When Anthem finally launches next Friday, it will mark a new foray by BioWare into the world of online games. But it won't be the first. In fact, the buildup to Anthem is in many ways reminiscent of Star Wars: The Old Republic, which set out to break World of WarCraft's deadlock over the MMORPG genre. For a variety of reasons, it was largely unsuccessful.
When it launched in 2011, The Old Republic promised a galaxy of adventure, bringing MMO standard combat and raiding with BioWare storytelling. It was successful for a few months, rising to nearly 1.7 million subscribers by March of the next year, but the subscriber numbers dropped below 1 million by June 2012 and EA made the game free-to-play.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is still alive and functioning. Game Update 5.10, entitled Jedi Under Siege, dropped in December of last year. But many will point to shift to free-to-play only months after launch as the "failure" of SWTOR. With Anthem on the horizon, it's worth looking at where The Old Republic went wrong. Perhaps BioWare can avoid this fate a second time.
Don't Try to Be Too Much Like...
The superficial scan of Anthem has some calling it a "Destiny clone", but the truth is the games don't play much like one another. One is entirely first-person, while the other is third-person: a change in perspective changes how the play interacts with the environment. Anthem focuses on vertical movement around its world, with the Javelin suits allowing players to go airborne at any moment. Anthem's shooting is actually a bit soft compared to Bungie's tight moment-to-moment combat on Destiny. They're different games focusing on the same market.
That's good, because one way Star Wars: The Old Republic failed was the myopic focus on itsreigning competitor. Comments from former The Old Republic lead designer Daniel Erickson point to a game that started out as more of an ongoing BioWare adventure, before eventually becoming World of Star Wars in the pursuit of Blizzard's megahit.
"We started talking about the MMO when we were still making [Dragon Age Origins] 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. Like Netflix or HBO we were okay that people might unsubscribe for a bit then come back as new content appeared. We have their emails, they have the game, the worst part of marketing is done. 'Hey, here's the next Mass Effect chapter, want in?' seemed like a perfectly reasonable route and we wouldn't have to start over every time," said Erickson in a Reddit thread.
"As we were sold twice (first to an investment company then to EA) the pressure for this 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."
Most people tend to follow the path of least resistance: if they're already playing a certain game, you need to work harder to move them away from it. World of Warcraft pulled players from Everquest by streamlining game systems and having visual polish. Star Wars: The Old Republic's biggest hook over World of Warcraft was the Star Wars brand, which wasn't enough to reach EA's expectations.
Anthem has to be perceived as more than "Destiny with flying". Destiny and Destiny 2 have the first-mover advantage in this space, meaning any new game has to convince players to move. The Division relies on a more grounded premise and Ubisoft's reputation for improving its games post-launch. Anthem is working against the backlash of EA's reputation for monetization, so it needs to roundly improve over Destiny 2 and The Division 2 in other respects. It can't just look good and play well; the social aspects and general combat have to be top-notch, and a BioWare story would also go a long way to differentiate Anthem from the competition.
That BioWare Spark
Publishers and developers all have a specific culture; there's a reason you're excited about one developer on a project versus another. Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic-the community surrounding Bioware expects games with great stories and interesting characters. That's the hook behind the developer as a whole, something it obviously understands, given the tagline on its official site is "Rich Stories, Unforgettable Characters, And Vast Worlds".
Anthem needs to deliver on that promise. The VIP and Public demo were light on the character and story aspects of Anthem, focused instead on giving players a taste of gameplay for the first time. The full release needs to have the story front and center.
With regards to Star Wars: The Old Republic, Ohlen regrets not delivering something more in-line with players expectations. A number of fans went into it expecting the next game in the Knights of the Old Republic series, but that's not what they got.
"With Star Wars: The Old Republic I wish that I pushed a little bit more toward making it kind of Knights of The Republic online rather than 'Star Wars World of Warcraft.' A lot of the feedback that we got when Star Wars: The Old Republic got when it came out was, 'Hey, we wanted Knights of the Old Republic Online,' something that was more similar to that than a game that was more traditional in the World of Warcraft sense. I can see where that was coming from, but I am still proud of where Star Wars: The Old Republic got to," Ohlen told Game Informer in an interview.
