This is an interesting time for online gamers. World of Warcraft, the game that has dominated the MMORPG genre for the better part of the last decade, is starting to show signs of weakness as player subscriptions slip. At the same time, EA has just launched Star Wars: The Old Republic, perhaps the best shot yet at the MMORPG heavyweight crown since WoW first took the field. The Old Republic has done well since its launch, and the game promises to be a big moneymaker for EA (NASDAQ:EA), costing $60 to purchase plus a monthly subscription fee.
As a disclaimer, this whole post is a bit of a thought-experiment. At present, The Old Republic is only available in North America and Europe. Moreover, a few folks who’ve tried to play the game from China report that an IP block on all China-based IP addresses is forcing them to play through VPNs. That said, it’s hard to imagine that EA is just going to ignore the whole continent, especially given the amount of money they’ve spent on developing the game and the amount of money Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) has made operating World of Warcraft in Asia. Moreover, a statement on the game’s official site does suggest that players from additional countries will be allowed to purchase the game at some point:
Details on additional countries are not available at this time, but will be released when available.
That doesn’t mean Asia will be included, but we can’t imagine it will be ignored forever. So, assuming it does come to Asia someday, will people play it? Is this the game that finally dethrones World of Warcraft?
The game has several features that should be enticing for WoW players, but interestingly, those same features may reduce the game’s appeal in Asia. For example:
Despite the utter disaster that was the Star Wars prequels, Star Wars remains a powerful brand in the West. The universe is familiar to almost everyone, and it will certainly help draw people into the game. In fact, the Star Wars universe is likely more familiar to most Westerners than the Warcraft universe.
The opposite is true in Asia, especially among gaming enthusiasts. Asian gamers have almost all played Warcraft games — at the very least, Warcraft 3, which remains popular to this day — so they know the universe well. As odd as it sounds, “Frostmourne” is probably a more familiar term than “lightsaber” for many Asian gamers. Of course plenty of people have heard of Star Wars, but at least in China, it doesn’t have the sort of mythical cultural presence the brand enjoys in the West. So Asian gamers aren’t likely to try out The Old Republic because they’re big Star Wars geeks, which means the game needs to offer something else.
One of the main selling points of The Old Republic is that the stories it contains are better told than those of World of Warcraft, which makes the world more immersive. More than 260,000 different lines of dialogue were recorded for Old Republic to ensure that players felt immersed in the world. In contrast, most dialogue in World of Warcraft occurs as onscreen text.
However, a really immersive English-language world isn’t going to be that attractive to Asian gamers, and localizing the game thoroughly could cost a fortune, given the expense needed to translate, hire actors, record, and then re-implement 260,000 lines of dialogue in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (at a bare minimum). It’s likely that EA, which has already spent a massive sum of money developing the game, won’t bother to go all-out and may resort to subtitling the game for some or all of these regions. And subtitles, of course, detract significantly from the “immersive” feeling that has made the game a hit in the West (so far).
The Old Republic will soon be up against a World of Warcraft expansion that is quite clearly targeted specifically at Asian (especially Chinese) players. The Mists of Pandaria expansion won’t be out until 2012, and likely quite late in 2012, but the promise of an experience designed with them in mind may be enough to keep Asian gamers engaged in WoW and away from The Old Republic.
In China, at least, the game’s title also sounds a little…odd. I’m not sure if this is the official translation or not, but the title Chinese sites are using is 星球大战：旧共和国. That does literally mean “Star Wars: [The] Old Republic,” but the word being used for “old” carries the connotation of “run-down” or “worn-out,” which — to me at least — makes the game sound sort of unappealing. A cooler-sounding term like “ancient” might be called for here, and after all, the game is set 2,500 years before the events depicted in the films. But it’s not clear whether EA has actually picked a Chinese title.
A Future in Asia?
The above issues aside, the main reason people play games is that they’re fun, and The Old Republic is reportedly quite fun. That alone could render the things I describe above more or less irrelevant. Moreover, the game has some other things going for it that will help make it popular in Asia. For one, the graphics are well ahead of the aging visuals of WoW. Even so, like WoW, its system requirements are pretty low, meaning that lower-end consumer computers (and the pieces of junk in most net cafes) will actually be able to run it. That’s important.
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