What really happened?
According to unofficial estimates from MMOData.net, SWTOR has already started it's decline in subscription.
For those of us who had been with SWTOR since beta, launch and to the recent patch 1.2, swtor may be one of the most disappointing game with the greatest potential yet failed to deliver due to a series of short sighted decisions made by the team. The following are what I believed to be some of the key areas that were overlooked during the beta and launch crazed by the dev.
During the beta, we can see that BioWare had gone into great length in developing a very user friendly Q&A session after the player completed a task. Questions such as what the player think of a particular quest storyline, the pve difficulties, pvp balance, and the fun factors etc. This system allow the dev to collect valuable opinions from the testers and modify the design accurately to the target audiences taste.
However, the way SWTOR break down it's beta test into beta week limited the effectiveness of the system. As the majority of the beta testers can not realistically reach level limit (lvl 50) within a week, the data collected from high level beta testers during these time are only from the very few (if at all) hardcore population.
After playing a few different classes on both the republic side and the imperial side, it is quite obvious that the PVE chapter 1 of the game is very well defined in terms of gameplay and story, characters development, but after chapter 1 everything kinda go downward. Because the testers can only play the game for 7 days, the lack of content in game and "end game contents" were barely tested at all. Unfortunately, end game contents are one of the most important factor for a player to determine in continue to subscribe or not.
Another interesting note is that most people signed up for SWTOR beta are fans of the Star Wars universe and/or gamers from SWG. At this point the casual players voice were not heard by the dev, yet they become one of the main population base once the game launched. Expectation misalignment is inevitable.
The marketing team was determine to get as much a bang from the hype as possible, and they were successful. The result was long waiting time in queue to get inside a server, and similar to all subscription based mmo game, the player is reminded again that they spend money in waiting to play a game instead of playing the game. The stability of the servers were also in a questionable state at this point and players experienced CTD and have to wait to play the game again from the re-queue. It took the the dev about two weeks fixing this issue, relatively efficient in mmo standard. Unfortunately, those that rage-quitted already are highly unlikely to return, and no doubt share their experiences with other potential customers SWTOR may have. Aside from this set back, the overall launch was a successful one in my opinion.
However, the decision to add new servers at this early stage of the launch to be part of the solution of the queue may become a huge problem down the road, as we will see next.
Growth, Economy and Contents
The population continues to grow as marketing efforts continue, bringing in customers with high expectation to a game lacking content. About a few weeks after launch, the server queue has improved a lot and the servers are one of the most stable I have seen in mmo early launch. The contents and storyline were superb for the majority of the players at this point (from my observation, majority of the players are around lvl 20 to 30). Flashpoints are relatively easy to complete a PUG, population was healthy, and the game looks very promising. Players are bringing in friends and everything looks great.
As players finished chapter one of the game, the storyline and game content seems to be a lot less refined and polished, playing the game has become almost another experience altogether, this may be the result of the one week beta testing period where few players can finish the complete storyline in time. The few players who hit level cap will soon found out that they can't play the end game ops unless they have better gears, which are obtainable by repeatedly doing daily pve quests. These quests are easy to do but not very interesting, yet the players are forced to do so as there's no other options to obtain the gears since craftible items and world drops are rare and of lower quality than the reward from these daily quests. Personally I found these dailies extremely boring to do as most are 'fedex' collect X/X and kill X/X type of quests.
On the PVP side, players can participate in warzone or world pvp and earn in valor ranks and commendations to acquire 3 tiers of pvp gears once they hit level 50: Centurion, Champion and Battlemaster. There are also pvp daily quests for the pvpers. Overall not a bad system in my opinion if not only a bit too repetitive to my taste. Dedicated casual pvp players can grind their way to battlemaster in roughly 3 weeks.
The crafting skill or "crew skills" as they are called in swtor are brilliant in that they do not require the player's immediate attention to farm materials. However, the daily rewards from the pve quests pretty much out-value all craftable items in the game at this time, making players who invested their time and game credits into the crew skill system a complete waste as there are no demand for them once a character reached level 50. The only items that are worth crafting (Which are still not as good as daily pve quests reward) requires materials from ops, where players without a dedicated guild will find it extremely hard to obtain from PUG ops group. A disappointment for craft skills oriented players.
Flight missions are cool for the first few times, but gets very repetitive later as the higher level flight missions were simiply a recycle of the early ones with enemies hp and shield adjusted.
So, in short, there's not much a level 50 players can do in swtor at this stage. He can do pve daily quests, pvp daily quests, flight missions, ops and hard mode on flashpoints. All these are either too repetitive for many players or just plain boring to do. It is fair to say that SWTOR are missing end game contents at this point.
SWTOR use a ticket system for the players to submit bugs and other issues. To make the game more immersive, the game will have a 'customer representative droid' to answer your tickets. In this system, a player can submit a ticket and then wait for a response, usually in a day or two, and they can see the ticket status if it is 'open' or 'closed'. Most of the time they will give you a copy and paste answer/solution that you already know or can easily search via the internet and then the ticket will be closed, without giving you a chance to explain to the CSR 'droid' that his information were not useful at all.
Furthermore, closing a ticket without giving the player a chance to respond give the perception of disrespecting the customer. And really, a 'droid' to address problems of what a paying customer may have may not be the best way to tell the customer that they really matter. Yes, it does add immersion to the game, but that's kind of a moot point when a customer is having technical difficulties.
In the end, it's the perception that counts, and the way swtor send a droid to handle whatever technical difficulties (that are usually not the customer's fault) pretty much tell the customer that he is not important at all. By simply changing the CSR droid into say...Galactic Superme Chancellor John Doe, and adding a state to a ticket to 'on going' may give the customer the perception of being important.
