It’s been a good week for internet video game drama. There was a nice warm-up with Nick Lovell’s contribution to the masses on 10 doomed games / businesses / products, followed by the main course of EA Louse spewing bile at EA from the inside.
Putting aside the validity of EA Louse’s posts – and if you follow how video game studios treat employees, the names may change but the subject remains the same – at the very least it crystallised for why Star Wars: The Old Republic is a “high risk” title. I’m not going to be as brave as Lovell and say, “DOOOOOOOOOM”, but the title as a lot of big things working against it.
Given I want to spend some time going through this, I’m going to split these reasons across different posts – at least this way, my wall-o-text attack will not attack your eyes for 946 points of damage. Probably.
Reason #1: EA Is Looking To Get A Blockbuster MMO For The Wrong Reasons
I can see three major reasons why EA is investing so heavily in SWOR (they liked the idea so much, they spent US$860m to buy the company – I don’t think EA really wanted Pandemic given what they did to it, do you?):
Profit is the easy one: EA expects BioWare’s SWOR to be a huge revenue-generating title. This is not a bad thing, because it is exactly what EA should be doing – making smart investments in titles that will allow them to spend on developing more titles further down the line. A major success in a title like this can mean that the borderline quirky project might get some funding rather than being kicked out to Indie Dev Land (where life is hard and there are wolves that eat the stragglers).
Practicality: in an era where ad hoc game title releases are incredibly risky and often prone to failure even for large publishers, releasing a big-IP MMO from a beloved developer that promises to generate money for years to come is just good business sense. (Kinda – more on that in the next entry.)
Looking at World of Warcraft – and let’s not kid ourselves here, this is the level of success that EA is looking at for SWOR – you can see that it makes serious money. It’s estimated that of the US$1.6bn that the subscription MMO market brings in, WoW is responsible for about US$860m of that (or 56%). And that’s just North America and Europe – Activision-Blizzard generate over $1bn per year off WoW alone. They’ve done that for several years now. From a business point of view, having that reliable stream of income is just too attractive. It’s good business sense to chase it.
Ego: Here’s where the rot sets in – EA is not just looking for SWOR to be a success, they are looking for SWOR to be a MASSIVE success. The amount of money being poured into developing SWOR is staggering – yeah, EA Louse said US$300m, there’s suggestions of US$150m too – to the point that it is EA’s largest ever project and probably the most expensive video game title ever. That’s not good business sense, that’s ego talking – “mine is bigger than yours” to be specific.
EA wants to release a successful modern MMO and they think a Star Wars title will be that title. Especially a Star Wars setting where they can take the best bits of the setting and make a composite ‘Greatest Hits’ collection, as the Old Republic does. However, you don’t need to plan for a financial break even point of around 1 million players just to reach that goal. No, the real problem here is that EA wants a WoW-level success, at least for North America and Europe (Star Wars isn’t as attractive in a lot of Asian countries). This means a number of decisions are being / have been made from a place of ego-driven idealism rather than colder business pragmatism.
Just so I don’t leave BioWare out of this: their ego is visible in that they somehow see all the mistakes made by every other MMO developer – and indeed, the entire category to date – and have over come them. SWOR is going to be BioWare fan’s dream game, which will somehow translate to MMO success. It should be recognised that BioWare’s more recent outputs have sold millions of units, but these numbers have been across both PC and console – SWOR is a PC-only release at this point, which wipe as much as 50% off those figures. A key realisation that hopefully BioWare has made is that single player titles and multiplayer titles have very different expectations around them. The player who spends $60 on a 30 hour single player experience and loves it can easily be a player who spends $60 on a 30 hour MMO experience and feel ripped off by it.
Ego Drives Us, Just Sometimes Too Far
If all EA was interested in was releasing some successful titles, or even a successful MMO, then buying BioWare and having them work on a MMO still makes sense. It’s the scale of the project that suggests things have run away a bit too far, which has led to SWOR probably costing too much (but again, that’s the next post). At the end of the day from this outsider’s perspective, EA wants to be able to look Activision-Blizzard in the eye and say, “We’re just as successful as you and our big titles are just as important.” However, it is this kind of mentality that is ultimately going to build barriers to SWOR’s success – especially if SWOR doesn’t hit its revenue targets shortly after launch.
The next reason to follow, as soon as I have time to write it out.