Will SW:TOR Get The 500,000 Subscribers It Needs?

Star Wars The Old Republic Zabrak

A Zabrak with a double lightsaber. How original.

Via Massively I read today that BioWare and EA have confirmed that in order to remain “substantially profitable” (i.e. survive) Star Wars: The Old Republic needs at least 500,000 monthly subscribers. They didn’t mention timeframes regarding how long they need to maintain that level in order to make back the initial investment and start earning a buck but my guess would be somewhere in between “indefinitely” and “until the end of time”. To be fair, 500k is a lot smaller than the number people were throwing around a few months ago but it’s still a hefty amount. So I guess the big question is, are they gonna manage to pull it off?

Compared to WoW (even excluding the Chinese player base), 500k seems like a miniscule number but compared to every other MMO out there it’s actually pretty high. I seem to recall Everquest hitting near 500,000 subscribers back in 2003/4 but aside from that I don’t think any other Western subscription based MMO has managed to do it. Not only does that magnify the gap between WoW and the rest of the pack but it also makes SW:TOR’s chances even less likely.

This isn’t to say that some MMOs haven’t kicked off with a lot of promise. Both Warhammer Online and Age of Conan sold a ton when they launched (didn’t AoC sell something like a million boxes?) but then, strangely enough, there was a huge exodus after the initial 30 day period and they were both left with floundering communities. Hanging on to the subscription is what matters, unit sales are just fluff.

Indeed BioWare/EA are setting their sights high, incredibly high in fact when they make statements like “anything north of one million subscribers is a very profitable business”. Well duh, I think that goes for any MMO out there. But I can see where they’re coming from. When you look at the, what, five or six million Western WoW subscribers, getting one million players doesn’t seem like a big slice of the pie. The problem is though that there is absolutely no precedent for even coming close to achieving it.

All of this talk about subscription numbers does make me strongly believe that WoW is more like an anomaly – a freak of nature – rather than a clear indicator of the market place. Too many others have tried and failed to even suggest it’s a possibility and, in fact, one might ponder if it’s a rather dumb move to base your business model on try to compete with it. I mean having Yao Ming in the NBA it doesn’t make the average height of the Chinese any taller.

So will SW:TOR pull it off? I actually reckon they’re in with a better chance than any other MMO I’ve seen recently. The game’s got the Star Wars appeal, polish, a good development company behind it and plenty of wow factor (pun intended). If it doesn’t do it then I don’t think anyone will. Which, in turn, may well create some very interesting waves in the MMO industry as a result.

-Gordon

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33 Comments

  1. Ogrebear says:

    Unless they get really bad reviews when the NDA lifts, they will easily get an initial 500K.
    How many of those stay after the first month will depend on fun the game is (and how well the end game has been designed). If it suck you’ll see a huge drop 1-2 month in,

  2. Longasc says:

    I am quite confident they will get 500K. The IP and Bioware alone make people interested, and there is a lot of money and advertisement behind this game. I also think there will be a huge discussion if SWTOR is fail or a success and how to measure it among gamers.

    People should embrace the choices they have now. It’s more than ever before. Rift is awesome and launches in March – LOTRO is good – Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR have huge potential, STO and AoC, WAR are also not dead. Aion is very popular and PotBS is also interesting due to F2P now. And you always forget Guild Wars! :)

    So to put it bluntly, yeah, 500K is no problem for SWTOR. I guess it will just fail to fulfill the fantasy that SWTOR becomes the WoW killer and dries WoW of all lifeblood, servers close and several lead devs leave Blizz or commit public suicide.

    I am also quite sure it won’t be a stellar success. Just my gut feeling, based on the story driven mechanic and the feeling of WoW in space, people already have that, no chance to shake up an entire genre like WoW did back in the days.

  3. Docholiday says:

    I think the longer it takes for them to release the game, the lower SWTOR’s sub ceiling gets. Even though they’ll pull a huge star wars crowd, they also will need the MMO crowd as well and like Longasc says there’s LOTS of choices these days and more coming.

    I’m really curious to see which hits first, SWTOR or GW2 :)

  4. Epiny says:

    I believe Funcom stated they had 750k “preorders” for AoC and Mythic said they had 1.2 million “preorders” for WAR. That is as close to box sale numbers as I heard from either of those games. Getting 500k the first month is easy, and alot of MMOs do it. Having 500k 6 months after launch is the key.

    @Longasc
    While I agree that I don’t think TOR will be a stellar success I disagree with the rest of your last statement. When WoW first launched it didn’t really shake anything up. People keep thinking that TBC, Wrath, and no Cata WoW is what WoW was like when it launched against EQ, EQ2 and DAoC.

