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Analyst: Wary EA Investors 'Betting Against'  SWTOR
Analyst: Wary EA Investors 'Betting Against' SWTOR
January 24, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

January 24, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

A hit MMO can be an excellent thing for a game publisher's investors -- depending on the business model, it can offer a certain degree of predictable revenue. For example, there's a certain degree to which World of Warcraft subscription revenues are a sure thing each quarter for Activision Blizzard.

With the Star Wars brand and BioWare at the helm of Star Wars: The Old Republic, it looks possible to make a case that Electronic Arts has a very good shot -- it seems safe, at least, for the publisher's investors to feel optimistic if not confident in the game's potential.

But EA's investors may not be ready to trust so easily, says Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey. There are other factors surrounding EA at the moment that may weigh on their confidence, and the shares by extension -- people are waiting for more clarity on the Playfish portfolio and on the outcome of the Activision lawsuit, for example.

Mainly, though, Hickey says EA's investors know how difficult the MMO space is, and what an enormous risk it is to launch a title of SWTOR's scale -- and that in fact they may feel pessimistic.

"We believe many investors are betting against SWTOR achieving market success, provided the company's (Warhammer Online from Mythic) and industry's track record at releasing successful new MMOs," suggests Hickey.

EA's last big MMORPG effort, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, became something of a cautionary tale in setting high expectations for a major MMO launch. Much was made of the title's potential to reinvent player combat and social dynamics in an online world, and the outspoken enthusiasm of Mythic co-founder Mark Jacobs played a role in the broad view that WAR represented EA's ambitious bid to challenge WoW.

But the title's launch was anticlimactic; despite drawing an impressive 500,000 subscribers in its first week, that number saw a rapid drop-off soon after, and a wave of server consolidations followed, giving the game's humble performance quite a visible profile.

Very recently, Realtime Worlds' All Points Bulletin gave game industry-watchers a new reminder of the devastating impact unsuccessful MMO launches can have on a company's operations, as the major studio closed, upending Scotland's game industry.

Other factors Hickey notices that might keep EA's shares a bit weighted include "a suspected subscription pricing model versus a market that is quickly transitioning to free to play, generally modest previews of the game and elevated development expense and suspected aggressive royalty to LucasArts."

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Nicholas Lovell
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If I were an investor, I would pretty well always bet against an MMO being successful. Statistically, I would win in the long run.

A lot of gamers forgets that investors aim to balance risk against rewards. As your article points out, MMO's are historically, demonstrably, extremely risky.

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

Alan Rimkeit
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This is a pre-ordered must buy for me and I am not the only one. If this is the goods(and it looks like it IS), then this is the MMO I have been waiting for. I am betting against the nay-sayers. Star Wars and Lucas are GOLD ever single time. Screw the MMO curse. Star Wars is winner-winner chicken dinner! :D

Nicholas Lovell
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You are not the only one, but they are rumoured to have sunk $100 million into this in development costs. Triple that (over time) for marketing, manufacturing and distribution, and they need quite a lot of you to be successful.

I'm not saying it can't happen (I really hope it is successful). I am just saying that I think investors who are sceptical are taking a rational financial decision.

Alan Rimkeit
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Sure the investors are being rational. But Star Wars fans are irrationally devoted. That irrational devotion will translate into metric tons of raw cash for Bioware and EA. Star Wars can never lose.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Famous last words. I have an issue of PC Gamer magazine at home with a preview of Star War Galaxies. There's a big quote saying "This is a game that cannot fail".

Well, guess what.

Alan Rimkeit
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Star War Galaxies did very well until Sony hacked to death. Bioware won't make the same mistake.

Travis Ross
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Yes. We all remember that Star Wars Galaxies was a huge success in the MMO market. I like Nicholas hope it is successful, but I remain very skeptical until I see it happen.

Alan Rimkeit
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Blame that on Sony not the Star Wars name. That was a huge case of mismanagement. I really do not see Bioware and EA making the same mistakes.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I do not blame it on the Star Wars name. It just proves that the Star Wars IP alone is not sufficient to ensure a game's success. And history also shows that EA, indeed any publisher is very capable of huge mismanagement, especially when it comes to online.

