[SWTOR] The numbers game

So EA held an earnings call earlier this week and revealed that subscriptions for SWTOR were down by 400k from earlier this year. This still leaves 1.3m active subs, depending on how far you trust their accounting/ reporting, so it’s far too early to conclude from this that the game is dead as a lot of commenters seem very keen to do. Their immediate plan is to get a group finder tool into the next patch (1.3) which they talk about in the official podcast, as well as their plans for conventions this year, the rakghoul plague, what else is coming for Legacies and so forth. (Best thing about the official podcast, as well as the guys sounding genuinely keen, is that it isn’t too long.)

I imagine a solid group finder will provide a lot of content for players who have been struggling to find groups for flashpoints, and they hinted in the podcast that you might be able to make groups for planetside heroics and random op groups also. Certainly as emphasis shifts to alts, the group finder will be invaluable.

They will also need to implement some kind of server transfer. A cross server group finder will mean that they can push this out a little further, but there are low pop servers which need to be sorted out so that players have a community to interact with.

In context, SWTOR is following the sort of subscription number curve that the vast majority of themepark MMOs see, and may even have better retention than most at the moment. But if EA and Bioware were expecting this to be the game that broke the mould, it clearly hasn’t done that either. I do seem to recall at some point they said they needed 500k subscribers to turn a profit, and they’re still well above that level.

More worrying for the longer term is that they don’t seem to be expressing any solid plan for what to do about endgame, which leaves us with these beautifully crafted levelling storylines (as a Bioware fan and lover of storytelling, I’m very thrilled with them so far), perfectly adequate ops and flashpoints, warfronts, and solid MMO-style gameplay. And that won’t be enough to keep people once they are done with alting. This was ALWAYS going to be an issue with a heavily story based game. Always. I’m happy they made it anyway because I like the game a lot and hope it makes some decent returns for them at some point, but you do sometimes wonder what they were thinking.

They are also now stuck with a playerbase that is expecting these voiced storylines with extensive cut scenes and dialogue options from future content. I think what they have done is great and raises the bar in a way that will make it difficult for storytelling in other MMOs to compare, but it will have to be part of future SWTOR development plans. On the other hand, the rakghoul event was very promising and the majority of players seemed to have enjoyed it. As a fan and a keen player, I’m happy to keep paying subs for a few more months to support a game I enjoy a lot, and see what they can come up with.

And I think SWTOR should be an easy sell to WoW fans who are done with Cataclysm content but not burned out with that style of themepark MMO. It’s a high quality offering of a type that we probably won’t see again. Which is why it’s disappointing to see WoW Insider crowing about the numbers when they could instead support the genre – maybe a lot of WoW fans are bitter about people who play other games? (Although you’ll see in the comments that a lot of people say they play both but not at the same time.) It’s not as if Blizzard has been actively putting out content recently.

So what is a casual player again?

One of the comments Riccitello made was that they felt that the drop in subs was due to casual players leaving. This is a new definition to me for casual, because I’d have guessed that hardcore players were just as likely to burn through content fast and then leave. But it’s actually not a bad definition for an MMO so let’s look at it. Imagine if instead of talking about casual vs hardcore, we talk about casual MMO players vs core MMO players.

If you are a core player, then you are quite attached to your current MMO of choice. You may not be burning through cutting edge endgame content, but you are happy to potter around and find things to do because you just enjoy the game and like playing it. You are unlikely to jump to the next flavour of the month game and ditch the MMO completely, or if you do you will probably return. You may well be part of a guild, but you might equally be a soloer or someone who only players with a small group of RL friends who are also core players.

I like the concept of the core player because it describes how I’ve tended to play MMOs once I got out of hardcore raiding. And I am sure it describes other players too – I’ve known plenty of longterm core WoW players who happily pottered around there for months or years without obsessing overly in a hardcore way about the game. It describes a type of player who loves their game of choice and plays it regularly, but without necessarily feeling they have to do cutting edge stuff in it all the time. The type of player who is in demand by just about any guild leader.

Interestingly, it’s at about this stage in an MMO (3 months in) that you will start to find out who the core playerbase are. I think SWTOR may take longer to bed in, because people who enjoy Bioware content have plenty of alt storylines to explore, so it may take a few more months for them to really be done with it. It’s the people who stay after THAT who are the core group.

Or else Bioware provides enough new single player content to keep the semi-core playing – but it is entirely possible that they won’t be able to do this quickly enough. Designing a new core endgame mechanic that will be appealing to players who enjoyed the intense storytelling of the levelling path would work too; but it’s hard to imagine what that might be. It’s not impossible to procedurally generate stories to some extent, but not in a way that will be satisfying. Sandboxing the themepark (ie. player/ guild colonised cities, space stations, trading hubs, etc) could be another way forwards, but not in the short term, and it’s not clear that it’s in Bioware’s skillset or plans to do it, nor whether server size is large enough to make it work.

But MMOs, at their heart, may not really be suited to the mass market. The mass, by definition, will never be core gamers. Those of us who are, whether we be hardcore or casual, sandbox or themepark, PvE or PvP, probably have more in common with each other than we know.

Does it actually make financial sense to create good storylines?

One of the impressions I have gotten from seeing Bioware responses around SWTOR is that while they estimated the average levelling time for players reasonably accurately, they were still surprised at how intensively many people played the game – ie. how many hours per day.

I don’t really think this should have been a surprise. They should have figures for how quickly people played through their single player RPGs, and then realise that MMOs are a more competitive levelling environment. But ultimately, my experience is that if I played more than I had intended, it was because I was really into the story and setting and wanted to know what was going to happen next.

So maybe really compelling storytelling just encourages people to eat up content quickly, and grindy repetitive quests would be better business sense for a subscription themepark MMO. This is not especially good news for consumers or producers. Yes, emotional engagement with the game can make people more attached, but if they play to the end of the story and then leave, was it really worth the effort? And if you like storytelling games, then ideally you’d like companies to feel incentivised to make more of them.

Really this sort of model would work well in a F2P or main game + DLC type of setup. I don’t for a moment think that EA plan to take SWTOR F2P, but actually the content style would work quite well. You could easily sell class or planet storylines – they’re good quality and would be worth paying for.

And lastly, are people really talking too much about SWTOR?

Another point Riccitello made was that investors have been very focussed on SWTOR in comparison with other EA offerings, noting that it isn’t in their top 5 when compared to properties like The Sims and Madden.

On the one hand, they were the ones who hyped it as a competitor to WoW. On the other hand, EA and Bioware do also have a ton of haters who are only too keen to dogpile on them, including journalists. I think a lot of gaming journalists detest MMOs anyway.

I have a theory that this is because RP and themepark fantasy MMOs are more appealing to female gamers and a lot of people think that the holy grail of gaming is still 4-5 male mates logging in every week to shoot the crap out of each other in their FPS of choice and resent anything else that might be popular. I can’t prove it, but when RPers and MMO players are widely disparaged as geeks by EQUALLY GEEKY gamers, it does wind me up.

Stropp airs a few ideas he has about where Bioware are going wrong, but I don’t really agree with all of them. I don’t think Bioware have forgotten their true fans, they keep making stuff I love! Who were the ‘true fans’ anyway? People who liked BG?

Targeter at Imperial Intelligence has some thoughts on what could stem the tide.

Rohan shares some thoughts on the subscriber drop also.