Posted in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: A Perfect Nerdstorm

FanboysAs many of you know, I used to write for a Warhammer Online-themed blog called WAAAGH!, which I started up in the spring of 2008 and ran it for a little over a year (I’m still gratified that, at the time of this writing, that blog comes up #1 on Google for the search “waaagh” and “warhammer blog”).  Despite some people saying that it was foolish to write a blog for just one game, and despite my eventual migration to a general MMO blog, there really wasn’t anything like being part of a dedicated game community and to see piles upon piles of blogs start up every week to join the parade.

While the WAR blog community isn’t as massive as it used to be, it still is going strong, and the fact that it became so big prior to launch is a testament to the sheer anticipation and excitement that the community at large felt.  In the summer of 2008, it seemed as if more new blogs and new sites were being made for Warhammer than any other MMO — seemed, at least, if not in fact.  People would look around and see all these writers jotting about a game that hadn’t even released yet, and they couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm that was being spread through word of mouth and community discussion.

Now, I’m certainly not going to make any argument that the strength of a game’s pre-launch community is any indication of how a game will fare, or how good bloggers/site owners/forumites are at predicting success.  I mean, look at WAR — it didn’t flop or soar, but it ultimately wasn’t deserving of the sheer overkill of community promotion it received.  But we sure had fun!

What I will say is that (a) the more a pre-launched MMO community grows and is vocal prior to launch and (b) the more ahead of time that these fan-created projects take off the ground, the more it speaks highly of how the community at large feels about the game — and it can’t hurt the title’s chances any, either.

I’m rambling about all this because it’s simply astounding to see how much BioWare’s The Old Republic has been sweeping through the MMO community, and how many blogs, podcasts and fan sites have arisen for a game that’s easily a year or two (if not more, knock on wood) away from launch.  There really isn’t any other pre-launched MMO that can boast of such a thing, which begs a closer look at this phenomenon.  Go ahead, show me one that is anywhere near this level, and I’ll scoff and scuttle off to the nearest saloon to tell all my cowpoke friends about your sass.

So why is this?  TOR is an unproven product, not even in closed beta, and is arguably no more or less worthy of discussion than any of these other developing titles.  But I think we have to examine four important converging factors that has whipped the community up into a perfect nerdstorm:

1. BioWare’s Legacy

Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, Dragon Age: Origins — the words “BioWare” and “role-playing game” go hand-in-hand in many a-PC gamer’s mind.  They have proved, time and again, that they have mastered the art of storytelling, complex characters and fairly fun gameplay, and as such have legitimate credibility among the gamer population.  They might not have done a MMO before, but they have done RPGs extremely well and they know it..  RPG fanatics crave BioWare’s games, and as early as February of 2006, sites like Penny Arcade were strongly speculating/wishing that the studio would be working on a MMO.  Wish granted.  The fact that BioWare already produced one of the best Star Wars games of all time — KOTOR — was just the icing on the wish cake.

pennyarcade2. The Star Wars IP

To say that Star Wars has a few fans is to say that journalists utilize a few puns in their headlines.  When Star Wars Galaxies was in the making, everyone assumed it was a shoo-in because it really was the best IP in the universe — overwhelmingly popular to several different generations of moviegoers, steeped in combat (and thus perfect for MMOs), with a rich world and lore.  The fact that SWG didn’t flop as bad as it might’ve deserved is probably due to the IP propping up a not-so-popular core game.  But that didn’t stop fans from craving a shared universe to swing lightsabers and force choke everyone until only the servants on any given planet were left alive.  Some have gone so far as to say that BioWare brought the “real” Star Wars back to the franchise in a way that George Lucas could not with his craptastic prequel trilogy (because sand is rough, understand…).

3. The E3 “Deceived” Trailer

The fact that BioWare was making a Star Wars MMO was well-known long before E3 2009, but the community didn’t seem to explode until they released a cinematic trailer with zero seconds of actual gameplay.  It quickly became the “trailer heard round the world”, knocking Star Wars fans and general aficionados of coolness on their butts, and installing great faith that BW had more than just a wispy, loose idea of what they wanted to do with this game.  This trailer slammed into your house, kicked your table aside and boomed that it was Star Wars, and you’d best pay attention and eat your veggies if you know what’s good for you.