    WoW was very meh at the start. If a game doesn’t “break” the mold right out of the gate everyone considers it some sort of nail in their doomsday coffin. I think Rift has the right idea, just make a good solid game. To many people want change for the sake of change.

  5. pkudude99 says:

    I’ll be 1 of the however many pre-orders/box sales there are for SWTOR. How long I subscribe is another question. I’m already going to have 3 active subs in other games by then, and I don’t know if I can justify 4, so I’ll be making choices as to which game(s) to cut. And if SWTOR doesn’t knock my socks off, it will just be the 1 month and out for me while I keep the other 3 I know I like.

  6. Pascal says:

    Too many players have embedded and invested the last 5 or 6 years of their online gaming life in World of Warcraft. For them to cast aside guilds, friends and their online life in favour of a new MMO. Yeah, it will happen. For a few months. But once that hankering for their comfort blanky comes back they’ll all return to their familiar, same old same old.

    I do not expect much from MMO developers these days. The inertia behind World of Warcraft, crap as I think it is, in terms of social structures and players is simply too massive. That is why I think innovative, clever games like WAR and AoC failed – they didn’t have 7 years of content and community building behind them.

    I’m enjoying EVE. Stable, large(ish) population. You’re looking at 25,000 people online as soon as the server is back up after nightly maintenance. Good, open ended game with options as a player. And it just works.

    I don’t see any of these fad MMOs – like Rift or ST:OR working for more than a few months. Or a couple of years possibly.

    • Gordon says:

      People are burning through WoW content faster than ever now though so SWTOR could hit the playerbase at a good time, especially if it comes out in the Autum. That will almost be a year since Cataclysm was released and players will be hungry for something new.

  7. elleseven says:

    I’m a total Star Wars geekette and visit several different StarWars message boards. It seems so many non gamers (aka MMO) can’t wait to play and there is alot of questions and interest on all the sites. Just for that reason, I can easily see them getting the sub numbers and people staying if they have no other MMO to compare too.

  8. leah says:

    SWTOR has a substantial advantage over other platforms. the same advantage that WoW had actually when it came out. its not only based on a familiar IP, its based in a world of a specific time period that bioware already successfully covered. people are STILL playing that game and its been out for a long while. At a minimum, they will attract and most likely the fans of the Star Wars rpg, the same way WoW attracted fans of Warcraft strategy games.

    Bioware is also very good at getting you emotionally involved in their characters. emotional involvement means you want to keep progressing your character, means you keep renewing your subscription.

    I never saw them as trying to kill WoW, while fans of sci-fi and fantasy overlap sometimes, for a lot of people scifi setting is just unattractive. and for a lot of other people, fantasy setting just doesn’t work, no matter how well done.

  9. Bhagpuss says:

    Very interesting post and comment thread.

    Elleseven’s perspective is one we rarely see on MMO blogs and websites and it may be a key factor for SW:tOR. There are a lot of Star Wars fans and I would guess that most of them have never played an MMO. How much of that audience can be tapped?

    The observation that those Star Wars fans who can be persuaded to try SW:tOR as their first MMO will have nothing, not even WoW, to compare it to is very significant. Almost anyone reading this, let alone posting here, is going to be steeped in MMO experience and come to any new MMO with many preconceptions. Maybe that won’t be the case for many, even the majority, of SW:tOR’s customers.

    • Dril says:

      This is the kind of direction I would’ve shot for as well. WoW brought a lot of people into the genre, but methinks TOR can do even more. Star Wars is a huge market, much much bigger than the pre-WoW Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft communities combined, and BioWare seems to evoke some sort of loyalty from people.

      Because I’m a jaded cynic who actually thinks BioWare games are pretty dull, horrifically animated and averagely written I probably won’t be pre-ordering, but there’s definitely the promise of attracting people who have never seen MMOs.

  10. Gazimoff says:

    I think that SW:TOR has two huge advantages at the moment:

    Firstly, they’re pretty much the only ones aside from EVE who seem to be developing a mainstream Sci-Fi MMO. The only other ones I saw were Stargate (on hold?), Jumpgate Evolution (in legal trouble) and Battlestar Galactica (only recently announced). If the launch goes well they could comfortably have the whole niche at that end nicely sewn up.

    Secondly there’s the nostalgia factor from people who used to play SWG and miss being part of the universe. I know this game isn’t intended as a sequel to SWG, but I think there’s a fair bunch of people who miss being a character in that universe and are eager to return to it.

