Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Broadsword Retirement Home For Old MMORPGs Is Pleased To Welcome A New Resident: SW:tOR

Without a doubt, the mmorpg-specific news of the week has to be the shock announcement that BioWare is handing Star Wars : the Old Republic off to Broadsword, the independent (Or is it?) studio tasked with caretaking the elderly Dark Age of Camelot and ancient Ultima Online, titles the conglomerate acquired when it subsumed first Origin in 1992 and later Mythic Entertainnment in 2006. The story has been very widely reported but this summary at Gameworld Observer is one of the clearest I've seen.

I first read the news at MassivelyOP, where the reaction in the comment thread was both less astonished and more positive than I'd have expected. It probably says as much about how badly BioWare has been judged to have handled the game over the years as it says anything good about Broadsword, although, as I commented in response to Shintar's concerned post on the news, MOP commenters do seem to have a particular blind spot when it comes to certain aging titles, Star Wars Galaxies being the most obvious, with DAOC and UO coming up strongly behind.

It seems unlikely that many of those commenters have actually played a title curated by Broadsword in recent years. Or ever. I'm not sure what the current populations of DAOC and UO look like but I think it's fair to say they'll be small and composed almost entirely of a veteran hardcore who don't get out much - to visit other mmorpgs, I mean.

Someone who has played one of the games extensively is Yeebo, creator of Yeebo's DAOC Guides, who dropped into Shintar's comment thread to share his experiences. No doubt he'll post on the topic himself at some point so I won't pre-empt his analysis of the situation, other than to say the evidence he's already presented looks pretty damning.

I already had my own, largely uninformed, opinions on the efficacy of Broadsword's tenure as a curator of slumbering giants but Shintar's reply to my comment added some much-needed texture to the conversation from an SW:tOR-specific perspective. Even though I've played the game and follow several bloggers who've written quite extensively about it over the years, I wasn't aware quite how "severely unloved" some of the devs working on it had been feeling. 

I knew that the game had been under-resourced and under-developed for years. I've commented more than once on the irony of a TripleA+ global IP like Star Wars having nothing more on its mmorpg record than two under-performers like the cancelled SWG and the commercially-disappointing SW:tOR but I was under the impression the latter was at least rubbing along, doing alright in a not quite top flight sort of way. It's in Tipa's Tier 3 of Google Trends MMOs alongside Guild Wars 2, after all, and I keep reading about how well GW2 is doing these days.

According to both Shintar and Pallais, a regular commenter at Going Commando and a regular SW:tOR player, too, the revenue SW:tOR generates has been used  "to pay the bills so the "main" development team could faff around for years not shipping anything.", making SW:tOR BioWare's "milk cow". On this basis, it's easy to see why the 40+ developers making the cut to move across to Broadsword might see the change as both an improvement and an opportunity.

It's a very curious situation all round. By most counts I've seen, the current Broadsword set-up has around a dozen developers in total to cover both existing titles. The arrival, whether physically if they're asked to re-locate or more likely virtually, if they stay where they are, of another 40+ employees is bound to have a seismic effect not just on the activities and status of the company but also on its culture.

It reminds me weirdly of the recent events involving EG7 and Daybreak Games, where the newly-acquired properties and personnel in short order seemed to consume their host and set about remaking the business in their own image. I'm not saying we're going to turn round in few months and find the CEO of Broadsword is someone from the SW:tOR dev team but I do think that, unless the properties are kept wholly inside their respective silos, there's almost bound to be some bleed-over.

My immediate reaction was that it couldn't rationally be regarded as a positive development for the game, its players or the developers currently working on it. Broadsword is nominally a private company but the entirety of its business would seem to be maintaining two (Now three.) mmorpgs owned by EA, in which the gaming giant has long lost interest. 

I'm finding it a little tricky to figure out exactly what Broadsword's status is. Some sources describe it as a "private company" but LinkedIn lists it as "public". I asked Bard, who told me "Broadsword Online Games is not independently owned. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Electronic Arts (EA)."  Bing agreed that Broadsword "is not independently owned", describing it instead as "a third-party studio".

Whatever the corporate structure, it's pretty clear that Broadsword is an mmorpg retirement home. It's also one evidently dependent on a single client - EA - for games to look after. If it's not part of EA, it might as well be.

Clearly it's better for SW:tOR to be sent into retirement than into the sunset but I'm not sure the game's players were expecting either just now. That many of them seem to be unfazed by or even quite pleased with the idea suggests just how far expectations must have fallen. As for the developers, it does appear that those who don't get the boot themselves will probably just be glad to have BioWare's boot off their neck.

