So there's a game coming out called Star Wars: The Old Republic. Maybe you've heard about it once or twice.
It's no secret that a lot of people are excited to see what BioWare's long-anticipated title will do once it's finally released. The title has had a huge amount of time and money poured into its production, extensive voice acting, countless demos and revelations and debates... all without having yet amassed a substantial playerbase. What happens when it gets released will have a huge impact on MMOs as a whole for years to come, and even if the developers aren't calling it a World of Warcraft-killer, a lot of players are expecting just that. And for the good of MMOs as a whole, it needs to be just that -- but at the same time, for the good of MMOs as a whole, it needs to fail.
Why SWTOR needs to succeed
We're going to avoid the obvious statement about SWTOR being exceedingly expensive at this point (that will come up later), but it's worth noting that if it fails, this will likely tell the world that big-budget MMOs do not function. There have been big-budget games that have failed before in the past, certainly, and usually their collapse leads to a lot of budgets getting pushed awayfrom that vector of development for quite some time. But that's not the most important thing that would happen if SWTOR launches and flops.
Right now, the industry leader is World of Warcraft. Whether you like the game or not, whether you ever liked the game or not, its shadow is huge. It brings in ridiculous amounts of money. It's so thoroughly well-known that its name is nearly synonymous with "MMO" for many outside observers.
And it is also slowly losing its central market appeal. Subscriber numbers are dropping, and it's not hard to argue that the development teams increasingly seem fixated on content that players themselves find less engaging. Whether or not Cataclysm was a good expansion can be argued endlessly, but it certainly hasn't been received as warmly as its predecessors. That alone shows that the game's time is passing. And for better or for worse, WoW's explosive growth and huge subscriber base is part of the reason why MMOs have seen so much developer and player interest.
Remove the big success story, and suddenly it's a little dicier to invest huge amounts of money into making an expensive game that needs its own server architecture, dedicated systems, and a team continuously working on balancing and updates.
Obviously, SWTOR follows many of the same steps laid out by the current industry leader. It would be inaccurate to describe it as a massive regime change, but it would be a change, and it would show investors and developers alike that it is possible not only to produce a hit game with all of these restrictions but to produce one that can compete with the top dog. It would confirm that WoW's success wasn't a one-time phenomenon, a flash in the pan that wasn't fundamentally different from slap bracelets. No, people like playing MMOs, and the development of big-budget titles still has a place in the future.
Yes, it would mean we'd see hordes of games copying the elements that make the game itself, such as voice acting and morality systems and flexible-group playstyles and so forth. But I wouldn't consider that exactly a horrible future either.
Why SWTOR needs to fail
Back when I was heavily into Magic: the Gathering, the game had yet to make some important tournament changes that limited certain cards from high-level play. The details aren't important -- what is important is that back then, if you wanted to get the cards that were absolutely mandatory for a high-level competitive deck, you were looking at a mandatory outlay of several hundred dollars minimum. And when a new set came out, every new card that was worth heavy play would see its value skyrocket just as surely because there were only so many and they were in heavy demand. Changes were made to tournament-legal cards just to avoid locking out players who couldn't afford a huge outlay to try tournament play.
SWTOR's succeeding and becoming the new industry leader would send a message that, with a budget exceeding $100 million dollars, the backing of an enormous and powerful software distribution network, and an immensely popular IP carefully leveraged by zealous marketing, you can compete with the current leader! And if you don't have all of that lined up to begin with, well, you can certainly enjoy scrabbling for fifth place among the ashes of other big-budget games that couldn't quite make it to prime time.
Remember, one of the things that made both WoW and EverQuest so attractive to developers (and investors) was that these games were successes from out of left field. It's hard to find exact numbers on what either game cost in development, for the same reason that BioWare hasn't come out and said exactly what the price tag on SWTOR has been up to this point -- but you can bet that it wasn't that high in either case. There weren't hours of voiced dialogue, licensed properties, media circuses, and so forth. These were games that were delivered at a low cost that went on to explode in popularity and sales, essentially making back their budget and then some in record time.
Proving that a big-budget game can make it big makes everyone question whether the little guy can even compete anymore. Why would an investor back another MMO project when the only profitable one is already released and being played -- when they'd just be backing something in the lower tiers? We've seen that the free-to-play model can certainly work, but can it attract people who think there will be a significant profit? Would you be champing at the bit to invest in something whose creators were happily claiming to give the product away for absolutely nothing?
Meeting the new boss won't be quite the same as meeting the old boss. But even though the old boss might have the lesser game, the new boss confirms that you have an awfully large wall to scale in order to even compete.
So what do we cheer for?
SWTOR's failure would basically be a gutshot to the industry, showing that it flared in interest and then died. It wouldn't kill future titles, but it would make things a lot less attractive. But its success would essentially suggest that you must have at least this much money to compete, and that's just for a shot at player attention.
Neither option is really a good one. Both are going to have large effects on the industry as a whole for years to come, just because the project in question is so large and has been running for such a long time. I'd like to hope that all of my potential doomsaying for both scenarios is overblown, but at the same time, I can't help but see the fate of this game as having a big impact for the industry one way or the other.
Yes, there are other big games out there, like RIFT and Guild Wars 2 and the rumors of another World of Warcraft expansion and so forth. But even so, I can't help but think that the size of this project will have a long-term effect on the hobby we adore. And I don't like the thought of so much riding on one game... even as I don't like the thought of what might happen if the game does fail.
What do I want? I want Mass Effect Online, man. Don't ask me.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!