    Pascal also makes a good comment about guilds and invested time & friendships. Rift has started offering 25-player guild invites to their beta with the pure objective of persuading players to move over as a group. And it seems to be working, with at least a few making plans to switch. In terms of anticipating guild demand for SW:TOR, over 200 guilds have already put money down for a tailored website according to Ejeet: http://twitter.com/#!/ejeet/status/32189311977787395. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll start to see more multi-game or nomadic guilds emerge from situations like this.

  11. Nerokis says:

    I think The Old Republic will be incredibly successful for a MMO. In my view, the key thing is that BioWare is heading into the MMO market with a preexisting base of mainstream gamers. Has that been true for any other MMO developer, aside from Blizzard?

    Even games like Rift, as far as I can tell, don’t have much traction outside the MMO blogosphere and the World of Warcraft forums. On the other hand, during events like E3 The Old Republic is one of the most anticipated games. And I’m not sure how meaningful this is, but The Old Republic generates far, far more YouTube views. =P

    Between its presence in not MMO specific events/sites like E3 and Kotaku, EA/BioWare’s ability to market it through their non-MMO games, and the Star Wars IP, The Old Republic definitely has the potential to far exceed the typical MMO. The BioWare/Star Wars/EA combination shouldn’t be underestimated, in my opinion.

    So long as it’s a good game, I think it will do quite well. If it ends up being a great game, it could potentially grow into a mini-WoW. I’m pretty bullish on The Old Republic’s prospects. I’m optimistic that, at the very least, time will show that it was a great investment on EA’s part.

    (To give numbers: I can see The Old Republic taking WoW’s path of growth, in its case solidly holding onto nearly a million subscribers and slowly growing into a 2 million plus MMO.)

    • Gordon says:

      I think Rift will be a good indicator of success for SW:TOR. If it can hold onto a decent player base in the face of WoW then it will prove that gamers are looking for something new and will give decent games the shot they deserve.

  12. Epiny says:

    @elleseven
    While I do think you are right to a degree, I don’t completely believe that the Star Wars fans that have never played MMOs will have a huge impact on this game. Will some play, sure, but not enough to matter. The Star Wars fan base didn’t pull any of the other Lucas Arts Star Wars games out of the crap pile, so unless this game is genuinely good, I don’t think they will here either.

    @Nerokis
    Ironically that is one of the reasons people feel that Warhammer Online failed. Mythic was a very established company with EA behind them. Warhammer is one of the most iconic fantasy worlds out there. Games Workshop is main stream nerd culture. Having to ADHERE to existing IP creates design difficulties. Look at Blizzard who even created their own IP, they’ve had to “bend” the Lore to add features. That is much harder to do with an existing IP.

    Let’s be realistic here. EA has a shitastic record of MMOs. Star Wars has a horrible track record of quality. The only two exceptions I can think of in the last ten years are the Clone Wars cartoon and KotR. (Ironically made by Bioware) Bioware is the only one is in this entire relationship with any gaming creditability.

    I’m not saying this game will be bad, I just don’t think it deserves optimism.

    • Nerokis says:

      WAR didn’t fail because it was based on an existing IP, because it was developed by an established company, or because EA was the publisher. It failed because MMOs are hard to make and just as hard to sell to a wide audience, and WAR had a long list of shortcomings. I think that’s what it essentially comes down to. Mythic failed to create a polished, feature rich game that could compete in the existing market, and I’m sure some of the failings were EA’s as well; however, you have to look at WAR as an individual case.

      For example, I don’t think it’s reason to be pessimistic that EA is investing a lot of resources into TOR, or that EA is going to help release the game into a lot of markets. Neither do I think that TOR being based on one of the most popular IPs of all time is reason to be pessimistic. The game isn’t going rise and fall on whether or not some of the lore (most of which BioWare is writing) is lost for the sake of gameplay, and, either way, BioWare has proven already they can do great things with the Star Wars universe.

      BioWare is incomparable to Mythic. Mythic was an established company in the MMO world, but none of their games came even close to actually tapping into a mainstream audience. That doesn’t mean they weren’t successful, of course. Warhammer isn’t really comparable to Star Wars, either. It definitely has a solid place in nerd culture, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to call it “mainstream nerd culture.” My idea of the latter is something that’s part of nerd culture, but is also accessible or somewhat popular among people who aren’t really immersed in nerd culture overall. That definitely applies to Star Wars; not so much Warhammer.

      BioWare’s brand is about as powerful as Blizzard’s. People like the Star Wars universe. And a lot of resources are being put toward TOR’s development. I suppose it’s easier to be pessimistic, but I can’t think of any upcoming MMO out there better positioned to be very successful.