Good luck and best success to my friends working at Bioware.

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Gamasutra and IGN confirmed a while back that this is EA's most expensive game to date (100,000,000 sounds right).

Still think it's going to do well.

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The MMO Markert is risky... just ask Square Enix. There is apparently rule sets that most MMO gamers have come to expect (perhaps do to the successes of WoW) that MMO have become niche to. It would seem that failure to properly administer these rules leads to an upset community and an abandoned game.

Even with the Star Wars name that Bioware has become very successful at using, it could be a problem if players expect something and then don't get what they expect.

Alan Rimkeit
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Well, they are giving every player a ship from the get go. Intergalactic space travel seems a great start. That and the fact that one does have to "earn" being a Jedi or Sith. Add on top of that being a virtual Han Solo or Boba Fett and I see cash money.

Andre Gagne
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If we're going to turn this into a a discussion of MMOs rather than investing strategies then so be it.

Here's my 2 cents:

WoW, with it's near 5.5 years of development and content addition has probably spoiled the market for new games. I feel gamers have come to expect that level of polish and content with every new game; likewise some investors still except every MMO to have at least 1 million subscribers or be considered an absolute failure.

I think it is prudent to say though that MMOs that do not have a holistic view of the mechanics (Warhammer didn't have a player economy for example) are going to fail though. I honestly don't know if Bioware and EA are building an MMO or an elaborately multiplayer RPG though.

Who knows? Perhaps, in the end, the best MMO Bioware will have ever created is NeverWinter Nights?

Justin Kwok
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While I agree that the MMO space is difficult to succeed in, I think that these investors have their heads up their asses. In the same way that they thought they should invest in MMOs and that they can't lose, they're missing what right in front of their faces... namely WoW.

WoW destroyed all other MMO challengers while investors compared their potential earnings with WoW. What they don't see is the waning of the popularity of WoW. Although Cataclysm has done incredibly well, it's becoming pretty obvious that the MMO market needs to be injected with something else and soon.

And to be completely frank, Warhammer and Conan are just not the franchises that have the wide appeal that WoW has... however, Star Wars does... and it's coming at exactly the right time. The Old Republic is going to do amazingly. Since the investors aren't sure yet. I'm going to bet that the stock is undervalued.

Cate Ericsson
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WoW has the broad appeal... now. But Warcraft wasn't exactly a massive franchise outside of RTS players in 2004.

That said, SWTOR has great potential to succeed, but it's all a crapshoot, strong IP or not.

Justin Kwok
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I agree... but I basically mean that the over the top blood and gore of Conan and the sort of obscure gritty/realistic fantasy setting of Warhammer do not have as broad appeal as the cartoony fantasy setting of WoW.

You cannot underestimate the genius of Blizzard's use of stylized cartoony graphics.

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I'm going to be smiling while I play with the millions that will be getting this game.

Matt Cratty
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Free to play can save a struggling MMO like DDO, or enhance revenue from a moderately successful one like LOTRO. Its not a model for a megahit or any game aspiring to be a megahit. If you are designing a free to play game, you're either making another boring social game or you're convinced that its going to be tough to get people to play your game for money out of the box.

If you're planning a niche game, it can be perfect or at least useful and that's my hope is that we'll get back to games that are interesting instead of safe bets.

The problem is that whenever you have someone running the show with an accounting background, they see "wow, FTP increased a struggling MMO's numbers by hundreds of percentage points!" And they immediately fall into line with the other cattle and assume that that's always best for any online game.

Also, when the store options start to drive design, that's not such a good thing anymore. If you play DDO, you know what I mean. This is a slippery slope.

As far as SWTOR is concerned, they have gushed and gushed about the story, which leads me to believe this will be kotor and mass effect in space. As I find both of those to be very poor excuses for games (but wonderful stories), I'll probably wait for detailed reviews before trying it out.

Cody Kostiuk
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"As far as SWTOR is concerned, they have gushed and gushed about the story, which leads me to believe this will be kotor and mass effect in space."

