Home > Endgame, Other MMOs > Perfect Dead Calm or How SW:TOR Lost Its Locusts

Perfect Dead Calm or How SW:TOR Lost Its Locusts

May 11, 2012

As most observers know, SW:TOR received a few body blows last week in the arena of public perception. Chief among them, the reported loss of nearly a quarter of its subscriptions over approximately three months – or two weeks, if one is playful enough to fit a line to the XFire graph, according to which the game will be in the negative (subscribing to players, presumably) by August. However, even dispensing with such statistical silliness, it is clear that the best case scenario is beyond our grasp.

What could such a scenario have looked like? A perfect storm of WoW fatigue, an alluring mainstream-culture IP, the use of immersive storylines (Bioware is still best in business at this, after all) to charm people into staying for a compelling endgame, siphoning off a chunk of devotees from the industry leader and bringing in significant numbers of MMO first-timers.

Common wisdom holds that SW:TOR capitalised on WoW fatigue insufficiently, simply because its core gameplay is insufficiently distinct from WoW. I am not so sure. While even I would not argue that it is anything but similar, the differences – higher skillcap, greater challenge in questing and in flashpoints, a purer, less gimmicky approach reminiscent of TBC, which many people missed fondly – were not brought adequately to the attention of the average WoW migrant. Meanwhile, TOR’s small but grating technical missteps – dodgy ability feedback and keystroke queueing, early UI inflexibility and annoying bugs, a byzantine Galactic Market interface, Ilum and PvP entry thresholds, guild bank support, difficulty of forming flashpoint groups outside of fleet stations – wore away at the migrant’s game sessions. It pains me to concede this next point, but perhaps a few of the small quality of life conveniences, which I scoff at as coddling, may have been a good idea from the get-go: things like earlier sprint and permission to drive through orbital stations. Perhaps some form of automatic public groups for heroic areas. Tempora mutantur; the theme-park player is spoiled.

Star Wars was an important element, obviously. I do not think that anything here was done poorly, but it might have helped if the game were released at some point when enthusiasm for that universe were at a more fevered pitch. Nor can one fairly impugn Bioware’s excellent writing and handling of the IP. Which leaves the alleged weakness of the endgame.

Here, again, I am not so sure. I have to disagree fundamentally with the idea, advanced by a luminary of no lesser stature than Dr Richard Bartle, that the game is crippled by the disconnect between story-driven questing and same old boring raids at level cap. First off, PvP notwithstanding, killing bosses is what one inevitably ends up doing in a theme-park MMO. That is not a bad thing or something to be reimagined to succeed. While window dressing can vary and interesting boss mechanics are interesting, the primary source of satisfaction is found in Ernest Renan’s lovely line about what binds a nation together: avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore. The opportunity to overcome a setpiece, authoritatively-imposed challenge alongside one’s friends, without the burden of inventing one for oneself, is the theme-park’s great strength, not a weakness. The good doctor’s prescription of ‘more story extension, less endgame’ is a symptomatic treatment at best. Instead, I would suggest more variety, branching and story in raids: leveraging TOR’s unique pleasure of making ethical choices alongside and in view of others as part of endgame content.

How many millions of subscribers – keeping in mind that in MMOs a critical mass builds upon itself – would a perfect storm have been good for? I do not know. SW:TOR recently expanded to new areas of Europe and the Middle East, which is not the sort of thing done by a game in its death throes, wherein the studio frantically tries to wrap up expenses. However, it is worth considering that the game has not yet been released (and in some cases is explicitly blocked) in large portions of East Asia, which may constitute roughly half of WoW’s 10 million subscriber base. Oscillating somewhere between a million and two does not seem fatal in this context.

Moreover, the 400k or so lost souls were mostly transients. To an extent, TOR’s public relations strategy is reaping what it had sown by overcounting trials and freebies as active subscriptions. My anecdotal experience corroborates this (and does not match Dr Bartle’s, whose guild apparently crumbled) – some people have unquestionably left, but those who were always seen on the server, getting into groups, talking in public channels, flitting about at new world events have remained, and the perception of community remains nearly unaltered.

I remain highly sympathetic to TOR and cautiously optimistic. Once the team finishes its doling out of pre-designed content while adding quality-of-life improvements, it will have the space to move to innovation again, and it will remain a strong choice for the theme-park MMO seeker for quite a while. In turn, as the makers of Elder Scrolls Online (as good a brand for a new sandbox as one could ask for) have come to realise, the theme-park MMO seeker will probably remain the consumer to get for a long time. As much as I love EVE and the idea of EVE, its solutions are no more applicable to the AAA game than the socioeconomic model of Singapore would be to anything but a city-state, even if its economy is growing fastest in the world.

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Categories: Endgame, Other MMOs
  1. May 14, 2012 at 05:22

    Very interesting post. Like you, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of the game, as what SWTOR does well (Bioware stories, being a Star Wars game) is somewhat unique in the market.

    In addition, I think the light/dark choices did succeed in making people feel more attached to their avatars. Given the right content, I could see many people coming back, if only briefly.

    (http://dmreturns.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/swtor-down-to-1-3-million-wow-stabilized-at-10-3-million/)

  2. TBTSan
    May 15, 2012 at 09:04

    EA/Bioware showed “a finger” to most of the Europe by restricting sales at start to only 13 countries from 27 (?).
    At that time Store.Origin.com site showed everything in French for me with option to change to Netherlandish, but I live in Lithuania and only ~5% know French, less Netherlandish (it was same at home and at work, so it was whole country IP related). Now they have corrected the site.
    They lifted sale restriction in April but “hipe” is passed. Even, price is higher than for Diablo3 (55 euros vs 50 for standard edition).
    Sorry, but opportunity passed.

    • May 15, 2012 at 17:30

      I agree with you that some of those redzone limits were ridiculous, and I’m surprised that Lithuania wouldn’t have English localisation for the store. Bioware generated a lot of bad blood with Australians, too. But some of a new market is better than none of a new market.

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