Why SW:TOR is a big bad deal

Note: If you read blogs in absolutes, this post is not going to work for you.

The discussion around SW costing 300m or not, whether selling 4m box copies puts it in the black, or why anyone should care, is pretty complex. Actually it’s impossible for anyone to cover fully, and that includes BioWare, given the amount of unknown or yet-to-be-seen factors. But the day facts stop me from blogging is the day this site shuts down and I return to WoW atop a sparklepony to become the world’s greatest Panda. So here we go.

Why 300m matters: If you love SW content, then you now know what it costs to make it happen. Whether it’s actually 300m, less/more, it’s a lot of money. You can’t make an indy version of SW and have it resemble anything close to the current game. EA/BioWare are playing with a very serious risk/reward ratio here. If they don’t hit it out of the park, SW is not going to be a small footnote on the balance sheet. SW is either a smash hit and hits the mark, or it’s ANYTHING BUT a smash hit and fails. The farther from a smash hit it is, the greater the impact of that failure. This is not only significant for EA, but for the genre as a whole.

And that big number, 300m or something close, is further complicated by two other very important factors.

Factor one: Voice acting does not get cheaper the longer you do it. You don’t build a voice acting engine, and all content after is easier/faster because the engine is already in place. Voice acting is pretty close to a fixed cost (depending on who does the voice, of course), and unless BioWare moves away from it, all new content is going to include that cost. What this means is that unless SW is a smash hit, BioWare can’t keep throwing money into a hole by producing more voiced content. No new content in a themepark MMO is one short step away from shutting the game down.

Another important aspect to voice acting is that it takes time. How much varies, but it takes time. And listening to voiced content is a hell of a lot quicker than producing it. For most players, they will listen once and hit spacebar the next time. That’s all well and good for most games, but is killer for a game expecting to keep you entertained long-term.

Factor two: The game uses the SW IP. This further cuts into profits, and significantly, compared to something like WoW. Blizzard is only paying Blizzard for the rights to use the Warcraft IP, while BioWare has to give George his cut. This again factors into the decision to make new content, or to even keep the game up. History is very quick to point out that when an IP-based MMO is not performing, it gets the axe rather than the out-to-pasture treatment. Again, if the game is a SMASH HIT, George is happy, Bioware is happy, and blasters-to-the-face rolls on. The moment the whole equation stops working, bad things happen, and quickly.

Why you should care: If you like SW, you should want more of it. And the only way you are going to get more of it is if you and a million or so other people stay subbed.  And stay subbed for a long time.

I love Skyrim, best single player game out in years, but whether I play Skyrim for a week, a month, or ten years, so long as I bought it Bethesda sees my “more of this please” vote and is one customer closer to producing more stuff I want.

BioWare seeing your $60 is not enough. BioWare entertaining you for 3 months is not enough. They need you to pay that $15 a month for a long ass time to make SW ‘worth it’. So if your attitude is “I know SW is not going to keep me for a long time, but it’s going to be a fun month”, know that you are basically making my point. I’ve never said SW won’t be fun-enough for some. I’ve never said the entire game is a giant pile of fail (at least not in any seriousness). What I have said, and again, what you state to support me, is that SW is a horrible pile of fail when it comes to being an MMO, and that exact reason is people playing it just for that one month of fun.

One month of fun would be bad enough for a regular MMO. SW is not a regular MMO. It’s the most expensive MMO ever, and it’s tied to a very pricey IP. It’s also potentially the make-or-break title for the ultra-pricey themepark model. If SW fails, you might not see another game of its kind.

And that last bit is why I’m rooting so hard against it. I want the AAA themepark model to die. It’s a complete waste of dev time, it teaches gamers horrible habits for MMOs, and it makes some devs (Mythic, Trion) do some incredibly stupid stuff instead of producing stuff I want (DAOC2, beta-Rift).

The above paragraph is of course all personal, but the stuff above that is not. Fact is, SW absolutely HAS TO BE A HIT, and not just by selling 4m boxes, but by keeping at least a sizable chunk of that base paying for MONTHS after release. If SW dips in popularity after 6 months, it won’t just get a slightly smaller dev staff and keep on keeping on. Nor will the genre as a whole. If you like AAA themeparks, SW might be your only hope.

