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 SWTOR 's executive producer leaves BioWare amid layoff reports
SWTOR's executive producer leaves BioWare amid layoff reports Exclusive
July 17, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

July 17, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
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    33 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



Amid reports that BioWare Austin is laying off staff today, Gamasutra can confirm that Star Wars: The Old Republic's executive producer Rich Vogel is no longer with the company.

Vogel was instrumental in the development of SWTOR, overseeing all aspects of the MMO before and after its launch in December. The online game, though, has lost around 400,000 paid subscribers in recent months, and BioWare Austin recently said it's considering free-to-play options for the title.

Reports also emerged on Tuesday morning that the Austin office is laying off workers, but it's unclear if this headcount reduction is part of the restructuring plan BioWare announced in May. Though its parent company Electronic Arts didn't specify then how many employees would be affected, the publisher said those layoffs were necessary in order for the team to maintain and grow SWTOR.

Gamasutra has reached out to Electronic Arts and BioWare Austin repeatedly regarding the layoff reports but has not heard back as of press time.

Vogel has worked in the game industry for more than 20 years, helping build landmark MMOs like Meridian 59 at 3DO, Ultima Online at Origin Systems and Electronic Arts, and Star Wars Galaxies at Sony Online Entertainment. He has spent the last seven years at BioWare Austin, most recently as vice president and executive producer.

Gamasutra understands that Vogel's departure preceded the purported layoffs affecting BioWare Austin today. The studio has not yet said who will take over Vogel's duties managing SWTOR's continued development.


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Comments


Rob Wright
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Hello, Bad. Meet Worse.

I can't really imagine how this can get any more disappointing for BioWare and EA. Obviously, with the pedigree and the Star Wars license, SWTOR wasn't going to outright bomb. But given the amount of money invested in this project, and the expectations set by both the dev/publisher and the media (not to mention the fans), and the slow decline in subscriptions and the current layoffs and free-to-play wranglings, I'm guessing this is close to the worst-case scenario for The Old Republic.

Dave Ingram
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This is unfortunate, and it's difficult to hear how badly SWTOR is doing. I've been a huge SWTOR fan from launch (I still play every day), and it boggles my mind why this awesome game is doing so poorly. The only thing I can point to is the poor server-architechture decisions that were made at launch.

SWTOR needed about 10 solid servers, but the game launched with about 40 servers, some with very nasty performance problems. Most players saw their home servers empty out quickly as players flocked en masse to a select few servers. Players who did not investigate the issue and make a server switch probably had the impression that the game was completely dead, and simply left. When you're on a populated server with good performance, this game is truly epic, and doesn't disappoint in a single way.

I think the main lesson to learn from SWTOR is to err on the side of caution when it comes to the number of servers at launch, and to never settle for laggy, glitchy servers for a AAA MMO. Adding servers is easy, but SWTOR proves that reducing the number servers to compensate for poor planning can alienate players and cripple a game.

An update for all non-SWTOR players -- Bioware has recently locked all but about 10 servers. Any new subscribers should have a completely different experience from those who subscribed between December 2011 and June 2012. So there is a ray of hope that SWTOR can redeem itself.

Alan Rimkeit
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What servers do you recommend? I play on one of the severs, forget the name, but it is pretty dead. There are some players there but not too many. I like the game but don't have any friends that play with.

Ian Uniacke
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"I think the main lesson to learn from SWTOR is to err on the side of caution when it comes to the number of servers at launch"

Like Diablo 3? ;) Kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation really.

Ed Macauley
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I think the main lesson here is actually that you can't spend $300 million on a game, even one as big as SW:TOR. By any accounts 1.3 million subs is a very successful game, it's just not $300 million worth of success.

Colin Fisher
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I think the problems with SWTOR were much more than just server problems.

Honestly, the leveling experience in TOR was one of the best. Most of the character stories were phenomenal. The writing really was excellent. Voice acting is always a plus.

The game just wasn't ready for release. No guild banks, no rewarding PvP ranking system with gear to match (The gear was lacking in strength), limited guild management tools, legacy system wasn't in release... There's a minimum feature list that modern MMO's have to meet because the consumers are so spoiled from previous un-named MMO's having been out so long and having features that everyone is used to.

For a triple A MMO, you better have a more engaging end-game with greater variety. The dungeons were a chore. Unforgiving mechanics and damage amounts combined with lasting just too long for a five player run. It was easier to grab ten players and get gear from Eternity Vault (and faster!) than running five mans and getting marginal blue gear. Going along with that, raids were under-tuned and had lackluster gear.

