Tuesday, May 08, 2012

[SWTOR] Subscriber Drop

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.

Alt-Based Design

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.

Further Thoughts

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.


  1. hmmm, well I personally feel that the alt-based design is okay. However, the planet storyline is probably the one thing that most people would abhor. You have a natural progression that you must take in order to level in TOR. It's quite evident actually in Act 1 of your character's storyline.

    I don't think the launch was actually a pretty good success on Bioeware's part as well. After 7 years of MMO, I personally think it would be really silly of them to actually artificially reduce the demand when it's pretty clear that People actually do want to play it.

  2. This artificial exclusion model you suggest sounds brilliant. Properly applied, it would also allow you to extend release events/offers/hype. I remember all the great one month reviews that could have been used to ignite the 'round 2' release embers. Even if not for SW, this remains a potential for future releases to consider.

  3. There's not much excuse to purposely limit sales in the age of digital downloading. It looks like a stunt, whereas Blizzard in 2004 just didn't have the factories working hard enough.

    I do think it will stabilize, because it is the only star wars MMO out there, and a decent number of people will play it just for that.

  4. For people who believe 'the game begins at max level', TOR is a disappointment. However, that's not a surprise, since TOR had been spending time explaining all the cool story stuff that TOR had. If you're not interested in the story, TOR isn't the place for you.

    Also, unlike Rift, TOR isn't purposely trying to out-WoW WoW. They're trying to carve their own niche and encourage the development of the story in a way unfamiliar to most MMOs. After all, while MMOs purport to tell your story, there's really not much in the way of choices for a player to make. TOR puts those choices back into play with their own design. Outside of "I'm not doing that quest", MMOs in general don't allow you to influence your own story.

    But if you're a "yeah yeah yeah, just tell me what I have to kill" sort of person, then all that work is wasted.

    I personally think that TOR will recover as the people who stay (and join) will be the ones interested in the story.

    However, I also wonder about the truest test of a game's success: the influx of overseas gold farmers. I joke when I'm in an instance or a BG and we find a Bot that WoW is a game with 2 million subs and 8 million gold farmers, and there are plenty of days where that seems to be the case. Will TOR attract the gold farmers en masse like WoW does? Who knows?

  5. I have to disagree that SWTOR encourages a lot of alts. Yes it has 8 strong individual story lines but to undertake a second on the same fact6ion involves dealing with a lot of content you have already done.

    That means listening to a whole load of voice acting you have heard before which means having to space bar through loads of dialogue.

    I could see doing an alt on a different faction but that means leaving your friends behind.

  6. My oberservations, as someone still playing SWTOR (slowly - just got my first 50) when not WoW raiding.

    1. Server and planet populations are really dropping off fast. When leveling, most planets have 5-20 people on them, versus 100+ earlier. This means group quests are now almost impossible.

    2. Lack of LFD. This is really contentious given the perceived negative impact on server communities. However, I think this was a problem given the difficulties of forming groups end-game, plus the feeling you were missing a lot of content while leveling.

    3. "Lack of a soul" - hard for me to explain, especially given the wonderful class stories. However, the non-class quests became repetitive in comparison and didn't feel special. Maybe, the wonder of the class stories made everything else feel stale?

    4. Combat doesn't feel as polished as WoW: too many skills, hard to see procs, doesn't flow as well as WoW. Means that grinding isn't a pleasurable experience in its own right.

    I'll be sad to leave SWTOR, but will probably unsubscribe when D3 is out, or maybe after completing my second 50 (opposite side).

  7. I think that there are 2 big reasons that this game is struggling.

    1.) The first one I have seen is that the pre-launch guild setup seems to have severely fractured the community, at least on my server that was available at launch. The vast majority of players seem to have all been sorted into their own small groups and no one is willing to give that up. With it only requiring 4 members for a guild and flashpoint groups, and 6(?) to get a guild bank, it means there are a LOT of small groups.

    2.) All of the leveling content is fairly linear, causing you to have to visit every planet on every character that you level. The only options for planets are the starter planets, and that choice is made for you based on your class selection. Personally, I am not looking forward to doing all of the Empire planets 8 times, and each of the starter worlds 4 times. I think this is probably the biggest obstacle for their alt-based design.

    I am hoping that issue number 1 works itself out over time as subscribers rotate in and out and need to find guilds, and hoping number 2 is addressed with future content.

    I had come up with a third issue when I started writing this comment, but have since lost it. I will repost if I can remember it.

  8. I played SWTOR casually for two months. While I enjoyed the elements that seemed right out of Mass Effect (voice dialog, companions), I grew to really dislike combat and many of the quests. It seems to mirror wow in combat design fairly closely, but I've played wow for 7 years and don't need another game that does the same things. And as others have said, redoing the same quests on multiple characters isn't very appealing.

    I also have a bit of a fanboy problem with fighting with a light saber against opponents equipped with swords and not just demolishing them instantly.

