September 22, 2023

Critic’s Notebook: Star Wars: The Old Republic vs. World of Warcraft Online

Over the last decade no video game has engaged a broader global community than World of Warcraft. The first online game to enjoy planetwide popularity, World of Warcraft had more than 12 million paid subscribers last fall. Yet it has lost around two million players over the past year, and now the original evil empire is at the door.

On Tuesday, Electronic Arts will release Star Wars: The Old Republic, a sprawling multiplayer online adventure that is the first legitimate competition that World of Warcraft has faced for the hearts, minds, hours and dollars of millions of players. “Star Wars” games have been around for decades, but the Old Republic provides the most extensive opportunity to become your own Jedi warrior, Sith assassin, snarky smuggler or powerful sage.

A lot of attention has been paid this holiday season to the competition between the year’s two big combat games: Battlefield 3, also from Electronic Arts, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 from Activision Blizzard, which also produces World of Warcraft. The attention is warranted because top shooter games are largely played on living-room consoles and sell millions of copies in just a few weeks.

But an online downloadable computer game like World of Warcraft or the Old Republic entices players to commit their time and emotion to a virtual character over years and generally to pay around $15 a month for the privilege. Most important, these persistent games populated by thousands of simultaneous players — they are called massively multiplayer online games — generate real-life relationships and communities.

And so over the next few years the competition between World of Warcraft and the Old Republic may have much more far-reaching consequences, both for players and the companies behind them, than any shooter showdown.

In the last couple of months I have spent at least 125 hours in beta tests for the Old Republic and have played another 30 hours or so since last week, when the retail servers opened to people who ordered the game months ago. You don’t play a game that much (or at least I don’t) unless you’re enjoying yourself. I’m in a guild of cool people, and my Sith sorcerer is uncovering more mysteries of the dark side every day.

I’ve also returned to World of Warcraft, the siren of my youth (or at least five years ago), which I hadn’t played seriously since early 2007. I was inspired to jump back in after visiting the BlizzCon convention in October. I have been playing World of Warcraft 20 to 30 hours a week since then, have reconnected with online buddies and have had a great time.

Having steeped myself in both games recently, I can say that any notion that the Old Republic will be a WOW killer is absurd. World of Warcraft boasts a variety, breadth and level of handcrafted content that no other game is close to matching. That said, the Old Republic is by far the best, most exciting online game since the original World of Warcraft. It should be a Star Wars fan’s dream and deserves to attract in excess of two million paying players in the three languages — English, French and German — available at release.

Blizzard Entertainment, which makes World of Warcraft, and BioWare, the Electronic Arts division that makes the Old Republic, enjoy deep respect and adoration among millions of players. Blizzard was a pioneer of Internet gaming; its central franchises (Diablo, Warcraft and StarCraft) are built around the online experience of playing in a community.

BioWare, by contrast, has been known for single-player entertainment. In its greatest efforts, like Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic (an earlier “Star Wars” title), Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, the focus outside combat is on storytelling and characterization. BioWare, along with Rockstar (makers of Grand Theft Auto), has been a leader in driving extensive, believable voice acting into games.

The Old Republic moves beyond World of Warcraft by including full voice-over for every computer-controlled character. Almost none of the characters in Warcraft speak; instead you read the text of what they are “saying.” The effect in the Old Republic is to draw players into an emotional connection with the story of their characters that is much more personal than the tales in World of Warcraft.

It appears, based on discussions with industry executives and financial analysts, that BioWare and Electronic Arts have spent somewhere between $125 million and $200 million making the Old Republic. That would make it the most expensive game ever. Fortunately for the makers, it shows.

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