I'd like to add some positive to my array of negative though...
A lot of the raid boss battles were unique and engaging. The grouping for quests and storyline events was fantastic. The sense of community that a Star Wars game brings is also an asset.

However I still maintain my staunch opinion that MMO's must cater to the hardcore.
The people that are putting countless amounts of hours into a game to experience every last bit of content possible will always be searching for the next challenge. It you provide that challenge, it creates some of the greatest hype-producing MMO memories that players share with other players and people that don't even know the game. I think the experiences of the few give other more casual players something to aspire to by investing time in the game.

For example, if I keep logging on to do dungeons and get my gear to the peak of it's potential, then I can join those saught-after raids that everyone keeps raving about.

Give them a reason to keep logging on. Tune that gameplay on that fine line between frustration and boredom.

Most games now are so afraid to enter into the realm of frustration.

Rob Wright
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I agree with Colin. I played the beta, and the pre- "pre" beta, and I had the exact same thoughts. Not remotely ready for primetime. When you can't make space combat fun, well, then you know there's been some corner cutting.

And you know what? It makes total sense. Look at the list of pluses -- storyline, voice acting, writing. These are all things that BioWare absolutely EXCELS at, while the other MMO mechanics....well, not so much.

[User Banned]
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Jeff Cary
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While I agree with most of what you said Colin, I do have to disagree about catering to the hardcore base. I'd like to know the number of people who are considered hardcore compared to the people who are considered casual. Both pay their $15 a month, but if only one side--the hardcore--is satisfied what does that do for the casual. They are casual for a reason; they don't have the time to invest in the game as much as someone like yourself; they seek the same satisfaction that you seek. I just think it isn't a matter of picking one side, but trying to cater to both.

When Naxxramas open in Vanilla WoW it was intended for the most hardcore of players. Blizzard has a dedicated team spending months working on a dungeon that eventually only, if I remember correctly, 1% of their total user base--at the time--got to see. I'm sure after Activision became their parent company that they saw the amount of money and time that got put into that project and yet such a small percentage would ever see it, until WoTLK. I was part of that 1% and I remember how much time I was putting into the game; it was rather rediculous.

As someone who considers himself casual now, I will casually jump on WoW and be able to experience a raid and/or dungeon in a matter of a few hours a week. It works great for me. I have a few former guild members that spend many more hours a week in heroic 25 man guilds and they are just as satisfied as I am. Find the a happy medium and everyone is happy.

Ben Rice
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@Jeff I believe the need for said hardcore areas of the game (you mention pre-BC Naxx as an example) is the same general reason Dodge makes a Viper. It's the same reason ATI & nVidia make $1200 video cards.
Will the average person ever be able to obtain those? Of course not, but everyone NEEDs a carrot on the end of the stick.
The biggest problem I have with MMOs right now, is that I run out of stick way too easy. With a few tweaks SWTOR could have really excelled with some mechanics that keep people coming back.

Jeff Cary
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@Ben, I don't disagree with that logic at all, what I was saying is that any successful MMO that caters itself largely to the hardcore is misguided. Providing a game that appeals to hardcore and casual where they each feel they have a carrot at the end of a stick is my point.

Finding a way to cater to both sides of the MMO coin is obviously no easy task. It took Bllizzard around five years.

Andy Mussell
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I'm not sure that you need hardcore-focused content so much as you always need to provide another horizon to explore. (Granted, the difference between the two may be difficult to see daylight between.) Hardcore raids accomplish this by giving players an area that they need a (competent, presumably) group of other players to be able to see the entirety of. RIFT, for example, seems to have figured this out, pushing out content updates at an impressive rate, but from what I've heard (and a little bit seen) of SWTOR the game got very linear very fast, and once you reached the endgame on one character, there was little for anyone to do who didn't have a hardcore focus on the game's story line.

Achievements only go so far in this regard, particularly if the ultimate rewards for them are cosmetic (mounts, titles, reskinned gear, etc.). I wonder if subscription MMORPGs would do well to have a master puzzle maker or three on staff, to design a bit of difficult-to-decode content that could be integrated into the game world and doled out in parcels every month or two. Even new NPC groups appearing in unused parts of the same old places (e.g. Ogri'la in TBC-era WoW) go a long way to giving people a reason to keep their subscriptions active.

Andy Mussell
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@Jeff

I was one of those 99% of vanilla WoW players who never saw the inside of Naxx (well, not until two expansions later) but still completely enjoyed the patch that introduced it. The coincident Scourge Invasion is one of my favorite memories of that game. The feeling of taking a (very minor) part in a major event in the world made a huge impression on me, even if I never reached the instance that crowned it.

