about the immense pressure put on a studio by big brother parent company to make sure things come out on time and are handled most cost effectively.
The goal of Bioware is to make games and keep all of their employees working.
The goal of Electronic Arts is to publish games and minimize costs.
So when Bioware was forced to lay off 50% of its MMORPG department (Bioware Austin) it was in part because Electronic Arts found a new way to make money off of SWTOR, by reducing game quality.
Yes there were many who would lose their jobs anyway. UI artists are not exactly used to holding a job for over two years.
But yeah they let go of most of their staff so that Electronic Arts could have stronger quarterly profits.
In the end Bioware-Austin is an EA studio and they’re forced to toe the corporate line on things. You can see when many of these developers were describing things that the passion was not there anymore. They were getting on stage and saying things that they’re not excited about all so they could keep their jobs.
Because of these massive cuts content roll outs continued to slow down time and time again. In an act of desperation they only recently announced their transition into free to play so that they could salvage what many people regarded as a very slowly sinking ship.
We are one day from the launch of SWTOR. It is possible after this they will be able to turn around the game and really make something of it as Lord of the Rings Online has.
I know that as a former subscriber and as an alpha tester I’ve been rewarded some obscene total of Cartel Coins in an attempt to lure me back to the game.
Much like how Age of Conan failed and rebounded there is a great chance that SWTOR can also rebound from this massive failure.
If the total subscribers they held was Rift or Eve Online or Age of Conan this would be considered a huge success. However because this is Bioware and these guys ship 50M copies of Mass Effect in the first month something this low is considered to be a pretty big failure.