Category Archives: SWTOR
Man. If only there was, like, something interesting going on the world of gaming. You know, some tidbit of under-reported MMO news or some noteworthy announcement that happened in the last 24 hours or so. If it could demonstrate my somewhat embarrassing lack of forecasting abilities, that would be great too.
So, yeah, SWTOR going F2P.
Less than 1 million subs now, but totally “well over” 500k, aka the event horizon of the money hole. There is not much else to say that has not been said in a dozen other blogs in your RSS, although I am inclined to point to Green Armadillo’s analysis over at Player Vs Developer for one-stop shopping; I agree with basically everything the dasypodidae said. Especially the confusion as to how a F2P model is supposed to work when the stuff being pay-gated is probably what the vast majority of players don’t care about, e.g. endgame.
My contribution to the discussion, such as it is, will be the following:
In other news, I finished Dead Island over the weekend, and just completed Orcs Must Die 2 mere hours ago, having played the entire Story-mode in co-op. Official reviews of both and others will be forthcoming. Then again… maybe not. The recent Steam Summer Sale haul included the following:
- Crusader Kings 2
- The Walking Dead
- Prince of Persia Complete Pack
- The Longest Journey + Dreamfall
- Arma 2 (aka DayZ)
- 2K Collection (aka Spec Ops: the Line, Civ5, Darkness 2)
- …and a truly embarrassing amount of indie games
I almost pre-purchased Borderlands 2 since it was $40 via Dealzon, before I realized that I am addicted to the thought of getting deals on videogames more than the actual playing thereof. At least, that is the only possible conclusion looking at my (digital) library. I was feeling kinda bummed out at letting the Borderlands 2 deal slip away though – while it was never supposed to be a sort of Day 1 purchase to me, I was definitely looking forward to it sooner rather than later – until my friend said “Steam Winter Sale.” God dammit.
I am looking forward to hitting up SWTOR once it goes F2P though, assuming GW2 plays out as I expect and I don’t do a full relapse with MoP. Throwing down $15 for the box a week or so from now is not asking much, but like I mentioned earlier, it is all about the dealz. And it is hard to argue with “free several months from now” when there is plenty to do in the midterm.
In other words, SWTOR lost 400,000 subscriptions in the last three months:
Star Wars: The Old Republichas dropped from 1.7 million active subscribers to 1.3 million, publisher Electronic Arts said today in an earnings statement.
That’s a loss of nearly 25% for the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or 400,000 subscribers. […]
Update: In a conference call this afternoon, EA said the decrease was indeed due to “casual and trial players” cycling out of the game.
It is worth noting, of course, that the 1.3 million current subscribers is circa March 31st; things may have stabilized or gotten worse sense then.
Remember the whole brouhaha concerning the free month of game time given to Bioware’s “most valued players?” That took place two weeks into April. So while that may still have been a cynical move to prop up subscription numbers, we can be reasonably certain that the 1.3 million figure is not being finessed by anything (the 1.7 million figure at the beginning of the year had some vague language).
I’m not sure I’m going to follow SWTOR with the same level of attention I give to WoW’s subscription/raiding numbers, but for some future reference, here is an Xfire screenshot:
I personally don’t like using Xfire as a metric – the sample of players here are playing SWTOR for 5.3 hours at a time if I’m reading that right, and I’d assume even happily subbed players play less over time – but there you go. Damning evidence of EAware’s hubris and impending downfall, or signs of a much healthier MMO than most releases have achieved in the last few years. Obviously 400k is nothing to sneeze at, but 1.3 million is much better than analyst predictions of 800k.
Spin that narrative however you please.
I was really perplexed about Bioware’s recent marketing flops concerning SWTOR, just like approximately ten thousand other bloggers. At least, I was perplexed until I hit up their job postings page and realized they are looking for a Marketing Analyst. Glancing at the requirements only confirms my suspicions:
- Analyzes performance of strategic marketing campaigns to acquire new consumers and cross-promote games to retain and maximally monetize players against established benchmarks and or forecast objectives
- Analyzes consumer behavior and response to media investment and creative messages
- Using data-driven insights, recommends actions to improve campaign performance.
- Collaborates with other areas of marketing, (including brand marketing, marketing management, acquisition and retail teams, online & social media marketing, CRM) as well as product development and product management teams to validate campaign content and ensure programs are effectively reaching customers
- Candidate should have a good knowledge of general marketing paradigms and standard campaign management and measurement strategies along with video game industry experience
Yep. Bioware clearly doesn’t have anyone over there with those qualifications.
But you know what? I am a self-starter team player. So, Bioware, I am going to give you some marketing advice for free – just have the intern print off two copies of this post and send the other one to HR as my application, and we’ll call it even. Deal? Alright.
1) Words matter.
I would have thought this was an easy lesson to learn from the Mass Effect team – considering that even the Better Business Bureau acknowledged the ME3 endings constituted false advertising – but perhaps the teams are too compartmentalized. In any event, the basic idea here is that it matters what you say and how you say it. Let’s look at what you put out in your promotion:
As a thanks for being one of our most valued players, all active subscriber accounts with a Level 50 character as of April 12, 2012, 12:00 PM CDT, 5:00 PM GMT, will receive 30 days of game time** at no charge in appreciation for your support and loyalty.