That was my biggest complaint about KotOR and Mass Effect; they just weren't in space enough for my taste. ;-)

Steve Peterson
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How can a Star Wars title fail? Hmm, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 provide some insight, as does Star Wars Galaxies. (OK, the movies made money, but I don't think they expanded Star Wars fandom, rather the opposite.) The rumor mill has not been kind so far, but can see it going either way when it launches. I think the rash assumptions would be it's a surefire hit or a guaranteed failure. So much depends on the implementation, and how they tweak it in the grace period they'll have between introduction and the point at which it either flies or crashes and burns (a matter of months, perhaps).

It will be fascinating to watch the story unfold.

Justin Kwok
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"I don't think they expanded Star Wars fandom, rather the opposite"

I'll have to disagree with you here. Anyone who like Star Wars before the prequels still likes Star Wars now (they just choose to disregard those movies) but anyone (especially the younger generation) who thought that the original trilogy were "old and boring" were given something else to pull them in.

I personally don't like the prequels but a LOT of kids that I know do.

Nick Green
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The combat videos have all looked amazing.

The only real criticism I've seen so far is that it lacks polish - and this is coming from previewers playing the unfinished product.

Mark Venturelli
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All I've heard about this game is how it is a single player RPG in MMO form.

Which frankly is kind of ridiculous.

Alan Rimkeit
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Why? The idea of playing KOTOR with other people seems to me to be a wonderful idea.

Mark Venturelli
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Why not a multiplayer KOTOR?

The MMO thing seems thrown in. MMOs should be about PEOPLE, not thousands of NPCs, dialogue lines and AI companions.

warren blyth
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Is there a place that definitively explains your criticism/argument?

I'd like to better understand this idea that wanting a single player RPG experience from an MMO is ridiculous. (seriously).

* I tried galaxies for a few months, but didn't get into it.

Couldn't find times to meet up with friends. strangers just transferred coordinates of where to find things, so there was no exploring with them. Friends ultimately just gave me items and told me they were the best, so there was no learning. Strangers walked around spamming their chat windows with strange slang about items they wanted, or repeatedly offering a specific service, so there was no immersion.

* I was just reading something similar to your comment over at Giant Bomb. In a forum, someone noted that "you can play DC Universe Online solo if you want, to reach the level cap." The idea of doing this, plus the ability to learn a little more about DC Universe details I don't already know, has suddenly gotten me very interested in the game.

Someone came into that forum thread and pointed out this was a ridiculous thing to say about any MMO. That people play MMOs basically to chat with strangers, not to enjoy the combat or the story or the quality of cut scene animations/writing. This baffles me.

* I think of myself as a huge L4D addict. I LOVE the idea of collaborating with strangers to survive a level. I just enjoy observing how other human animals choose to tackle the experience. I assume it's similar to the enjoyment some people get out of playing paintball. it's a fast paced strategy thing, with some amount of human chit chat.

But I also dig that it's a brief disposable experience.

I totally fear the idea of giving up all my weeknights to try and maintain a relationship with a gang of MMO strangers. I fear the idea of doing repetitive tasks I don't actually enjoy. And I find the idea clicking a simple button repeatedly, to kill a creature, to be ridiculous.

And I fear the idea of spending any money on a "game" which requires hundreds of hours to fully justify purchase.

For a long time I've dismissed MMOs as something that must appeal to a certain slice of humanity. Those who also play farmville. who just want to burn up their time.

* So, I'm clearly excited about SWTOR for the wrong reasons. ? Because I DIG the idea of playing solo. Because I want to play each character class through separately, to see how their storylines play out.

I hope a couple close friends might join me to see how that tweaks things. I hope the combat actually allows for some strategy/complexity, each and every time. I have very little interest in sharing the world with a wide variety of strangers, who'll probably ruin it. But I don't mind dipping into that from time to time, just to see if anyone's being cool/funny.

... and i'm writing too much. just that kind of day.

Again, not meant as an attack or anything. I'd just like figure this out.

Abel Bascunana Pons
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Good point Warren. Each MMO should take into account solo players. At the same time, each MMO should usher solo players to multiplayer, at least from time to time (dungeons, raids, pvp, trade, etc).

