As 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.
2. 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:
- Darth Hater
- Moon Over Endor
- TOR Online (with its several podcasts)
- Forums of the Old Republic
- Mos Eisley Radio
- Open Holocron (TOR news/blog aggregator)
- TOR Blog
- SWTOR Junkies
- The Smuggler’s Bay
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?