Bioware Versus Blizzard
A report popped up on Gamespy today suggesting that "Star Wars: The Old Republic" was being primed by Electronic Arts as a "WoW" killer. No one in this industry could undertake that task lightly, so EA is allegedly sinking more cash into Bioware’s new MMO than any other game in their history. They also claim they’re not forcing a release date, a move conspicuously symmetrical with Blizzard’s "you’ll get it when it’s done" attitude. This is a real play EA is making here, a legitimate attempt to assassinate a long-reigning king. They want to take "World of Warcraft" down, some might even say all the way down to Chinatown. The question is: can it be done?
Yes. It Can and Will Be Done.
They’re going to pull it off. Electronic Arts clearly isn’t intimidated by the legions of forgotten MMOs that failed to even make a dent on the reigning king, nor should they be. This is no fleeting act of fancy, this isn’t waking up one morning and saying, "Gee, I’ll bet I could make an MMO." This is a full frontal assault with every necessary tool to get the job done. This the Operation Overlord of MMOs. There are three key ingredients here that are going to spell success for Bioware and EA.
First, the will. And make no mistake, Electronic Arts has the will. Activision and EA have been like divorced parents lately, divvying up developers as if they were confused, resentful children. Activision has been more successful at this, which is surprising when you consider that Activision is literally the Devil from Hell. Meanwhile, EA has gone the high road of late, releasing a bizarre stream of quality products at competitive prices with customer-friendly policies. They’re trying new intellectual properties instead of vomiting sequels, and their DLC is generally excessively reasonable. Gamers have had to adjust to this like your eyes adjust to sunlight after living in a cave for ten years, but gradually we’re beginning to realize that the dudes who slapped a new grain filter on the same code and called it "Madden insert year here" might actually have souls. Go figure.
The point is, Activision needs a good kick in the balls. They’re over there laughing at EA with their gigantic moneymaking intellectual properties, especially ones like "Call of Duty" and "Tony Hawk" that sell on principle, no matter what the bloody game is actually like. EA has had its high moments too: "Bad Company 2" took a nice ugly chunk out of MW2′s audience because it was a better game and everyone knew it. "Dead Space" made up for "Mirror’s Edge’s" (undeserved) failure and proved that trying new ideas works. And of course, they have Bioware, a company literally incapable of not making you truckloads of money. But this is business, and there is no second place. Activision is too big and too powerful for EA to tolerate. Someone has to go down.
Second, the talent. Bioware. Moving right along…
Third, the opportunity. The truth is, even with the first two firmly in place, WoW is still a mean opponent. You don’t make laws in China about a game that’s just going to roll over for the new, hip thing. You need a way into people’s hearts, something that will make them stand up and take notice of you. Enter "Star Wars." Make no mistake, this is the only IP in existence still powerful enough to give EA the horsepower they need. Even "Star Trek" could never have really done it, although it doesn’t help that the game itself was a wash.
As a great woman once said, "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope." And he absolutely is EA’s only hope. "Star Wars" is the only brand with a level of blind obedience that exceeds "Call of Duty" or anything else Activision could throw out. Slap a light saber on the cover, and you’re Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams." Some of the absolute worst games imaginable have shifted units on this name alone, and no amount of abusing it seems capable of diminishing its awesome power. Better yet, you’ve got Bioware doing "Star Wars," which is a little like Scorsese directing De Niro: it just has to be good.
And let’s face it, WoW was produced and delivered without any involvement from Activision. They can’t take any credit for its success, they don’t understand how or why it works, so it stands to reason that they aren’t prepared for a serious contender. And make no mistake, "The Old Republic" is a serious contender, the likes of which have not been seen yet on this battlefield. No other MMO in history has ever had the might of "Star Wars" behind it, to say nothing of one of the most respected and beloved game developers in history. You cannot use what happened to "Age of Conan" to judge this, it’s a whole new animal. And Activision, smug bastards that they are, aren’t ready, I guarantee you. They’re too busy counting money and keeping everything status quo. When the numbers start to change, they’re going to panic like a school girl with her skirt on fire, probably even start shouting at Blizzard to "do something!" But there won’t be anything to do.