About the way you use the word "strangers", i think there's a moment when many of those strangers you encounter and talk regularly to are not strangers anymore. That's what makes a great deal of players recurrently come back to play MMOs they quit playing some time ago: not only the gear frenzy but the human factor (i'm not saying anything new).

Andre Gagne
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The solo players will usually quit once they've burned through the single player content (it's called churn).

People playing in groups are repeat customers (social forces keeping them in).

You don't get 12 million active players by solo content alone...

Phil Ledru
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Warren, I think you're definitely onto something here. I come from a perspective quite different from yours here, since I am a solo but also an MMO player, but contrary to your assumption, I do not enjoy Farmville(s) and the likes. I'd like to throw in some ideas, while responding to your takes on gaming.

*About SWG, "I feel ya". What you're describing is the typical too-geeky-and-even-more-obscure environment one finds himself literally lost in while entering a MMOG's virtual world. The learning curve is steep (EVE might be the very paramount of that trend, I doubt we'll ever go beyond that level of complexity for a game). It's imho the #1 problem MMOs have in reaching a global audience. More on that below.

* This baffles me too. Now, I wonder: since high quality story-driven games are indeed quite successful (so many triple-A titles tend to prove that on a regular basis ever since games became capable of telling a story), are we observing different breeds of gamers? Are some "story-driven" (guys like you) while some others are socially-driven or, to a safer degree, interaction-driven? Are some others action-oriented? I very much believe so. I mean, some people enjoy their free time in a movie theater/watching TV, others prefer pubs. Most will actually balance many types of activities, assessing each with different sets of values and priorities.

The main problem is that since MMO are so expensive to create, a studio has to make choices within budget, and more story (actually more of anything) means less polishing on other things, which can become a problem if you don't make sure you reach "thresholds" in key-areas: playability, fun, accessibility, to name some. That's often the primary con against fancy cinematics in MMO for they're just too expensive (at the same time people complain that there's not enough content in MMO, or that it is too shallow, which highlights how delicate, not to say, tricky the whole balance is).

Many people also state that WoW somehow piped the dices on top of that. The market is rigged for MMO developers because of a social phenomenon that's impossible to fight fairly (that is, in sole terms of game quality and marketing intelligence). Quite frankly I agree, seeing how people receive new titles ever since 2005. WoW is an icon of the pop culture and the next greatest game can't change that, ironically it can not even learn so much from it (everyone wants to be the King but few end up being just famous and most are nobodies). Other MMO can only deal with WoW, and that should remain true for some years to come.

* In your MMO experience (what you describe of it), also in L4D, and in what you can observe of Farmville, I believe that, perhaps, you don't see the whole picture, to put it bluntly. The one thing that defines MMO gaming and that feels quite absent in your experience is "continuity". Time. Casuals and hardcores alike experience one thing: playing some time each week, pretty much every week, with the same people or so, over he course of months or even years. That spells team, club, association, social activities. Hence relationships.

What happens when you play an MMO is not a "disposable experience" on a social, personal level: since most MMO require you to team up more than regularly with others, people tend to cluster into guilds or clans. Those bonds often stay within the internet, but may spread to other games and activities. "Online friends" is quite an accurate description of that relationship--and no it doesn't have anything to do with Facebook's devious take on the philosophical value of frienship, I'm talking about the real, inevitable bond existing between two people that spend between 20 and 200 hours together each month. You do that with people at your local sports club, at work, when hanging out: that's the perfect opposite of "strangers" in your life. And that is what I enjoy in MMO gaming: I play with people I 'know' on a regular basis.

You say that you "find the idea clicking a simple button repeatedly, to kill a creature, to be ridiculous." That, I assume, is intended at MMORPG, since this is what we do in FPS and many arcade games. And indeed, it feels pretty dumb to spam a key. That's where I go back to your first point: in the end, are MMORPG too complex or too dumbed-down? : ) I believe they are both, and not in the right way: could it be that they over-compensate in their systems for their lack of immediate interest (from key spamming to mob farming passing by quest grinding)? That would be selling a theoretical framework, a mental representation of an actual experience, a great GM book... but the RPG's somehow boring to play. Most AAA-MMORPG do feel a lot like that to me since the market expanded to a mainstream audience.