4. The Measured Marketing Marathon

If we were to break this down into a simple metaphor where #1 and #2 were the ingredients for the fire, and #3 was the match that set it ablaze, then this would be the constant blowing of air and the feeding of the flames.  BioWare is neither over- nor under-hyping TOR right now, but steadily producing a major new announcement once a month (planets, classes, features) along with a Friday release of some point of interest every week.  All of it — the video production diaries, the narrated timeline, the comic (even though it’s drawn a bit shoddily), the website — reeks of polish and confidence, steadily marching down the line until we presumably hit the date where the game releases to great acclaim (and great subscriber numbers).  The fact that BioWare isn’t releasing info in short, heavy bursts followed by long stretches of silence gives the community something more reliable to depend upon for discussion and dissection.

Here’s just a taste of the community that’s already out there, solely dedicated to TOR — and note that I’m not even bothering to link to company-sponsored sites or guild forums:

And that’s just a taste, considering that I didn’t dig too deep or even include non-English blogs.  That’s pretty crazy for a game this far out, no?

7 thoughts on “Star Wars: A Perfect Nerdstorm

  1. Certainly the pedigree of the studio inspires great expectations, bioware certainly has got a lot going for them – A great IP, high regard for their previous RPGs, they absorbed some of the talented designers from mythic and the PR is great with a steady stream of info on the game without giving to much away.

    Certainly the number 1 anticipated MMO

  2. “What I will say is that (a) the more a pre-launched MMO community grows and is vocal prior to launch and (b) the more ahead of time that these fan-created projects take off the ground, the more it speaks highly of how the community at large feels about the game — and IT CAN’T HURT THE TITLE’S CHANCES ANY, EITHER.”

    Really, Syp? You don’t see the insane hype around WAR as hurting its chances? That maybe if it were a little quieter and the expectations were a little better controlled that it might have gotten a little more forgiveness?

    Even now, I think the community hype is doing TOR more harm than good. Bioware isn’t ready to release anything, so dozens of obsessed bloggers digest every word and every pixel of every frame looking for clues to what they aren’t ready to release. And why aren’t they ready to release it? Because the instant they have to cut something to make a date, or some feature proves too ambitious to accomplish, those same obsessed bloggers will go into a feeding frenzy, shredding them for it.

    As a little mental exercise, consider what would have happened if WAR never announced the Knight of the Blazing Sun, Choppa, Hammerer, or Blackguard. Features fall off the list all the time without people outside the studio ever hearing about it. The release of the new classes was almost overwhelmed by “Meh, they should have been in release anyway” griping. What if people never knew about them, and Mythic released two new free classes within months of launch? What’s the discussion then?

    I think Bioware has learned the lesson of the thriving, vocal community from WAR, and the lesson is that it’s nothing but dangerous.

  3. @ Buhallin – Really. You don’t think the intense hype sold more product than it would’ve otherwise? Now, to paraphrase GI Joe, hype is half the battle — making good on company-produced hype is the other half.

    But seriously, what is the harm in talking about and “obsessing” over pre-launched MMOs, even when they have little solid information to do so? Take any other field of passion and interest, and you’ll see lots of people doing the same — movies, politics, sports, etc. We love to speculate and discuss and jaw about what we find interesting, and I can’t understand why there’s this attitude that somehow it’s bad to do so when it comes to online games that haven’t been released yet. That’s going against decades of how gamers have always been — we hear about a title and we want to talk about it, get excited about it, and possibly get others excited as well.

  4. The funny thing about this, for me at least, is that this hype seems to apply to MMO gamers in general, but not necessarily to Star Wars fans in particular.

    My uncle’s one of the heads of the Philippine contingent of official Star Wars trooper cosplayers in the Philippines, and when I told him that there was a Star Wars MMO coming out that’s gaining a lot of hype in the MMO community, he was all, “What’s an MMO, and what does it have to do with Star Wars?”

