Star Wars: The Old Republic – The Splinter of the Mind’s Eye for EA

WORLD DOMINATION! or Risk, the board game

EA really needed to take North America to have a strong hold on the game. They weren’t able to keep it, however.

Going back to October 2010 (and through to March 2011) I detailed five reasons why Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWOR) was a high risk MMO. Those reasons where:

  1. EA was funding SWOR for the wrong reasons – they weren’t looking to develop a profitable title, but instead create a WoW-level success with a financial break even point of 1m players at least 500k players. BioWare was going to deliver that to them if they gave it enough money.
  2. SWOR’s development was going to cost too much – original speculation suggested that SWOR might cost between US$150m to US300m to develop; the most official source available puts the development cost at US$200m. That’s a huge amount to pay back.
  3. The subscription fee payment model for MMOs wasn’t as effective as it used to be – with the amount of free-to-play (F2P) / hybrid payment systems currently available among MMOs, along with the indication that players aren’t as willing to pay $15 a month to keep playing a title as was the case in 2004, made a pure sub-payment model precarious.
  4. A narrative story in a MMO may not be good enough to keep players – BioWare likes to trumpet the strength of their stories and how by adding “the fourth pillar” they would finally create a point to playing a MMO. However, stories end while MMOs are meant to keep people playing.
  5. BioWare doesn’t create great game mechanics – in a single player title if the story is good enough you can forgive weaker mechanics (planet scanning in Mass Effect 2, anyone?). But a MMO requires pretty much all of its main game mechanics to fire and keep players coming back. BioWare has always relied on its narrative strengths to paper over its mechanical weaknesses.

The announcement came today that about seven months after launch SWOR is going to move to a F2P hybrid model, having dropped from 1.7m subscribers to somewhere between 500k to 1m in that time. I didn’t predict this – I actually thought they’d go a cash shop first, since EA’s Warhammer Online has proved so resistant to going F2P – but it’s in line with my original thoughts about how much risk SWOR carried for EA.

The thing is that SWOR is still likely the second or third largest MMO in the Western market. It just cost too much. Now BioWare has to walk back its comments about F2P, such as:

“The free-to-play people can’t invest to the level we can invest, and can’t create something of the size and scale of something we can create.”

Now that BioWare is joining the ranks of the F2P people, it will be interesting to see what they keep investing in SWOR.

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9 thoughts on “Star Wars: The Old Republic – The Splinter of the Mind’s Eye for EA

  1. I suspect they’ll see spending money on SWTOR as throwing good money after bad. The language of the investor call seemed to be that the game is officially considered a failure.

    • Oh yes, it’s a failure. Especially considering that EA also spent a huge sum on buying BioWare and attempting to turn them into the equivalent of Blizzard.

  2. I’m still not convinced that nobody wants to pay 15$ a month for a MMO anymore. I DO think that nowadays you probably won’t find -a couple million- of them. I think WoW was the first and last of that type of massive sub-game success, and any game going foward that plans to use that model should aspire to a ‘normal’ population of 200-500k players. Those numbers were what Blizzard originally planned for when they made WoW, and I think that’s something many studios seem to have forgotten (and has led to the crazy budget bloat and unrealistic expectations for themselves).

    • I agree that there are still people out there willing to pay $15 a month to play a title, but they aren’t the driving force in the market any more. Free does odd things to people’s perceptions, so given the choice of playing an okay game for free or a great game for a cost, a proportion will go the free option every time.

  3. Good post, one question though where did you come up with the 1million subs number to break even? Heck even at the Investor call after the F2P announcement it was stated numerous times that 500k subs was all that was needed to make a profit. Break even would be a number below that.

    • Digging back through my links, it was an external analyst who indicated that 1m players was the break-even point.

      In an attempt to weasal my way out of that, I’ll say that there are a number of different ‘break even’ points, depending on how much resourcing EA / BioWare was willing to put into SWOR. So yes, they said 500k was their ‘floor’, but that 1m subscribers figure was a magic number that came up several times. Given at times EA / BioWare was talking about the several million players who would be playing SWOR, I’m sure that they saw 1m as something they’d be well ahead of.

      Regardless, I’ll edit the post to the more relevant 500k point. ;-)

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