[Ned Stark-like voice=on] SWTOR is coming . . . [/Ned Stark-like voice]
Ever since its announcement in October 2008, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) has been the 500 pound gorilla in the MMO room. I don’t think it’s going to usurp the title as King of the MMO Hill away from The Game Which Shall Not Be Named, but I personally think that it has kept game developers and marketers up late at night for the last three years. After all, Star Wars has the kind of following that is legion. It spans generations and its fans are proven to be willing to shell out a gazillion bucks on the property.1
After two weekends of beta testing for the general public and its impending release, what does the coming of SWTOR mean for the rest of the MMOs out there?
Before we get started, let me say that I’m not going to get into the merits of SWTOR as a game, nor am I going to do a comparison between it and LOTRO. I participated in the two weekend beta tests and found the game to be enjoyable. There are things I like about it, and there are ways in which I find it inferior to the mechanics of LOTRO. Instead, I’d like to approach this subject as someone who is a fan of both properties, and as a player who is genuinely torn about what to do going forward.
Of all the science-fiction/fantasy intellectual properties out there, it seems to me that two of them are the most prevalent, time-tested and well-known: Star Wars and Star Trek. Both generate billions of dollars in merchandising, and cottage industries have sprung up to cater to the whims and needs of their fans.
There are also a host of other properties which have equally rabid fans, but they are not generally as widely recognized by the average (read: non-nerd) person, and in many cases, these fans like it that way. After all, they want to be able to say they were fans of _________ “when it wasn’t cool”. These niche properties include Babylon 5, Aliens, Battlestar Galactica, Space: Above and Beyond, Firefly, Farscape, Andromeda and so on.
Then somewhere in the middle is where I think Lord of the Rings comes in (along with other popular and more mainstream titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the X-Men). The Hobbit and LOTR have been around longer than either Star Trek or Star Wars, and its fans are no less dedicated. What makes LOTR that much more remarkable is that Star Trek and Star Wars were conceived as visual media first, one on television and the other in movies, and Tolkein was a writer only; his fans are inspired by words alone, needing no special effects, CGI or stop-motion animation. It was not until a decade ago that LOTR found its way to the big screen to court a new generation of fans.2
Before the movies came out, I think many people would recognize the title of “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings”, even if they hadn’t read them. The same cannot be said for some of the other franchises out there; for the most part, if you ask a random stranger about Robotech, they’re probably going to give you a big blank stare.
What other works can boast a similar following? Harry Potter is the most obvious candidate, but I’d like to wait to see if there is a second generation of Harry Potter fans that is still dressing up in about fifteen years. Twilight also has its share of fans, but we all know that those kids will come to their senses once they hit puberty.3
But everyone knows Star Wars. And that kind of brand recognition must be horrifying to the owners of competing products, including other MMOs.
For me, personally, here’s how much I love Star Wars:
- I won a “What Star Wars Means to Me” essay contest.4
- There are more action figures in my collection than dollars in my mortgage payment.
- I once played Star Wars Trivial Pursuit and won in two turns.
- My lovely bride and I used to babysit a little girl who belonged to a friend of my stepdaughter. Because of me, Kyra could say “Boba Fett” before she could say “Spongebob”.
- For Christmas last year, my mother (of all people) bought me a Darth Maul lightsaber laser pointer.
- When I say things like, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or “I find your lack of faith disturbing” at work, no one bats any eye (any more).
So it goes without saying that when I first heard that SWTOR was pulling up a chair to the MMO table, I was very excited.5
There are some people who can play multiple games at the same time. Me? I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to computer games. Right now, my boss has an active subscription to WoW, and he is also playing Skyrim and MW3. I just don’t have the energy to play more than one game at a time; I feel like I’d rather excel at one than have to split time between two or more.
There’s also the matter of paying two subscription fees at one time. I already have a psychological aversion to paying a monthly fee to play a video game. I can’t imagine paying two. Of course, some people have no such compunctions and might pay for multiple games, but I just can bring myself to do it.6
A few months back when Rift launched, I knew a bunch of LOTRO players who went to try it out. I also know some folks who left other games to give it a run. When DC Universe Online launched, it also dipped into the subscriber base of the other MMOs. I think this is a natural cycle.
