Posted in Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft

SWoWTOR: The Deja Vuing

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.

13 thoughts on “SWoWTOR: The Deja Vuing

  1. I wasn’t paying attention to the WoW launch, but the closest recent hype was the Rift launch which I was quite a part of. I found it interesting that they were able to almost double (maybe more) their available servers within the first couple days of launch. I wonder if EA won’t do this or if there’s some technology piece that’s preventing them from this. Or, if like you say, this is driven by PR as much as the technology.

  2. I got paid today and therefore have spent this month’s disposable income on my Digital pre-order. I couldn’t get it last month when it was announced so I had to wait but am very happy that I now have it. Kind of annoying that the digital copy costs more than the boxed set (I know we have freebies in it but I will get no physical media) but as I am a SW junkie and will have to play this I am willing to spend a bit more. Really looking foward to it.

  3. On the one hand, I’m very glad they are being smart about this launch. They are taking necessary steps to ensure those who do get in are capable of having a good experience without server crashes, and those who don’t get in will have to wait maybe a month tops, because we all know that there is going to be a fleet of WoW refugees coming in, playing for the free month and leaving because they were expecting a whole new experience, which to be honest, SWTOR never really promised.

    And that’s kind of why I’m interested in playing on launch day. Sure, in the beginning I was hoping for something new and exciting, and I still kind of wish they would have reached further away from the theme park style. They had the IP and the fan backing to do so, after all. But they aren’t really promising -not- to be the next WoW, much like RIFT’s marketing campaign, and I’m pretty cool with that.

  4. While I’ve warmed up to the game quite a bit in recent weeks, the limited availability reeks of manufactured ‘demand’. What does that even accomplish? Limit the playerbase to say, a million initial purchases? What if half of them want to play on the same server? Does it matter how many customers you gated then? They’ll likely have a cap on each server, making this nonsense extremely hollow.

    They could also be testing the waters to see how much hype actually equates to purchases, but the pre-ordering should have tipped them off to estimated demand anyway. (WAR had millions of expected sales as well, nearly all of them left before the year was out.) Then they’d use that information to figure out servers and all that. Why launch with 25 servers when they would need 50, or vice versa.

    There might be actual, honest, logic to limiting purchases. But I can’t help but feel they are trying to mimic the over-inflated Wii boom somehow.

  5. The difference between WoW, Rift, WaR and SW is that the first two had player hype from gameplay in beta and the latter two have had next to none.

    You can add Star Trek and DCUO to the list of games where the beta feeling was “meh” and can see where they have ended up compared to their companies expectations.

    I’d say we’re a jaded bunch but the difference between the near immediate positive buzz from Rift’s beta (and arguable success thereafter) is really contrasting what I’ve been reading about SW. My hope is that as more people get to play it, we get more hands-on accounts of what it does well and what it does less well, so that we can temper our expectations accordingly.

  6. The comparison to Darkfall is an interesting one, especially given how for a lot of folks, the limited preorders/launch copies has had a similar chilling effect. I personally am less enthused now than I was previously for TOR, and the thought that I can’t wait and pick it up closer to launch leaves a pretty foul taste in the mouth.

    Ultimately, I think EA is botching this badly. Everything they’re doing, as another poster pointed out, reeks of trying to manufacture hype and demand from the very limited access beta to limiting launch copies. If this game seriously has the demand they’re claiming, then open it all up. Rift did indeed crank up the number of servers available at launch to meet demand, and I’m floored that EA isn’t being transparent about it and doing the same. While the hardware may not grow on trees, unless they’re running the server farm themselves similar to CCP, having a contracted data center add hardware to their stacks isn’t a major undertaking in the least. Instead, they seem strangely content to leave day one money on the shelf, which is never a good thing IMO, especially given that day one sales are some of the most important in a game’s life cycle.

  7. If the servers can handle the population, EA will see to it that the caps rise early and often. If the servers can’t handle the population, I’d rather be on the outside “regretting” not being in than on the inside regretting having paid in advance.