Should be a fun 3-6 months, in-game or otherwise.

 

32 Responses to Why SW:TOR is a big bad deal

  1. Adam says:

    “””Blizzard is only paying Blizzard for the rights to use the Warhammer IP”””

    FTFY

    • SynCaine says:

      There is a reason it’s called Warcraft and not Warhammer. Money!

      • Kobeathris says:

        If it was based on WHFRP, you would have 6 hit points, and you would die from bleeding while missing a leg. Or after your head went 1-6 yards in a random direction.

        WHFRP Crit table FTMFW!

        • Rammstein says:

          DnD 4th ed. copied WoW’s combat system. Not vice versa. If WoW had paid for WHFRP’s IP, then WHFRP Xth edition would be much more WoW-like, and WoW would be the same as now but with different pictures.

        • Rammstein says:

          By different pictures, I mean the Tauren would be evil demon worshipping cowmen. Otherwise, pretty much the same.

  2. thade says:

    You did seem to suggest at the top of this post that it’s not about absolutes…but it’s certainly very heavily weighted as if it is about absolutes. (Don’t get me wrong; you have my respect. But I felt compelled to respond.)

    It’s sad, but I don’t see the DAoC model working anymore and I think the best indication of that was how hard Warhammer Online failed, back when it tried very meekly to stand in its shadow. “Hey here are some castles you can fight over.” What did the players do? They *took turns*, one faction then the other, over-throwing the keeps day after day. Little fighting; they just traded. The reason? Because you only got a *reward* – a drop – if you took the keep over. You got nothing for defending it…except, you know, the reason I wanted to defend it: because it was *our castle*.

    My (quick and poorly substantiated here) point is that it’s hard to get players to play games like this for the sake of playing the game itself anymore. As the game got more stream-lined and more focused on loot, the game (and now the genre as a whole) became less and less focused on community. I fear the market’s just not there anymore, as there are still MMOs out there that have it but people don’t shell out the big bucks for those. Maybe there’s a better reward system to bring back the DAoC-style…but I don’t know what it would be.

    What TOR is doing is playing the same game WoW did back at its inception. WoW offered something no MMO before it had: stupid amounts of content. Not one weekly quest where we all line up to save the same princess…but quest after quest after quest. Tons of content. This was work the industry at the time considered to be impossible…but Blizzard did it. They upped the bar.

    Bioware is taking it even further. They’re putting up a massive amount of content with their own spin on it…a spin we all know well from games like KOTOR, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect…and writers from each of those titles are on the team for TOR, so people have reason to be excited. Content will be voiced and there will be alternate story-lines. Lots of them. “KOTOR 3 through 14″ they said last year at PAX East.

    The game is the most expensive game ever and it wouldn’t have gotten that investor banking if they didn’t think it would make it’s return. Given that the live producer and one of the co-founders got tattoos during early access week instead of camping their terminals sweating over email tells me a few things:
    – they made a lot of money on pre-orders;
    – they’re confident in the stability and scalability of their system;
    – they are not worried at all.

    So I hate to break it to you…but I can’t help but say it: this game is very likely going to be big and it’s going to up the bar again. These guys aren’t rookies. They’re the guys behind Baldur’s Gate, KOTOR, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect. They didn’t approach this problem lightly and they’re not gonna fall down.

    And good thing. I really don’t want to see F2P/Pay-to-win become the next big thing. :(

    • SynCaine says:

      The absolutes part is poorly worded I guess. I wrote it first to avoid the inevitable “but Syn you don’t know how much it cost, so you can’t talk about how much it cost” trash comments.

      As for the rest, you listed a ton of single player games that a single player studio made. SW:TOR is very likely an awesome single player game (if blasters-to-the-face does it for you). And as I said in the post, that’s very bad news for this title.

      As for DAOC/WAR: One major reason WAR failed is because Mythic, in trying to create a WoW-killer, made a WoW-killer instead of DAOC2.

      • thade says:

        “…if blasters to the face does it to you…”
        Did you play any of the game I listed there, man? Those games weren’t really about the combat for me. If I want to play combat-centric games I play God of War or Magicka. I play Bioware titles for the story – which throughout all of their titles has been invariably epic in scope and well put together.

