Let’s Play PR: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Here’s something new I’m trying.

As we all know, gamers are a unique bunch. And, these days, with as much access as we have to information – not to mention ways to debate whatever information is doled out to us – I believe that corporate messaging needs to adjust to today’s more cynical and skeptical customers.

With this possible new series, I’ll try to present some non-traditional ideas in the form of press releases or other corporate messaging that utilize the shocking notion that customers should be talked to like adults – perhaps even to the point of criticizing them a touch – and not gullible or naïve children.

None of these are meant to be a slight, or a declaration of “I can do your job better than you,” toward any PR professionals. I’ll mostly be dealing with hypothetical cases that a company may or may not even be considering.

FWIW, I’ve done some PR and marketing work in the past, so I’m not speaking totally out of my ass. Partially, yes, but not totally.

So, here goes.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is doing fine, financially. It still has 1.3 million subscriptions, which is probably still enough to keep it at a pace to make up for the return on BioWare’s and EA’s investment in it.

As usual, The Fatman is Heavy.

But they’re going to have to do something about server populations. They probably opened up too many servers when 2 million people rushed the servers at the game’s start, and the dwindling population has turned many planets into virtual ghost towns, especially at non-peak hours. It’s a deadly spiral – if more players leave, that will reduce the number of players on each server, which encourages more players to leave as their guild/friends vanish, which causes more players to leave, and so on.

Short of getting a sudden influx of new players, the most obvious way to solve this problem is via server merges, which conjure up all sorts of negative impressions. Let’s assume, however, that this is BioWare’s plan. So how do you do it without bringing out the “SWTOR is dead!” crowd?

Maybe you can’t. No matter what, a server merge won’t be regarded as a good thing. But could BioWare deliver the message in a way that at least doesn’t give the appearance of a game that’s headed for the scrap heap? A way that provides a defense from its attackers?

 

Dear Fans of Star Wars: The Old Republic,

We have made the difficult decision to merge some of our servers. While there are obvious advantages to this decision – shorter queue times for PvP, more active planets, and the possibility of meeting new friends and guild mates, just to name a few – we understand the feelings that many of you will have regarding this decision.

When The Old Republic launched, demand was huge and we were faced with a difficult decision. Do we stay the course with our original server numbers and let players endure very long wait times in queues? Or do we expand our server list and allow as many players as possible to log in?

We went with the second option, and it seemed to work. Queues were short – where they existed at all – and there were few complaints about access to the game.

Nothing is constant in an MMO. On some level, we all realize this is true, whether it’s in regard to new content, changes to existing content, making new friends, losing old ones, or even just the appearance of your character’s clothes or armor.

Servers are no different. They’re part of the evolution of an MMO, too, and believing that they must stay static while everything else in a game changes is taking a rather simplistic view of things.

There’s no disputing that there are fewer players in the game now than there were at launch. Our own investor calls confirm this. But this doesn’t mean the game is failing. It’s a natural normalization in the MMO industry, or indeed, most any new product, especially one that is as well-known prior to its launch as The Old Republic was, to downscale slightly after an initial rush.

Would we like for there to be more players and for server populations to rise, possibly even necessitating the opening of new servers? Absolutely, and we are 100% committed to making that happen. But that doesn’t change the current reality of low server populations. Just like we did at launch, we feel that altering the server mix provides the best game experience for you, our players, at the current time. That might change in the future, and if it does, we’ll make the necessary moves to ensure the best possible game experience for all of you.

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4 Responses to Let’s Play PR: Star Wars: The Old Republic

  1. dndhatcher says:

    It would be far better if they solved the problem. The problem isnt low server population, its that you can only play on your home server. The could cut the number of servers by 25% and you still wouldnt go back because you still dont have any friends on your server.

    The ability to pick a character and then a server from a list with region/rules/activity (instead of server then characters locked on the server) the problem wouldnt exist in the first place. They chose an antiquated, non-player friendly architecture and should suffer for that poor decision or do the long term smart thing and change it.

    If they announced that they were going to make such a change, but use server merges as an interim help for players on under-populated servers, that would be better PR in my opinion.

  2. Jeff says:

    The problem with your PR message is that it is a response to the vocal minority. I think most reasonable people understand that high-buzz launches will experience a population dropoff after the initial few months–as “samplers” of the game or hardcore end-rushers get their fill and move on. At launch, all MMOs must face the high population vs. stable server distribution issue and opt for the later to keep people up and playing. It’s natural and logical–and unfortunately fluid. It changes and Bioware needs to be proactively responding, not reactively issuing PR statements.

    What feeds insecurity in a population isn’t masked PR messages, it’s indecisiveness. It’s not the vast amount of information or the cynicism of today’s population so much (those are factors), I see it as more about people’s impatience and desire for instant gratification.

    Bioware just needs to aggressively get the 1+ million people who are playing together and be upfront with the timetable–clear communication (which I think is your point) along with decisive action (my point).

    P.S. The same hysterical thoughts many have over populations reductions being equated with “game is dead” notions feed the same fear that company layoffs, for arguably the most extensively-produced MMO on the planet, are a sign of failure. Laying off people who’s jobs were probably most necessary to expedite the initial creation of the game and the initial sales of the game but were not as necessary to continue the game is unfortunate for the individuals but makes perfect sense for the brand…and people should want EA to do that. Keep maximizing their profitable position and the product will grow and last.

    And laying off people is not the same as 38 Studio’s failure to meet their loan commitments–that’s a serious sign of financial distress.

    • jasonwinter says:

      I agree that any PR message is aimed at the minority. But that’s partially because the majority will read very little of what comes out of a company’s mouth anyway.
      And yes, BioWare would be better off solving their problems than talking about how they’re going to solve them, but that’s not what this exercise is for — or, for that matter, what a PR professional does.
      There is something to be said for proper messaging, especially in this day and age, when every missive from a company will be dissected and analyzed and, in many cases, be used as the sole basis for playing or not playing a game. That’s all a PR manager can affect.

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