After a while, playing a game can get boring and tedious. Especially when the experience is basically the same one every time. Sure there are different starter areas, and every now and then they revamp a zone or add new quests, but for the most part, once you’ve played through an area once, you pretty much know what to expect the next time or five that you go through. Now think about all the alts that you’ve run through the Shire, Bree, the North Downs, Evendim, Angmar, Eregion, Moria, Lothlorien, Mirkwood and Dunland, and you’re probably pretty familiar with all of those quests7
It stands to reason that when new game comes out, a certain population of players will leave their old games to see what the fuss is about. Some will like it so much that they stay. Others will inevitably be back to their original game(s). Maybe, they’re used to one certain game or system. Like your first girlfriend/boyfriend, I don’t think you ever forget your first MMO. Maybe things didn’t work out, but at least on a subconscious level, you will always compare every other game you play to that first one.8
Of my friends who left to play Rift or DCUO, about half stayed gone and the other half came back to LOTRO. Are all of the LOTRO players going to try out SWTOR? Probably not. But how many subscribers can LOTRO lose and remain viable? Some will try it out and not like SWTOR. Maybe it’s the mechanics. Maybe it’s the community. Maybe they simply don’t like the fact that it’s very much like WoW.
I think many of the moves Turbine has made with LOTRO have been specifically designed to countering the release of SWTOR. I think the free-to-play/micro-transaction pricing model is specifically designed to get MMO players who don’t want to be locked into a regular subscription fee.9 The 12 months for $99 seemed like Turbine’s attempt to lock player into LOTRO for a year, so even if they left for SWTOR, they were still generating revenue. Even WoW went “free-to-play”, although it was really more like an extended trial period, and not truly F2P, and they have introduced their own set of micro-transactions, even if there isn’t the all-pervasive store that is found in LOTRO and DDO.
I haven’t talked to anyone at Turbine, and I don’t have any inside information, but I’ve got to believe that there is a plan to keep LOTRO subscribers and players once SWTOR comes out and they have an idea of how many of those players are coming back and how many might be gone for a substantial amount of time.
What does SWTOR offer that other games don’t?
The most obvious asset SWTOR has is the brand recognition as mentioned above. Some people will try it out simply because it’s got Star Wars on the box. That and the force choke, force lightning and double-bladed lightsabers.
After talking to a small and unscientific sampling of MMO players that I know in real life, there are only a finite number of things an MMO can do differently to distinguish itself from the rest of the field. I think one of LOTRO’s strengths is its adherence to the lore, and the virtue/trait system that I have not seen before.10
Having played the weekend betas, now that the NDA has been lifted, I can say that the quest system is pretty much the same as LOTRO and WoW’s. You go to an area, pick up quests from quest-givers, complete a task or two, then go back and turn in the quest for rewards. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
If you listen to the SWTOR developer diaries/videos, you’d think that they’d invented the “story driven MMO”. This is, of course, pure crap. There is lore in every MMO, from WoW on down. LOTRO has the epic quests, which had a whole new element to the game and make it more than just one big sandbox to run around in.
What SWTOR has going for it is the association with Bioware, which has turned out some of the finest story-driven games I’ve ever played. I think this is the ace in the hole for the hardcore Star Wars fans, and is what will keep them playing the game over and over.
Let’s face it: There are a ton of crappy Star Wars games out there. For every TIE Fighter, Dark Forces, and X-Wing: Alliance, there are a dozen Force Commanders or Episode I: Racers. But how many of those were Bioware games?
Beginning with the Baldur’s Gate games, to the Knights of the Old Republic and KOTOR2, to Dragon Age and the Mass Effect, Bioware consistently puts out a high-quality product that is engaging, well-developed and makes you want to play the game again and again.11 The fact that they’re treating the story elements of SWTOR as if it were Knights of the Old Republic 3 makes me think the MMO side of the game was an afterthought to the single-player campaigns.12
The Force is strong with this one
All of this begs the question: What can LOTRO do to remain a profitable property?
I think there is a core group of LOTRO players who will never leave. They will be dragged kicking and screaming away from the game only when someone at Turbine shuts off the lights.13
Anecdotally, I know of some players who are leaving for SWTOR the minute they open the servers. Other people I know are giving it the wait-and-see treatment until the game is a couple of weeks old. Others have no interest in the game.
