Electronic Arts has blamed casual players for the sudden drop-off in subscribers to Star Wars: The Old Republic. They’re right on the money, but are missing one valuable piece of information.. those casual players were what the game was aiming for in the first place.
As of the first of this month, when EA made their quarterly report to investors, SWTOR is down to 1.3 million active subscribers. That’s a drop of 400,000 players in only a month. The trend doesn’t appear to be stopping and it’s expected that by next quarter’s report, EA will be reporting less than a million active subscribers for SWTOR.
But wait.. wasn’t Star Wars supposed to be the newest, most awesome, and exciting game to come to MMO since the genre began? Wasn’t the whole idea of a massive multi-player online game created so that it could evolve to the perfection of SWTOR (according to one player in a forum)?
Guess not. Either that, or gamers just aren’t ready for the Old Republic messiah to lift up the beleaguered MMO field and make it rise to greatness again.
EA Games label head honcho Frank Gibeau says that the drop in 400,000 players was because casual gamers are leaving the game and that means only the “core players who really enjoy the game” are left. Methinks Mr. Gibeau is overestimating the power of his game’s use of the Force.
I was invited to and played the beta version of SWTOR back when and attended a couple of press events where developers showed us the “cool stuff” the game would have later on. At the time, I really liked the game and thought that SWTOR was maybe going to be something. Sure, the beta had some problems with balance and playability, but it seemed like they were planning to fix that stuff before launch.
But they didn’t.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a smooth, pretty game that looks great and is relatively easy to pick up on and play. The problem is.. it’s too easy to pick up and too easy to play. There’s little challenge in most of the game. Worse, SWTOR isn’t really much of an MMO or RPG. The role-playing is vague at best and the multi-player seems to just mean that there are a bunch of other players running around you, but little need to team up with them for much of the game’s play.
Of course, most MMOs are getting this way. Blaming SWTOR for the industry’s general move towards free to play (F2P) paradigms that require the game to be dumbed down to the point that a fifth grader with an XBox can play it has largely destroyed the MMO genre of gaming.
Why would EA bother building a game that’s new, innovative, a challenge to play, and deep in story and characterization? Nobody wants that, apparently. I’ve talked about this before, in “Gamers Are the Problem” last month.
Nearly every MMO out there now is a repetitive grind fest which requires little in the way of thought or strategy and relies instead on the player’s willingness to just keep grinding through bad guys and gaining levels.
In my experience, SWTOR is one of the worst offenders in this regard. The game is almost entirely scripted with little room for deviance from the rails set before your character based on class and alignment.
Of course, they aren’t the only one. Many gamers in forums like to point to World of Warcraft (WOW) as the prime offender in the “dumbing down” scenario. They may or may not have been first, but they certainly were a beginning trend-setter in this degradation of MMO gaming.
When a game is going to the dumbed-down dogs, it usually phases through the following three changes:
Once any of those three things is introduced to an MMO, the other two will surely follow and the game will be done for.
So are we witnessing the death of MMOs themselves? Are they about to die off and become just another niche gamer market that fewer and fewer quality developers make games for?
To be honest, it’s hard to say that’s not the case without feeling a little too hopeful. After all, game types come and go and each keep a core set of players, but eventually the crowd moves on to the next big thing. MMOs may have run their course with pop culture and seem to be getting pushed aside in favor of (gulp) social gaming.
You heard right. I’m admitting to something that’s been dogging me for some time: social games seem to be taking over the gaming market and displacing a lot of MMO gamers from the big productions we’ve all gotten used to lusting after in beta and then playing for a year or two once they release only to move on to the next big MMO beta.
Games on platforms like Facebook, smart phones, and so on are gaining a lot of players very rapidly. While some hardcore MMO players might say “good riddance, get rid of the 12 year olds and their dumbing down of my game!” that’s missing a vital point: the huge productions like SWTOR, WOW, and others exist (even in their now-lame form) thanks to those 12 year olds with the deep allowances to buy gear or pay for subscriptions.
Once they leave for other things, what’s left of the core audience for MMORPGs will not be enough to sustain the games currently on the market. Whatever your favorite is might find itself in trouble and closing its doors for lack of funding – despite your loyalty and monthly fee payments. EVE Online players? LOTRO lovers? WOW hangers on? SWTOR aces? AOC hackers? It might be your game that closes down. No one will be immune.
Unlike the big banks in 2008, there won’t be anyone around to bail out the MMO producers and developers when the going gets tough. The attrition will be brutal.
On the other hand, what will be left will be the real survivors, the cream of the crop. Hopefully, things will improve as a result. That is the hope, but most of us can’t say it’s going to happen without a few lines of worry coming through our expression as we say it.
After all, gaming is constantly changing just as the rest of our popular culture morphs. Eventually, MMO will be the “has been” like the old PC-based box games and the stand-up quarter-fed arcades before them. It’ll still be around, but it won’t be the same and will eventually be relegated to the “vintage” and “collectibles” aisle.