Last I heard, EQ had some 200,000 active paying users. If each of them pays $10 a month, then the game pulls in $2M a month. Of course at $10 a month, it was claimed that EQ wasn’t covering costs at that rate and the price has shot to $13 a month. This, if it is true, means for the most part that these games are not as profitable as was initially thought. It also explains why most MMORPG’s won’t forego the initial boxed product. The boxed product price cover the initial development, the subscription covers the maintenance of servers and such.
If a typical game sells some 200,000 copies then it’s considered a hit. Each of those 200,000 people might never go home and play the game, but it sold anyway. However, an MMORPG that goes on to sell 200,000 copies and sees few of those people actually playing is considered a dud. Worse yet, the MMORPG might go under – in which case you are in the possession of a game that you can no longer play – not even offline. This is also something of a problem for other types of games – shortly after launch it was complained that despite selling over 800,000 copies, few people were playing Unreal Tournament 2003 online. Offline games have quieter demises.
And there’s other problems with MMORPG’s as well – such as launches which are usually disasterous. UO was even launched way back when most people were on 28.8K modems, so lag was a major issue. Games like Anarchy Online have had nearly textbook cases of maddening issues. World War II Online was shipped extremely early due to the major investor threatening to pull out. Some games, like Dark Age of Camelot go off without much of a hitch, but they’re generally the exception. And now I see that most people today are unable to play SWG due to server issues – especially disasterous due to the large number of people who probably have been holding out on MMORPG’s until SWG.
There was a time in which Star Wars games were impeccable. X-Wing set the standard for space shooters, and Tie Figher raised it. The Dark Forces line of FPS games were magnificent. Even Rebel Assault games, in the despised category of rail shooters in CD-ROM infancy, were the gold standard. Games like the ill concieved Masters of Tera Kasi (a PSX fighting game – imagine Chewbacca beating the crap out of Princess Leia) were rare.
Then again all Star Wars games were rare back then. My theory at the time lied within the fact that, unlike other movie tie-in games, the Star Wars games didn’t have deadlines. The movies they were based off of were twenty years old. If you want to make a movie tie-in game you basically have three options. Option one is to develop it ahead of time, which allows you enough time to make a good game (or at least it should), but you run the risk of the movie being a flop and therefore your game is virtually unsellable (see the Judge Dredd games). The second option is to wait until the movie comes out and then quickly make a game before the hype wears off. The problem here obviously is that it doesn’t leave much time to make a good game. The third option is to wait until the movie is a hit, make the game, and spend as much time as you need. The problem here is of course that the hype and therefore your potential sales have worn off before the game ships. In this case the movie can no longer carry the game, so the game just has to be good. This can work (Goldeneye being the textbook example) but it’s rare (on in the case of Goldeneye, developed by Rare). The Star Wars games were this third option taken to its extreme.
But then again, there was a time in which Star Wars in general was impeccable. Or at least untouchable. Then George Lucas decided to revamp the original three films and while the results (the “Special Edition”s) were mostly harmless, it nevertheless ruffled lots of geek feathers. Then he decided to make a trilogy of prequels and fans everywhere were elated – until their 19 years of expectations were deflated by The Phantom Menace. TPM wasn’t a horrible movie, but it was marred by characters aimed at children, a horrible child actor, and cynicsm over marketing hype. Attack of the Clones fared better – for the forgiving geeks who bothered to go see it. Now Episode III is on the horizon, so we’ll see. Perhaps the prequels will hold up better as a trilogy, but perhaps it was best left alone. Still, just about every geek who thinks they should have never made Episodes 1-3 still thinks they should make Episodes 7-9. Go figure.
In any event, the existence of new Star Wars movies to tie into meant that Star Wars games went from games allowing people to re-enact old movies, to tie-ins of upcoming films. At some point Lucasarts completely turned to the new prequel games (though nowadays OT games do still get made). Games went from a rare occurence with amazing quality to a frequent happening, with spotty quality. Episode I: The Phantom Menace was a spotty top-down RPG for the PSX, Episode I: Racer was a decent pod racing game with an unimaginitve name, Jedi Power Battles was essentially a 3-D side scroller with jumping issues, and Demolition was for all intents and purposes Vigilante 8 with Star Wars characters. And not very good either.
Ironically Star Wars games ran the “version of” gamut with good luck for a time. X-Wing and its offspring were the Star Wars version of dogfighting flight silmulators, with no pesky ground or gravity. Dark Forces and its sequel Jedi Knight were the Star Wars verions of a FPS, etc. The version of an RTS was supposed to be Force Commander, but at the last second they tacked 3-D into the game (it was originally 2-D, ala Command & Conquer) and ruined it. Rebellion was their version of Master of Orion, so if you “got” it, then you loved it – otherwise you totally hated it.
As I’ve mentioned before, there is an entire Star Wars universe beyond Return of the Jedi – in the early 1990’s George Lucas allowed for others to write books continuing the Star Wars storyline. Dubbed the Extended Universe, there have been hundreds of books, comics, and even an occasional game in this storyline. Some feel that this would be the best fodder for future Star Wars games, especially the New Jedi Order series. The unlikeliness of the general public to agree though makes it unlikely. Oddly enough the game Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars RPG in development at Bioware, takes place hundreds of years before the original trilogy.
Things have started to look up recently, mostly coinciding with Lucasarts’ decision to not rely totally on internal game engines and to outsource the development of some games. They licensed the Age of Empires II engine and made Galactic Battlegrounds, a proper RTS. They tapped Factor 5 to make the Rogue Squadron series of games, culminating in the amazing Rogue Leader on the GameCube. And they had Raven do Jedi Outcast, the third Dark Forces game.