Yes, I am sure someone thought they were so terribly clever in that meeting for including the qualifier “one of,” as that allows you to claim that non-level 50s can also be included in the category of “most valued players.” Unfortunately, it also matters how you say things. And in this case, the implication is that even if a sub-50 player is included in the most valued category, you nevertheless are not “appreciating” their support and loyalty in the same way. In fact, the whole framework of the promotion is dumb, since levels have nothing at all to do with loyalty; if you wanted to reward loyalty, give a free month to the people who subscribed continuously for the last 3-4 months.
But I understand, there are probably specific metrics out there showing that specifically the players at the level cap need an incentive to stick around a little longer. In which case you may as well make the free month as broad as possible considering the promotion will imply that you’ve fucked up your MMO either way; having compelling endgame content is damn near the entire point of themepark MMOs, as that is where you will inevitably end up spending most of your time. Unless you unsub right after hitting the cap… oh, wait.
Bottom line: a turd can hold only so much polish. Don’t evoke loyalty and “most valued players” when in reality you are offering compensation for bored level 50s.
2) Play up the retraction.
Or as Cave Johnson would say, “When life gives you lemons, have your engineers invent combustible lemons and burn life’s house down.”
Dr. Greg Zeschuk came out and mentioned that the free month of game time will be extended to non-level 50s. That is a good step, of course, probably necessary even. But what the retraction doesn’t do is connect all the dots laying out there. I’m not talking about the dots concerning the health of the game (or potential lack thereof). I’m talking about how players have until April 22nd to earn their one month of free game time by hitting level 50 or some combination of high-level alts.
Right now, you can buy SWTOR for $39.99 from Origin, which of course comes with a free month. But if you manage to hit the level cap within the seven days between this post going live and the promotion ending, you will get a second month for free. If that wasn’t an intentional marketing move, it should have been. I’m damn near tempted to try it myself.
3) Fill that Marketing Analyst position ASAP
You don’t actually need someone fancy. You just need a somewhat normal person, or someone capable of passing for normal, who is both willing and allowed to tell you something is a bad idea. Had I been in the meeting that spawned this promotion, my hand would have been the first one up after the presentation, even if I had a level 50.
Hindsight is 20/20, but come on. This sort of thing shouldn’t have passed the smell test.
You have probably already heard about the 1.7 million subscription number, 2 million boxes sold, and so on surrounding SWTOR’s launch. What I am finding a bit more interesting are some of the investor call break-downs as gathered by Darth Hater. For example:
Q: What are your plans at expanding the global market?
A: We are looking at the Asian market. Expanding into Australian market on March 1st. We’re looking specifically at opportunities to expand in the Asian market.
Q: How long will it take to get into the Asian market?
A: Australia/New Zealand is the low-hanging fruit. Think in months rather than weeks. Individual Asian markets will be announced in the future, we’re bound by confidentiality agreements. When WoW was introduced in 2004, they were in Korea shortly after, and 9 months after in China. It was easier in those days – server outages were considered par for the course, that is not the case today. We hope to execute as well in Asia as we did in the NA/Europe launch.
Q: You’ve previously said you need about a half million subscribers to be profitable, is that still the case?
A: At 500,000 subscribers, we’d break even. At a million, we’d be making a profit but nothing worth writing home about. As it scales up from there, we’re talking about a nice profit. At this point with the successful launch, we can take the worst case scenarios off the table.
The ability for SWTOR to launch in Asian markets was one of the biggest concerns I had with the game from a success standpoint, as you may recall. Indeed, if/when the game is released in China, that will be the moment beyond which we will be unable to talk about its subscription numbers with any sort of coherency – not because it will necessarily be super-popular over there, but because, just like with WoW, millions of Eastern subs obfuscates armchair analysis. Remember Nils saying “[…] I would now say that EA could be happy if they had 500k subscribers one year after launch”? Would it “count” if there was some Western mass-exodus down to 250k but 2 million Chinese subs?
In any event, there are still legitimate questions about how the game will perform 3 to 6 months down the road, when there is less ambiguity surrounding whether 1.7 million was as-of December 31st or as-of the investor call (and what “most” means in the context of “Most of those 1.7m are paying at this point”). Then we have Frank Gibeau who says:
In the next phase, our goal is to grow the number of subscribers with frequent releases of content that make the game even more exciting. […] We plan on delivering another major update, even larger than the first, in March.
It is kind of interesting, on several levels. Can Bioware keep such a pace for any length of time, or will there be a drought soon after March wherein the reserve content drys up? Do frequent patches even drive subscription growth to begin with? Blizzard’s Mike Morhaime said back in November that patches were mainly about reducing churn, not growth. Maybe it’s different for games below market saturation? And speaking of games and markets, let’s not forget at least a half dozen high(ish) profile MMOs will also be dropping this year, including the mythical Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria. No doubt there will be some impact, eh?
Time will tell, but so far so good.
P.S. If you had bought EA stock after it dropped 3% in mid-January, when people were laughing about SWTOR’s “disastrous launch” based on that one analyst, you’d be sitting on a 10.22% return on your investment a little more than two weeks later. Or, hell, a 6.1% return between yesterday and today.
P.P.S. Christ. BRB opening eTrade account.
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.