Star Wars: The Old Republic can’t go a day without getting compared to WoW across the field, which is and isn’t entirely fair. I mean, c’mon, what game hasn’t been compared to WoW since 2004 and called a “WoW clone” at some point? But SWTOR isn’t exactly pulling away from the tried-and-tested formula either. As much as I’m really excited about the game, have faith in BioWare to tell terrific stories, love the setting, and will probably invest hundreds of hours into it, I’m not fully won over into believing that it’s going to be cure-all for WoWness. In fact, just like RIFT, SWTOR will most likely emerge as an acceptable substitution for those comfortable with old systems but bored with old games.
I still am disappointed in the fact that half of the classes are lightsaber-wielding Force users, and part of me still rages on about how BioWare could’ve gotten away from the holy trinity and yet embraced it, medpack-healing Smugglers and all.
The good and the bad aside, what interests me the most these days is the phenomenon surrounding the build-up to SWTOR. A month or so ago, I was on a podcast where I was babbling about how this is, without hyperbole, one of the biggest MMO movements we’ve ever seen. It just is. It’s been building for years now — almost a decade, if you count the fan-love for KOTOR — and I can’t imagine the fever pitch that it’s going to reach by the end of the year. And through all of the development process, I’ve seen numerous parallels to the same atmosphere that surrounded World of Warcraft in 2004.
Probably the most interesting parallel to 2004 is that we know SWTOR is going to launch with limited copies — an approach that I haven’t seen used in any MMO (save perhaps Darkfall… I think it was Darkfall) in the past five years. BioWare states that this is to ensure the best possible player experience, which translated into normal-speak means “We don’t want to blow up the servers and face weeks of bad publicity when players can’t log in. Especially if this happens over Christmas.”
The studio is perhaps taking a cue from WoW, which did actually launch with limited copies — the game completely sold out in hundreds of stores, and even with that stopping the influx of more players, servers were totally swamped for weeks and weeks afterward. I don’t think a lot of people remember just how bad it was, how the president of Blizzard had to make a lengthy public apology for it, and how long it was before both more servers were brought online and more copies of the game arrived in the store. It was insane.
So although the consumer in me is sympathetic to the thought of people getting turned out in the cold if they wait too long or can’t afford it until later, it’s understandable why BioWare is going with the limited quantities approach. The studio most likely has no idea how big this is or isn’t going to get, and even if players yammer that they should prepare plenty of servers in advance, the response has to be, “How many, then? Servers aren’t cheap, we can’t prep and stock a thousand of them, so what number is ‘enough’?” When you have a game that’s bested any EA pre-order numbers — EA, people! — in history, you’re beyond the point of easy comparison. You simply don’t know, but are forced to make educated guesses and put a hard limit on what you can accommodate on Day One.
It will certainly be interesting to see if BioWare will come through the launch period without hitting either of the pitfalls of WoW’s launch. There is one big difference between 2004 and now, which is that BioWare can turn back on the switch for digital downloads as easy and quickly as it wants instead of having to wait for physical boxes to get shipped around (although that’s part of it too).
And while BioWare’s reps deny that this is a deliberate attempt to drive up demand — especially considering that the company won’t release a number on how limited the rollout will be — I refuse to believe that marketing isn’t jumping up and down out of joy over it. I’m sorry, but I know marketers, and anything that makes their product more desirable is a win-win for them. Deliberate or happy side effect, it’s already proving to be a powerful motivation to get players to commit to the game now instead of waiting until launch day.
Because, by then, it could be too late. At least for a while.