* Someone mentionned that good MMORPG do take the holistic approach (global player economy and so on), and it's true. But that's also why systems get pretty complex, that's where the math will ultimately factor in so that the game becomes too complex for some players. And you get replies like "this is the best item for you, period." From someone who might not even know either.

Players do face that kind of theoretical adversity by teaming up, sharing knowledge and putting their efforts in synergy. Hence guilds exist. Collective effort: that's the answer to complexity. If there's no complexity, no "obscure" things, no secrets to know, if the MMO is too blunt, too shallow, then there's no need for all the cooperation. No social activities come into play. People tend to dismiss those games as not being "real" MMOs. They're often dead empty shells.

On the other end of the spectrum, the success of some games like WoW (or to a lesser degree a few dozen titles on the market), is that they managed to integrate into that holistic setting a solid individual experience (enjoyable, reliable, and most importantly within the player's grasp). You may be constantly sucked into a high (sometimes overwhelming) degree of complexity and human interaction, but nevertheless your personal experience has to be fun *most of the time*. This makes me believe that however complex and/or "huge" a game might be, if it's as fun to play as Mario or CoD, then it is viable. I think we too often judge games on the paper, mentally, and not for what they are, like sports, and cards: activities that we enjoy doing pretty much regardless of the result (the opposite of a chore). It has to do with muscles and emotions, too. Just look at the raging battle for human interfaces these days on consoles. Achievers and competitive profiles will factor in a good deal of their result in their final appreciation of anything, but should they not like the activity in the first place, they wouldn't be there to compete and desire a victory: the game would not matter if were no fun.

All of this makes me bet on TOR's success, not for its blueprints or even the name, but because Bioware games are most often "fun" to play and feature state-of-the art polishing, just like Blizzard. Just what a good game needs in my opinion, MMO or not. Well especially MMO these days.

Again, no offense intended, just thinking out loud.

Christophe Maire
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Even if SWTOR is hugelly succesful, it still won't be as big as WOW. Concerns over subscription model are valid. Is there an audience out there not paying for WOW that would pay for SWTOR? Who's ready to pay for 2? How big is a gamer's wallet? Let not mention how much time left he has?

I think the free to play model would have bring to EA many casual gamers, challenge being to convert into sales. Because WOW players won't quit for SWTOR.

But here are my 2 cents to beat WOW - A mix of MMO and Online casual game =

2D play in Facebook for strategy/management part

3D play in MMO

Buck Hammerstein
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i heard some reports from insiders working on this project that too much focus was put on the hundreds of voiceover samples and not as much time into the play mechanics making battles somewhat repetitive. these insider reports have been spreading around recently and may be what many investors are basing their pessimistic analysis on.

Star Trek Online was plagued by a unfriendly paying structure and wasn't the success most thought it was going to be. tough to crack into this genre with people so dedicated to WoW.

Jack Young
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I see all of your comments are not anything new to the discussion. Can SWTOR be the WOW killer? Factor in its plus and minus' and yes it could do it. Will it? Only as the "king dies."

KOTOR was/is a fine game in its own right. Was it worthy of a MMORPG outing to dominate the market? Was Warcraft? Is SWTOR a product to represent its principal product? Was WOW? It starts to become interesting when you ask these questions without fandom clouding your judgment.

I have played SWG for all of its 7 years. I know the game pretty well and much of its history. I have even talked to developers and producers for it. Little will be said from them about the project after thier desperate grab to hang-on to subscriptions. What is clear, to me, is WOW launched a year after SWG. Subs plummeted so a drastic decision was made to change the game to appeal to the then identified broader casual demographic. This was based on market projections and comparisons on what WOW took in. Both SOE and Lucas Arts approved to do it didn't matter as the base product was broken, incomplete and buggy even in its so fine(for those "Rose Colored Glasses" wearers) Pre-CU and Pre-NGE state. The weak state the game was in coupled with lack of leadership (Raph Koster was on the outs with the project) allowed for the strong loss of subs in the back-wake of the monster that was WOW at that time.

