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SWTOR Will (Probably) Be Fine

With the 1-month honeymoon coming to its end, and a series of “amateur-hour” missteps combined with other bad news, the general feeling seems to be coalescing around SWTOR’s present or future inevitable “failure.” While everyone is entitled to their own insipid pessimism, the sorts of reasoning being provided are a little weak.

1) Absurdly High Standards

There are two main flavors of absurdity under this umbrella. The first is simply ridiculous, the sort that sees WoW going from 12 million to 10 million as a failure, a sign of collapse, of crushing moral defeat. Or, going from 32 to 26.667 times the size of EVE, the MMO yardstick whose robustness is the de facto definition of success. I agree that WoW deserves the subscription loss, that it is directly linked to Cataclysm, and further that WoW may never recover those subs and/or continue a sub decline for the foreseeable future.

However, let’s be honest here: if that is the sort of yardstick we are using, the entire MMO market is an abysmal failure.

The second, lesser form of absurdity is identifiable in this quote from Nils:

[...] I would now say that EA could be happy if they had 500k subscribers one year after launch.

In other words, SW:TOR failed. And it failed for EXACTLY the reasons we, the blogosphere, had predicted for at least 2 years prior to launch. We should be proud – and sad.

For comparison, EVE is the second largest Western MMO on the market at, by last count, 375,000 subs. Between 25% and 62.5% larger than 2nd place is a failure? Really?

You know what, though? I think it is important to have a discussion about what “success” really means – just like with “casual” and other loaded terms, having some kind of idea where people actually stand would reduce the effects of talking past one another.

2) Vague Definitions of Success

“Success” is largely arbitrary, and depends on the goals one sets for oneself. If you set out to run an 8-minute mile and can only get to down to a 9-minute mile, you have “failed.” That you improved from a 15-minute mile to 9-minutes is irrelevant in an objective sense.

Success in a market sense, is a little less arbitrary – you are either making money or you are not. According to the information we have available (circa last May), SWTOR needs a minimum of 375k subscriptions to break even, and ~500k to be reasonably profitable. So in the Nils quote, SWTOR would be a success at 500k.

But what of the analyst who sent EA stocks tumbling 3% based on “disappointing sales” and churn rates? Since we don’t have access to his data or methodology, it is difficult to appraise his conclusions. However, the very next day EA stocks went back up 2% after three separate brokers said SWTOR is “performing in line with expectations.” One of them went on to say:

Evan Wilson of Pacific Crest wrote Friday that he has raised his sales estimate for “Star Wars” to 2.2 million units from 1.5 million units for the quarter, and said he remains “comfortable” with his 800,000 subscriber target when the company’s fiscal year ends in late March.

“Admittedly, we set our expectations as if Star Wars was to be a good, not great, MMO,” he wrote. “Fortunately, we think the company did too.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement, but there it is. There is a line between the soft bigotry of low expectations and aggressive schadenfreude – the challenge is finding it. “Good, not great, MMO” might be a bit too low for even my standards, especially given write-ups like these in the LA Times (turns out SWTOR officially cost $200m). We will know more about the numbers in February when EA’s financial statements become available, but I am inclined to say that if SWTOR can achieve/maintain 500k-800k subscriptions for the year it will undeniably be a success.

3) Endgame Concerns

About a week ago, Tobold was discussing Richard Bartle’s feelings towards the SWTOR endgame (which are rather interesting, by the way). Down in the comment section, Tobold said something I wanted to highlight:

In short, I know why I prefer leveling in SWTOR to leveling in WoW. I don’t know why I would prefer raiding in SWTOR to raiding in WoW. Do you?

It is an interesting question because by all accounts, we have no idea what the average WoW player is doing. Looking at Cataclysm, only approximately 17.28% of the Western audience killed 1 raid boss in T11 content, and ~12.69% killed 1 raid boss in T12. Even if my methodology¹ is flawed, it is likely we are looking at a game in which over two-thirds of players do not participant in raiding, i.e. the “accepted” endgame. So… what are they doing? Heroics? Battlegrounds? Goldshire RP? Everyone seems to agree that the WoW leveling game has been irreparably destroyed, and yet there seems to be no other explanation as for what the vast, vast majority of the playerbase seems to be doing.

In this respect, SWTOR’s raiding endgame seems as likely as not to be irrelevant. Perhaps the social mechanisms of organized raiding trickle down to the masses, perhaps raiding increases player engagement, perhaps you need hardcore gamers to bind a community together long enough for a population’s sheer gravity to take over. These are open questions. Until we get some usage statistics from Blizzard though, I feel comfortable enough suggesting that the depth of SWTOR’s endgame is not particularly important to its overall success/failure; it clearly is not in WoW.

Retention is a function of social ties, which inevitably take place primarily in the endgame, but they are not about the endgame per se. As long as Bioware steps up its guild infrastructure plans and its Show & Tell aspects, as I said before I see no particular problem with retention at whatever sub level they achieve.

Flowers, Sunshine Aside…

The real challenges SWTOR faces are more systemic in nature.

