EA Bets Big on Online Star Wars Game, Suggests You Let the Wookiee Win

Electronic Arts is officially releasing its most ambitious online game to date, called Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The game is long overdue and over budget, but now that it is actually here, the LucasArts-blessed project is likely to become one of the company’s most significant game launches over the next decade.

The Star Wars title falls into the category of a massively mutliplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), a subscription game that people can escape into for hours, acting out the role of characters and interacting with others inside a virtual world.

Other games in the genre have done extremely well, including Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which has more than 10 million subscribers after more than six years in existence.

In an interview, Frank Gibeau, president of EA Labels, told All Things D, “This is our most ambitious game of my career, and the biggest project ever made at Electronic Arts.”

The project started as early as 2007, when BioWare received the license from LucasArts. Electronic Arts acquired BioWare in 2008.

The game is on a completely different scale than a social game, and is closer to premium titles found on videogame consoles. But really, a better standard of comparison would be a blockbuster movie production.

“If a social game is a speedboat, this is like a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” Gibeau said.

There are at least 300 hours of game play possible within Star Wars: The Old Republic. EA hired 1,000 actors to perform 250,000 lines of dialogue — more than in all six “Star Wars” movies combined. The game is produced in English, French and German.

“It’s the most voiced-entertainment property in history — film, book, anything,” said Gibeau. “We are thinking of this game in terms of a 10-year life cycle.”

One of BioWare’s co-founders, Ray Muzyka, has been working on the project nonstop for the past several years. He told me that, despite having plenty of access to the game, “I still want to play it. I still haven’t scratched the surface, and it’s still compelling.”

Star Wars: The Old Republic officially launched at midnight, but has been slowly adding 200,000 players a day over the past week, to ensure that the servers were ready to handle the crush. Gibeau said that by today there will already be around 1.5 million people playing in the game.

The game costs $60 for a digital download or physical copy. The first month is free; it costs $15 a month after that.

One of the key differences between Star Wars and other MMO-style games is the voiceover, Gibeau said. Most MMOs require the player to read a lot of text in order to receive instructions on what to do next. BioWare lets the characters do the talking to make the players feel a part of the game.

“That’s the biggest overall thing we brought to the genre,” BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk said in an interview. “It’s an approachable story with real living and breathing characters who get to choose their own outcome. It creates a way to be attached to the game.”

“It grows on you over time,” Muzyka added. “Once you’ve played The Old Republic, you can’t go back (to other MMOs). It’s woven into the experience. That emotional engagement is very natural. … They feel alive. They feel like they are helping someone, or your alliance, or your village. You can be a hero or a villain.”

Electronic Arts is reluctant to say that it is betting the farm on the game, when it has so many other franchises and big projects in the works. But the potential for profit is an open question.

The release of Star Wars: The Old Republic will automatically draw in players because of the movie franchise’s mass-market appeal. Who doesn’t want to play the role of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Darth Vader? (Except that those three names are banned in game play, since everyone can’t walk around the Republic with the same name, duh.).

Of course, EA will have to pay LucasArts handsomely for the right to use a big brand name like Star Wars. There’s no secret why other social games are generic — it’s cheaper. There are also hundreds of millions in development costs that Electronic Arts will have to recoup.

And those costs don’t stop on launch day.

EA and BioWare are already developing more content for the game, and have hired a team of customer-service reps in Ireland to take calls from players.

Gibeau defines what he would consider a successful game: “It’s certainly not a make-or-break product for our company,” he said. “Star Wars is a really important part, but it’s in the context of the larger digital transformation. I’d love to have a business that lasts for 10 years; I’d love to have millions of subscribers and a huge hit from that standpoint,” he said. “But our conservative cases are much less than that, so we are in pretty good shape from any outcome.”

Muzyka is a big poker player, so I asked how he is betting the game will do.

“I like to bet on things that win, and I think it’s going to win big,” he said.

To set the scene, the game takes place thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader, when war between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire was dividing the galaxy. Players choose to play as a Jedi, a Sith, or a variety of other roles.

Watch this trailer and judge for yourself whether the game experience is as realistic as its creators claim:

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