There was a time my character was stucked under a bridge with my emergency republic fleet pass on cooldown (18 hours) and was told to do a /stuck command (which doesn't work in this situation) or use the fleet as an answer. You can probably guess what I think about their customer services when they closed by ticket with that answer while I wait on the 18 hours cooldown)
1.2 Patch was designed to add content into the game and slow the subscription drop and hope to get old players who already left to come back into the game. The new patch give players access to the legacy system where each character contribute to a 'legacy level' and unlock new power to all characters. It also promised a ranked warzone match for the pvp players and new gears for both pvp and pve players. A few promotions are also associated with patch 1.2:
1. Any players with lvl 50 character or legacy level 6 players will receive 30 days of play time for free.
2. Former players can come back and play the game from april 13 to 20 free of charges.
3. All active subscribers will receive a free pet
4. Former players subscribe again on or before april 22 can also receive the free pet
For a game launched for less than 4 months, these promotions seems a bit desperate imho. From my observation, the server I play in (Space Slug) was not too populated on the fleet during most time including weekend prior 1.2 patch, and seems a bit more populated over the last few days of 1.2 patch release. Talking to a few other players and seems that many will still leave the game as the contents added are either too little too late or in case for the pvp players, outright breaking the game.
Legacy System in patch 1.2
While the legacy system encourage players to play all the classes on both side of the game to unlock new abilities, the fact is that leveling up a character going through the same side quests with the same storyline (except the main story) from level 1 to 50 is not entirely enjoyable for many players.
It is a very nice system design for an mmo, however the other contents are not ready for this. For exmample, if the side quests storyline shows significant differences between different classes and their choices, the replayability of the game will increase tremendously. Unfortunately, the legacy system alone probably cannot work wonder on its own and give enough incentive for the casual players to finish all classes. The core of the problem still exist, there are still not enough end game content in swtor.
On a side note, I am still waiting for a way to change my legacy name from a typo, the fact that there was no 'confirmation box' for an important 'last name of all your characters in server' really surprised me. I guess I should just be happy that I didn't use 'nametest' as my legacy name.
PVP changes in patch 1.2
Patch 1.2 was promised ranked warzones, where players can participate and play against players of similiar skill levels. It was pulled off when the patch was launch. But that's not the worst of it, what most pvp players are disappointed in right now is the gears change and the pvp commendation formula changes.
Prior patch 1.2, players are rewarded for the their time invested in a warzone match no matter if they win or loss, with winning side and the skillful players who earned more medals in a match earning more commendations while the losing side still earn valor and commendations. In the new 1.2 patch warzones, players will be given a reward based on the entire team performances. A player must have at least 3 medals to be rewarded in a match, on top of that, the team as a whole must perform relatively good to have its players to actually receive any reward.
For example, if a player performed extremely well, received 9 medals and tried very hard in a losing game where the team as a whole perform badly, that player still does not receive much or any commendations at all. This design discourage players to try in a losing game and suggest good pvp players to leave a match as soon as things start to look bad to avoid in waste of time. The result is that the losing side will almost always lose in the end and less 'good game' or 'tide turning' games observed as players stop trying.
Another change in pvp is in the gears. Centurions and Champion gears are removed from the game, and the valor ranking requirement of Battlemaster gears are lifted. In addition, a 'blue' quality Recruit gears are added to the game and available to all lvl 50 players regardless of valor rank for a small amount of credits (20K credits per piece, hardly any money for a level 50) and is about the same level of the champion gears prior patch 1.2.
Players who worked so hard in getting the gears to only see that everyone can easily obtain better gears will feel that their time invested, wasted. All in a few months. This is especially true for the core pvp players who worked for their battlemaster gears for so long, only to see the new players with low valor rank to get the whole battlemaster set in a day or two. The fact that BioWare remove the ranked warzone match has taken out their only advantages that they had hoped, when the ranked warzone match finally comes out, every pvper will have the complete set.
Another change with patch 1.2 in pvp is the addition of a new teir 4 'war hero' set. According to many core players, the design of these gears were anything but Star Wars on which I agreed. The Sith Inquisitor pvp gear reminds me of someone having a really bad hair day, for example.
Subscription after patch 1.2?
With the 1.2 promotions (free 30 days), the active subscription number will probably sustain or grow for a short period of time for the investors to see some great numbers, which is probably what patch 1.2 is really about. From a design point of view, most of the things in patch 1.2 cannot reverse the decline in subscription as the content added into the game are too little too late in my opinion.
In fact, the pvp changes actually piss off the few core pvp players while successfully drawing some pve oriented players into pvp for a short period of time. Many of the core pvp players felt betrayed by this patch and rage quited. To give you an image of what it is like in swtor now, at the time of this blog post, it is 11 A.M on a weekend, and there's only 29 people on the fleet as I type this.
The 1.2 patch will actually hasten the decline in subscription (to be observable after the free 30 days promotion) as it trigger more negative emotions from the active subscrbers (especially for the pvp players). In the end, when designing system in a mmo or operating mmo, we should remember that players adapt. Once a system or the game world economy has been established by the community, you should NEVER make any major changes to it no matter how reasonable your reason is.
So what if you got it wrong the first time? Reality is that all players adapted in their own pace, provided the system don't change. And once they adapted to the system, they will have emotional attachment to whatever effort they spent in adapting to your original design. so unless you can dish out a patch in a very timely fashion before any adaptation take place, (which almost never the case in an mmo) making changes to existing flawed system will always make things worse by triggering a negative emotional response from the customers. Based on the above observations, I think it is safe to predict that the subscription will drop tremendously after 2 months of patch 1.2.