  8. Re: the WoW-ness of SW:ToR… I suspect that looking back we’re going to see SW:ToR and RIFT as the last big games of the “just like WoW” era, while the likes of GW2 and Prime as the start of an era of games striking out in different directions and trying to offer something different to a public jaded with WoW.

    Note – that doesn’t mean that I think RIFT and SW:ToR are bad games or failures, and there’s no guarantee that either GW2 or Prime will succeed. But I’m in agreement with the current sentiment that WoW’s mesmerising effect on the entire genre is breaking and while it’s still by far the biggest player in the market, people are starting to think of game designs other than WoW’s.

  9. The server issue is an interesting one. I remember WoW’s launch – I had a pretty rough time, since I chose to play on Blackrock, the “unofficial Australian PvP server”, which was one of the most crowded. Not as bad as some (Archimonde?), but pretty bad.

    I can look at my account history and see how many free days Blizzard credited me back in the early days (it was well over a month of free time, one or two days at a time) to remind myself just how many problems they had.

    But others who came along just after the first wave, and picked one of the second tranche of servers, had a perfectly smooth experience, even while those of us on the overcrowded servers were suffering.

    When there are public movements to assemble on a server, as was the case with Blackrock, you’re going to have problems, no matter how limited your release is.

  10. I’m quite surprised that there has been zero media coverage or mention of the fact that Bioware is not launching the game at in traditional markets like Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, and so on like every other MMO of the past 10+ years. Digital downloads are not available in our regions at all and are blocked, and game boxes are not being sent to local retail stores.

    In the case of Australia and New Zealand MMO players, we traditionally play on US servers with a ping of around 180-300ms, we speak English and require no translation or localisation, and due to geography and distance, we play on US servers in your off-peak time. So if it’s 6:30pm in the evening in Sydney Australia, it’s 4:30am in New York in the US.

    In the case of World of Warcraft – the biggest MMO at present, Blizzard launched the game in Australia and New Zealand at the same time as the US and Canada, and currently has 12 officially labelled Oceanic servers for our community. Other MMO’s would kill for that sort of population from Australasia, except for Bioware it appears.

    So while Bioware talks about smooth launch and such, they’ve just totally alienated and neglected the entire southern hemisphere and a good part of Europe by not making digital downloads or physical boxes available in our countries, they’ve given no indication for a time frame when when the game will be available, or given any sort of proper response or reason on the official ToR forums.

    Given the fact that many people in what Bioware has been calling the non supported “Red Zone” have been following the game and been active on the ToR forums since they launched in October of 2008 we were told early on that the game would be a global game, and that beta sports would be available to everyone (which we have found out no one outside of USA/Canada/Europe were ever invited) they could have saved people a lot of time and been up front with us from the start.

    Also factor in that when Bioware sent their big batch of “pre-orders are available” emails the other month. They forgot to filter out people from countries other than what they were supporting, so in my case, I’m registered on the ToR site as living in Australia with an Australian email addresses ie, but I received the email telling me I could pre-order the game, only to find out no I couldn’t. It’s blocked in my region.

    Poor PR and planning by Bioware, and they’ve really upset their international fans by pulling this rubbish. It’s very sad that every other MMO can facilitate a proper global launch and always includes countries like Australia, Rift being the latest example.

  11. EA/BioWare let pre-order only for 22 countries (US,Canada+20 in Europe).
    All others (170+) are left with “hope”.

  12. Funnily enough, there are quite a lot of countries within the European Union (EU) who also won’t be getting the game either and have been blocked from pre-ordering, buying the digital edition (with the famous “not available in your region” message) and no physical game boxes will be shipping to their countries. It’s not a language thing either.

    From the perspective of people outside of the US, Canada, and select countries within the Europe, this is the most poorly thought out MMO game launch of the past 10 years, and yet no one has been reporting it.

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