Hyperspace Beacon: Why SWTOR failed EA

    
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Some have called Star Wars: The Old Republic a failure. And if former Lead Designer Daniel Erickson is correct, then EA is one of those groups who believe that SWTOR failed. Erickson said in a recent Reddit post that EA wanted to defeat World of Warcraft at its own game: “The game didn’t do as well as EA hoped because they wanted to unseat the king (WoW) with the same product instead of leaning into what BioWare was great at.”

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.

Every other week, Larry Everett jumps into his T-16 back home, rides through the hypergates of BioWare‘s Star Wars: The Old Republic, and posts his adventures in the Hyperspace Beacon. Drop him a holocom on Twitter @Shaddoe or send him a transmission at larry@massivelyop.com. Now strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
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Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

All they had to do was build a sandbox world, and overlay their storylines into it. Result? People could play the great Bioware style stories and, when they were done, or if they wanted a break from them, there’d be an interesting world to essentially “live” in. Win-win. Don’t know why this concept eluded them. It’s so freaking obvious. And, for the record, there was a group of us preaching this on the SWTOR forum (and the Bioware forum before that!), so this POV isn’t with rose coloured glasses at all!

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Ken from Chicago

Basically the 1990s model of video game:

Play the single-player game and when you finish, then play multiplayer and/or mods.

Except with an mmo, the “mods” are the various patches and expansions added to the game.

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Kevin McCaughey

It was a failure because of their engine choice, which totally limited what they could do. Hero Engine has a LOT to answer for. I wish it had never seen the light of day.

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Afro Thunder

To be fair, I just want to point out that what happened with Hero Engine was the BW/EA bought a “Beta” version and then proceeded to modify it until the Hero Engine folks couldn’t even work with it anymore – This is when they cut ties because they could not offer support for the modded version.

I’m not defending HE, just making sure the facts are out there. I have no opinion of HE, but I will say that BW/EA own what happened with it, not HE.

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Michael18

Very convenient for the Bioware devs to put all blame on EA. But I don’t buy it.

The people who created UO, EQ, AC were experienced MUD players and/or designers (for the most part). So when developing those early MMOs, they just did what they had learned and what they do best.

The devs at Blizzard were experienced in taking a genre, carefully analyzing it through and through and adapting it to mass market appeal. So when developing WoW, they just did what they do best.

The devs at Bioware, however, were brilliant creators of single player RPGs. So when developing SWTOR they were pretty much clueless.

And now they say, if only we could’ve followed through with our grand idea of “a huge, sprawling, ever-expanding BioWare storyline”. But they were not even able to continue their 8 class stories after launch, because the story-telling design they came up with was completely unsustainable. I don’t have much love for EA, but I don’t think SWTOR’s failure was EA’s fault alone.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

The devs at Bioware, however, were brilliant creators of single player RPGs. So when developing SWTOR they were pretty much clueless.

Bioware had some really good story writers and quest designers. Their code however was horrific. NWN’s netcode had so much “piston slap” in it that I’m shocked! shocked! I say that Ilum fell flat on its face.

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Castagere Shaikura

The best thing about swtor has always been the class stories and zone stories. Both meant for single player. Its the only reason to play the game now. And that stuff is F2P. Bioware has always been good at this. Its the only reason why the game is on my PC. The other stuff is just garbage to me.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Bioware should have stuck with single player RPG’s. MMO’s require a much higher level of programming sophistication and discipline than they were capable of. That said, the choice of their Old Republic era was brilliant since it allowed both Sith and Jedi to exist in large numbers.

Deep stories and MMO’s don’t mix very well particularly when the character is cast as the Chosen One. While I tend to thumb my nose at the oft abused “MMO studios can’t keep up with players’ appetite for content” I do believe that to be true for story content.

I firmly believe that with a more technically competent studio and thinner story content but with significantly more repeatable group instances (battlegrounds, flashpoints, and raids) it would have been a much more successful game. Judging by your comments you would have hated it but the folks specifically looking for a Star Wars MMO would have loved it.

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Rolan Storm

I wonder how long it will take for belief to transform into action? It is known fact how EA approach their failed enterprises. I do not see gloom and doom people constantly predict for the game (in general chat on Darth Maglus too), but neither game is significant success.

We might get slapped with maintenance mode this year, although they promised some significant update. Well, I think that’ll be quite significant.

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Tizmah

Lmao, so what kind of expectation to they have for Anthem?

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Shawn Hargrave

Ea is what caused tors downfall. No one wants to play a crappy watered down version of wow with lightsabers. Had they made swg2 swgs open worlds and space with tors leveling system that would have been the wow destroyer. Tors engine was god aweful as well they could have had awesome open world pvp if the engine could have handled it. I remember in swg having large scale pvp there was lag here and there but ilum on tor was a slideshow. Overall there obsession with imatating wow didnt work to well smh

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Solaris

I was in very Early testing for SWTOR. One weekday a bunch of us were invited to a discussion group in San Francisco where we were asked questions about what we thought of the game design. We told them the exact same thing. That we didn’t want another WoW and that we felt the game needed some retooling in many areas. I remember having a very heated discussion with the suit that was leading the discussion for EA. At this point in development, they did not want to hear any real criticism. I noticed a very different tone in the Testing forums with the devs after that meeting.

I wish Bioware had gotten their way. I still bought the game and loved much of the content. But I can only think what might have been had EA let Bioware make more of the decisions.

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camelotcrusade

I don’t think a game being a mess means it’s automatically a failure. If you ask me, SWTOR is a mess, but it also captured minds, money and blabber of countless players, and its standing among the big leagues of MMOs was a thing that happened. Also, the longer an MMO lasts (see also: TV show), the more the proclamations of failure and death pile up. It’s not that hard to a pick point in its timeline when its success, failure, rise or fall was or is occurring. Anyway I just don’t think that’s a question or topic you can explore effectively without setting parameters. That said I’m reading all the comments with interest. :p

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NeoWolf

I would agree with the statement that a game being a mess doesn’t necessarily mean it is an automatic failure. But I think you sort of have to temper the statement with “as long as they at least show SOME signs of trying to fix it”…. needless to say people are still waiting :)

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MrNastyButler

I’ve never liked BW’s writing for Star Wars games. Didn’t like KOTOR or it’s squeal, yes I know it was not a BW game, and SWTOR was just not really fun from a story side. I played for a long time, but that was cause of the roleplaying community, not the game.

Never played Galaxies so I can’t comment on how the two stack up in terms of RP communities.

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J

SWTOR was a fun single player MMO and I got more replay value out of the PVP than most people. The thing is, I probably would have dropped it a lot sooner if not for the Star Wars skin that it wears. The endgame lacks depth. The engine is horrible and still broken, which lead to it never having large scale or meaningful world pvp. The space game was and still is a laughable afterthought and it has no real features that support sandbox play, rp or the community.

Honestly. Galaxies blows it away on nearly every front and that was another hugely broken game. The fact that Galaxies had to die, for this game to become a thing drives me batty to this day. I would MUCH rather still have Galaxies around.

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DargorV .

Blabla can’t get over galaxies blablabla

How original..

rafterman74
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rafterman74

They’re right, though. I’ve had my share of fun with ToR, but it’s a far worse MMO than SWG and inferior as an RPG compared to KotoR.

It’s a half-assed blend of both, and if it weren’t for the license most people wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

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Vicarious Fan

wow kind of suprisied people still think SWG ended because of this. No SOE still had the right to run SW MMO s when this launched they ended it because the player base was non existent and it wasn’t worth the cost of running it.

SOE even said they wanted to do their own IPs instead.