Now that mostly everyone that worked on the creation of Star Wars: The Old Republic is fired or left and that sufficient time has passed to have enough distance to talk about everything that transpired I want to list the top 5 things that, in my opinion, caused SWTOR to fail. TOR is not a bad game by any measure, but considering the fact it lost at least 75% of its initial players (and if we are to be honest the number is now closer to 95%) and sold less copies than most AAA single player games do, I feel confident enough to call it a failure. If John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, called it that I see no reason why I shouldn’t. For the past couple of months I considered hard whether to call it the biggest failure in the history of MMORPGs since Age of Conan, but the jury is still out there on that one so I’ll stick to just calling it a general failure.
- Tech/Hero engine – Bioware chose to use a 3rd party engine to create SWTOR. Most companies out there invested in having a developer team that created their own engine. I am guessing that Bioware wanted to shorten the development time by using an already available engine called – Hero engine. On paper it looked like it would accomplish everything it needed to do. In reality things worked out a bit different.
As seen on Ilum, large scale PvP is impossible in SWTOR, because once more than 40 people showed up in the same place things would become a lag fest with the graphics simply killing your computer no matter how strong it was. What kind of MMO is it if large number of people can’t be in the same place?
The engine seems to be incredibly difficult to modify and implement initially unsupported features. It took them months to create a dungeon finder and server merges. Talking to the developers I heard over and over again how hard it was to put in features that were not already in the engine. … and than the bugs… oh my God the bugs.
There seems to be something incredibly hard or wrong with the scripting part of the Hero engine because even the simplest events initially had bugs.
Can you say loading times? It takes upwards of five minutes to load Belsavis! Higher the level the more loading screens you would see by moving from your ship to another planet and back to the fleet. Every time I had to go somewhere I cringed a bit.
The game was not broken at launch per se. However, due to being faced with modifying other people’s tech it took months to do things that should have taken weeks. Which brings us to our no. 2
- Failure to react on time/initial number of servers/empty servers – Bioware decided to be generous with the number of servers they had at launch. Someone over there thought that queues at launch are much worse than having empty servers a month later. After all the beta testing they went with a very conservative server cap and I am not sure if they had more than 2000 concurrent players per server allowed before queue started to kick in. That is how it felt, because rarely you would see more than 50 players per planet on a moderately populated server with the most people being on fleet (100-150 max on med server). As with every MMO that launched in the past 10 years we had 25% of players leave within the first three months. In SWTOR’s case this meant 500.000 players left. You know what that did to the medium population servers? They became low pop and we had 10 people per planet and 30-50 players on fleet … in a Massive Multiplayer Online game. Can you say “single player MMO“?
It took them 6 months to initiate the first server transfers (not merges – no). By then they lost 50+ percent of their subscribers. Someone over there did not think a technology for moving player characters between servers will be necessary so they had to develop it… You know, it is unheard of for a MMO to need to reshuffle its population in between servers post launch…
This inability to react to things players demanded was visible in other areas as well, but nowhere did it hurt the game as much as the empty servers did. Next time your players tell you the servers are empty do not reply with snark comments how “the galaxy is a big place” mkay? If they had done server merges and extended the pop cap back in March we would have seen a much lower churn rate and the game would probably be in a much better state now.
Can you also say group finder? How could it take so long to make such an essential tool available?
- Inability to communicate – the corporate rules imposed on Bioware have made communication with the players just a bunch of “soon” and “happy thoughts” statements. When things were the most critical the players were kept in the dark, which caused them to lose faith, which caused them to move on. There is a lot of faith involved in MMORPGs. Faith that the developer will continue to produce content for the virtual world you chose to participate in and pay subscription for and that the developer will fix the current bugs or systems that are not up to par in quality. That faith is best reinforced with honest communication and delivering on promises. Instead we had weeks and months of silence.
The most incredible display of how grossly awkward the rules of silence are in Bioware was during GamesCom 2012. I was at the SWTOR booth because they were showing the new warzone – Ancient Hypergates. I was filming the gameplay with my camera and a person from Bioware came to me demanding to stop filming! Why? Why would you want to stop your players and fans from seeing the new stuff that will be coming to the game. Are you freaking insane? Out of 10 or so games and companies I filmed during GamesCom – none of them asked me not to record. None, except Bioware! And it was at a public booth where everyone could play the new warzone!
I always understood that there are delicate forces at work with Lucas Arts overseeing all of the things happening and EA having their own policies about public presentation. What we got in the end is a community team that was let go for following company rules and bunch of angry players that left due to not having confidence in “we are working on it” sentences. Also – server merges are server merges and not server transfers.