        The question is really whether or not a game-style that is single-player centric is really going to cut it as an MMO. Frankly I think it’s a no brainer (and apparently so does $135-something milliong dollars worth of investors) that it’s going to fly. The real money market is the casual player base…the people who’d rather log in, play for two to three hours at their own pace, then log out. This is a game for them.

        That you don’t like it is respectable and clear. That you want it to bomb so that the market will shift towards EVE-like games is I feel a hopeless road. :\

  3. $300 million, or any other made up number, only matters in the long term. As I said elsewhere, it is spent money that came from other sources. There is not a $300 million hole somewhere that EA needs to fill with one dollar bills, which is the implication of your people saying that SWTOR is only a success if it can pay that back right away!

    Where the $300 million number (which I will use since you seem to cling to it like some other bogus “facts” you bring up now and again) matters is in evaluating the next big MMO project. If the return on investment is good, and how much does it take to beat my 0.25% savings account return these days, they might try it again. If not, they won’t.

    But that will not impact the day to day operations of SWTOR. That will be purely a matter of subscription and box sales dollars versus current costs. Nobody is going to come over and say, “Hey, that dollar, that one goes to the $300 million you spent!” Accounting just doesn’t work that way in a large enterprise.

    I fully agree that SWTOR faces costs that WoW does not. The cost for creating new, fully voiced content puts them at a disadvantage. And the Lucas tax, Bobby Kotick was right on the nose with that one. See my previous “Good Fellas” reference. That is what dealing with them will be like. SWTOR can go wrong, but it won’t be because of the cost to produce.

    Basically, if the cost to produce mattered in the operational success of an MMO, Warhammer Online wouldn’t still be online. But it is, because at whatever minimal staffing level they have it at now, it makes enough money to be worth keeping.

    The only way that the cost to make SWTOR matters today, is in the context of EA and other companies deciding if they will make the next big budget MMO.

    And, as an interesting thought, Lucas can muck that up too. What if Lucas decides to do to SWTOR what they did to SWG yesterday when the next contract extension comes due?

    • SynCaine says:

      I know 300m is bogus just as much as you know 300m is real. Either way, I think we can both agree that SW:TOR is the most expensive MMO ever, yes?

      And I would suggest Mythic being a in-name-only company right now might have something to do with WAR’s cost and expectations, no?

  4. loire says:

    TOR is sitting at about 939,358 pre-orders at this very moment, a very large number for an MMO and a number that would make any game designer happy. It’s not unrealistic to expect total box sales to reach 2 to 2.5 once the holiday season is all over. That’s a lot of money for EA/Bioware. The problem is if the budget numbers are accurate, the box sales won’t even come close to putting the game in the black.

    EA need’s TOR to be a game that captures a million+ players for nearly a year for the game to be a success. The average MMO gamer doesn’t have that sort of attention span. Not to mention those who are already burning through the early access will most certainly be bored before the free month is over.

  5. bhagpuss says:

    @Loire There’s not really much “about” about “about 939,358″ is there?

    Wilhelm is correct, though. Companies the size of EA do not do accounting on a “per project” basis. They aren’t Aventurine, betting the farm on one throw of the dice. It’s all about throughput.

    I do think the commitment to voice acting is an issue going forward, though. It adds a lot of costs not just in dollars but in time and I would question whether it adds equivalent value.

    • Chris says:

      I think they should have a voice acting contest for subscribers. It would be cool to hear my voice on one of the quests. Come to think of it they could probably get 1000’s of people to do the voices for free.

  6. Chris K. says:

    “EA need’s TOR to be a game that captures a million+ players for nearly a year for the game to be a success”

    So they stick to 500k long time subs in the worst case scenario (which they wont, because it’s freakin Star Wars and it’s freakin EA). So what? This isn’t a small time studio that got a 50 million loan that is choking them and they need to get the funds to pay it back ASAP. Bioware’s livelyhood isn’t depending on whether the game sells 800k or 1.1mil subs.

    EA has the luxury to sustain the game for as much as it is needed to pay itself back, while at the same time they market its brains out. And they will do so, even for ‘merely’ 500k subs, if only for PR reasons.

