The big news today is that Bioware revealed that The Old Republic has 1.3 million subscribers, a drop of 400,000 from their previously announced count of 1.7 million. I feel a bit sad for Bioware. I rather liked SWTOR, and if I wasn't boycotting Bioware, I think I still would be playing it.
As an aside, it's really been an annus horribilis for Bioware. Dragon Age 2 was not received that well, there was unprecedented audience outrage over the Mass Effect 3 ending, and The Old Republic is hemorrhaging subscribers. Here's hoping the good doctors manage to regroup.
In any case, the internet is awash in acrimony. Since no one has hard data, we all agree that the subscriber drop was because of the aspects that we personally did not like. If only Bioware had listened to us, and fixed whatever element was most important to us, the drop could have been averted.
Here are a couple thoughts, in no particular order.
It really looks like alt-based design is not a good strategy. The Old Republic greatly rewards playing alts, with eight different (excellent, in my opinion) class storylines and the entire Legacy system. And yet, judging by the timeline, I would wager that the largest group of people who quit only had one max level character, and the second largest only had two.
To me, this strongly looks like encouraging alts is a losing strategy. The better strategy for MMO design might be to assume that most people play a single character all of the time. I mean, don't go out of your way to stop people from playing alts, but just design the game assuming that everyone focuses on one character.
To further compound things, the Legacy system may have actively hurt SWTOR. Only characters on the same server share and contribute to the same Legacy. This might have discouraged people from rolling alts on more populated servers, leaving people feeling like they were stuck on low pop backwaters.
Managing launch seems to be the most important element for a new game, especially one with a lot of hype. In hindsight, it might have been better to stick with fewer servers and longer queues, rather than open too many servers and then see drastic population drops.
Thinking about it, I wonder if one of the major reasons of WoW's success happened to be what happened at launch. I only started playing WoW about six months after launch. This was because the game was completely sold out. Blizzard had literally not printed enough physical copies to meet demand. This was before downloading large games became common.
But what that meant for Blizzard is that six months after launch, when they finally got a second wave of copies out to stores, there was a new rush of pent up demand, injecting a lot of new blood into the system. Servers that were heavily populated stayed heavily populated. Medium populated servers became heavily populated.
Suppose Bioware had capped the initial launch population at 500,000. And then only sold an additional 200,000 copies each month. That strategy may have worked out better for them, with continuous waves of new players topping up existing servers. Obviously, though, they wouldn't have made as much money up front as they did. And, of course, everyone on the internet would be outraged at being excluded.
But no one would be saying anything about a dying game. This sort of artificial exclusion model might be a better model for a genre which relies on a minimum necessary population, and yet also experiences a lot of churn.
I have one more crazy, off-the-wall hypothesis (yes, even by my standards). But I'll leave it for tomorrow.
All in all, there's no way to spin this subscriber drop as good news for SWTOR, though EA is trying hard. But I do hope that the population stabilizes, and the game moves forward. It is a good game, with decent ideas, and I would like to see what Bioware does with it.