HeadwindsLike all of us, I've been watching the progress Star Wars: The Old Republic for a while now.
That's not unusual, for an MMO, but what is unusual, even before any announced release date, is the hype. I believe the hype and promotion for this game will exceed the marketing ever done for an MMO.
And I don't think it's going to work.
Let's first look at what's strongly in favor of this game, because in many ways, it's a supermodel. First, there's the Star Wars license, the gold standard of license. Then there's Bioware, which has a remarkable pedigree.
Good grief, do we even need to go any further?
First, we have Star Wars. All of us who grew up on Star Wars--well, most of us--are in our 40s and 50s now. I hate to say it, but we're not in our gaming prime anymore.
The people who are in their gaming primes have had less exposure to Star Wars than we did. Instead of only a handful of entertainment franchises like Star Wars, there are many, many more. Hell, almost EVERY franchise is long-running now, and I strongly believe that's significantly diluted the impact of the Star Wars brand.
I'd be willing to bet that if you took a poll of 14-19 year olds, more would prefer the Harry Potter series than Star Wars.
Bioware? They have demonstrated--many times--that they can create a superior RPG. They have not, however, proven that they can develop an MMO. Blizzard pulled it off, and incredibly well, but that doesn't mean Bioware can, and that's not meant as a slight of Bioware. It's just that compelling people to pay for a game on a monthly basis is entirely different from selling a game that has 30-50 hours of content. It's incredibly difficult, which is what makes Blizzard's success all the more remarkable.
Bioware, though, is the ace in the deck. The problem is the other cards.
This game began development in an era when "free to play" wasn't important. It is now, though--it's the single most significant trend in MMO games today. In truth, it's not really "free"--it's a revenue system based on microtransactions instead of monthly fees--but it's a brilliant strategy, because it requires no initial financial commitment on the part of players who want to see the game. It's a strategy that ensures every possible customer of your game will be able to experience the game.
There's nothing smarter than that. It maximizes the number of people who will be playing your game, as well as the number of people who will be talking about your game (and that's just as important).
It can be argued that a Star Wars MMO isn't going to be as dependent on initial player buzz, because the Star Wars brand ensures that "everyone" will check out the game. That may be partially true, but it's only true to a degree--a monthly fee is going to significantly reduce the exposure of the game.
I think this game is also going to run into serious problems with consumer choices. It's nothing short of incredible how many gaming choices we have right now. Not on console--the number of titles being released from mainstream publishers has gone down significantly--but the indie PC scene and the mobile scene have absolutely exploded.
Mobile games are largely designed to play in 5-15 minute bursts, and that's exactly how much time I have at any one point now, it seems. I'm also at home less, which makes gaming on a phone not just convenient but essential, if I still want to play.
That's a strong societal trend that any PC-based MMO is going to struggle with today.
WOW? It launched in 2004. Gaming on phones and tablets didn't exist. It was an entirely different consumer environment than it is today.
Am I saying that The Old Republic could be the best, biggest example of a product for a market that no longer exists? No, but that market has definitely, significantly shrunk.
All right, let's get to the bottom line here: will The Old Republic succeed? I think it depends on how you define "succeed." I strongly believe that there's no way TOR will become the dominant financial engine that EA is hoping for (or expecting). And that's not a comment on the quality of the product, because I believe the quality will be excellent. It's just that the game, in a business sense, is facing strong, strong headwinds, both in a business and cultural sense.
So if EA wanted to counter these headwinds, what would they do? Well, that's easy--they take the "freemium" model and make it free to play, with revenue generated by microtransactions. I don't think I've ever seen a case where freemium resulted in less revenue than a monthly fee model, no matter how much the old guard might dispute that.
They also need to make it possible to do something related to the game on mobile devices. Maybe it's a few mini-games you can play on your phone that would give your character some amount of experience. But it needs to be separate and distinct content that would keep a user playing when they weren't at their PC, because it keeps them in the game universe. Call it a sliver, for lack of a better term, and being able to experience slivers of content whenever you want, and no matter what kind of device you have, reinforces the notion of a dynamic universe.
It also gets people to play Angry Birds less, because whether EA likes it or not, those kinds of games are time competitors.
Supposedly, The Old Republic will be launching this holiday season, and with Star Wars: Galaxies officially shutting down December 15, it seems like the last two weeks of the year are prime candidates for a launch.
If it's a huge hit, please feel free to send me your Yoda quotes about how I am unwise.