This article has received a follow-up. It can be viewed here.
At the San Diego Comic-Con on July 22nd, 2011, Canadian video game developer BioWare announced that they would soon take preorders for the anticipated Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Star Wars: The Old Republic. For a five-dollar fee, consumers could pre-order the digital “Standard Edition” and the “Digital Deluxe Edition”, priced by Electronic Arts at sixty and seventy dollars. For twenty dollars, a consumer could pre-order the boxed “Collector’s Edition”, each unit priced at a whopping one-hundred-and-fifty dollars. Mere hours after pre-orders were made available to the public, the Collector’s Edition had sold out worldwide and pre-orders on the E.A. Origin digital distribution service had been converted to a queue system, artificially limiting supply to increase already-high demand. Star Wars: The Old Republic will be one of the biggest releases in whatever year it is released. So far, it is the most-preordered game in E.A.’s history.*
One month prior to the BioWare announcement, Sony Online Entertainment announced that they had come to terms with LucasArts to end server support for Star Wars Galaxies.* The game was released in North America and Europe in 2003, receiving some critical* and commercial success.* On December 15, 2011, the game will become abandonware. This is the death of software. Not all MMOs die this way, but this is the most total, complete death that a game can experience. Star Wars Galaxies is set to join the ranks of Tabula Rasa, The Matrix Online, and more Phantasy Star Online games than I care to mention. (ML: Add Earth & Beyond to that list. Oh, and Asheron’s Call 2, a letdown of all letdowns.) It doesn’t always end like this. 2011 may be seen as the year of free-to-play, with subscription-driven titles such as Fallen Earth, Lego Universe, Age of Conan, City of Heroes, Champions Online, Global Agenda, and APB converting to a free-to-play business model. Everquest 2, Lord of the Rings Online, and Dungeons & Dragons Online also experienced significant success when switching to a hybrid business model featuring free-to-play and subscription options. So why is the first Star Wars MMO that isn’t 1997’s X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter being put on the shelf for eternity as abandonware?
Star Wars: The Old Republic in action! (Credit: BioWare*)
While Star Wars Galaxies was both commercially successful and profitable, it was not nearly as popular as expected. In the year prior to the launch of the World of Warcraft public beta, Star Wars Galaxies was expected to break one-million simultaneous subscribers. The growth of the game was likely stunted because players had to master a lot of professions just to become an iconic and overpowered Jedi (which is like a Dragonball MMO that doesn’t allow players to become a Saiyan*). It’s a rookie mistake to prohibit players from assuming a franchise icon, even if the lore or rules need to be bent to accommodate it. The subsequent anticipation of 2004’s Everquest II and World of Warcraft sealed the fate of Star Wars Galaxies. The final nail in Galaxies‘ coffin was certainly the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancement patches. These 2005 patches simplified the game and were designed to capitalize on the sudden popularity of World of Warcraft.
You’re probably wondering how a pair of 2005 game updates can lead a game released in 2003 to its 2011 death. Common sense, it seems, is certainly not lost in this world. You see, maintenance of MMOs is a lot cheaper than you may think. Age of Conan is a great example of the slow process in the death of an MMO. Instead of shutting down servers (which are pretty cheap to maintain), a studio or publisher will simply reshuffle management or down-size the development team. (ML: Yes, server costs are cheap. Blizzard watchdog Daeity published a piece that went into significant detail on this topic, though it appears to have disappeared into history. The entry that segues into the breakdown remains.* Most “server support” comes in the form of customer service, which has to be done by humans who need to be paid money. Computer code hasn’t replaced their job quite yet.) This occurred at Mythic following the infamous second-month flop of 2008’s Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, and also happened at Funcom when players realized that critics never bothered to play Age of Conan past level twenty. The results of those patches? Stagnation. Less content. A disgruntled and ever-shrinking community. A series of sentence fragments. Don’t get me wrong, almost every MMO is destined to have a niche following, even with a subscription model. The problem is that consistent content delivery in an MMO costs a lot more than developers expect. The planned content model for 2011’s DC Universe Online was built around free monthly updates.* Yet, the Green Lantern “mini-expansion pack” that was supposed to be available at launch is set to be released as downloadable content and the game has only had three major content updates since its January release. That’s three updates in seven months. Do the math.
So, why isn’t Star Wars Galaxies going the free-to-play route? Aside from Sony Online Entertainment’s pricing policies, it seems that LucasArts does not want the Star Wars franchise to do battle with itself. Nothing could hurt a new subscription-based Star Wars MMO more than an alternative product that could confuse the market or be confused with a free version that sucks more. If World of Warcraft has shown us anything, the market is not big enough for subscription MMOs that a company or franchise can be associated with more than one product. Star Wars: The Old Republic has to be the Immovable Object to World of Warcraft’s Unstoppable Force (a force that has been quickly diminishing over the past six months*, despite the launch of the Cataclysm expansion pack in China). Activision-Blizzard has become extremely reliant on the profits from World of Warcraft, which have been reinvested into the company as a whole rather than back into the game. If you ignore the public relations damage control, it’s easy to see that Activision is going to be in some big trouble if their subscription model turns on them; and then it will be E.A.’s chance to taste unlimited wealth for a limited time.
If you have an active subscription to Star Wars Galaxies on October 15, 2011, you’ll get to experience one of Sony Online Entertainment’s trademark “end of the (game) world” events on December 15 (any subscriptions that expire on or after October 15 will be extended to December 15). By then, the servers for Star Wars: The Old Republic will probably be online. The beginning of a new Star Wars MMO will bring about the end of another. It’s likely that an uncannily similar “beginning” may occur within the subscription MMO industry. By all indications, World of Warcraft has reached its peak and is starting to collapse under its own weight. If there’s anything that World of Warcraft has taught us, it’s that the subscription MMO is destined to fall to its self-destructive development process (which is probably why the Blizzard Store is starting to resemble most free-to-play cash shops). The only difference between an MMO and any generic console game with online play is that regular new content is expected of an MMO. When an MMO gets as big as World of Warcraft, it means more developers, which means more fingers in the development pie and an even more bureaucratic process in delivering content. BioWare hopes to have 500 planets (Star Wars: The Old Republic’s version of zones) by 2025*. (Updated on August 16, 2011: Apparently, the developers meant this as some kind of joke. Yet, it really seems to speak to the high aspirations of MMOs, most notably DC Universe Online‘s “promise” of monthly content updates (as opposed to downloadable content) and World of Warcraft‘s initial “monthly content patches” guarantee.*) In World of Warcraft’s near-seven-year life span, there have only been around seventy fully-fleshed-out questing zones created. If EA succeeds in overthrowing Activision-Blizzard’s MMO, they will face a fate that just might be worse than abandonware–an unending development cycle to fulfill promises that they simply cannot keep, no matter how much money they have.
Shortly before this entire hubbub over Star Wars MMOs and subscription fees, Valve left their mark on the MMO industry. The Internet’s biggest video game digital distribution service added a free-to-play games category in mid-June. Shortly afterwards, Valve promptly made Team Fortress 2, a competitive team-based shooter, their first free-to-play game. Granted, Team Fortress 2 was pretty cheap to begin with and already had a cosmetics cash shop, but this can be seen as a very direct counter to EA’s Origin service. Such easy access to free-to-play games to a large number of PC gamers is bound to harm the traditional MMO market, but Valve stands to earn a lot more than EA by 2025; even if most of those free-to-play games are not Valve’s own.