A lot of hopes and dreams rest on Star Wars: The Old Republic being a major hit. It is the largest ever production for EA and the rumours I’ve heard indicate this means the development budget is over US$200m, maybe even US$300m. (As Lum points out, some back of the envelope calculations put the break-even point at around $150m, which is probably an underestimate.) A recent comment from an analyst indicated that in order to break even, the number of subscriber accounts has to be “a little over 1 million subscribers is needed to reach the break-even point” but that management expects over 2 million subscribers.
Damn right they do. EA isn’t looking for SWOR to break even, they are looking for it to rain money down on their heads like it is global warming-induced money super-typhoon. 2 million subscribers is an understatement.
However, by setting those kind of targets, they’ve set themselves up for a huge ask.
WoW, What a WAR
It’s well known that World of Warcraft has a lot of players. Worldwide, they have 11m+ players. However, the key word there is ‘worldwide’. By region, it breaks up into about 55% of subscribers being in Asia, 25% being in North America and 20% being in Europe. To the best of my knowledge, there haven’t been announced plans to launch SWOR in Asia. This leaves Europe and North America to carry the burden of reaching that 2m+ player level. In order for SWOR to reach those kind of figures, it has to jump straight into the number #2 position in the Western MMO market and stay there.
This was the strategy also taken by EA’s other recent MMO, Warhammer Online. In order for it to be profitable, it needed over 500 000 active subscribers, which at the time would have made it the second or third biggest MMO in the Western market just to succeed. However, WAR was unable to maintain those kind of figures, leading to Mythic seeing layoffs and ending up at EA under BioWare’s direct control.
In short: EA tried to do this ‘outspend everyone else in the market’ thing before and fell flat on its face. It appears the lesson they learned was that they didn’t spend enough, so have spent more money on a bigger IP with a better-known studio for attempt number two. History will show if this was a great business idea or yet another EA-related MMO blunder.
Consoling BioWare Fans
Can Bioware make a game that over 1 million players subscribe to? They can certainly shift units – Dragon Age: Origins sold 2.7 million units (off selling-in to stores 3.2 million units) while Mass Effect 2 sold-in to stores 2 million copies and it appears that at least on the Xbox 360 it has sold just over 818k units (calculated by adding NPD’s January 2010 and February 2010 figures together). However, the issue here is that these numbers are across multiple platforms – Dragon Age: Origins was available on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 while Mass Effect 2 was PC and Xbox 360. I can’t see EA developing their most expensive title ever and only releasing it on the PC, especially when BioWare’s recent experience is multiple platform-oriented, so I’m expecting it to be a multi-platform release, mostly likely for the PC and Xbox 360 (sorry PS3 people, but BioWare titles appear to be the least popular on your platform).
Could PC-only subscribers reach EA’s targets for SWOR? I have to say probably not. Although WoW manages to reach a very large PC player base, it does so by having PC system specs that are very friendly to older computers. There doesn’t seem to be much appreciation for Blizzard’s semi-base of the PC pyramid strategy among other AAA publishers and developers in determining why WoW has been able to attract so many players to it.
As such, I don’t think EA BioWare is going to be developing SWOR with your grandma’s PC in mind. As the required specs for SWOR increase, the PC potential market size for SWOR goes down. And although I don’t think SWOR will have any issue selling 1 million PC units in its launch week, the key concern is in keeping those players. There will always be a proportion of those initial early purchasers who aren’t going to hang around into the second month, but the key issue is if SWOR is going to grow past those launch numbers or see a steady decline from launch, as has been the case for numerous other MMO titles.
Everyone Needs A Little DLC
Back in 2008, EA boss John Riccitiello “let slip” that SWOR’s revenue would be microtransaction-based. To date EA BioWare have been cagey about the payment model for SWOR, but ultimately EA would be looking to minimise its financial risks as much as possible, which would mean a subscription model to generate regular income while also offering a mix of paid and unpaid downloadable content (DLC) to keep players involved and to also generate extra revenue. SWOR is too expensive for EA to not be trying to generate all the cash it can from its players while BioWare’s recent paid DLC experiences have been very successful. The sub plus DLC payment model isn’t unprecedented, so if EA BioWare can get the pricing scheme palatable – say, a $10 a month sub and worthwhile DLC for $7 a pop – it could work very nicely for EA while not annoying too many players.
History Never Repeats
Of course, the first Star Wars MMO, Star Wars Galaxies, was also a big, expensive MMO with a lot of weighty expectations placed on its player numbers (there was talk that SWG would attract a player base of over 1 million) that didn’t materialise. Although there are those who say that SWG was great as it was, various issues saw SWG unable to exceed 300k subscribers – a figure that was considered poor enough to allow for an attempt to completely change core game mechanics.
The point here is that SWG failed despite an experienced and well-reputed developer, a large publisher and one of the most popular nerd IPs you can get. Just because SWOR is being developed by BioWare, backed by EA and with Lucasart’s blessing is no guarantee of success.
Despite having a lot of positive things lined up for SWOR, the sheer size of the ambition for SWOR is going to be its greatest challenge. In order for EA to consider it a success, SWOR is going to have to be the second biggest Western MMO ever. There may be other things that BioWare can do to increase SWOR’s chances of success – they may launch in Asian countries at the same time as the Western ones, they may manage to hit on the right mix of single player story and multiplayer offering, they may manage to launch a modern generation MMO on consoles and tap that market – but there isn’t much middle ground in SWOR’s future. Either it is going to be a massive success or an unparalleled failure.