BioWare's massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, had a rough launch year because the studio underestimated how much content the game would need and how resource-intensive it would be, according to senior creative director James Ohlen.
Ohlen gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference this week titled "Designing a live MMORPG: The First Year of Star Wars: The Old Republic" where he outlined the growth and bumpy road of BioWare's first MMORPG. He said the studio experienced challenges both before and after the game's launch, and these challenges contributed to a rocky 2012 for the studio.
Ohlen said prior to launch, the team at BioWare faced challenges like entering a crowded field (MMOs) without an existing MMO engine. Where competitors had had years to build, test and iterate their game engines, BioWare had to ramp its studio up to having more than 300 employees to create an unproven engine.
"Some of the risks we had identified going into launch were worse than we'd thought."
The sudden growth in the team also "incurred communication, ownership, technology and efficiency issues." Ohlen said the team would go months between playable builds, the game engine wasn't designed natively to allow branching, and basic features like chat, basic guilds and basic PvP were still being developed in 2011. "Features were difficult to build into the game," he said. "We had to build 180 hours of content while simultaneously adding features — it was like changing out the engine of an airplane in the middle of a flight."
When the game launched in December 2011, it became the fastest-selling MMO in history, shipping 1.5 million copies in its first month. But by January 2012, more problems emerged.
"Some of the risks we had identified going into launch were worse than we'd thought," Ohlen said. "The data we were getting through in-game metrics and exit surveys was telling us that people were going through the content much faster than we were expecting."
Ohlen said the BioWare team had expected players to take three to four months to go through the 180 hours of content they'd created. The metrics they were getting informed them the average player was going through the game at 40 hours a week, with some players spending 80-120 hours in the game in a week. Fans were starting to "churn up" the content, the team was unprepared for the rate at which people were playing, and by May 2012, the game fell to 1.3 million subscribers and the studio had to layoff staff to accommodate the downward trend of subscribers.
According to Ohlen, morale at the studio hit a low point in July of 2012. The game's subscriber count continued to fall, while members of the gaming community predicted the imminent launch of Mists of "[kicking] us in the crotch." The Old Republic needed a change, and that change came in the form of a free-to-play business model. Ohlen said The Old Republic was not built to be free-to-play, so the development team had to find a way to integrate the model without compromising the core game. The team also couldn't completely abandon the subscription model because subscribers accounted for a significant portion of the game's revenue each month.
"The game's subscriber count continued to fall, while members of the gaming community predicted the imminent launch of Mists of '[kicking] us in the crotch.'"
As a solution, they introduced Cartel Packs — packages of goods that can be purchased from the Cartel Market using in-game coins. Subscribers would receive monthly allowances of coins, which could be used to purchase Cartel Packs, while non-subscribers could play for free and use real-world money to purchase in-game coins.
Ohlen said since the free-to-play launch, subscriptions having been steadily climbing, and more than two million accounts have been created since last November. In addition, the game remains the second biggest western MMORPG.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is free-to-play now.