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Star Wars: The Old Republic, a cautionary tale of breaking into MMOs


From a player's perspective, Star Wars: The Old Republic exceeded expectations on its launch one year ago today. Fans really took to the story content, reporting that the story content was the most fun they'd had leveling in any MMO up to that point. Things were looking great. The designers were obviously proud, and sales neared the two million mark, surpassing all previous MMOs for box sales at launch. Even before the official launch of the game, BioWare had to add new servers because of the number of people in early access. The day before the official launch, some queue times were over two hours, and at that time, there were 140 servers. Life was insane at BioWare to say the least.


On the day of launch, I made it into the game, but BioWare was in the midst of doing interviews for media, manning the forum traffic, and even doing a flash mob in Times Square. During these sessions with the media, some fateful and foreboding words would escape BioWare Founder Greg Zeschuk's lips: "Free-to-play works best when a game is built that way from the ground up... we're not saying never ever, but we certainly have no plans like that in the foreseeable future."

At that time, TOR was reporting 28 million hours played in the first three days after launch; free-to-play was the furthest thing from Zeschuk's mind. According to the press release, SWTOR was the fastest-growing subscription MMO in history. Even analysts pointed to TOR as being a marker of a very healthy MMO market.

Update 1.1 -- Rise of the Rakghouls

Fans of the newly launched game were extremely surprised when BioWare announced a new flashpoint and additional content coming within the first month. We were still excited and enthusiastic about the future of the game, despite the issue of exploits in the endgame open-PvP zone of Ilum. When endgame designer Gabe Amatangelo spoke with us, he admitted to the mistakes in Ilum and promised that "with 1.1, [his team would be] handling a lot of those issues with a bunch of improvements there."

However, when 1.1 launched, the problems on Ilum took on new life: Because of a bug at the launch of 1.1, the Ilum open-world PvP zone became a real mess. At the same time, a month into the game, guilds were feeling the underdeveloped side of the game, too. These fumbles in development coincided with Electronic Arts' small stock tumble, and the first worries about the longevity of the game set in.

SWTOR would not be stopped. Electronic Arts and BioWare stepped up their game by releasing the budget for that quarter and became one of the few MMOs to talk about specific subscriber numbers. And by the end of January, SWTOR was sitting at a cool 1.7 million active subscribers. As far as the developers were concerned, things couldn't have been better.

Star Wars The Old Republic  a cautionary tale of breaking into MMOsUpdate 1.2 -- Legacy

At the end of January, SWTOR revealed its next big ambitious project: Legacy. Creative Director James Ohlen proclaimed, "We are always listening to the community... this game is for you guys." Update 1.2: Legacy was intended to give the players some of the elements they had been asking for, such as UI customization, guild banks, and ranked PvP. Eventually, players and media began calling this patch "The Jesus Patch" because this was to be the patch that saved the game and put it back on the right track. Every time we turned around, it seemed that more was being added to this single patch.

BioWare wanted to prove it intended to support its community, so it invited hundreds of players representing guilds and fan sites to Austin, Texas, to discuss the future of SWTOR in a surprisingly candid summit. Guilds were allowed to view the new content and have direct one-on-one discussions with developers and other key personnel at the BioWare studio.

By April, players still hadn't seen Update 1.2 on live servers and began to worry about some of the elements. Perhaps the patch was too ambitious for the BioWare team. In fact, that suspicion was all but confirmed when at the last minute, ranked PvP was pulled from the patch and promised for launch "as soon as possible."

Despite the fun many players were having during the random Rakghoul Outbreak event, subscription numbers continued to decline. Unfortunately, it appeared that Update 1.2 did not support the endgame crowd; in fact, many players were terribly upset about the nerfs applied to PvP and the dependance on the Expertise stat. By the end of May, BioWare was forced to make cuts to its staff, adding to the growing public relations nightmare created by the dwindling populations and impending server mergers.

Update 1.3 -- Allies

Although Update 1.3 would launch the game's group-finder tool, something had to be done quickly about the server populations, which were visibly suffering. Unfortunately, the best solution was for servers to be merged. At the beginning of June, players began moving their characters to predetermined servers, which surprisingly reinvigorated the playerbase.

Then, as if out of nowhere, EA CEO Frank Gibeau used the dreaded free-to-play word in association with SWTOR, although it would be a month and a half before anyone at BioWare would admit to the possibility of the game going free-to-play in 2012, even though everyone knew it would happen.

Update 1.3 was underwhelming features-wise when it launched. There were surprisingly few bugs, and players enjoyed the new features. Server populations finally appeared to stabilize with decent populations. But it was not enough to support BioWare's staff size, and at the end of July, the staff was reduced even more, this time affecting the community relations team the most.

Star Wars The Old Republic  a cautionary tale of breaking into MMOs
Terror and beyond

Over the next few months, BioWare would change its update cadence by releasing new, smaller batches of content about every six weeks. We saw the release of a new operation in September, new single-player content in November, and a new warzone at the beginning of this month. But the biggest news over the last few months centered on the departure of key BioWare employees and SWTOR switching to a F2P model.

In early September, longtime SWTOR lead designer Daniel Erickson began "actively looking for new opportunities." Then barely a week later, the founders of BioWare, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, announced their retirement from the gaming industry. Although the active subscribers were saddened by the founders leaving, the population did not seem to dwindle any further. Still, the announcement did lead to much speculation about why they all left.

We all wondered whether free-to-play would finally give SWTOR the boost and positive reinforcement it needed. If current server populations are any indication, then it has done so. But reviewers and players really didn't like the free-to-play model and were concerned that BioWare would "squeeze players too hard for cash." In fact, some critics wondered whether SWTOR didn't make things worse by adding free-to-play.

In the end, despite mistakes and bumps in the road, the server populations are fairly stable now, exactly a year into the game's life. If the development team can continue with the six-week update cycle, then SWTOR might not be the failure that disgruntled gamers proclaim it to be. Will it be the success BioWare originally claimed at launch? No, but it's not an utter ruin either; the players who are still there are generally happy. With the announcement of an expansion, the game should see the standard ebbs and flows of most MMOs... but maybe with a more realistic expectation for the population size as the game enters year two.

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