      Ah, the blog post-like comment. =P

      • Epiny says:

        Mark Jacobs said one of the toughest things they had to deal with was adhering to the Games Workshop lore; it created a lot of difficulties with their ability to make decisions. They had to go to GWS on more than one occasion and present a case to break the existing lore for game play. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. This was a cause of the game’s failure, not the sole cause, but a cause none the less. Existing IP makes it harder to create a game, as certain rules already exist.

        Bioware is the only developer who has done Star Wars justice in the past decade, I won’t deny that. I think that just because you can create a good single player RPG doesn’t mean you will make a good MMO. Again Bioware is the only reason I haven’t written this game off. We may just have to disagree on existing IP though. I believe it makes creating a game more difficult, if you don’t no hard no foul.

        Star Wars isn’t a dead franchise, but it is not nearly what it was 10 or 15 years ago. The last 3 movies were terrible and the remakes of the first 3 weren’t very good either. Star Wars has had a lot of failures and burned a lot of its casual fans. I’m not going to argue hardcore fans. Star Wars probably has the most dedicated hard core fans of any IP out there. However that CORE fan base didn’t make all those bad games over the last 20 years succeed, therefore I believe they can’t force TOR to succeed.

        EA has a bad track record with MMOs. I think that is a reason why they are having trouble getting more investors. If Cryptic was producing this game wouldn’t you be pessimistic? I don’t think EA and Cryptic have very different track records when it comes to MMOs. Honestly I would say Cryptic has had more success.

        TLDR: Star Wars the Old Republic will not survive because of simply Bioware or the Star Wars logo. It has to be an amazing game. If it’s mediocre or worse it will be considered a financial failure. The only reason I’m not a doomsayer already is BECAUSE of Bioware.

        think I matched your length

        • Gordon says:

          I do think the Star Wars license is a lot more free than the Warhammer one though. GWS are incredibly controlling over every aspect of their lore whilst Star Wars is a bit more flexible.

          • Shadow-war says:

            I don’t know if I’d say the SW lisence is more free. Lucas is an iron-fisted control freak when it comes to what is canonical and what is not. I think what may be more accurate is to say that, because of the setting, and BioWare’s previous work in setting up the galaxy of this timeframe (which had been previously unexplored on the large), they have freedom to do as they wish. As long as it doesn’t create an affect that would echo through the thousands of years into the more explored world of film/word/expanded, they shuold be fine – and creating something that epicly long-lasting isn’t something they would take lightly to begin with.

      • Gordon says:

        “It failed because MMOs are hard to make and just as hard to sell to a wide audience, and WAR had a long list of shortcomings.”

        Well said, Nerokis! :)

  13. I think 500K subs, yes they can manage that. Of course, the crux of it, as you’ve mentioned already, is that they didn’t say anything about the time frame. Still, while they revenue they bring in from unit sales alone may be a drop in the bucket relative to the overall development costs, that money can really help, especially at the beginning.

    If only even a fraction of the people who bought the Mass Effect games and Dragon Age are willing to give SWTOR a shot though, they should have no problems :)

  14. UnSub says:

    SWOR is going to sell 2 million boxes easily. But MMO retention rates are such that both WAR and AoC saw 50% player sub losses within their launch quarter and it kept declining from there. On top of that, BioWare’s own stats indicate that only 50% of players who started ME2 actually finished it.

    SWOR has been expensive to develop and will be expensive to maintain due to that voice-over content, but they’ve got to keep churning that out to keep players subscribed. It’s boring to say it, but story matters less than how well BioWare does with SWOR’s game mechanics – i.e. the fun – and rumours are that SWOR isn’t there yet.

    • Gordon says:

      Hehe yeah, I was one of those people that never finished ME2 :)

    • Epiny says:

      It’s funny you should mention the “rumors”. All of the “rumors” coming out about TOR have been meh at best and sometimes very negative. The only real positives I’ve heard are from the SW fans who are just forum and blog goers. (I’m not saying I’ve played it)

      It just seems like if TOR was a really good game with solid mechanics we’d have heard about it. I think even Massively’s first hands on report was very meh. I believe it was a week or so later when they reflected back and gave it a more favorable review. If it takes a week for a website like Massively to see the good in TOR we are in for a bumpy ride.

  15. Eric says:

    I’ve been monitoring SWTOR for the past half a year and can honestly say that it’s getting better and better. However, they do need to launch as soon as possible, as there have been an increase in subscriptions due to new updates in WoW (Cata) and notably RuneScape (reinstalling the “wilderness and free trade”).

    500k subs is out of the question. But here’s my prediction anywho: SWTOR will get 1 million + preorders and will most likely survive the first few quarters. But after that, it really depends on new game content.

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