The sad thing about SWG, today, is its a much fuller, bug free and working game than its ever been. Its one of the last of its generation of MMORPG's, yet its so different from the theme park rides of today. If a vet loads in, who originally quit, and finds the marks of the NGE present...they rediscover thier hate for it and cancel. The thing about that is its so much beyond that game that was changed on that day. It works now after 7 years of gutting and re-writing code. Was changing the Skill System the right thing to do? No. Was adding game features that are simular to most end games of today good? Sure. At some point one has to out-weigh the other. If its such a great game then why didn't SOE release a new Expansion since the NGE? As I have read, when Lucas Arts renewed thier contract with SOE they restricted any Expansion development. You see, Lucas Arts is responcible, on principle, to market, promote and distribute thier games. Cutting that expence allows for other product to be marketed and produced such as Force Unleashed and SWTOR. SOE just developes SWG based on thier now much more limited license.

So, who is in charge of Star Wars products? Who approves development and content of products? Who gets the lion's share of the profit?

Is SOE without fault? Thier practices with the development and upkeep of thier games in light of their customer base is a resounding, No. They can and should do better. Was the NGE all them? No, Lucas Arts was thier "hand-in-hand." Can Lucas Arts make a mistake with the Star Wars brand? Yes, if you put a Star Wars sticker on a jug of sour milk, the sticker will become a collectors item but the milk is still sour.

SWTOR, I hope will be a big game and take over as a new MMO standard. However, having experinaced a World Simulator has spoiled me to the more common "on rails" themepark games of today. I fully understand that I don't fit the demographic that these gaming companies are trying to capture. I seek challenge and discovery even if its takes months. I like my endevors interrelated to other players involvment in an online game. Thats dependent on others in short. I want to live in that universe and impact its state in some way. I like having other things to do other than combat. SWTOR will provide some of this but not all. The one big mark against it is its setting. The common person hears "Star Wars" and thinks about the films and TV series. This game is not set during those times and thats much more significate then "gamers" give credit. We here know what KOTOR is, but the masses don't care. With that, EA should be worried if thier game will fly. BTW, most of the $100+million budget is understood to be voice talent expense. Its an unprecidented endvor to completely voice this game. They will get this story "Told".

Matt Ekins
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Alan Rimkeit
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Right. And how else would ANY company/corporation be able to actually afford to run the necessary systems needed to make a MMO happen without the revenues collected by subscriptions from the customers? Please do explain this one to me because really I would love to hear it.

Charles Forbin
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This is why I kept telling my friends not to worry about Elder Scrolls V being an MMO. One even wagered me $40 which he happily paid up when Skyrim was announced and its nature became clear. :-) Bethesda may have MMO aspirations, but I just couldn't see them risking the main franchise on it.

SWTOR has my interest piqued as maybe the first MMO that I try (Does Second Life count? No? OK), but I *hope* KOTOR isn't the base model. It probably isn't, but I'm one of the odd ducks who didn't really care for KOTOR. I've loved everything Bioware has done after that, though.

Alan Rimkeit
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Uh, when was Elder Scrolls V announced to be a MMO? How would they do a PS3, 360, AND a PC version of it if it was? O.o Unless you are saying it is NOT going to be one and I am just not clearly understanding.....

heath willmann
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I think that EA already knows the risks involved in an MMO launch, they have several different online games besides mythics warhammer. tiger woods online need for speed world just to name a few. They know that the industry needs to head into the online market place. every console game is looked down on now if it doesnt include some sort of multiplayer option in the near future its going to be the same way with online.

Its the people who look at wow and its supposed succcess that think any game that does not have the same success is a failure. There are several mmos that are not blizzard mmos out that are making a profit.

APB is a cautionary tale of how not to run your bussiness, not why not to make an mmo.while it was not "live" long was bought up in under a week after closing its servers.

As fas as analysts go i give them about as much credibility as witch doctors, an educated guess is still just a guess.

Brian Bartram
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As a former BWA employee who worked on SW:TOR, I'm going to say their biggest challenging is going to be retaining high level players and generating new content. I prophesize an explosive launch, with a strong first 6 months, but the following year will be the real indicator of long-term viability.