    This is the difference on why you wont be seeing SWTOR fade away a-la Rift. This is also the reason that while the SOE MMOs are a fraction of the market, they’re still up and running (and even considered profitable from the company’s perspective).

  7. loire says:

    There seems to be some sort of belief that EA’s coffers are infinite and the (unlikely) absolute failure of TOR woulden’t hurt the company.

    It’s almost as if a massive MMO flop in the past 14 months didn’t give the world’s ninth largest video game producer a curb stomping.

    • Kobeathris says:

      EA probably has a pretty secure revenue stream from their sports titles, so while they don’t have infinite coffers, they do have a fair bit of cash flow to play around with, and whatever they have spent on TOR they have already spent.

  8. Azuriel says:

    This post is much, much better than the last one. Thank you.

    You are 100% correct when talking about how large a handicap SWTOR has, especially in comparison to other AAA titles vis-a-vis voice acting, licensing, and so on.

    That being said, there are a number of things going on. As loire mentioned, there are 940k preorders according to that website, which is apparently the largest amount in the history of EA, even beating BF3 “significantly.” Except… this site says BF3 had 1.25 million preorders, so who knows. The profit margins aren’t 100% on box sales, of course, but they are likely to be much higher than 50% on digital sales (Blizzard pushes 60%+).

    And then we have the quote from EA earlier in the year that 500k subs are needed to break a profit. That sounds like a lot, and it probably is in the scheme of things, but keep in mind that Warhammer still has 100k crazy-ass people subbing to it. And Rift still has 475k subs with a no-name IP. The question is really “is SWTOR at least as good as Rift?” If the answer is yes, well, QED. If something like Warhammer can have 100k residual crazies subbing to it, I find it likely SWTOR can attract 500k even if the (end)game is crap.

    I do wonder though, if the death of the AAA MMO model will have the outcome that you desire. Presumably, if games like DAOC2 were profitable, somebody out there would be making (more) of them, even right now. I can see the merit of the argument that they don’t make more sandboxes because there is easier, faster money in themeparks. But time keeps moving on. Nintendo went from the undisputed king of handheld gaming with $60 cartridges to a virtual anachronism in less than five years of $0.99 apps. Would that AAA vacuum be filled with game games, or browser-based cow-clicking, or something else entirely? How is the next generation even going to know how fun sandboxes are, if they weren’t lured into the MMO genre to start? I don’t think many people go from zero to EVE/Darkfall/whatever.

    • Rammstein says:

      Eve/Darkfall/whatever are hardcore PvP sandboxes. The problem isn’t that most people don’t go from zero to EVE, it’s that it’s not the right game for most people, ever. If someone designed a sandbox with greater mass market appeal, then people could go from zero to it, whatever that strange metaphor means.

      • Professer says:

        There are quite a few ‘sandparks’ under development that could help lessen that intro-gap into deeper sandbox games.

        • Rammstein says:

          It’s not just a matter of deeper vs. shallow. There’s nothing inherently “deeper” about being a more hardcore pvp type game. Take the life of an average person in a developed first world country. That’s a fairly deep “sandbox”, wouldn’t you say? And yet, a life of random and acquisitive violence is not common in that world, due to the structure of that society. A third world society is more likely to see a violent life, but one wouldn’t normally refer to that society as “deeper”. In fact, using other measures of complexity, I’d say that society might be “shallower”. Currently, the sandboxes out there are all on the “more pvp” side of the spectrum. If you went too much more pvp than those games, you’d have a game which was more pvp but less “sandboxy”. In terms of the metaphor, it would be sandbox where the social construct of the inhabitants of the sandbox resulted in so much fighting that no one ever managed to build a sandcastle, which makes the sandbox more like a sandy battlefield than the traditional notion of a sandbox.

        • Torcano says:

          @ramm

          You mean like eve? Where the vast majority NEVER pvps ?

  9. Paul says:

    I didn’t play in beta. I’ve been playing the live game for three days, and I’m already regretting getting it. The questing is glacial and unengaging. The voice mechanic doesn’t add to immersion, it just gets annoying. Geography is busy and unnecessarily confusing. The user interface is uncomfortable. Finally, the graphics are nothing to write home about, particularly on the machine I have (where everything has to be turned down to let it run at 30fps.)

