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.

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Posted on January 23, 2012, in Commentary, SWTOR and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Azuriel, are you really comparing Eve Online, a game which has been produced in a garage, with SW:TOR, a 300.000.000 Dollar (and maybe much more) project?

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    • Do you believe EVE should be graded on a curve, always and forever?

      I understand the angle you’re coming from, that a $200 million budget “should” result in a corresponding increase in subscriptions. But it is simply that, an angle, one of many. And it is an angle that casts an jaundiced eye over the rest of the MMO market with its (IMO) unreasonable expectations.

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      • I believe SWTOR should be judged according to its aspirations. And these aspirations were several million long-term subscribers who allow EA to print money the way Activision/Blizzard for seven years now.

        And I’d like to add that we should never forget that we still have no idea what amount of players a 300mio dollar Eve Online with SWTORs advertisement (and maybe the world’s most expensive IP?) would draw in .. long term!

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      • Is that your take on EA’s aspirations, the aspirations they publicly expressed to shareholders, or the sort of PR aspirations in the LA Times write-up? It’s fine just picking one arbitrarily – all of us have to make assumptions about the intentions of others – my whole point is making sure the choice sees the light of day.

        As far as what EVE would do with more money, we actually do know: CCP sees no need to reinvest it (not uncommon in the MMO arena). Dust 514 is a Playstation 3-exclusive FPS game which is “linked” to EVE in the most tangential of ways. As someone who enjoys what was looking like Halo meets BF2, that could have been the perfect entrance for me into the EVE world. But… nope, inexplicably no PC version. It might not be $200m (no real indication of how much it cost anywhere), but it has been three years of design work during the same period when CCP had to fire 20% of its workforce.

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    • I strongly agree with this. A game has to be judged on it’s own merit first. Only then can valid comparisons be drawn.

      SWTOR team didn’t spend ~$300 million to drag in half a million steady subscribers. Certainly they thought they would outdo EVE Online? Certainly they aimed to maximize the power of the IP to draw in long-term fans?

      I don’t think SWTOR is being held to an unfair standard at all. I hold NO MMO to the WoW standard, because it’s not a standard. It’s an anomaly that not even Blizzard knew would succeed so well. It’s what we call an exception, not a standard. SWTOR fans expected the game would deliver much more than strong narrative, no matter how naive that expectation may have been (Bioware has “0” track record with multiplayer gaming on such a scale, so many didn’t expect this to be much of an MMO …and those people were right).

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  2. The definition of success for a game differs from the point of view.
    For the player it is a success/good game if you enjoy playing it and feel the money it costs well spent. Every single one is entitled to their own opinion about that.
    For the company it becomes a success if they can reach their expectations in income and netto profit. I cannot judge that because I got no idea what EA is hoping for.

    But if I was EA (and the production costs are between 200 and 300mil) I would hope SW:ToR to run several years and make alot of profit beyond the break even point. I don’t think you do such a monster project and hope for a one year hype and thus a good stock market.

    I guess February will be a good time to see what they think of their own game, and their future plans.

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  3. The name of the language is Portuguese, not Brazilian Portuguese. Or you can say Wow is in American English instead of simply English (http://www.wowhead.com/item=10048)

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  4. I am from Brazil… and it is really Brazilian Portuguese. There are enough diferences between the portuguese we speak here at Brazil and the portuguese they speak at Portugal to make that distintion.

    WoW was just launched at Brazil and it is not using the portuguese language and words they use at Portugal. If they tryed it, it was problable no one here at Brazil were to read and understand the quests text. Oh well, no one read the quests text anyway….

    However, welcome to BRICS world…

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  5. I really recommend trying not to get sucked into the kind of dumb stuff that Nils and Tobold find to complain about.

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  6. I do find the language / market aspect of gaming interest, and I followed with interest the launch of WoW in Brazil for instance. I think it is important for any major international game launch to not only stick to West vs East markets but also to consider the emerging markets such as Russia and Brazil.

    I expect Bioware/EA know this all too well and they’ll probably already have launch plans for SWTOR in China/Japan/Korea and also Russia as next steps. Eventually they’ll probably do a translation into Spanish and Portuguese for Latin America. The problem will be dubbing all that dialogue but since they’ve already done French and German for the EU market it would hardly be a surprise to them.

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    • They can always treat the english language like any other alien babbling in the game.
      All the spoken dialogue remains english and you get local undertitles in portugues, chinese, etc.

      It imay feel like a desperate solution, but a cheap one and it does open those foreign language markets.

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  7. 300 million was spent on SWTOR and I don’t know where that kind of scratch went because the game is horrible. EVERY endgame encounter was destroyed before the first month was up. When the 1.1 patch came out 4 more bosses were added which were conquered the same day, even before they brought the servers down to recover from everything they broke by the release.

    When people group up everyone tells you to “slam space-bar” to get through all the cut-scenes ASAP. So if that is what $300 million bought us then I feel extremely sorry for EA/BW. Once you level your first character 90% of the cut-scenes are going to be the same on your alt. The storylines are unique yet most are cheesy as hell “oh only you can save us from XXXX, please level 25 kill this DARTH and save us”. I mean sure go for immersion and attempt to make the player feel heroic, but don’t make them so unbelievably unrealistic that it just leaves you shaking your head, asking “really?”.

    PVP can be fun if you picked the right class and can play through the 5 different acknowledged bugs dealing with latency, GCD lag, video lag (introduced in 1.1.1b), crashes, 16 man OPS groups forming (when there should only be a max of 8), and other combat issues. But again, an absolutely horrible system is in place to reward players for PvP. Before Jan I had hit Valor 60 and had a full set of Battlemaster gear and my small time guild had cleared all end game content. There are people that have multiple Battlemasters and some that are in Valor 70-80 (out of 100). EA/BW tells us to be patient and to “level and alt”… Never, in all my time playing MMO’s (played every major MMO since EQ to end-game) have I seen all content cleared and had max PvP rank in less than a month after release. End-game encounters are stale, poorly designed, buggy, and going from Hard/Nightmare mode the only thing that changes is the mobs all get more HP. It’s really a horrible system.

    Once the 50 PvP bracket was introduced PvP queue times went up to 2 hours for imperials on my server. My entire guild transferred off (we were the top guild on the KO server) to Fatman, a higher population server. 3 other Imperial guilds (the next top guilds on the server) and 4 of the top Republic guilds also transferred off to join us on Fatman. People visiting the server tell us it is like a ghost town with an average of ~10 people in the fleet zone at peak times and 6 hour or more imperial PvP queues. Sure this is only 1 server.. but if you read the forums many others are experiencing the same and during the leveling process many other people had said the had rerolled on Fatman because their servers were experiencing similar issues. Take it as anecdotal evidence, but the fact remains many of these servers are not healthy.

    I don’t foresee SWTOR going anywhere anytime soon, but is it a failure? I’d certainly say so. I sure as hell don’t see $300 million dollars worth of a game. I will play it until GW2 comes out because there is nothing else really out there right now that’s new and worth getting into for only a few months. Come June/July GW2 will reinvent the wheel and my guess is they did it for a hell of a lot less than $300 million.

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