It's pretty easy to find out if an MMO developer is lying about whether or not the launch of their MMO went smoothly or horribly. Just check the game's online forums, or play the game yourself, and you'll know the truth soon enough.
At GDC last week, Gamasutra spoke with Dallas Dickinson, production director at Star Wars: The Old Republic developer BioWare Austin. Now that the game is about two and a half months in, he's been able to reflect a bit on the late December launch of the massive undertaking.
"The launch went really, really well. I think sort of surprisingly smoothly," he said, with hint of real actual surprise. But it's true: the biggest MMO to launch in years might not be perfect, but it went off with no major hitches.
"A smooth launch was one of our goals," he added. "We had seen massively multiplayer game launches in the past, and historically, it never goes well. Historically, even the best ones out there had a really rough first one or two months."
Dickinson said having limited early access helped control growth, allowing BioWare to stay on top of demand. "That really was all about making sure we could get population spread appropriately, and not have that huge rush on day one that could bring our login servers down," he said. "There are so many steps in the chain where you can't test for that scale. In fact you can't even build to that scale, because the one-day launch event is going to be way, way bigger than even your day 10."
But launch is arguably the easiest part. Electronic Arts and BioWare have been releasing impressive subscription numbers for SWTOR. The first post-launch ballyhoo revolved around the 1 million player milestone just three days after launch. Then at the beginning of February, EA said the game had 1.7 million subscribers -- very good (and very important) numbers for a new subscription-based MMO these days.
The real challenge for MMOs like SWTOR is player retention. Sometimes players will drop an MMO after the free pack-in month is up, or quit after the second month. If a launch went poorly, impressive initial subscription numbers can spiral downward, quickly. It happens all the time.
Dickinson couldn't reveal specific numbers himself, as EA is a publicly-traded company, but when asked about player retention for SWTOR, he hinted that there could be something worthy of announcement soon. "[Retention] has been very good. The game is retaining really well," he said. "We're still in a place where we're growing, which is awesome."
Retention relies on meeting player expectations in terms of quality and volume of content. Right now, BioWare Austin is keeping up with the content burn rate -- Dickinson said the studio is actually a little bit ahead of the pace that players are finishing content. Currently, the studio is readying for the release of the massive 1.2 update.
Providing constant updates and content is what keeps the developers at BioWare Austin busy these days. And along with updates and patches come issues, for any MMO developer.
"We are not perfect in our patches," admitted Dickinson. "We've had a couple patches where we announce 'We've fixed all these bugs!' ... But then we introduce one bug, and that's the one that's brutal, it's right in your face, and the players go up in a storm, then the press picks it up and says 'Oh god, it's broken!'"
"But that's one bug, and here's all the stuff that we did fix. So we're trying to get better about [patching], so when we release something, it's as thoroughly tested as the original game was at launch."
Dickinson said the studio is taking concrete steps towards improving its process. "One thing is that our public test server has been under-utilized thus far. We're pushing pretty hard to the community to say, 'When the 1.2 patch comes up for public test, we really want you to come over. We want a lot of people to jump on there. We have a lot of QA, but we can't simulate the load or the gameplay of players on every single system. It also lets players give us feedback [on balance]."
SWTOR is a rare breed of MMO today that exists not on the free-to-play model, but on subscriptions. Asked if the subscription model will be viable only for high-end, high-budget MMOs going forward, Dickinson replied, "It probably is. There is room and there always will be room for the ultra-premium service that merits a subscription, but in order to play at that level -- we are an expensive game -- we have to invest a lot."