Today I was minding my business writing my re-review of Champions Online, as Saturday is normally a very slow news day, when I saw Twitter going completely crazy, with people spamming all over the place that the release date of Star Wars: The Old Republic had been officially announced. For a few seconds I didn’t really believe it: “On a Saturday?” I thought “Yeah, sure. Nice joke”. Then I checked, and I noticed that it was indeed true.
For a while, I had a wild thought floating in my brain: Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts seemed to be locked in a waiting game on Star Wars: The Old Republic and Diablo III (of which Chad wrote a very interesting Beta Impressions article), lying in ambush for the other to make the first move with a release date to either adjust their own in the most convenient fashion, or try to steal the competitor’s thunder.
Yesterday Blizzard announced the delay of Diablo III to early 2012, today Electronic Arts announced the release date for Star Wars: The Old Republic for December the 20th, on a Saturday. Extremely convenient. Even a bit too convenient, maybe.
I can easily imagine this scene happening in the office of EA’s CEO John Riccitello: “Diablo III delayed to next year?” *presses the button of the intercom*”Yes sir?” “Assemble everyone. I want the SWTOR release date announced by tomorrow.” “But… Sir, it’s a Saturday…” “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “Argh…Aaahhhgh…”
I always thought that Riccitello would make a perfect Sith Lord. With his graying hair, his refined features and calm expression he definitely reminds me of a younger senator Palpatine.
But let’s get back to business. I know that Diablo III and Star Wars: The Old Republic belong to different genres, but it would be foolish not to admit that their target customer bases overlap quite significantly. Both are massively anticipated AAA PC games and both have a strong online component. You can be pretty much sure that a lot of PC gamers will play both, and others are on the fence on which one to play.
It’s very likely that as soon as Electronic Arts realized that Diablo III was out of the way (at least for this year) they immediately scrambled to set and announce the release date.
First of all, it’s almost an unwritten rule of the industry not to announce anything too important during a week end (not to mention in the early morning). Most journalists are resting from their week of hard work (or so they say) and don’t really appreciate having to jump out of the bed to go write a news piece, as juicy as it may be. The announcement was done at Eurogamer Expo, element that partly justifies the Saturday collocation, but even here, Eurogamer Expo doesn’t seem exactly the most appropriate venue for an announcement of this theme and scope. Everyone was expecting it to come on Friday October the 14th during the SWTOR main panel at New York Comic Con.
Secondly, the release date itself is really late into the year, cutting it very close with the holidays. It’s definitely not unlikely that since the most dangerous competitor won’t come out for a while, EA just decided that Bioware can take its time and release at the last possible moment to put in the last rounds of polish and launch the most solid game possible.
Thirdly, by announcing a release date right after the disappointment caused by the Diablo III delay, EA stole Blizzard’s thunder in one stroke, getting many gamers that were anxiously awaiting for Diablo to look at Star Wars: The Old Republic as the perfect candidate to replace the rival in the holiday season. If EA waited more, many would have started looking for other options, but with such a close sequence of announcements, the mental process that replaces the delayed release with the newly announced one is absolutely natural. This is without even mentioning those that were on the fence, many of which most probably have their sights set firmly on SWTOR now.
Marketing is first and foremost a matter of catching opportunities immediately, as they appear, and I wouldn’t be opposed to betting my monthly income that EA did just that today.
The result is that Bioware has now almost three months to polish the experience as much as possible, in order to avoid the usual pitfall of the stuttering launch that affects so many MMORPGs, and Star Wars: The Old Republic will be released in a timeframe with absolutely no direct competitor in sight. It’s basically a best case scenario, all thanks to the delay of Diablo III.
Looking at the other side of the barricade, I wouldn’t be surprised if Activision Blizzard pushed the third chapter of the Diablo series back, at least in part to avoid competing directly with EA’s MMORPG. This isn’t so much because Diablo III might lose customers to The Old Republic (as it really goes both ways), but because Blizzard is walking into one of the biggest dangers of this industry, that of cannibalizing their own customer base. It’s no mystery that World of Warcraft is, at the moment, a bit stale for many of its customers, and with the latest expansion one year in the past and no new one in sight, many of them are bound to jump ship to Diablo III when it’ll launch (and Diablo III players won’t pay a monthly fee). Many others will, at least temporarily, move to The Old Republic.
By putting Diablo III in a different time frame, Blizzard ensures that WoW players that will move to Diablo and those that will move to SWTOR won’t do so at the same time, leaving their MMORPG (and most prominent source of stable income) in a further weakened position. Downward trends are hard to correct in the MMORPG market, as players that see a sizable amount of their friends quitting are more tempted to do so themselves. By having two smaller, separate migrations of players instead of a single mass exodus, Blizzard will avoid, at least in part, a major pitfall.
They’re probably also counting on the rebound effect that, so far, happened with every major MMORPG that temporarily stole a sizable number of players from WoW. After a short while they just come back. If the same effect were to happen with SWTOR as well, it would probably be right in time to mitigate the effect of Diablo III on WoW‘s population.
In the end, while, of course, most of this is speculation (even if based on some quite solid facts), Blizzard most probably decided that a strategic retreat was the best option to avoid some problems this winter, with the additional bonus of having more time to polish Diablo III, which never hurts considering how massively hyped the game is. Taking a step back in order to move forward in the safest way possible seems like a very sound choice.
EA saw an opportunity to give Bioware as much development time as possible and to launch SWTOR in an extremely privileged position in the calendar, with no competition in sight. On top of that, announcing a release date right after the disappointment for the delay of Diablo III may have caused many that were previously set on Blizzard’s game to jump ship, at least temporarily.
If they really played the waiting game, as I think, they did so in a masterful way, creating the best conditions possible for the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Darth Vader may not have to cry: “Nooooo!” this time around.