As a player of very old, niche and/or underpopulated mmorpgs, I can attest that maintenance mode isn't always a bad deal. If a game already has plenty of content, all it really needs is someone to keep the lights on and change the fuses when they blow. The hardcore players who stick with the games they love long after everyone else has moved on are usually quite capable of making their own entertainment.

Games like that usually have a skeleton crew operating them, like the half-dozen each at DAOC or UO. A team of forty may be half what SW:tOR used to have but if those forty are freed from the fetters of an actively-hostile management, it's not unrealistic to imagine them becoming more productive overall. It might be an unpopular opinion but I'd say that, from a player's perspective, something of the kind did happen to the two EverQuest games under Darkpaw, when it was siloed from Daybreak - and things had already improved there under DBG compared to late SOE.

Thoughts like these may make the prospects seem cheerier but there's a big difference between SW:tOR and either the games Broadsword already runs or the Daybreak stable. In fact, there's an instructive comparison to be drawn between EQII specifically and SW:tOR.

One of the largely-forgotten selling points of EQII when it originally launched back in 2004 was that it claimed to be the first fully-voiced MMORPG. That record is "officially" held by SW:tOR, as verified by the self-regulating Guiness Book of Records but other equally authorative sources with longer memories remember it diferently. Much of the hype of the time revolved around the large number of voice actors employed, the hours of dialog they'd recorded and the big names (Christopher Lee and Helen Slater) SOE had hired to voice the two opposing faction leaders.

After EQII failed to emulate its predecessor's impressive sales curve, one of the first things to be dropped was all that expensive voice acting. For most of the life of the game we've gotten by with some voiced set-pieces in major storylines and a lot of reading. 

And it's been great. Better, in fact, than the original plan which, if I'm honest, I found pretty irritating even when it was a novelty. I don't really like voice acting in mmorpgs all that much. It slows things down and it's often distracting. I hardly ever turn off the music or the sound in games but I often turn off the voices.

I suspect SW:tOR players take the voice-acting in their game a bit more seriously. They also expect a lot of story, that being the fourth pillar on which the game was so famously built. How Broadsword will manage those expectations with their reduced team and without the safety-net of a giant corporation behind them might be interesting to watch. From the outside.

Will SW:tOR begin to bloom again and go on to flourish under the gentler guiding hand and more supportive environment at Broadsword? Or will financial concerns and restraints replace the cultural chill that supposedly froze out innovation and creativity under BioWare, leaving the game no better off and perhaps even worse than before?

Will the devs who move across even stay with SW:tOR? I wonder if there's anything about that in the agreement? Will Broadsword be constrained to maintain their new ward with exact same level of resources they were handed or will they be free to re-assign some to the other games under their control? Could SW:tOR's losses become DAOC and UOs gains?

Well, don't look at me. I don't know. I'm going to be sitting over here in the cheap seats, munching on my popcorn. This one's going to run and run, I'll bet.

One thing I will say about it is that it's revived my own interest in giving the game another run. I think I'll wait until the ink's dry on the deal, then I might either wake up my old character or start a new one. I won't be staying long, I'm sure, but it seems like it would be a good time to pay a visit and take a look around the game's new home.

Whether looky-loos like me, coming in, will balance out disgruntled vets heading out the door the other way remains to be seen.


  1. My operating theory about Broadsword is that it is effectively owned, if not wholly owned, by EA, but kept at arm's length so they can take in some income as a license fee, but they don't have to deal with the costs or margins on their own books. Because, as we know, as a public company there is huge pressure on the market to chase whatever metrics Wall Street is devoted to, and margins have been the main drive for quite a while.

    I am curious about SWTOR compared to UO and DAOC. The latter two are owned lock, stock, and barrel by EA, but SWTOR is licensed from Disney, which owns all the Star Wars stuff now. As we have seen with LOTRO, with license deals some money is better than no money for many companies, but at some point Disney might want something more for its license or might want a NEW MMORPG, at which point SWTOR could be the new SWG.

    1. Also, as usual, Blogger is being balky about comments, so made me anonymous for that. But it was me.

    2. Ah! I was wondering. I was pretty sure I recognized your prose style.

      I hadn't considered the licensing element. It's hard to imagine anyone of any significance at Disney caring one way or the other about an aging video game spin-off but you'd think someone would at least have to sign off on any further transfer of rights. Of course, if EA does really own Broadsword, as it turned out Daybreak did own Standing Stone, then I guess no rights have changed hands at all.

      I guess at this stage, given the heft of the IP and the companies involved, the really surprising thing is that the game is still running at all. Probably best if we all just keep quiet about it and hope no-one important notices.

