GDC 2013: Star Wars The Old Republic’s difficult launch, and its free to play switch

Bioware’s James Ohlen delivered a humble talk about the rise, fall and rise again of Star Wars: The Old Republic today at GDC 2013, looking back at the struggles it faced during its first year as a free-to-play game.

Prior to launch, Ohlen admitted, Star Wars had problems. Competitors who were established and technologically ahead, a licensed engine that was unproven in MMOs, and a 300 man team. The latter was three times the usual size of a Bioware team, and faced unusual problems over ownership, efficiency and even technology – no engine has been built to handle that many people working on it.
The HeroEngine in particular had extra problems; it wasn’t designed to allow branching, so the team went months without a new build. In fact, even as late as a year before release, the game couldn’t handle more than ten people in a zone.

All the basic elements of an MMO were a struggle. Building the auction house took four months and the best programmers in the company; the basic features of chat, guilds, PvP and others were still being developed throughout 2011 and took time away from innovation – meaning the team reserved their efforts for the story. This too caused problems, with the branching paths raising development costs even further, much more than the seemingly-expensive voice recording.

At launch the team were happy with most things – it was aware that there wasn’t enough end game content, that critical social features were missing and that the public testing capability was limited. In December 2011, the game went live to become the fastest selling MMO in history, with 1.5 million sales and a stable launch.

The problems started in January 2012. First, players were going through content faster than expected; content that was meant to last four months, what Bioware estimated to be 160 hours of content, actually only lasted a month. By the end of the first month, a third of Old Republic players – half a million – had finished the game and had just one operation to do, with no group finder to do it. Worse, the first update released PvP but included a critical bug.

Soon the opinion leading fans started churning out, creating a cascade effect. Subscriber numbers slowly stopped rising and started to fall. Some concerns were addressed by the ‘Jesus patch’ in April, but not the emptying servers or missing group finder. By May they were down to 1.3 million subs and layoffs started. In the June the Seeds of Change patch finally introduced the group finder and emptied low-population servers – but subs kept dropping. And to top it all the Bioware founders, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, retired.

In November 2012 the game went free to play. “Free to play was our chance to turn the service around,” said Ohlen. They had to increase the frequency of updates and make sure the service was better for new and returning players. The revamped subscriptions inside a free to play model, with the addition of the real-money Cartel Market, was funding this change.

It worked. Between November and December subscriber numbers started rising again. Player concurrency got so high that login queues remerged. Most importantly, the new Cartel Packs worked. These are random items players can buy, without any restrictions on them reselling the contents. Exploiting the love of gambling, players can spend real money chasing rare items here, which didn’t bind to characters. “If you spend hundreds of dollars on packs, looking for an item, you don’t feel totally cheated as you can sell it on,” said Ohlen. After these the custom outfits are the second biggest seller.

Today SWTOR is the second biggest subscription MMOG in western world. They’ve had two million new accounts since they went free to play and have thousands of new players every day. The Cartel Market is one of the biggest microtransaction systems that EA has, producing significant revenues. The end game is more robust and the team is smaller and more agile.

Ohlen also revealed a few plans for the next few years, including several expansions, starting with the forthcoming Rise of the Hutt Cartel. “We’ll be doing innovative things that you haven’t seen in MMORPGs, things focused on the Star Wars License.” And Bioware’s MMO studio is now at the core of EA’s other forthcoming MMOs.

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