If you follow the MMORPG market closely, as I do, you may have noticed one very specific thread in regards to Star Wars: The Old Republic: It will be awesome. More than that, it will be the single greatest video game of all time, and will soundly crush the competition into a finely-ground powder that will then be baked into the bread of sandwiches for the EA execs.
Or, at least, that’s what all the pre-release press would like you to believe. Now, to be fair, almost everything written prior to the release of a game is probably a good deal more generous than it right well should be, but honestly, the hype machine for this game is enormous. I don’t think I’ve seen a single critical preview of the game, and the community is passionately supportive of it. Looking at the hype, it almost seems as if it would be impossible for the game to fail. As if The Old Republic were â€" dare I say â€" unsinkable.
|There has never been a recorded case in history where this sort of attitude has caused any problems whatsoever.|
But then, this attitude makes perfect sense â€" for Bioware. Of course, every developer wants their game to be unsinkable, but for Bioware, there’s more to it. The Old Republic is not just their flagship product, and it’s not just their biggest project ever â€" it’s the most expensive project EA has ever attempted.
This is EA Games here, folks. The only reason they’re number two is because Blizzard shacked up with Activision. They’re a giant among giants. And The Old Republic is their most expensive project ever. I’d say that puts its budget in the ballpark of at least 100 million dollars, if not much more than even that. This figure is supported by what EA’s management expects from the game: two million subscribers. With a “mere” one million being absolutely required to break even.
The Old Republic isn’t something that Bioware just doesn’t want to fail. It, quite literally, can’t fail.
But here I am, ranting on about what The Old Republic might be, and I haven’t even gotten to what it actually is.
So then, what is The Old Republic?
Of course I can’t truly answer that question based on my very brief stint at the Bioware booth at PAX â€" I think I played the game for a total of ten, maybe fifteen minutes at most. But even a short glimpse can tell you important things about how a given game works, and I think I got a pretty good idea of what the basic mechanics were.
|No, that’s not actually me, I had to hold the camera.|
The Old Republic quite simply is, from everything that I could gleam in my short demo, World of Warcraft. Sure, it’s a Star Wars game, and it looks much nicer, but once you look beyond the visual surface of the game, you begin to see very clear similarities. The combat mechanics are share stark similarities â€" I’m not sure there’s much of a difference between the two games’ combat systems at all. Likewise, the rigid class system is also present, and along for the ride are racial class restrictions â€" only certain races can be certain classes.
Really, I couldn’t see much of a difference between WoW and ToR when I played the demo â€" I think it’s fair to say that it certainly felt like I was playing a reskinned version of WoW. Granted, there was the dialogue system, complete with fully voiced NPCs giving quests through multiple-choice dialogue trees very similar to those you find in Mass Effect. And while it was an interesting and certainly more immersive variation on the standard quest text-box, I get the feeling it may grow tedious as you play through the game â€" especially considering the one side-quest I picked up was the quintessential MMO “kill ten rats” mission.
Now this stark similarity to WoW is not necessarily a bad thing. World of Warcraft certainly didn’t get 11 million subscribers by being boring, and I doubt The Old Republic will be either.
But that’s the problem. Bioware doesn’t need The Old Republic to be a good game. It needs it to sell millions of boxes and build a subscriber base of at least one million players. That’s not a small number, and its this ambitious goal that has me so worried.
Why? Because no MMO based so closely on World of Warcraft has ever held a subscription base nearly so large, and most that try tend to fail spectacularly. The most prominent example is probably Warhammer “if an MMO is closing servers, they’re probably in trouble” Online, which celebrated its six-month anniversary by closing 63(!) servers, and is now down to a mere four North American servers.
To push this point even further: There are only three subscription-based MMOs in history that have ever breached the one-million subscriber mark and held that number for any significant period of time: Lineage, Lineage 2, and World of Warcraft. And no game has done so since World of Warcraft was released. And here Bioware not only wants to change this trend with The Old Republic, but it’s aimed its budget so high that it’s literally a requirement to stay afloat.
Personally, I believe this disparity is caused chiefly by something that Shamus often refers to “the network effect.” To put it simply: everyone wants to play the game their friends are playing, right? So why would I want to play a game that’s like World of Warcraft (except without five-ish years of polish) that two of my friends are playing, when I could just play World of Warcraft with 20 of my other friends? There’s only room for one World of Warcraft in this market, and it’s already been made. This is why I get so frustrated when I see another MMO that borrows so heavily from the game its supposedly trying to compete against.
In fact, the only way I can see a game having a legitimate chance at dethroning Warcraft (and trust me, WoW won’t stay on top forever, even if it takes Blizzard making another game to finally knock it off its perch) is if the game in question is so vastly different from WoW that WoW’s own players will be interested in trying it simply because it’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. And, I’m sorry to say, that game is not The Old Republic.
And what’s going to happen if Bioware does fail? If The Old Republic only manages, say, 500,000 subscribers? What if it’s even less than that? This is a huge amount of investment capital that could be lost here â€" entire publishers have fallen apart over less. Now, a complete failure isn’t likely to kill EA, but what about Bioware? It could be in serious trouble if The Old Republic doesn’t live up to its own highest expectations.
But with all of this doom-and-gloom, I seem to be painting the bleakest picture I can, don’t I? I want to make one thing clear through all of this: I want The Old Republic to be awesome. I’m nearly certain at this point that the game won’t be the groundbreaking, WoW-killing success that everyone wants it to be, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be fun. And if you’re going to copy your gameplay from something, you could do a lot worse than World of Warcraft. When the game comes out, I’m probably going to get it â€" and I’m sure Randy and Shamus will too, along with most of the rest of the Spoiler Warning cast â€" and I’m willing to bet we’ll have a lot of fun with it. I absolutely do not want The Old Republic to fail.
What I’m so deeply concerned about is that it just might.
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