    3. People always bring up the licensing as some sort of "gotcha" but I've got to admit that's one aspect of it that I've never really worried about. Every time the subject has been brought up by a SWTOR dev they've been nothing but gushing about what a great relationship they have with Disney, and in an interview in Star Wars Insider last year, the Star Wars brand guy they featured sounded super pleased with SWTOR. They are well aware of the game as a long-running game with a passionate community. I see no reason to assume they'd pull the license as long as they're making money and happy with the way the property is being handled.

  2. A friend reminded me that Star Trek Online has gone through a couple of owners (Cryptic when from Atari to Perfect World to Embracer Group via Gearbox) and has managed to thrive. I can see Swtor being in the same situation when/if it lands under Broadsword. Star Wars and Star Trek are such well known brand names that they can handle these sorts of changes as long as the licensors don't deliberately try to close them down.

    Even if the rumor of a Star Wars Mandalorian MMO is in development at Zenimax is true, there's such a big timeframe between the games I don't see Swtor being shutdown as long as it makes Disney licensing money. (It's not like Swtor is a problem for Disney's lore canon for Star Wars.)

    Of course, I could be completely wrong, and Swtor could end up being in a sort of Secret World Legends type of maintenance mode where you only see various holidays turned on and off, but they wouldn't need 40 members of the team for that. At least in the near term it looks like there will be an honest attempt to keep the game moving forward in the manner it has currently been going.

    1. Star Trek Online! The game time (And the world.) forgot! If it wasn't for Syp posting about it occasionally I could believe I'd imagined it. It's another in a surprisingly long list of examples that pretty much prove there's almost no synergy between huge, mainstream IPs and the mmorpg genre. I really oght to do a post about that, sometime.

      The point about the number of devs being transferred is very well made, though. Clearly, if the intent was to move to full maintenance mode, they'd have let almost everyone go and just moved a minimal team across. That's what makes this so interesting. Forty devs landing on a company that currently uses just fourteen on the two games it has is going to be incredibly disruptive to the company as a whole. How could it not be? There will be fireworks of some kind, for sure.

  3. I mean... I'm not really worried about maintenance mode either. I play WoW Classic era after all, and I've long decided that I'll be with SWTOR until they shut the servers down. If they ever stop releasing updates entirely, I'd probably play less, but I can't see myself stopping entirely over something like that.

    It's just that as a long-time player I'd obviously rather see the game do well than badly, plus the doomsayers are tiresome. I know every game has them, but I've found that in SWTOR's case, people are particularly happy to pile on about literally anything. Only a little over a year ago the game was totally doomed because people didn't like some UI changes. There's always something and it does get a bit tiresome.

    And I definitely thought of the Daybreak "reverse takeover" as well. I would be quite happy to see SWTOR go down a similar path with Broadsword to be honest.

    1. Classic is - or ought to be - a very instructive example. The relative aesthetic and commercial success it's had stands everything we think we know about "maintenance mode" on its head. I would reference FFXI here, too, onlyit's blatantly obvious SE have no understanding of what "maintenance mode" actually means.

      As with Pallais in the comment above, you've given me another idea for a post. Maintenance mode and minimal development are two stages of the mmorpg life-cycle we tend either to ignore or to treat as almost synonymous with the games closing down, when actually they can be very satisfactory and sustainable experiences for both developer and player. Another for the draft folder...

  4. Considering the absolutely abysmal state of the game's last expansion, I honestly think maintenance mode might be one of the best paths forward for SWTOR. Better to have it die with dignity than continue tarnishing its own legacy as it has been.

    It's still possible things could turn around for the game, of course, and maybe this move will be the behind the scenes shake-up it needs, but given the downward spiral the game's quality has been been in for the last few years, I'm not very optimistic.

    1. It's been a very long time since I played SW:tOR so I can only judge from bloggers I follow who play it, meaning mostly Shintar and occasionally one or two others. My impression from there isn't as bad as you're suggesting but I do often think that the content drops I'm reading about for SW:tOR are very small compared to what I see in EQII year-round, every year. It seems strange that the 80 devs at BioWare can't even match the output of the EQII team, the exact size of which I don't know but which I think has to be less than a third the size, at best.

      I think that, providing the will is there at Broadsword, the forty devs who move across will come up with more content than the 80 did at Bioware. It's not so much about numbers beyond a certain, functional minimum as it is about enthusiasm and support. That's the optimistic way of looking at it. The other way is that the devs will feel so demoralized by being packaged up and handed over that they'll dig their heels in and sulk, but I don't imagine that's going to happen unless Broadsword are as mean to them as BioWare reportedly was. They'll more likely just be happy to be anywhere else.


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