Any observer of the MMO genre knows that gaining traction in an already-packed field of competitors isn’t easy. Apparently that’s even true for a game bearing the Star Wars name. During an EA investor call, the publisher revealed that the number of The Old Republic active subscribers currently sits at 1.3 million. While that number is nothing to scoff at, it confirms that the population base has dropped by 25% since March, despite BioWare‘s previous claims to the contrary.
It’s always difficult to keep a conversation calm and controlled when MMO subscription numbers (and drops) are the issue, especially when World of Warcraft seems to be immune to such trivial matters. The size of the drop itself may surprise some, since just last month BioWare told PC Gamer in an interview that subscription numbers weren’t falling, only the amount of concurrent users during peak times. It’s hard to believe that The Old Republic lost 400,000 subscribers in just over a week, so it’s safe to assume that the decrease was expected to raise a few eyebrows. BioWare’s Daniel Erickson had then said that the team was working to keep users engaged, and the two content packs alluded to in the investor call – the continuing Legacy updates and Allies – are obviously designed to do just that.
While The Old Republic‘s drop to 1.3 million subscribers from the 1.7 million reported in February might be cause for panic, EA and BioWare seem determined to find the positive. According to EA’s Frank Gibeau, it’s the quality of the players who have remained subscribed that the developer and publisher are most pleased with. Gibeau explained that TOR‘s subscription drop is due less to MMO players growing tired, and more to the overwhelming appeal that the Star Wars brand carried among non-MMO gamers.
With names like BioWare and Star Wars attached to the launch of a new online game, it’s a fair assumption that many early subscribers weren’t quite ready for the (some might say too formulaic) MMO nature of gameplay. But those who have stuck around are what Gibeau and BioWare see as “core MMO users,” and they may be right. After all, even Blizzard has acknowledged that many WoW players have left to play TOR. Retaining 75% of everyone brought in by the allure of a Star Wars MMO is a strong start in their eyes, and a point from which the developers can aggressively pursue growth. With the extensive time required to produce fully-voiced class story expansions, let’s hope those “core” users are willing to wait.
Patience may not be the only quality that BioWare and EA will require from their current subscribers, but loyalty as well. With no shortage of promising MMOs, and the WoW expansion Mists of Pandaria set to arrive this calendar year, The Old Republic could have a fight on its hands. Those games may all turn out to be spectacular, but according to Gibeau, all of them lack one thing – lightsabers:
“We are cognizant of competitors coming, but none of them quite fit in the same competitive category as Star Wars. They’re just different fantasies. They’re not the Star Wars fantasy. It’s not the big expansive universe that appeals to so many people worldwide. And as you know with MMOs, every day you’re in operation to get better and better and better. You continually perfect the experience. You continually improve the acquisition component… So building from a base that we’re at right now, we feel very confident that this business is going to continue to stay competitive throughout the remainder of the year.”
It’s hard to argue, especially since the development team has done their best to incorporate as much of the Star Wars lore into the game as possible. But with the emphasis that MMOs place on endgame content for those willing to grind to their heart’s content, there was always going to be a group of Star Wars/Mass Effect/KOTOR fans who jumped ship. Obviously 400,000 in a few months is more than anyone would like to see, so hopefully the team will take that as a sign that more content – and better content – will be the only way to grow the player population.
Regardless of any panic that some might feel, or the host of critics who will take this as a sign that TOR is doomed, there are still over a million subscribers who just want their playtime rewarded with strong content. The Old Republic subscription numbers are still well above the 500,000 needed to turn a profit, but that might change for the better or worse by the end of the year.
Do you think BioWare is too confident in their ability to grow the game from those already hooked? If you played early and stopped subscribing, what changes could the developers make to get your attention once again?
Star Wars: The Old Republic is available now for the PC.
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