- Electronic Arts – I feel pretty confident saying now that EA killed SWTOR. Now that the good Doctors retired from Bioware the last piece of the puzzle fell in. I do not think Bioware intended to launch SWTOR in the state it was ultimately launched in. They had to release it in 2011 (and if any of you remember, it was John Riccitiello, CEO of EA, who first said SWTOR will launch in 2011) so that EA honchos had something to show to the investors in that year. Just remember the rushed announcement of the launch at Eurogamer Expo 2011 and the terrible date of the launch (launch a few days before Christmas – nice). From my last interview with Gabe Amatangelo we heard that Ilum PvP was rushed due to launch and I assume the same stands for other parts of the game that looked rushed (semi-functional GTN; basic chat functions; basic UI; bugs in end game). That was the first thing that hurt SWTOR a lot. It is almost a consensus now that if the game launched with 1.2 features things would have played out a lot different.
The second thing that EA did to kill SWTOR was pull the rug under its feet way too early. We now learned that the good doctors gave notice in April and in May we had the first wave of layoffs in SWTOR studio in Austin, TX. This means that EA pronounced SWTOR a failure 4 months after launch and I think consequently Greg Zeschuck gave notice and Ray followed. This reduced the studio’s ability to fix bugs and create new content and directed the game towards free to play and scraping the bottom of the barrel.
With those two moves there is nothing left of Bioware’s vision of this game that we were fans of and the we followed for years; instead, we have a new Electornic Arts’ SWTOR
- Fear of innovation/playing it safe – It was pretty apparent Bioware will create a themepark MMO with familiar game mechanics right of the bat. When I first played the game back in 2010 I jumped right in and did not need a tutorial or anything. Everything was done in a well established manner and where they tried to innovate was quality. The quests were improved by voiceovers, cutscenes and some primetime writing. The companions had better AI and more personality than similar “systems” in other games. The worlds had more lore and very rich environments. Were any of these things an innovation? In my opinion – no. They were an evolution perhaps, but not an innovation and obviously players did not appreciate this.
As a matter of fact, they started picking on everything that was not on par with the quality in other games. You have no dungeon finder? Fail. You have no customizable UI? Fail. There’s a lesson to be had here. If you are not going to bring anything innovative and new to the table, at least have everything on par with the competition. That is, if you are planning to be a top contender on the market.
Bonus fail – Red Zone – I will never forget the fact that Bioware allowed to have players segregated by the country they live or were born in. They only allowed players in the West to purchase the game initially. This meant the United States, Canada and most (but not all) of Europe (oh and Russia too). Games are a great medium that is (mostly) race, gender and class agnostic. Whoever you are and wherever you live you can sit down and play a game and you would play it the same as any other person out there in the world. In MMOs this is even more so because you would have a chance to meet and communicate with people from different cultures and different continents as if they were right there in your room. Bioware decided to split us up into prime time countries and the rest – the Red Zone. Guild Wars 2 at least let everyone purchase the game while “they had copies”. They stopped sales for everyone once they wanted to stop the pressure on the servers. That is what means being race, gender, country and class agnostic and what games should be all about.
The game was not all fail though and that is what makes this fail hurt even more. SWTOR did some things exceptionally well and I think it would only be fair to list them here as well.
- Story telling – after SWTOR it will be difficult, to say at least, to enjoy storytelling in any other MMO. I tried several MMOs since SWTOR launched and it was hard to “swallow” Guild Wars 2 static dialogues and The Secret World’s lack of voiceovers for all quests. There will probably never again be a game that invests so much into storytelling and its presentation as SWTOR did and that’s a real shame.
- Companions – the first “pet” system that provided you with a genuine buddy. Companion stories made you feel connected to some of the companions and their AI wasn’t half bad. Choosing a different companion gave you an option to fine tune your game style more towards survivability or DPS or whatever you like.
- Warzones – I believe SWTOR had some of the best PvP arenas out there. Huttball is one of the best designed PvP maps ever (pity some classes had such clear advantage). The fact that more than 50% of SWTOR players actively participate in Warzones speaks for itself.
- Classes – I like SWTOR classes. Maybe I am influenced by playing an Assassin most of the time and it was able to provide me with different play styles for a very long time. In any case I think that the classes represented well classic Star Wars prototypes and provided distinctly different ways to play your character based on the build you chose. It was not exactly groundbreaking or anything, but it was not bad
- some of the raiding – I loved the fact I could kill a Rancor. I liked the SOA fight when they fixed all the bugs. I liked the Karagga fight. I liked the accessibility of raids so that most players could do them. I hated the puzzle events because they presented a barrier for groups without voice communication. I thought that having so many trash mobs is retarded.