Activision CEO Bobby Kotick should be a happy man. His company publishes two of the most widely recognized and profitable franchises available in the gaming industry today, and for better or worse, each series continues to generate massive income mainly off of recycled content and reiterations of the same core product.
It’s an annoying cycle for some gamers who are outwardly opposed to the concept, but it undoubtedly works, and there are those clearly still willing to buy into it. Call of Duty recently saw its biggest potential competitor in the form of Battlefield 3, but even DICE’s well respected and renowned FPS couldn’t compete commercially. Modern Warfare 3 was actually able to outsell BF3’s impressive 5 million first week units…in just one day.
Yet Kotick isn’t complacent due in large part to the fact that EA is not through with producing big-budget titles aimed to compete directly with Activision’s industry behemoths. EA has now set its sights on World of Warcraft, a game that has transcended the medium on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon. Star Wars: The Old Republic is the publisher’s new potential giant killer, and the MMORPG is set for release on December 20. Kotick however, is under the impression that LucasArts, not EA, will be the one profiting off of any success that The Old Republic may have. Judging by Kotick’s comments, he believes that success will ultimately be minimal.
“Lucas is going to be the principal beneficiary of the success of Star Wars,” Kotick said, speaking at the Reuters Media Summit on Monday. “We’ve been in business with Lucas for a long time and the economics will always accrue to the benefit of Lucas, so I don’t really understand how the economics work for Electronic Arts.”
Kotick also stated how difficult an investment MMOs truly are. In particular, monthly fees and required group quests can be factors that turn potential gamers away.
“If you look at the history of the people investing in an MMO and achieving success, it’s a small number,” said Kotick.
Activision has partnered with LucasArts on several occasions, though often resulting in mediocre and merely forgettable titles. Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, Star Wars: Obi-Wan, and Star Wars: Republic Commando, for example, are all Activision-published titles. Kotick undoubtedly has a thorough understanding of how such business partnerships work, but some analysts are unwilling to write The Old Republic off as a future loss for EA.
According to Lazard analyst Atul Bagga, Star Wars: The Old Republic could attract 1.5 million to 2 million subscribers, which would qualify as a major success for EA. Additionally, Bagga stated that between 3 million to 4 million WoW players may buy the game.
Do Kotick and Activision have any reason to feel apprehensive over the upcoming release of The Old Republic? Shares of Activision are down 5.5 percent year-to-date while shares of its rival EA are up 27.2 percent, and the recent declines in WoW subscriptions are definitely enough to have the publisher sweating. WoW lost around 800,000 subscribers during the last fiscal quarter, bringing total losses through the past 12 months to around a staggering 2 million.
Though the anticipated commercial matchup between MW3 and BF3 fell heavily in Activision’s favor, Battlefield 3 at the very least proved to Activision that DICE has a talented development team that is ready and willing to compete with future CoD titles. Activision will undoubtedly release a new installment in the Call of Duty franchise come Fall 2012, but DICE’s massively scaled FPS allows players to wage war in magnitude unrivaled by any modern shooter. Battlefield 3’s lasting legacy may prove to be the very dynamic necessary to force Activision and its developers to change their tried and true formula.
The Old Republic, on the other hand, has a number of favorable factors that may finally bring World of Warcraft’s complete and utter reign of the MMO genre to an end. Primarily, whereas MW3 benefitted from being an altogether new installment in its respective series, Mists of Pandaria is an officially labeled expansion and will be sold as such. There isn’t much stopping WoW players from purchasing the new content, quickly advancing through it, and subsequently dropping their subscription again when they’re finished. A scenario such as this one could prove to be fatal for Activision’s MMO cash cow, and it is a very plausible outcome.
The fact that EA and BioWare chose to set their competitor game within the familiar setting of the Star Wars universe was a brilliant move and one that could be the deciding factor in whether or not The Old Republic sees longevity. Aside from the fact that BioWare is a well-established RPG developer and the Star Wars franchise has one of the widest and most loyal fan bases across any entertainment medium, the team is also no stranger to the Galaxy Far, Far Away and has proven on two separate occasions that it has the personnel and vision to make such a game like The Old Republic work. After all, BioWare’s new MMO will simply be the next evolution of the distinguished Knights of the Old Republic series which featured two great games that redefined the limitations and possibilities of a console RPG.
As the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games have shown us in the past, BioWare understands the significance of a fluid combat system and the element of exploration, two aspects that the developer has spent a great deal of time working on for The Old Republic. Yet one very noteworthy component which currently seems to be overlooked is BioWare’s decision to include voiceover work, available to every character that enters the game.
It is an ingredient that World of Warcraft has always lacked and one that I’ve felt could aid in the game’s immersion. Though it is a difficult task, successful implementation of player character and NPC voice could become the very facet that draws a significant number of players away from Azeroth. BioWare intends for The Old Republic to provide more context for characters’ missions than any previous MMORPG, and by adding voice to the game the developer has not only made the game more accessible to people otherwise turned off by reading block text for hours on end, but it has also opened up a much greater potential for cinematically captivating story development.
When Mists Of Pandaria hits stores, World of Warcraft will have reached its seventh birthday and fourth expansion. Similarly, the recent release of Modern Warfare 3 marked the eleventh game in the Call of Duty series. Both of these franchises have already been engraved within the industry and have impacted popular culture to an extent greater than most works across the entire entertainment spectrum. Activision, you can certainly revel in your success as an enduring publisher with more colossal game franchises this decade than most publishers would dream to have in a lifetime.
With the deep pockets of EA and the talented development teams at companies like BioWare however, the once-seemingly unattainable shelf life of these legendary franchises now appears within reach. The unthinkable time in which these games have reached the end of their life-cycle may just be turning from incomprehensible to inevitable.