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Star Wars: The Old Republic - The End of an Era?

Why EA's blockbuster MMO may not be a new hope.

The Guinness Book of Records: Gamer's Edition must be having a field day with Star Wars: The Old Republic; most expensive game ever, most vocal recording in a game, longest hype, most embarrassing cosplayer, most Jedi teabagging...

Yet despite the long list of superlatives already attached to it, SWTOR feels like the last of its kind; a game that was started at the end of one era of the MMO, and one that will be released at the beginning of another.

There are uneasy parallels that can be drawn with Star Wars: Galaxies, SWTOR's much-maligned predecessor, here. Galaxies took the (then still mostly-unsullied-curse-you-Phantom-Menace) main Star Wars brand and made a universe out of it, doing a fair job at replicating the feel of the world. It was released at the peak of the paid-for MMO business and did respectably, despite repeated design screw-ups, only being shut down to make room for SWTOR.

Eurogamer's SWTOR review is a few weeks away, and we'll reserve judgment on the game itself until then, but even now it seems like a very large gamble. Not in its content - in combining two top-ranked brands, Star Wars and Knights of the Old Republic, with the superlative storytelling skills of BioWare and the MMO tech of Mythic, it's a winning formula on paper - but in how EA has spent its money and how it expects you to spend yours.

As has been widely reported, it has cost EA around $80-100 million (excluding a probably greater amount spent on marketing) to make SWTOR into an MMO with a boxed-copy-and-subscriptions model - what some call pay-to-play. Following the similarly expensive flop APB, if SWTOR fails, then no publisher will want to finance a game using pay to play again.

Even Frank Gibeau, head of EA games, has expressed disquiet at the cost of the game. "I wish it wasn't that expensive," he told GamesIndustry.biz, "and I think everybody does." Sony Online's head John Smedley was more a little more vocal in his disquiet. "In my opinion this is going to be the last large scale MMO to use the traditional subscription business model," he said in a recent GamesIndustry.biz editorial.

Despite this negativity, it's unlikely to fail - but it might not succeed well enough either. EA has said that it needs 500,000 subscribers to make money on SWTOR. With a subs rate of $15 per person a month, that's a piddling $7.5m a month. That would take them at least 9 months to make their development costs back and probably over two years if you factor in marketing. We don't know what their monthly running costs will be, but they must be huge especially, as analyst Nicholas Lovell points out, "the fully scripted voice overs means that continued content updates are going to be very expensive".

Yet MMO users have changed since development started, subscribing for less and less time; subscriber drop-off after the first free month has become huge. Marie Croall, the lead designer of Fallen Earth, thinks that the flightiness problem is one of longevity. "Games stopped being immersive," she recently said. "A lot of games out there, you get in, you get to max level and that's nice. But they're becoming solo or limited-group experiences. Well, I can do that in Call of Duty. A MMO should be that whenever you get in you're like 'what's going to happen?' It should have that sandbox thing where you can create a world and that world can and should change, its politics, dynamics, who's in charge, who's running it, who the powerbrokers are - where you get people who are in it for twenty years, because they don't know what the experience is going to be from day to day."

BioWare can't assume that all of those initial subscribers are going to stick around, so they must be assuming that they'll make more money elsewhere. The bigger chunk of their projected lifetime revenue might be the upfront cost - what used to be the cost of the boxed copy. There are 46 million MMO gamers in the US alone, of which 12.5 million play pay-upfront MMOs - though, of course, not all of them will move across.

So let's assume SWTOR gets just 10 per cent of US pay-to-play MMO gamers to buy the game at $60 (Chris Wright predicts 2 million worldwide, so we're being conservative) and they keep all of that money. (This is a little unrealistic, as they have to pay distribution and publishing costs for any physical copies, halving their income - but we'll balance this piece of ignorance against us not knowing how many digital copies or Collector Editions they'll sell).

EA has invested big in The Old Republic - so it will be doing everything in its power to make sure it sees its investment rewarded.