What percentage of LOTRO players will leave (even temporarily) for SWTOR is anyone’s guess, but I’ve got to believe that it’s going to be a larger number than the folks who went to try out Rift or DCUO. Presumably the folks at Turbine have a good idea or at least projections about their post-SWTOR launch player population. There are enough people who don’t give a hoot one way or another about a Star Wars game, and they will continue to play LOTRO. Surely, some people will decide that SWTOR isn’t for them, or the community has too many fanboys/girls, or that the chat channels are overrun with trolls, and they’ll return.
Yet there are some people who will leave for good. Will they be replaced? How many new subscribers are coming in to LOTRO? How many F2P players are coming (or coming back) to LOTRO and are paying real money for game content and Turbine points? What percentage of subscribers (including lifetimes) are paying extra for game content and Turbine points?
These are better questions for the folks at Turbine, but they are things that should at least be in the back of the minds of the LOTRO player community.
No doubt, SWTOR will see an initial surge in subscriptions. I have already reserved my “Collector’s Edition” of the game. I will probably pay for the three month bundle right off the bat while I decide whether it’s the game for me or not. WoW will probably see the largest number of defections, although this is due mostly to the fact that it’s the largest MMO out there. SWTOR will also attract people who have never played an MMO, but these folks shouldn’t have any effect on the make-up of the LOTRO community.
Impossible to see, the future is
For my part, I am at a loss as to how to approach the impending release of SWTOR.
Despite the fact that I was suckered into LOTRO by some friends, and then abandoned by these same “friends”, I genuinely love the game. Not for the mere mechanics or the gameplay or the story, what makes LOTRO such a wonderful experience is the community that inhabits the game. My own experience is on the Elendilmir server, but for the most part, I think the people who play on any server are some of the nicest, most helpful MMO denziens that can be found.
The internet brings out the best and the worst in us. It enables us to help complete strangers and trigger revolutions, and it allows us to hide behind veils of anonymity to flame and harass strangers and those we know alike. MMO communities are no different.
Sure there is the odd troll surfing the OOC or GLFF channels, or that one person who reminds you of crazy Uncle Eddie,14 but I’ve found that the community is the strength of the game.15 Will SWTOR have a comparable community? I doubt it. Maybe on a RP server, but in my limited time in the SWTOR betas, I found the chat channels to be populated by a mixture of genuinely helpful folks and people who just wanted to get a rise out of other players by saying stupid things.
Although I am mostly a solo player, the main reason I’ve stuck around with LOTRO are the friendships I’ve built with my virtual companions, adventuring buddies and kinmates. If not for them, I’d probably be playing Dragon Age, Mass Effect or the Elder Scrolls games.16
But then, in the back of my mind, I hear the siren call of Star Wars. The source of about 90% of my childhood daydreams. Images of metal bikinis and X-wings and force lightning overpower me. My heart tells me I can only find succor in at least attempting to seek out Revan and his legacy.
Is there a way to balance two MMOs? I know that the $15 a month subscription fee isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things. Heck, even $30 a month isn’t a showstopper.17 That is the equivalent of about 5 McDonald’s value meals, six cups of coffee at Starbucks or an Outback Special plus a Bloomin’ Onion per month. Beyond the financial cost, what about the time commitment?
I know there are people who have left other games for LOTRO. Why did you leave? What makes you stay in Middle-Earth? Are you planning on trying out SWTOR? Am I the only one having a mid-MMO identity crisis?