In retrospect, I wonder if the fact that Blizzard started having these events happen at times that the servers were offline, or in instances where they were repeated ad nauseum, didn't have something to do with the dissatisfaction I later felt with the game.

Paul Peak
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@Andy

That's pretty much what Funcom is trying to do with The Secret World, a wonderful game btw at least worth the free month in spite of bugs. The lack of a level cap and class structure leaves players to try and learn all the abilities available which can keep you busy after you finish an initial run through the PvE mission content. Plus they are trying to keep to a monthly content release schedule adding new missions regularly.

But yeah I came to the same conclusion that's been popping up here and there, the design goal of loading your game with as much linear/scripted content as possible hoping players don't blow through it quickly is flawed. It always fails and people get to endgame and get bored. These games really need to open the game up and give the players more agency to make their own fun. There is a reason CCP survives entirely on the profits from Eve Online and I look forward to seeing what they do with WoD.

Richard Lyle
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SWOTR dropped the ball big time on this one by releasing a WOW clone with a star wars skin, and slapping in a crappy space shooting gallery. If your going to do a star wars game, then a free-form space flight is a absolute requirement, if they had done that right out the gate the game would have been a real WOW killer.

Sad news for those laid off, hopefully they can find new jobs quickly.

JB Vorderkunz
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there is no WoW killer - that model doesn't exist anymore.

Ben Rice
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I'm curious what you think about all the Star Wars games that don't have space combat, many of which are entertaining.
I'm sorry, but Star Wars does not necessarily equal space combat, much less 'free form space combat' which is quite a specific sub-genre.

I will give it to you that they really didn't seem to try too hard with their single player rail shooter (In an MMO?... that kinda blew my mind).

Richard Lyle
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@Ben...Let me clarify, I meant space-combat combined with the first/third person role playing experience.

I was expecting something closer to Battlefront-MMO type experience and was disappointed by the space combat on rails.

Daniel L
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Unfortunately, I have to agree.

What do X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, and SW:Battlefront franchises all have in common? That's right, free space flight, like you actually fly whatever path you want!

SWTOR ruined the space experience by putting it in an awful sandbox. Point, shoot, bang.. yeah, it's like a roller coaster.. always the same path. No Multiplayer Options for space!! Really?

Also: Skills were bogus. If you didn't select BioChem, you were handicapped at lvl 50 versus players who had those magic "infinite use" health packs.

This game COULD have been Freelancer + a great shoot-em-up MMO... but, sadly, said ball was DROPPED so they could ship in time for the holidays. I signed up on the 1st day, Dec 20th, I was so excited.... Please, anyone, make a FREELANCER rip-off multiplayer game already, call it FIREFLY or something.. geesh.. there are Zero decent space flight games now, IMO.

A S
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I can't understand anyone who says SWTOR had an engaging levelling game. You fight the same encounter from 1 to 49 with an occasional boss thrown in as a gear check. In terms of mob packs there was literally zero originality at any stage - 3 normal mobs, or 2 normal mobs with a tough mob. For 50 levels!

The game was boring, levelling was boring, endgame was boring. PVP was extremely well done, but was obviously a red headed stepchild post launch.

Richard Lyle
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Agree 100%

Ben Rice
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I think you hit a bit upon what I've felt for a long time about SWTOR, and others in general. For me the absolute enemy of an MMO is being static. There are certain things that can be done to liven up the experience, throw in randomness.

Why do packs always respawn the same?
Why do companion conversations always go the same way?
Why do companions never move around on the ship?
Why did people stick with UO for so long? A *huge* part of that was due to server events run by the Seer program of volunteers. That is the opposite of a static world.

For as beautiful as areas like Coruscant look (completely my opinion of course), it pains me how absolutely, uncompromisingly static the place is. The guard NPCS are always shooting at the same static mobs -- noone ever loses HP unless a player interacts. It's almost as if the game was designed to only be played through each side once.

The goal of a successful MMO designer should be replay, replay and more replay. Make the worlds feel alive -- like I'm living as part of the machine of Star Wars society -- and I will never want to leave it.

Rodolfo Camarena
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It's funny to see questions like the ones Ben Rice, asked. Why? Because those were the same questions we asked during development from many us when we worked on the title. I always made a deal about the respawning of items, but you know how that goes.

Anyway, the thing with SWTOR is that it needs more content and interactivity. I can go on and on about this game, but we can all agree it could have done better in certain areas. Hell, that's pretty much every game. WoW didn't jump to 11 millions subs overnight.

I expect for the subs to get there after the next patch/content push/expansion.

It was unfortunate to hear about the layoffs today, too. I had a friend who I had worked with there text me letting me know he had applied to where I'm currently working because he got laid off. It sucks, but I wish the latest batch of laid off BioWare - Austin employees the best.

