This morning’s post drew some spirited responses in defense of SWTOR. I thought I’d made my feelings on the matter plain enough, but it’s been a while, and I’ve been rather dancing around the point (rhetorically) since then. So for the sake of refreshing the memories of the readersship, let me lay it out again.
I expect SWTOR to be a good game, possibly a great one. I think there’s some doubt as to how much virtual world it’s going to give us, but whether the game provides a good experience or not is independent of that, even if it happens to be among my personal preferences. Everything I’ve seen points to SWTOR as sort of the ultimate embodiment of the Theme Park, where each and every component of the user experience is carefully hand-crafted. This is not bad game design, but I’d personally prefer to see MMOs in particular move away from it.
My main concern with SWTOR, and the reason that I think it will fail, is the huge budget behind it. I think it’s inevitable that it will sell a lot of copies, but it’s now considered all but confirmed that it’s getting $200+ million in development money, and it needs to be a monumental hit – meaning a WoW-challenging hit – to make that huge cost back in a reasonable amount of time.
There is also the issue of managing expectations. We should all remember the example of Warhammer Online, the title that was going to revolutionize MMOs, that was going to have two million subs in six months and challenge WoW for top title. That this was pretty unrealistic is obvious now, but almost everybody bought into that hype at least in part for the month of two before WAR’s launch, inflamed by a beta that disguised the game’s gaping flaws. Artificially inflated expectations did more harm to WAR than the design flaws did. Had it started more modestly successful, it might have had time to stabilize and fix its issues and have been better positioned for growth. As it was, when it failed to meet expectations that were unreasonable if not impossible, overwhelmingly negative world of mouth took over, and it crashed utterly. A lot of folks remember this and are keeping their expectations more modest this time around – probably somewhat embarrassed by having bought into the WAR hype at the time. *cough*
So even though the aggravating phrase “WoW-killer” only gets mentioned once or twice a day now, there is still value in vigilance. Because it’s the expectations that SWTOR is going to be judged against, not its simple survival. WAR is universally considered a failure, even though it survives – albeit with fewer servers than Star Wars Galaxies has, eight years along. We talk a lot about how many MMOs fail, but the fact is that if they make it as far as launch, they tend to stick around, at least on life support, for a good long while.
Without going over the numbers again in full, I’ll reiterate my earlier conclusion: SWTOR is almost certainly doomed if Bioware is spending $300 million on it. This is because, in order to make its money back at launch, it has to sell 5 million copies. Which is better than WoW is doing, by all accounts, in the western market, maybe by quite a bit. In order to make its investment back after 6 months, it only needs to sell 2.5 million boxes… which could happen, but then it needs to retain a staggering 90% of those box sales as subscriptions, and the subscribing population needs to stabilize at around 1 million.
With more realistic but still optimistic numbers, say 2 million boxed sales and a 70% retention rate (still astoundingly high, and far higher than we have seen with any game to date including WoW,) and a stable subscriber base around 500K, we start talking about making the initial investment back in 18 or 24 months, with money trickling in after that at about $7 million a month. All this is without taking into account a single dime of operating costs or paying a development team moving forward.
This realistic expectation makes SWTOR, to us, easily the second most-successful MMORPG of all time, taking a big chunk out of WoW and getting a very big foothold in the marketplace while doing booming business. But because the game cost $300 million to make, to the investors that’s not just a failure, it’s a freaking catastrophe. The problem is not the game, or how good it is. How good a game SWTOR turns out to be is simply not relevant.
This is not my opinion. This is math. For SWTOR to not fail, it must be the WoW-killer that we all laugh about uncomfortably whenever it’s mentioned, because the very idea has come to seem ridiculous.
If that happens… well, I’ll be happy to announce that I was wrong. It’ll have shaken up the complacent marketplace of big-ticket MMOs, and that’s good.