Star Wars: The Old Republic Interview

GamesIndustry is offering a Star Wars: The Old Republic-focused interview with BioWare's James Ohlen, who discusses his previous experiences at the company, the chances of a free-to-play switch for the title, what he has learned on storytelling in MMOs and more.

Here's an excerpt on the number of subscriptions:
Q: I wanted to talk user numbers. Your last reported figure was 1.3 million, which was down from a peak of 1.7 million. That's hugely respectable, and the second best performing subs-based MMO around, but there's a huge gulf between you and WoW, and Rift is apparently hot on your heels with 1 million users. What are you plans to rectify that?

James Ohlen: We don't really compare ourselves to either Rift or WoW, we have our own goals, so we're not really looking at other games' subscriber numbers. It's also hard to tell what the subscribers really are, right? WoW has the benefit of all their China numbers where they can hide the true North American and European numbers and Rift announced a billion years ago, so no-one really knows what either of those are.

We're part of EA, a public company, so we're announcing absolute numbers. Which kind of sucks in some ways, but there you are! [laughs] We know that at the end of the day we ave to have a hugely compelling social experience. We have a multi-stage strategy for getting more players together and making socialisation easier - the first stage of that was player transfers. We've had a ton of players moving from a server where they felt they weren't having so much fun because of population numbers, to higher pop servers. We have the group finder which came out this week, which lets players find friends really easily, in as little as a minute, whereas before it could take up to an hour.

Then we have programmers working on technology for our servers which will allow us to put a lot of players together.

Q: The Megaserver tech?

James Ohlen: Yes - you know about that? We're doing all of these things. If players feel you have a living breathing world then they're going to stick around. That's not all they're going to stick around for, you have to provide high value content, obviously we have a full team working on that. We also have the updates we announced at E3 and we have more plans for this year and next year, lots of new content.

Q: So is retention of existing players, improving their experience, more important for you than attracting new players at the moment?

James Ohlen: There are always three things you're trying to do in an MMO. Firstly you're trying to retain your players. That's the most important thing. You don't want to lose the players that you already have, you spent a lot of energy gathering those players. Then you want to re-acquire players. All MMOs, and Warcraft is a good example, will go through cycles where players will drift off and then there'll be an expansion pack and they'll all come back.

You need a way of recapturing those players who've tried out your game, liked it and want to come back. The good thing is that our exit surveys show that players leave SwtoR with a good taste in their mouths. They usually say things like they don't have the time, or want to spend the money right now - it's not 'your game sucks, screw you', so that's good!

Thirdly you're trying to acquire new players. With the Star Wars Franchise it behooves us to get more Star Wars fans who might not be players to try the game, but we don't want to do anything to the game that might change the experience for our hardcore fans - they're our most important.

If you piss those guys off, you kill your game.