Maybe SWTOR Wasn’t Meant For You
This post is pretty much entirely speculation and thinking out loud.
I think at this point no one can deny that SWTOR has been incredibly polarizing. Quite a few people are enjoying it and will defend the game, and the folks who don’t like it… well, let’s just say they really don’t like it. I’ve seen people call SWTOR the “worst game ever made” and predict that it will be completely dead within six weeks of launch. They don’t just dislike the game, they hate it with a zeal that to my mind borders on fanaticism.
So why the strong feelings? Certainly part of it is just disappointment after a prolonged period of hype. Part of it, I think, is burnout with WoW-likes. But my hypothesis here is that maybe — maybe — part of the problem is that Bioware never intended WoW’s core audience to be the exact same as SWTOR’s core audience, and that makes people unconsciously angry.
Who is WoW’s target demographic? This, of course, is hard to pin down exactly, but I think you can make some assumptions by looking at Blizzard’s advertising campaigns, the features they bring in, and their corporate culture at events like Blizzcon. WoW’s target audience is straight white dudes, probably college-age, who are the Achiever and Killer types of players. Blizzard has emphasized things like raiding and competitive PvP over features such as an appearance tab or guild housing. In fact, they’ve always been pretty dismissive of guild housing as unnecessary twaddle, and until the recent downturn in subscriptions acted the same way about an appearance tab. Please don’t mistake any of this as derogatory — the straight white raidin’/PvPin’ dude market is large and historically critical to a business’ success, and I in no way blame Blizzard to trying to target them.
However, the unfortunate Cannibal Corpse video at Blizzcon last year just showed that Blizzard hasn’t put a lot of thought into their GLBT players. (I don’t attribute the video to maliciousness, just terrible cluelessness.) The company’s surprise at the reaction to RealID shows that they’re not good at thinking beyond their target audience, not to mention the fact that apparently as a female NPC the more important you are, the less likely it is that you’re wearing pants.
Okay, so: who is the target demographic of Bioware RPGs? I think it becomes a little more clear when you read Bioware writer David Gaider’s official response to a complaint that Dragon Age 2 was ignoring the “straight male gamer” demographic. (You probably read about this when it happened last March. The part most relevant to my post is this: “[Our games are] for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention.” Bioware is pretty commonly considered to have a diverse playerbase, and to cater to some of that diversity. Part of the success of SWTOR is predicated on the company turning some of their diverse RPG audience into a dedicated MMO audience.
Perhaps SWTOR was designed with some of this in mind. The game shipped with personal housing (your ship), NPC romance, and appearance controls (orange moddable items), all things that Blizzard has written off in the past as being too frou-frou and not something their target market would enjoy. There are humanoid NPCs who are not white. Storytelling is definitely emphasized in SWTOR during the leveling process, and players are encouraged to create a bond between themselves and their character. Even I, someone who is usually far too cynical to truly role play, find myself coming up with little stories for Panacea’s background, or turning down a dialog option because it just doesn’t “seem like something she would do”. The game even launched without damage meters or a competitive PvP meta-game. People who play MMOs for the serious raiding or PvP experience (most Achievers and Killers) are unlikely to receive satisfaction on this front.
So why are people so angry about SWTOR? Perhaps it is in part because without even realizing it, they are angry that a game is not entirely oriented to their market and their playstyle. Perhaps the makers of SWTOR wanted to create a game meant to appeal to the Bioware target audience, who is arguably more diverse than the Blizzard target audience and who enjoys different activities. That’s not to say that there are NO straight white raidin’ dudes who play and enjoy SWTOR (this is absolutely not the case), but it is not a game that caters to that market almost to the exlusion of others.
Maybe, blogosphere of mine, when you sit down to write that rant about how SWTOR is the worst game in the whole history of the universe, you should take a moment to reflect that it might not be meant for you.