Nearly everyone has expressed concerns when it comes to the full voice acting, for example, but I am much more concerned about the related problem of localization. According to that LA Times article I linked earlier, SWTOR is only localized in two languages (German and French). In contrast, WoW has been localized into eight: German, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Korean, and both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. While SWTOR catches somewhat of a break when it comes to the aliens speaking gibberish that can be Cut & Paste, just imagine the ridiculousness that is recording all other voice work in three separate languages (plus male/female differences!), let alone additional languages in the future.

This is relevant because, quite honestly, WoW could shut down all US/EU servers and still probably maintain 5+ million Asian subscriptions into perpetuity (Aion inexplicably has 4 million after all). Meanwhile, SWTOR does not have access to the Asian MMO market and thus has much shorter reach. Assuming, of course, that Star Wars is even a hot commodity over there to begin with.

The other systemic issue is the gravity of the game itself. While I believe SWTOR will probably be fine in maintaining at least ~500k subs (and be successful as a result), needing at least 375k subs to be worth the $200 million endeavor is somewhat worrisome. All MMOs probably have some kind of break-even point, well-publicized or not, but generally speaking a game company grows in relation to the success of the game. The question arises as to how long EA would tolerate sub-375k performance before more drastic measures were enacted. Given EA’s rather public rivalry with Activisn-Blizzard when it comes to Call of Duty vs Battlefield 3, I am inclined to believe they will go to heroic lengths to keep SWTOR in the fight should it fall, but it may well go the other way too.

In any case, things are shaping up to be an interesting year.

¹ I actually think my methodology is better than the sort of Armory audits appearing on MMO-Champ as of late. The problem with Armory audits is the “white noise” of alts. Since I extrapolate based on guilds, it is much more likely that a raider’s alts are filtered out rather than included, and thus not diluting the figures. Of course, MMOData.net hasn’t been updated since WoW started hemorrhaging subscriptions, and so finding the current US/EU/KR/TW baseline is impossible, thus possibly skewing the percentages of T12 and beyond.

SWTOR Retention Predictions

Discussing retention in an MMO without accounting for social ensnarement is like discussing weight loss without accounting for calories. It is something so fundamental that I have to imagine that the only reason it is not brought up is because it is taken as a given. And yet I have now read multiple blogs talking about SWTOR’s lack of retentive capacity based on story, story, or even god forbid, gameplay with completely straight faces. Here is Gordon from We Fly Spitfires:

And this, unfortunately, is BioWare’s big mistake. They sacrificed on so much in order to squeeze in a fully voice acted ’story mode’. It’s why there are so few classes, so few starting areas, limited racial choices, a small number of Flashpoints and Warzones, and only a single line of progression for each side. Likewise, once the shine of the story mode wears off, you realise that the gameplay is pretty generic if not shallow and outdated. Nils has a good write-up on the subject and, if you agree with him, you’ll probably also come to the realisation that WoW’s gameplay actually has a surprising amount of depth to it (at least in comparison to The Old Republic).

To get this out of the way, WoW’s combat definitely does have a more visceral cadence to it than my experience with the SWTOR beta. At least, it does once you pass certain level thresholds with a given class. Rogues before Cheapshot are hideous. Paladins were garbage for years until multiple class revamps later. And so on.

Having said that… really? Are we seriously to the point at which we are holding WoW up as an example of compelling gameplay as if Cataclysm never happened? Even if we agree that there are two (or more) different definitions of gameplay taking place – the moment-to-moment, and say, the minute-to-minute – I am here to argue that while they are helpful, they are ultimately secondary at best.

Retention in MMOs come down to the people. Daily quests are not compelling gameplay. Heroics are not compelling gameplay. Grinding mobs is not compelling gameplay. What is compelling is that you are doing things either with or for other people. These otherwise asinine activities are utter tripe on their own, divorced from the Show & Tell aspects. When I did 20+ days of daily quests to unlock the exalted Tol Barad trinket on an alt, it did indeed feel good to work towards something tangible. But what made the trinket tangible? The PEOPLE. The knowledge that my geared alt would be useful in a guild raid situation, that some random person could appreciated the amount of investment that went into earning it, that it was useful in the context of other people.

So tell me, exactly, what it is about SWTOR that prevents such meaning from possibly existing in whatever arbitrary trinket they have at the ass-end of a huge endgame grind. We have all endured unfun things in WoW either for the promise of fun later, or because friends make it fun to do unfun things together. What is the difference here? And perhaps more pointedly, if compelling gameplay is the defining factor for retention, why aren’t we still playing WoW? I did not quit WoW because the gameplay changed, I quit because the game ceased to be fun. Great gameplay is not enough for long-term retention. Nor would I even say it’s required. It helps, no doubt, just like voice-acting and emphasis on stories helped get feet stuck in doors of people whom would have never gave yet another MMO a chance. Whereas moment-to-moment gameplay has to compete against every new game released, your social circle is a lot less replaceable.

SWTOR could very well end up flopping due to lack of retention. But if it does, I’m betting the traction loss comes not from lukewarm gameplay or limited instances, but lack of guild infrastructure, social incentives, RPing opportunities, and the other touchy-feely aspects of the game. In any case, considering SWTOR needs 350k-500k subs to operate in the black (even counting the Lucas cut), predictions of its eventual demise are a little ridiculous unless you believe it will be less successful than Rift (currently at ~475k).