Is Bioware the next Blizzard?

A few weeks ago, Bioware and Lucasart “revealed” to the world their next big project: a Star Wars based MMO called Star Wars – The Old Republic. Or SWTOR, for short (good luck on pronouncing that one).

Many companies have claimed to be building Wow killers in the past four years. And most have failed, some miserably. Even if some of them seem to remain healthy, I never thought any of them would actually succeed in rivaling Warcraft. And here is the reason why : they came from companies that made MMOs.
People get into patterns, accept rules and thought processes. The problems that plagued MMOs before Wow came along were numerous: tedious gameplay, penalty for failure, limited solo experience, and of course lack of polish. All these have been well documented and mostly adressed in the games that came out after Wow did. But that’s not enough to change the way people actually do things. You can’t tack a solution  on an already plagued process. To really make something new, you have to start with a blank slate, and none of these company could really do that, no matter how much they claimed they would. They came with their own experience, which was ultimately detrimental to the product. Sure; there were a few good ideas along the way, and some great ones even. But none of them really broke away from the “MMO model” they had inherited.

Wow is not an MMO first. It is, first and foremost, a fun video game. Blizzard thinks in terms of games. This one just happens to be an MMO. Companies like Tubine or Mythic think in terms of MMO, because that’s what they know.

Back to SWTOR and Bioware.

Some people might think of Star Wars and MMO and immediately go to Star Wars Galaxies, which was a incredible failure by Sony Online Entertainment. You might think I’m being harsh, but making an MMO in the Star Wars Universe that wouldn’t be incredibly successful was an almost impossible task. It was so deliciously geeky that the only thing more difficult to not make a resounding success out of was a Lord of the Rings MMO.
And Star Wars Galaxies was not a success. It didn’t breach the MMO ghetto when it so clearly should have. Because it was more of an MMO than it was a video game. But that doesn’t mean anything for SWTOR. Quite the contrary: the Star Wars loving crowds are still very much untapped, and the huge potential for success is still there.

Some people might think that Bioware is a small company that didn’t do much, and that they are no match for Blizzard. Again, they couldn’t be more wrong. Bioware has a lot of experience. Not making MMOs, but making highly praised niche video games. Note that the “not making MMOs” part is a good thing, as I said earlier. Where others would approach a new MMO with “traditional” vision and try to slap “modern lessons” on the formula, Bioware has the potential to start with a new vision altogether. And they know how to do that. I’m not going to list all the games they did here; suffice it to say that the Knights of the Old Republic series is widely regarded as the best Star Wars games ever. It was a vast and complex single player RPG, with storyline at its core. And they are being smart about this. Blizzard is a gameplay focused company, Bioware is an storyline focused company. I won’t get into the details of how they are doing it; you can go to their website to learn more. But while I’m sure they will do everything we expect from an MMO (good gameplay included), they will still focus on what they know and expend in that area, which is a great thing.

Finaly, some people might think that SWTOR is going to be “just another wannabe”. I see things differently: to me, Bioware isn’t all that different from what Blizzard was a few years ago. A second tier developer, with strong core values, devoted fanbase and highly praised catalog. I wouldn’t say something as silly as “Wow killer” here (especially since SWTOR won’t be out for a few years). But I have been following the industry pretty closely for the past few years, and I have never said this about any other company or MMO project before:

I see the potential for multi-million subscriber base here. Wow-like numbers, for the first time.

I’m not one of those people who clamors that greatness is coming every time something shinier comes along. I never believed AOC or WAR or LOTRO would rival Wow, because I knew the shortcomings of their developpers. But Bioware is different, and SWTOR might very well rival Wow… I’ll definitely keep my eye on them. And so should you.

PS: I know that some silly free to play MMOs have millions of players, I know that SWG is still going and has a player base, and I know that Blizzard had had major successes before Wow. But that doesn’t change the argument I’m making or what I’m saying. And if you think it does, I say you’re being argumentative on principle. So there.
November 27th, 2008