  10. Bernard says:

    940k is North American sales only. We don’t have numbers for the other regions.

    SWTOR allegedly had 2 million players participating in their beta and the major raging has been nothing to do with the game itself, but more a question of launch management and phased access.

    I can see this game surviving on 10% of the total launch subscribers – i.e having a playerbase roughly the size of Aion.

    With the major driver being singleplayer content and there being roughly 200 hours from 1-50, with a 20 hour single player expansion pack every 12-18 months and some sparkle spacecraft and RMT ewok companions, I’m not worried about EA’s financial fortunes.

  11. Gesh says:

    Now, this post is totally different than the previous hysterical paragraph, I agree with your points, but lets see how things will turn out. I want to apologize for my previous comment (in the 2 days grace period post), where I was trolling and was being an obnoxious asshole. See ya.

  12. Alrick says:

    Played it for 3 days (on and off), already lvl19. I suppose reaching lvl50 in one month (considering immenent winter holidays) is not unreasonable. After that I see no reason to keep playing – the only aspect that SWTOR is superior to WoW at is the story, and I will be ‘done’ with it as soon as I hit the level cap.

    I disagree with the notion that the success of SWTOR determines the future of MMOs’ financing. Direct WoW rip-offs’ future, perhaps, and good riddance. What the genre doesn’t need is more-of-the-same attitude. But I don’t expect NCSoft to stop financing GW2 just because SWTOR flopped, for example. Or FunCom to stop making Secret World.

    These two are my main hopes for the future btw. MMO genre doesn’t need $300kk WoW clones, it needs MMOs 2.0. I really hope that either Arena.net or FunCom do that right (with my money being on the former).

  13. [...] week I wrote about SW:TOR being a bad business deal (something I also stated more than a year go). Today I want to continue [...]

  14. Quelldrogo says:

    From Thades comment:

    “As the game got more stream-lined and more focused on loot, the game (and now the genre as a whole) became less and less focused on community.”

    This is why EVE sandbox rules. You follow friends and enemies. You know who you fly with, who builds good shit, and who will help you when the chips are down. You make a list of douchebags to kill if you can. The real psychotics spy and infiltrate alliances. EVE is a monster learning curve of mechanics, but the community is amazing.

    Star Wars MMO without ship combat…? Seriously? Just stick a fork in it. I’m with Syn here, the suspension of disbelief just doesn’t hold up.

    Imagine the first 30 man raid with a bunch of “blasters-to-the-face” things going on. Like how is that gonna work? And at what point can my engineer just drive in his mech and LRM20 the boss? Or call in an orbital strike? Or swarms of killer nanobots or weaponized viruses…?

    Oh wait, I forgot. George said Star Wars is for kids. That’s why I loved it so much in 1977.


    Brian Posehn says it best.

  15. Max says:

    Well the problem with that angle of thinking is that with all that baggage SWTOR IS a huge hit and will hit the numbers .

    From players perspective I dont really care after all whether its good MMO. Its a good game. I will play it at least once to lvl 50 (probably more than once) and most likely shelf it in 3 months or so. I am getting a quality game with nice storyline and content. I dont care if they produce any more of the content down the line. What they have is good enough for me now. Its not really all that different from skyrim frankly

  16. Wesley Quigg says:

    TOR is ok but it is just WoW in a Star Wars skin. The worst part is it killed a much better Star Wars MMO. I am of course talking about Star Wars Galaxies. LA and promised that SWG would continue when TOR was released but then the management changed and they got greedy and agreed to EA’s stupid exclusivity clause which prevents another Star Wars MMO to exist. I predict that within a couple of months TOR will be lucky to have a couple hundred thousand active subs after people get bored with the game after running out of things to do just like it happens in WoW. I played SWG from beta and never got bored and kept my 4 accounts going the entire time the game was running. I would play WoW for a few months and then cancel my sub until the next expansion came out. I hope they lose so much money that LA wises up and brings back SWG as either a pay-to-play or as an f2p game

  17. [...] essence, I offer a prediction. The purpose isn’t self-serving in the vein of ‘I told you so‘ (albeit I can [...]

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