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How can EA save Star Wars: The Old Republic after losing 400,000 players in two months?

Electronic Arts is in a state of flux. The company that Markus “Notch” Persson, creator of Minecraft, called a “bunch of cynical bastards” that are “methodically destroying” video games is trying to find its place in a medium that is changing. EA is turning further away from massive productions that cost upward of $200 million to produce and on to smaller titles in the mobile and social spaces.

What EA game cost $200 million to produce? Star Wars: The Old Republic. The MMO took six years to develop, with a staff of 800 people working on four continents to see the game to completion. Was it worth the gamble? Back in February, 1.7 million players were exploring the galaxy together. These were active subscribers too, the players EA is banking on for revenue each month. That population is in steep decline though. EA announced during its fiscal year earnings report on Monday that Star Wars’ membership has fallen to 1.3 million.

By Electronic Arts’ estimation, that’s more than double the number of subscribers it needs to make The Old Republic profitable. The publisher claimed just after the game’s release in December that it needed to retain 500,000 subscribers to make Star Wars: The Old Republic profitable. EA has already lost 400,000 subscribers over the course of just two months though. Right now, profitability on the game means staunching the flow of blood.

When Star Wars: The Old Republic went into development, the business and art of MMOs was very different. World of Warcraft was still just ramping up in 2006, making Blizzard the face of online gaming success (not to mention an attractive acquisition target for Activision, who merged with Blizzard a year later.) There was no question of how to retain players willing to spend $15 per month to play the game, because there was no alternative at that point. Few online RPGs were free to play, and those that were partially free, like Sony Online Entertainment’s ailing Everquest II, were only open out of desperation.

World of Warcraft didn’t even hit its subscriber peak until December 2010, but in the nearly eighteen months since, its population has been slowly shrinking. Star Wars: The Old Republic released in an environment where, even if its Bioware-crafted narrative ambitions were new amongst MMOs, it looked like WoW, played like WoW, and more significantly, cost what WoW did back in 2006.

EA knows the writing is on the wall. If its game is going to survive beyond 2012, it needs to fundamentally change its business model. It needs to also accept the fact that The Old Republic will never, under any circumstances, reach the over 12 million subscribers Warcraft did at its height. The company has learned how to adapt though. Rest assured that Star Wars: The Old Republic will be a different game by 2013.