That's around another $75 million dollars, covering most of their development costs straight away. On top of that worldwide sales might well cover their marketing costs - leaving the monthly fees, minus running costs, as gravy. It seems strange that an MMO would rely on blockbuster 'day one sales', but it pays for the development and marketing whilst it captures customers for the subscription fee. It means that EA will never make a loss on the game - it's likely they'd shut it or at least the servers long before that.

The thing is, given the amount of man-hours that EA has poured into SWTOR, to only break even isn't enough; this game has to be hugely profitable to justify the lost opportunity cost to their shareholders from all the other stuff those hundreds of developers and millions of dollars could have been devoted to. That is, why they're spending money on this instead of any of their other hundreds of underexploited franchises, such as Mirror's Edge, Dungeon Keeper, Ultima or Wing Commander...

Yet that $75 million is just a tiny chunk of the $2.6 billion US gamers spent on MMOs last year - 50 per cent of which was on free-to-play games (which is itself lower than the rest of the world that sees up to 60 per cent of MMO revenue on free-to-play - growing at about 25 per cent a year). So could EA shift a failing SWTOR to a free-to-play model or add in micro-transactions?

Increasingly, these days, most games are designed with a profit model in mind. "I honestly think you need to know your model when you're designing your game," said Scott Hartsmann, chief creative officer for Rift, recently. "If you don't you'll end up with a failure regardless, or at least a significant pivot. I have friends who've worked on games monetised as free-to-play, but there were no elements of free-to-play design and the game didn't do well at all... at the same time, I've seen subs-based games that weren't designed with the depth required, but went just fine with a lighter monetization option." He also noted that the cost of turning a pay-to-play game into a free-to-play game is not negligible.

Illustrating this, even the AAA MMOs that have gone free-to-play - Dungeons & Dragons Online, DC Universe Online and Lord of The Rings Online to name a handful - despite making much more money than they did before (trebling it in LOTRO's case), still don't feature in the top earners of free-to-play games. That goes down to League of Legends, Shaiya and World of Tanks, all games designed specifically for free-to-play. Basically, if you're going to be making an MMO now, you have to design it to be free-to-play.

So, SWTOR's gamble is that the shrinking core of pay-to-play gamers are at the point where they want to leave World of Warcraft, don't want to step up to the hardcore pay-to-play MMOs (Eve or Perpetuum) and don't want to try the huge variety of free-to-play titles, built to fit every niche (Allods, League of Legends, World of Worlds) or the upfront only multiplayer games like Diablo 3, Guild Wars 2 or Modern Warfare. It's also gambling that there are new players still to be brought in who are willing to pay $170 in their first year.

Ragnar Torquist of Funcom oddly agrees with EA - but then again he is releasing the Secret World as a pay-to-play game. "(Having) the safety... of 'you pay your monthly fee, you get to play as much as possible, do everything'... that, in a way, is comforting," he says.

Chris Wright, CEO of Games Analytics disagrees "The problem is that there is a finite set of people willing to pay $15 a month and most them are playing WOW. You are chasing a defined user base." Similarly, Lovell thinks "it will be very hard to build an enduring, subs-based MMO in 2012."

Sticking to the subscriptions-only model is something that no-one else would want to do. It's notable that many of the more successful pay-to-play to free-to-play conversions have followed a model that allows for a choice between micro-transactions, subscription fees and VIP packages - for example, City of Heroes, Fallen Earth and APB Reloaded - and this model looks increasingly attractive to design an MMO around.

On top of that, using the upfront sales to pay for marketing is something that no-one else can do; it's hard to think of franchises big enough to justify that spending again, save perhaps for the Elder Scrolls, and for non-franchised MMOs it deters users who may spend lots of money in-game. "Getting people into your world is so important that you want as few barriers as possible," says Lovell, "Upfront payments are a bad idea from a business perspective."

Whether SWTOR is any good or not is academic at this stage. It's a supertanker that can't turn fast, a holiday resort built in boom times. With its brand and the hype, it's likely to succeed; but it's almost certainly the last of its kind.

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Dan Griliopoulos