    What really killed the game for me though was questing on Tatooine, expecting remote desertlands and seeing infinte bad guys crowding the terrain everywhere, and buildings all over the place. Not at all what I expected. I understand they can't develop a planet quest hub and make it largely empty, but when I'm walking across the desert I shouldn't run into constant enemies of all varieties. It just made no sense to me, especially with how that planet is portrayed in the movies.

  9. I stopped playing around level 27 or 28, because the game was just a bit too processing-intensive on my ancient laptop. Sure, I met minimum requirements, but those minimum requirements made it barely playable, not enjoyable. I think a lot of developers don't realize the fact that WoW can be played on a moderately advanced toaster keeps a lot of subscribers people who can't afford to replace their computers playing.

  10. I've actually done a bit of thinking about why one would not continue playing SWTOR, and while I think there is not any single reason that can be given, I know for me it was simply that it was a bit too simple. My "tween"-age son has been really enjoying SWTOR and is now working on his 2nd max level character. At the same time, he only got to about level 30 in WoW before quitting. His reason for quitting WoW? "It's too complicated with all the quests everywhere and all the stuff I have to learn." He doesn't feel the same about SWTOR. I think this says a lot about the playerbase each is geared toward. SWTOR appeals to those that 1) Love Starwars 2) Like to quest and/or solo-play 3) Really aren't interested in end-game content or PvP. WoW on the other hand has always been much more focused on group play, guilds, and end-game/PvP. So, anyone who went to SWTOR to find what they "like" in the Starwars universe simply didn't find it.

  11. To be honest, I wouldnt mind still playing it from time to time (especially since I got a new graphics card which should actually be able to play properly), but I dont want to pay more subscriptions to play SWTOR.

    Leveling was fun the first time through, and was less than fun the second time. I also did not care for the lack of end game as it pertains to me.

    Someday, I may give it another shot, but unfortunately, I have more fun things to do in a 7 year old MMO than in a brand new one.

  12. As of this morning I am no longer a paid subscriber to SWTOR. I feel bad about it, to be honest -- I like Bioware, I like the idea of story-driven content, I like the fact that they worried about server community and not making everything about my number being bigger than your number. And yet, at the end of the day, once I got a character to 50 I couldn't really be arsed to log on again.

    The people I know who are extremely happy with SWTOR -- and there are some! -- are mostly altoholics who maybe have a single level 50. I think if Bioware had fully embraced the kinder, gentler MMO concept they would have done a lot better. I would have loved way more costume gear options, crazy races, and being able to decorate my ship.

  13. Suppose Bioware had capped the initial launch population at 500,000. And then only sold an additional 200,000 copies each month.

    They did. Now, not quite that number, but they CLEARLY came out ahead of time and said they were artificially selling LESS copies then they could at launch to keep queues down. Even digitally, since Origin had PREORDER QUEUES.

    Honestly, that aside, TOR had a really strong launch; better then the last few MMO launches I was part of.

    I have to disagree that SWTOR encourages a lot of alts. Yes it has 8 strong individual story lines but to undertake a second on the same fact6ion involves dealing with a lot of content you have already done.

    It's more then just the strong story. Look at the whole Legacy system, for example. Easily half of the stuff you can unlock in Legacy REQUIRES you to play alts. If you want EVERYTHING, you need to raise all 8 classes to max level. This also makes it easier to grind the Legacy levels to get the other things that don't require you to have alts.

  14. I think that SWTOR's launch was technically very well done.

    But I also think they may have opened too many servers, and when people started cycling out, the server populations started falling. Ideally, under my model, new people entering the game replace older people on existing servers, keeping the server population up.

    The thing is that the genre has a lot of churn. Even WoW has a huge churn rate.

  15. Maybe I'm the exception, but I don't see all the gloom and doom being talked about here. I am in a small guild that is raiding endgame twice a week. I am leveling alts and not having to repeat the same quests over and over because of the way PvP is set up. I run PvP and do my class quests and just enjoy the story. Our server is populated and going strong. I love the game and can't wait to log on and play, which is something that was missing from my last 6 months of WoW.

  16. I like the game, but they have the same issue that is causing(even high-end) graphics cards to overheat(to the point of melting) I played it at first then after a patch, I noticed that my GPU would drop to 0 then spike to 100, when ever my GPU dropped to 0 my CPU spiked to 100, when this happened i watched my GPU go from 70C to 89C very rapidly and still climb...however SWTOR won't admit there game is causing this issue...because if they did that would mean they were reliable for any system damages....not going to risk damaging my system for a game. And I know a few others who have quite for the same reason.

  17. i see i see, you can really say who's a marketing agent eh Hunaiam? you just shoved it right there your negation of everything that's getting discussed here :P I've been observing the servers for months now (see www.torstatus.net/shards/us/stats) and it always has a negative variance meaning the population is always decreasing. I'm a hardcore raider in a large and active guild and instead of enjoying the content I feel frustrated. The game feels like a chore instead of entertainment. It shouldn't be like that. Something's wrong with it. And it needs to be corrected, well if it lives to that day. Maintenance of this game is costly and I don't think there would be enough subscribers by the time the fixes are in.