I have been a part of many Massively Multiplayer Online game launches. I am, you might say, a connoisseur of new MMOs, the consummate dabbler of online gaming. I love to experience the opening of a new world, to be first to leave virtual footprints on the far side of a new frontier, among that small band standing at the shore of a grand new ocean. Additionally, it may also just be that I draw from a secret well of pleasure in witnessing the failure of others, and there are few places where rich veins of failure run more deeply into the loamy ground of disappointment than in MMO launches.
I was there for the launch of EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Asheron’s Call, Asheron’s Call 2, World of WarCraft, Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot. I know from personal experience that even in games that may somehow survive their rocky breech birth and establish long legacies of profitable success, the launch can become something best forgotten. Catastrophic lag, broken quests, crashes to desktop, inoperative login or account servers, broken worlds, zones going offline, horrible imbalance, power outages, bizarre bugs, game breaking exploits — these are just a sampling from the smorgasbord buffet of game launch nightmares.
And those are just the ones you can actually do something about. That’s to say nothing of lack of fan interest, empty servers, bad initial reviews, negative buzz coming out of beta and having to launch a half-complete game because your company is just flat out of money. The likelihood of a successful MMO launch, even for the best of companies, are the kind of odds that would make even Vegas blush. So really, what chance did Star Wars: The Old Republic have at a stable, smooth, customer-pleasing launch?
To say that Star Wars: The Old Republic has come online flawlessly would be to look at the game with blinders on. Though my experience has been relatively error and impediment free, I’m going to break with long-standing Internet tradition and not assume that an anecdotal sample size of one can be extrapolated across millions. But, I also recognize that launching this massive beast of a game, an undertaking that should intimidate even the most cash-rich MMO developer, is the kind of effort that boggles the mind to consider, like deciding to launch the entire state of Nebraska into a stable, low-earth orbit. Considered on its own, its impressive enough that it’s gone as well as it has, but considered in the context of the history of the genre that’s come before it, this is the magic of the gods.
Over some 15 years, I’ve seen it all with the games I mentioned above and, oh yeah, also: Age of Conan, City of Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Guild Wars, Horizons, The Matrix Online, DC Universe Online and Planetside. The MMO launch is sort of a boot camp, a shared experience that players endure together as much to say that they were there at the beginning as to actually enjoy a game.
In World of WarCraft there is some cachet in being able to talk about being there on day one. It is the old man’s argument, the virtual world equivalent of saying, “You kids, these days. You don’t know how easy you’ve got it. Why, I remember when Paladins were one of the worst classes to play in the game. We only had 2 continents back in those days, and that’s all we needed! And it took weeks of play just to get to level 60! And when you did, you just ran Molten Core over and over again … . What do you mean you don’t know what Molten Core is!?”
So, when you walk into a game like The Old Republic, you know that even after 15 years of MMO learnings, there is just sort of an inevitability about the hazards and complications of a massive launch. Even if everything goes right — and it never does — there will be intolerable queues, over-population in low-level areas, unpolished environments, a mid-level-range dead zone and endless little bugs that will need to be squashed over the weeks and months to come. As a veteran MMO launcher, you know not to look for the game as it is, but the game as it will likely become.
But, that hasn’t been as true with The Old Republic. The actual game, once you're playing and through navigating some of the questionable authorization cul-de-sacs, feels much more like something in its second year of operation than a game that is now really only 2 days old. It’s the sort of thing that as a gamer you can marvel at, but as a long-term MMO player you consider as something as close to impossible as can be achieved.
And, I should know because along with all those other games I listed, I was also there at the launch of: Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI, Neocron, Shadowbane, Star Trek Online, Champions Online, Tabula Rasa, Vanguard, Auto Assault, Warhammer Online and probably a handful of others I can’t even remember.
I think The Old Republic is sort of the perfect example of why I play so many of these games and dive in on day 1. It’s ultimately about finding a home, a place to live and be happy. For five years, World of WarCraft has been where I can fall back and recover — a comfortable, familiar place that connects with me despite its flaws. I know that MMOs aren’t really particularly great games, mechanically speaking, and that they are elaborate time sinks with diminishing returns. But it is good to have a home base of operations, some stabilizing environment that is a known quantity, beloved blemishes and all.
I am there at the launch of so many of these games, because I’m always on the lookout for my next home. Even though I’ve played maybe 30 MMOs for varying lengths of time, there are really only 2 that have been foundational bases of operation: WoW and EQ. It’s extraordinarily rare to even hazard to think you may have found the next to add to that exclusive club. And yet ...
I will say only this for now. When I play The Old Republic I feel something I haven’t felt for a very long time — this odd combination of simultaneously being in a very new and yet very familiar place. And beyond it all, beyond the technical achievement, beyond beating the odds, beyond the relatively smooth release and the mostly positive fan reception, there is something even more impressive I see in this launch. A small patch of virtual real estate that I feel like I could make a home on.