    He’s in his forties, knows his lore and all, but is a casual console gamer. Do you think hyping this game up to him closer to release will make him want to try an MMO? 🙂

  5. Did the hype sell more boxes? Certainly. But MMOs aren’t about box sales, they’re about subs. And the drop in subs is why WAR is generally considered a failure despite good raw numbers, and the drop in subs has everything to do with expectations.

    Once the hype machine starts spinning up, there’s nowhere to go but down. Every announced feature gets people more and more wound up, and every slap of reality is a betrayal of monumental proportions wherein the developers have shown themselves to be the most incompetent of human beings, barely capable of finding the toilet on their own. By the time WAR hit, did ANY feature garner notable “Better than expected” praise? There may have been a few, but I can’t really think of any.

    I’ll agree that Mythic contributed to the hype, but I don’t know that it would have been any different if they hadn’t. Bioware’s approach has been the polar opposite of Mythic’s, and the hype machine is already spinning up to record levels.

    But you can’t maintain expectations that long and have them met. By the time you get through a year or two of hyped anticipation, you’re burned out. You’ve invested so much time and energy and anticipation into it that any disappointment becomes crushing. There simply isn’t any energy left for reality to intrude on the created fantasy world of gaming perfection. So, lots of box sales, and a crashing subscriber base.

    In software, managing expectations is critical. It’s a dicey business (I know) that often turns on keeping the users’ expectations in line with what you can actually deliver. Bioware’s doing a pretty good job with that, and the community is demolishing all of it.

  6. Not to be a jerk, but…

    1. BioWare’s Legacy
    Wasn’t there another post on your blog where a few readers were stating BioWare games aren’t all that great? Great stories to be sure, but sometimes the game mechanics were “off” or the replayability was nil. I can’t really comment since of all the BioWare games I’ve only played KOTOR (wait… played Neverwinter Nights too!), but those comments do have a hint of truth for me. Guess I’ll have to search your blog to back up my claims, but I could have sworn I read some comments to that effect.

    2. The Star Wars IP
    As you said, even a great IP can’t prop up a badly designed game. Matrix Online certainly comes to mind, as does WAR…

    3. The E3 “Deceived” Trailer
    Trailers make Baby Jesus cry. Or is that lies? Hmm… well, they’re one in the same to me. The Killzone 2 trailer is probably worth mentioning, and I do recall WAR having some great trailers that really had no impact on gameplay but got me all worked up none the less.

    4. The Measured Marketing Campaign
    Well, can’t really argue with this one as I’m not really following the official marketing info… just what you tell me, Syp! 🙂
    I’m sure having a steady stream of (non-Barnett) marketing info help control the hype-machine to some degree.

    I do understand Syp that you’re not quoting this four points to try to justify why TOR is going to be hella-cool + epic win, just to try to explain why the game has the fanbase / dedication / nerdlove its already obtained.

    My suggestion? A healthy dose of pessimism! If you always assume the worst( TOR will actually end up being a giant, baby-eating killbot with Elvis hair and a lightsabre who tries to take over the world!), then you’ll usually be plesantly surprised with the reality of the situation (TOR will probably be an above-average SW game with a decent story that blows SWG out of the water, but it won’t be the end-all-be-all of MMOs).

    @ Buhallin
    I agree 100% – the hype machine (and its insane monkey-boy driver, Paul Barnett) behind WAR certainly tarnished the game for me by creating ridiculous expectations in my mind.

    I really believed WAR would cure cancer, colonize the moon, locate the remains of Jimmy Hoffa, end all conflicts in the Middle East, and have a PvP end game that would be massive in scale and incredibly fun to participate in. Mythic couldn’t even get one of those things right 😦

    Though I suppose a fair question to ask ourselves would be “when do we start taking responsibility for our expectations?” Yes, the hype behind WAR was over the top and the end product did not deliver what was promised… but shouldn’t we as MMO consumers know better by now?

    End rant.

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