- Exhibit A: Last year, Mrs. Vraeden bought me a ticket to Star Wars Celebration in Orlando next August, and I bought myself a Jedi costume and a small fortune in Force FX lightsabers. She, of course, wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near the place. Exhibit B: Over the years, I have spent literally thousands of dollars on my action figure collection. I’m an opener and they sit on shelves behind a plexiglass front to shield them from dust. My wife thinks she could sell my collection on eBay and go on a cruise with the kids. She tolerates me because I don’t really have any other expensive vices; I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs and I don’t play golf. Action figures and LOTRO are inexpensive compared to some of the other things I could be in to. Stop judging my nerddom. ↩
- I’m discounting the mere existence of the 1978 animated LOTR film. ↩
- Go ahead, Twihards, channel your hate and your anger to me now! Feel the power of the Dark Side flowing through you! There is a quote which is attributed to Stephen King which says, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” At Mrs. Vraeden’s insistence, I read part of the first book and saw a little bit of the movie, and I can say without reservation that Bella is the most whiney, co-dependent and least likeable protagonist I’ve ever read in a book. At no point did I ever find myself feeling sympathetic for her. I think she is a horrible role-model for the exact young women who are the target audience for the Twilight books. I’m on Team Whoever-It-Was-That-Almost-Ran-Her-Over. I will, however, give props to Twilight because it gets kids reading, and that is always good . . . . even if you want to punch the “heroine” in the face every time she opens her mouth. ↩
- This officially makes me a “prize-winning author”, even if all I got was a TRU exclusive action figure. Who said dreams don’t come true? ↩
- I never played Star Wars: Galaxies. Some friends of mine did from launch, but when they told me that you couldn’t be a Jedi, I thought to myself, “Self, that’s the dumbest thing ever. Why the hell would I want to play a Star Wars game if I can’t have a lightsaber?” That would be like turning on Baywatch and not seeing Yasmine Bleeth running in slow motion. Yes, I know they got Jedi later, but the damage was already done. ↩
- This is the part where I beg Turbine to bring back the lifetime subscription option. I know it sounds strange, and it really makes no sense, but I am willing to pay $200-300 for a lifetime LOTRO subscription today (as in right now!) just so I’m not paying two monthly subscription fees once SWTOR launches. That works out to be 30 months of LOTRO since I pay for 3 months at a time. Unless SWTOR absolutely sucks, I can’t see myself paying for another 30 months of LOTRO unless there is a lot of new content that is released. ↩
- That doesn’t include stops in Erid Luin, the Lone Lands, Misty Mountains, Forochel and Enedwaith. ↩
- My boss didn’t like LOTRO because he is used to WoW. Similarly, I found some of the mechanics and gameplay of WoW not to my liking because I thought LOTRO does it better. I know it boils down to personal preference, but if you were like me and started out playing MMOs with LOTRO, chances are good that you’ won’t like some of the other games out there simply because they’re different. ↩
- Having said that, I think F2P is a fabulous model and is generating more revenue than subscriptions ever would have for LOTRO. I don’t think WoW or SWTOR will go F2P in the near future, but the fact that other games are trying it out shows that it is a revenue generator.
Let me also get on my soapbox for a second and address all of the people who think F2P is “pay to win”. MMOs do not exist because game developers want to find a way to get you the latest raid armour or to give you titles and legendary weapons. MMOs exist to make money. If a company is not making money, the game will go away. Yes, some of the revenue is used to line the pockets of Turbine/Warner Brothers. But that revenue also goes to game developers who are bringing you new content and supporting their product. So the next time you think to complain about Turbine doing something “just to make a buck”, think of what would happen if LOTRO were not profitable. Hint: You’ll be signing up to play SWTOR or WoW. ↩
- I do not have a great deal of experience playing different MMOs, so others of you may have some insight into other ways LOTRO is unique. ↩
- I could play Baldur’s Gate 2 over and over, even today. It may have a crappy 2-D game engine, but the story is so good, it’s almost worth installing again just to run through it one more time. ↩
- And having played through several of the starter areas in the SWTOR beta, I can say that the story is handled as the primary focus of the game, not as a token concession to the folks looking for some connection to the previous Revan/Exile storyline. ↩
- Make no mistake, LOTRO will end one day. It may be replaced by another Tolkein-inspired product, but there will come a time when LOTRO boards a ship and heads across the seas and into the West. ↩
- Maybe it actually is your crazy Uncle Eddie. ↩
- That’s not to say that other games don’t have fine players, but you don’t hear of events like the Fellowship Walk in WoW, or when the people do something nice, there are always some jerks who come along to eff things up. ↩
- Or I’d finally get around to that list Mrs. Vraeden has for me. ↩
- Yeah, I know that sounds kind of arrogant and 1-percentish, but the fact of the matter is that $15 a month works out to be 50¢ a day, and two $15 subscriptions is a dollar a day. ↩