Star Wars: The Old Republic got off to a hot start when it launched, quickly gaining a million subscribers, hitting a peak of 1.7 million players but then more recently seeing a drop off to 1.3 million subscribers. It's clear that the BioWare MMO is facing increasing pressure from other MMOs and free-to-play online games, but EA is prepared to do anything to ensure that gamers enjoy being in a galaxy far, far away for a long, long time. EA labels boss Frank Gibeau recently discussed the strategy around Star Wars with GamesIndustry International.
"We're really proud of Star Wars. We're really excited about the launch. We've had tremendously positive feedback from our fans and our subscribers. You're right, it is a complex and difficult market out there on the PC because of the availability of free-to-play products like our own, like World of Tanks, League of Legends... WoW is a free download that you pay a subscription to after a period of time. We're cognizant - we see that," Gibeau told us.
Gibeau stressed that EA will continue to evaluate the business around Star Wars and implement changes as needed, so free-to-play isn't out of the question at all (indeed, BioWare recently said as much too).
"The advent of free-to-play is certainly a change in the dynamic of the PC market... when you have an IP as broad as Star Wars, we're definitely going to look at opportunities to grow that business"
"We're going to be in the business from a long term standpoint so absolutely we're going to embrace free access, free trial, ultimately some day we can move in and embrace that model. It's all a matter of timing and thinking things through. We have a great business right now and we're not looking to make any abrupt changes. We made some good announcements in terms of giving you the first few levels free, because our telemetry told us that if we can get you to around level 8 or 9, you stick with us for the long term. So really the strategy right now is about opening up the funnel at the top so we can acquire more customers who are interested in Star Wars who perhaps aren't ready to pay the full price," Gibeau continued.
"[We want to give them] an opportunity to try and it and say, 'You know, I really do like this. I'm going to make that commitment.' MMOs, obviously, are a big commitment of time and money and so giving people an opportunity to access it for free, try it, we found in our telemetry and our experiments is a really good strategy and a good tactic. We're going to do that. We also announced a... mass amount of content thats coming for the service, so we're going to be in the Star Wars business for ten years, who knows? We're still publishing Ultima Online for seventeen years. So we're definitely going to be in the Star Wars business for a long time and if the business changes in accordance with how the market is reacting, then that's just good process for us since we're trying to create the best possible service for our gamers."
We asked Gibeau if he's absolutely confident that a decade from now EA would still have people playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. He answered, "I am, actually. We're still playing Dark Age of Camelot, we're still playing Warhammer, we're still playing Ultima Online, we're still playing Runescape, we're still playing Lineage. What's beautiful about an MMO is that when you get to a certain scale it stays with the program for a long time."
Part of lasting a decade or more will obviously involve being flexible with business models. "The advent of free-to-play is certainly a change in the dynamic of the PC market. I don't think subscriptions ever go away, but when you have an IP as broad as Star Wars, we're definitely going to look at opportunities to grow that business and look at different ways of bringing customers in and serving them," Gibeau said.