Settoken Tres
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There's a load of MMOs out there so if you're not bringing something really new & original what can you expect ? Hardcore MMO fans won't quit their favorite game for your game and potential new players won't get hooked into such a life suckin genre without good reasons. Star Wars is not enough.

Swtor has been launched at the same time as some highly anticipated games : Battlefield 3, MW3 and Skyrim. The timing was pretty bad. There's not an infinite amount of hype to share.

Also another mistake... counting too much on Bioware's reputation for anything else than rock solid SOLO storylines.

When I first saw the trailers I started to get excited. Then I saw the funky graphics in-game. Then I saw the website. Then I bought Skyrim.

After the release I've not heard much about it. I've heard about Skyrim, MW3, Battlefield3 and Skyrim again.

So Lucasart seriously lacks common sense imo. They keep ignoring what players really want : Battlefront 3 / Kotor 3 / Jedi Academy 2. Is it that hard to understand ? They would make money with those. Just my 2 cents

James English
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I am a casual player these days, and have been for a number of years. I just don't have the time to invest in games that I used to. I played in a couple of weekend betas for SWTOR before launch, and played on a friend's account a few times after that.

The biggest problem with SWTOR is that it's a Star Wars product. People's expectations, tastes, and interest grew from the movies, books, comics, and other expanded universe products. Unlike other games where the setting, story, etc. can be adjusted to fit the technical design of the product, just about all the players came into it wanting something that would tie into their emotional investment in the Star Wars universe.

The game attracted a lot of people who had never played MMOs before, but had been waiting for years for SWTOR to launch. Unfortunately, Bioware didn't do a lot to help those folks via the Help screens and such. A lot of people went into the game with the desire to play a specific type of character, of a specific race. Unfortunately, Bioware severely limited the choice of playable species. The ability to customize the look and feel of the characters was limited, as well, and there weren't a whole lot of professions available. As a consequence, Joe Blow couldn't play the Wookie arms dealer wearing purple robes he had always dreamed about.

The game is very heavy on quests and pre-determined plot lines, which was disappointing to those who wanted more sandbox options. Space combat was a joke, though it was obvious that a lot of people really wanted some effort put into it. Overall, as someone else pointed out, the game is just too much like WoW with a "Star Wars skin," at least to the casual player.

In my case, I just found the whole thing to be boring. I'm having more fun with TSW right now, because I enjoy the atmosphere and am still trying to get my head around the odd skills system. Ultimately, though, I'm losing interest in MMOs in general. Endless quests, forced endgames, grinding, etc. become too repetitious. I'm still waiting for someone to come up with something different.

[User Banned]
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mikko tahtinen
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Its ann about responsivness in the game - the game it self is good, but is has some serious underlying problems. I have no clue wheather it is the game engine or just lack of understanding game mechanics. By lack of game mechanics i mean "inventing wheel" again without checking responsiveness and other gameplay elements before implementing them:
Example on youtube which demonstrates the issue in SWTOR - if you dont know what im talking about please play the game and play other MMOs that, one of worlds most popular MMO.
link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj6LD6H0ys8&feature=related

and you can seach for more issues on youtube. something like "responsivness SWTOR vs wow" or similar
.

mikko tahtinen
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also checkout:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=33rZGc3EpZM

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Richard Lyle
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Just to add, frame-rate was terrible with shadows turned on.

I can play all other games (Skyrim, MW3, etc) with full shadows turned on with no problem, but not SWTOR. They really did a poor job implementing their shadow maps.

Richard Aronson
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1.3 million subscribers times $200/year subscription fees (approximately: that's 12 months times $16.33 a month, and I know there are lots of different pricing structures) is $260M/year, so a $300M development budget is not too much (and yes, I know that there are large IP licensing fees associated with SW than with EverX or WoW). It is up to the game to deliver a compelling enough experience to retain enough subscribers. That said, there's no justification for server issues on that project. In a worst case, you offer a very senior guy at one of the successful companies twice the salary, overpay him forever, and never have a server problem bad enough to cost you users. The game industry repeatedly shows too much "we must do it ourselves" attitude about basic risk management issues, and then fails. "We must do it ourselves" is completely appropriate on the creative side, but not on the infrastructure side.

Ivan Pozo-illas
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Hi There,

I wonder if the latest batch of employees leaving Bioware were loyal to Rich Vogel. So when Mr. Vogel departed those loyal to him left with him via an internal dispute. Perhaps the direction of how SWTOR was heading if not how EA corporate culture was infringing the magic of Bioware itself.

Speculation of course on my part.


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