When Bobby ‘Actiblizzardzebub’ Kotick, the man presiding over WoW’s decline, questions the profitability of SWTOR, surely your first reaction is to scoff and chortle over this blatant piece of self-promoting trash talk. But has he inadvertently made a point?
Lets face it, SWTOR is, in all respects, a World of Warcraft clone with a Star Wars skin. This does not make it a bad game. 10 million people play WoW and I was one of the 12 million a year ago. Copying something fun, even if it’s declining, doesn’t make it unfun. SWTOR is a very polished and slick game. It’s mechanics appear solid and the classes varied. It is a good game.
Sonic Generations is a good game, but I played it for a few weeks and haven’t touched it since. Same will most of the games on my shelf. A good game can still have terrible longevity.
World of Warcraft had, at peak, 12 million subscriptions, and, as of this month, it’s dropped by 2 million. That’s a 16% subscriber drop in the space of a year. With World of Warcraft’s subscribers declining you have to ask yourself: “Where are they going?”
They’re certainly not going to The Old Republic, it’s not out yet. People have been leaving in droves since the release of Cataclysm last December. Are they playing any number of other MMOs? Have the stopped playing MMOs altogether? Are they just floating in the ether, waiting for SWTOR’s release next month?
In the first instance, if they’re playing other MMOs, they’re likely playing a free to play, since the vast majority of MMOs today have some form of free to play model, would these players consider forking out for a subscription when SWTOR comes out? Is the shiny prospect of a comfortable, yet new, game enough to lure them away from whichever MMO they’ve taken up? Perhaps the lure of something graphically superior to LOTRO, or a deeper end-game to Champions, or something with simpler mechanics than Fallen Earth.
There’s no doubt in my mind that alot of these Free-to-play games will suffer in the opening month of SWTOR. People will leave in droves to play the free month that comes with the game. The question remains is will SWTOR retain these players?
In the intervening months lifestyles that focused on WoW’s addictive nature have changed to that of the free-to-play model. A pay-when-you-play model that doesn’t put pressure on the user to ‘get their moneys worth’ means radically different patterns of play for many people. Playing when they have time, rather than making time to play. Would they give up that? It won’t change much during the free month, but when it comes to fork over that subscription fee then the realisation that they’re committing to play for another month may put them off. Part and parcel of free-to-play is the free part. Free as in cost, and free as in time. That kind of freedom is hard to give up.
Then there are those people who are waiting for SWTOR to come out. What ever they are doing at the moment, playing another MMO or floating in the ether, those are a given that they’ll pony up the cash for atleast one months sub. From the Beta Weekend I can assume that the vast majority of people on that will be playing launch, and have pre-ordered. In which case they’ve already made a truckload of cash back off the pre-order sales. Profit? Doubtful. But the investors are probably smiling inside when they look at the numbers. How many will subscribe in January? Well, that depends on the game doesn’t it.
In order to figure out if SWTOR will retain it’s players you have to figure out: Why is WoW is in decline? Is it because it’s gotten easier to play? Is it because the content is trite and predictable? If people have become so bored of it that, even in the face of brand new content (IE cataclysm) they began leaving in droves? (1.1 million users gone in the first 6 months of that expansion)
If that’s the case, why would any of them stay with SWTOR? Once the shiny veneer of the storyline is brushed away, and they see the WoWishness underneath, will it be too much of a leap to say that fatigue will seep in here just as quickly as a new WoW expansion?
Kotick may have the wrong reasons for believing SWTOR won’t be profitable (I honestly believe he doesn’t think a game like WoW can fail because it’s like WoW, only because their money men are dumber than his), but he may well prove right if they can’t retain their subscribers after the first month. Or the second. Or if they can stave off the same lethargy that hits WoW Players. Remember: There are still 10 million WoW players who don’t seem to have this problem of fatigue. The prime candidates for eating up SWTORs subscriptions won’t leave WoW because they don’t see anything wrong with it.
We know those playing free-to-play probably won’t pony up for SWTOR. We know WoWthralls won’t leave WoW. We know that the Star Wars fans and the Bioware fans will subscribe, but them alone will likely not turn a profit.
Ofcourse, I’ve missed out on one type of player. The player that’s waiting for SWTOR, but hasn’t move to a new MMO. And this is where the unknown lies in the equation.
How many of WoWs subscribers are just as fatigued as those who have left. Who are just there through sheer inertia, and how much of that will SWTORs flywheel steal when it bumps up against it’s main rival?
We’ll find out at the end of January, won’t we?