Many of you have followed me over the years because of my strong connection to the Star Wars brand and especially because of my coverage of SWTOR. Over the last eight years of covering the game, I’ve been pulling together the reason that SWTOR never lived up to its own hype. Now that many of the original writers and developers have moved away from BioWare and EA, they have started to confirm what I thought happened.
A quick history lesson
BioWare was its own independent studio when it created some of its greatest games, like Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect. Of course, EA absorbed those titles and served as the publisher, slapping its logo on new copies of the game as if it really had anything to do with their production. However, in my opinion, the greatest thing that BioWare did was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
The studio that spent its early years adapting Dungeon and Dragons tabletop games into video games took on the Star Wars franchise. Pulling from the roots that it created with Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, BioWare created what is arguably the best Star Wars game ever made. It introduced characters like Revan and Malak and helped launch careers of the likes of Drew Karpyshyn and Jeremy Soule. Needless to say, BioWare left its mark on the video game world and pop culture in general way back in 2003.
According to Erickson, BioWare was sold to EA during the production of SWTOR. This means that SWTOR was in creation as early as 2006 if not earlier. This falls squarely in the timeline of how long the average MMORPG takes to build: five years. However, I would guess that it was probably closer to 2005 to 2004 that the BioWare team actually started to build. According to Damion Schubert at GDC in 2012, he was the first and only person who had worked on an MMO and that the rest of the group, who had already started the game, were BioWare writers and designers. According to LinkedIn, Schubert started with BioWare in 2006.
Changing direction midstream
I think the crux of the issue for SWTOR and EA stemmed from a statement that Erickson made in his Reddit post:
“We started talking about the MMO when we were still making DAO and James’ vision was far more BioWare than MMO. Basically a huge, sprawling, ever-expanding BioWare storyline with a multiplayer marketplace, social spaces and PVP.”
You can see the struggle between these two philosophies in the first few chapters of the game and the invention of Vaiken and Carrick Stations. I remember talking to the Lead Combat Designer Georg Zoeller about certain places on Dromund Kaas and Coruscant that appeared to have many of the same things that the space stations had as far as banks, GTNs, and vendors. But because the game was not originally designed as a true MMO, these places struggled to attract players.
Just listen to Schubert’s presentation at GDC 2012. He talks in depth about the issues that he ran into while building the game around the expectation that it would be a game with a heavy story. I don’t believe that much of his advice was very sound because many existing and successful MMOs were doing the things he was telling BioWare not to do, but I don’t believe that BioWare would have even listened to that advice if there wasn’t already bad advice and direction being given to BioWare by its adoptive parent studio. In fact, given the timeline, I wouldn’t be surprised if Schubert’s hiring was a direct influence of EA over the studio.
Set up for failure
I don’t think that EA intended for SWTOR to be a failure. If you ask me, it wasn’t, but it clearly did not live up to the expectations of many fans and BioWare’s new owners. Erickson said in the Reddit post: “10 years ago the guidance we got at EA was a box game needed to sell 7 million units to be worth the effort of doing it.” There was only one MMO that had even hit that mark here in the West, and it wasn’t a Star Wars MMO. It wasn’t created when the market was already saturated with MMORPGs, and it didn’t hit seven million subscribers until two years after it launched. The expectations were impossible for SWTOR to reach.
The other expectations of EA also created an impossible-to-win situation for BioWare. They didn’t just want SWTOR to beat WoW; they wanted it to be WoW. I think Erickson said it really well in the Reddit post:
“The pressure for [SWTOR] to be the mega hit meant the finger kept being pointed at WoW. The problem of course is when you say ‘Okay, first we copy the most successful MMO of all time, THEN we…’ you’ve pretty much set yourself up for misery.”
Clearly, I appreciate the game that Erickson, Ohlen, Schubert and the others made, but it would never be a success in the eyes of its overlords. We MMO players consider games like EVE Online, Guild Wars 2, and RIFT to be successful, but according to the standard that EA had set for SWTOR, none of those games would be successful, either.
Was SWTOR a failure in your eyes? Would you have liked to see what the game could have been like without the EA influence? What do you think were the issues with BioWare’s relationship with EA? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.