When you put all of these elements together, it’s obvious that some serious business is about to go down here. WoW better watch its back, there’s a new sheriff in town.
Not A Chance.
Allow me to chuckle merrily, and then snap you back to reality. "Star Wars: The Old Republic" isn’t going to touch "World of Warcraft." It’s not even a discussion. Electronic Arts can throw Solomon’s fortune at Blizzard and it isn’t going to make one lick of difference. If they wanted to take a shot at the king, they should’ve made their move before he acquired twelve million blindly loyal, chemically addicted subjects. I don’t even need three reasons to prove this point, I’ll do it in two.
First, time. And when time is your enemy, you’re already in bad shape. "World of Warcraft" has been up and running for years now, bloated with expansion packs and silly with registration fees. What do you think the players have been doing all that time? Picking daisies? Wrong. Building incredibly valuable characters which routinely sell for hundreds of real Earth dollars on eBay? Wrong again—they sell for thousands of dollars. Do you really expect a substantial number of these people to just walk away from all of that? If they pick up some new game, they start at absolute zero. The thousands of dollars and man hours they sunk into WoW will become worthless. All their hard work will be smothered into a thick, communist paste as they’re left naked and weak at the starting line with guys who are still trying to pronounce "MMORPG." Does that sound appealing to anyone?
What you have to understand is that this is not simply a game, it’s a full-on phenomenon, the likes of which no one has seen before. There is too much money riding on WoW being the unquestioned king for traditional business models to apply. And I don’t mean Blizzard’s money, I mean their customers’ money. Do you think the gold farmers in China want to hear that their entire job is now useless? Is the 12 year old in Wisconsin who stole his dad’s credit card to purchase a $1,200 Elven Mage going to just invalidate that because, "Oh cool, it’s Star Wars!" Nope. Even not counting that, people bond with established products on an emotional level, and challengers are greeted with automatic hostility. To this day, no one has ever been able to produce a "Halo killer." Is that because "Halo" is just that great? No. It’s because deep down, no one wants a "Halo killer," and they immediately disrespect and belittle anyone who tries. Human beings hate three things inherently: traitors, tattle tales, and usurpers.
Second problem: quality. Bioware is one of the greatest RPG developers in history, no one can question that. But this is not their turf. It’s not just that they don’t have experience with MMOs, they don’t have experience with gaming on the internet, period—the closest they’ve ever gotten is releasing DLC. Blizzard spent years perfecting Battle.net before they made this leap, and even they struggle to keep their servers running. How in the hell are a bunch of nerds who base all of their games on "Dungeons and Dragons" suddenly going to step up to the plate and run several million digital avatars at the same time? Does anything suggest these guys are ready for this?
On top of that, "The Old Republic" is already stretching the roots of what an MMO can reasonably do. It’s not enough for them to breach into the genre, they of course want to change it somehow. They’re hoping they can make a "KOTOR" that is playable by millions of people at a time. This kind of foolhardy move is adorable in that it proves how little Bioware understands about what they’re about to attempt. There’s a very good chance this experiment of theirs is going to lead to crippling disaster, and most fledgling MMOs never recover from that. But even if they succeed, things don’t look that much better. They will have successfully fixed what isn’t broken, fundamentally altering a genre that is working so well it outpaces Cuba’s GDP. This kind of needless tinkering is a wet behind the ears move, proof of their insecurity in new territory. You may have noticed that when Blizzard entered the race, they produced a canonical MMO in every possible sense, and look how it worked out for them. By not heeding that advice, Bioware is going to find itself trying to replace "World of Warcraft" with a product that doesn’t actually replace "World of Warcraft."
There you have it. "Star Wars" may be the only franchise that could challenge WoW, but this is not the time or the developer to cash in that check. It’s not happening.
What do you think? Is Bioware going to take Blizzard down, or is this another vain coup from a desperate opponent?