People are legitimately in love with the characters of Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Knights of the Old Republic. They remember their best lines, their worst mistakes, and they remember whether they loved, lived, or died. Even Destiny has characters that the community resonates with, like Cayde-6, whose death was the focus of the Forsaken expansion launch. If Anthem isn't prepared to deliver on that front, it's going to be an uphill battle.
No Endgame is the End of Your Game
Players will always consume content faster than you can produce it. The speed of that consumption varies from player to player, but the truth is no MMO can keep up. The best examples, like Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2, have instead put players on a treadmill of consistency. Those communities know that every few months there will be another patch with story content, additional quests, and raids. The former additions keep your casual and mid-level players satiated, while raids are aimed at high-level players.
Star Wars: The Old Republic launched with two Operations, that game's versions of raids intended for groups of 8 or 16 players. Another Operation wasn't added to the queue until Patch 1.2, seven months out from launch. Operations has a Story Mode, intended for all players, and Hard and Nightmare Modes for players focused on progression. Outside of Operations, endgame play was all based on gear progression: Hard Mode small-group Flashpoints and daily and weekly PVP quests in the Battle for Ilum. The problem was two-fold: it was hard to square The Old Republic's story-driven leveling with the gear-focused endgame and players simply burned through the operations quickly, even on Nightmare.
Anthem's endgame comes at level 30, adding higher difficulty modes to existing content, open-world missions called Contracts, and Strongholds. Contracts will have Legendary versions at endgame, with harder challenges and better gear. Strongholds are Anthem's raid equivalent content, with the Temple of Scar and Tyrant Mine requiring teams of players to tackle. Finally, Cataclysms are the shape storms shown in the first trailer, which actually cause physical changes to the world map.
If that seems a bit light for a hardcore player, it probably is. With today's release of the content roadmap, Anthem looks to be focused on providing consistent updates like the games I mentioned above. Act 01 of Anthem begins in March, comprised of a total of three updates with more story content, a new Stronghold, new events, and better rewards. It's a start and it could carry Bioware through the early months of Anthem's launch, when everything is still new and shiny.
The Expectations Are Too High
Prior to the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic, former EA CEO John Riccitiello said that the MMO having 500,000 subscribers would "substantially profitable, but it's not the sort of thing we would write home about." The CEO pointed to anything above one million subscribers as a "very profitable business." The instant The Old Republic dropped below one million subs, EA shifted the game to free-to-play, which felt like a huge vote of no confidence. "Substantially profitable" wasn't enough for the publisher.
Expectations provide context. What's successful for one company is abject failure for another.
"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. But that never happens and any time your business model is 'let's be the best selling game ever or we lose' well, you can imagine. Guild Wars would not be considered successful under EA's model," said Erickson in a Reddit thread.
With the release of Electronic Arts financial earnings report yesterday, we know what the publisher expects from the game in terms of sales. EA CFO Blake Jorgensen told investors that the company is projecting sales between five and six million by the end of the fiscal year, on March 31, 2019.
"The fourth quarter will be stronger than we had originally forecast, driven by higher expectations for Anthem and Command and Conquer Rivals," said Jorgensen about EA's financial forecasts.
It wasn't enough for Star Wars: The Old Republic to be successful, it had to be successful like World of Warcraft. It's not enough for Anthem to be successful, It has to be Destiny successful. That's something even Destiny 2 couldn't match, given that Activision was unhappy with its sales numbers. "Some of our other franchises like Destiny are not performing as well as we'd like," the publisher said during its quarterly financial review last year. Those expectations versus a profitable reality is probably why Bungie took Destiny 2 and left Activision earlier this year.
I think Anthem will do fine for itself, but if it doesn't, EA needs to not cut and run. Part of establishing faith in your game within the community is showing that you have faith within it as a publisher. EA unfortunately has shown players that it's willing to drop studios at the drop of a hat if they underperform. And switching The Old Republic over to free-to-paly without thinking about how the community would perceive that was a mistake. If the publisher can't commit, why should fans?
Again, this is a matter of context. Star Wars: The Old Republic is still running. It doesn't get the same high profile focus as some other games, but there's a community that's enjoying it for what it is. It's also likely profitable, given that EA hasn't shut the server down completely. Anthem has a chance to carve out a strong chunk of the audience if it can deliver on the action that players expect from modern online games and the storytelling adventure they expect from BioWare. That's the path forward for Anthem, one that goes higher than the path The Old Republic took seven years ago.