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Last week, I offered some thoughts on why BioWare Austin’s upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic could be a genuine threat to Blizzard’s gargantuan World of Warcraft – not as a “WoW killer” per se, but as the first game to really poke a dent in the Azerothian monolith.

There are two sides to every story, and every argument has a counterpoint. BioWare has an uphill battle against a firmly entrenched foe, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that The Old Republic will be the dislodging salvo that some people are hoping it will be. The game probably won’t fail – you don’t need a million subscribers to be profitable – but this week we’re going to look at why Blizzard has nothing to fear from BioWare’s first MMOG.

#1 – The Black Hole Effect: Everybody knows what a black hole is, right? It’s when an object reaches a certain critical mass threshold for its given density and collapses into a singularity from which nothing can escape, not even light – and from there, everything it collects only adds to that mass. MMOGs are like that, too. Because they are extremely social games, you play what your friends are playing. Once a game has gained enough subscribers to reach critical mass, people are likely to play it simply because all of their friends are playing it.

SW: TOR may have the credentials to achieve critical mass when it launches, but WoW had that, too – and five years to get bigger and bigger. If a gamer has a choice between playing with 5 of their friends in TOR and 20 of their friends in WoW, some might choose Star Wars but they will likely boot up Warcraft much more frequently.

Let’s not forget that many WoW gamers have spent five years developing their characters, and they won’t be so easy to throw away at the drop of the hat. It will be extremely hard for BioWare to chip away at WoW‘s massive playerbase.

#2 – Time Is Money, Friend!: Or, to be precise, time and money. The Old Republic may have EA’s deep pockets backing it, but do you know who has even bigger pockets? EA’s rival Activision, of course, which is in possession of the money-raking Guitar Hero and Call of Duty franchises. Oh, and we can’t forget the money from WoW itself. If studio heads had the desire, Blizzard could throw more money at the development of a game than most companies could ever dream of.

EA may have delayed Old Republic to 2011 – a wise move, considering rushing a title out the door can be the Kiss of Death for MMOGs – but the company needs to see a return on its investment in TOR at some point. While BioWare’s track record has certainly earned it some leeway on release dates, it’s hard to imagine that the company possesses the carte blanche that Blizzard currently has to effectively tell its parent corporation, “Screw off, it’ll be done when it’s done.” There will come a time when TOR must be released, while Blizzard can bide its time before shipping a new product. And speaking of new products…

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#3 – Cataclysm: The Burning Crusade didn’t offer much content for low-level players or beginners – two new races with two new starting zones, but otherwise everything else was standard issue – and Wrath of the Lich King offered even less. The third expansion, Cataclysm, on the other hand, is revamping the entire world of Azeroth from the ground up. I’ve seen more excitement about Cataclysm than either of the other two expansions from former players and non-players alike. Newbies get a streamlined questing experience without some of the old clunkers (The Green Hills of Stranglethorn, anyone?) that we had to tackle the first time around, and it encourages old players to return to see how things have changed.

By the time TOR comes out, the new Azeroth might be starting to feel a bit old, but that doesn’t change the fact that the aforementioned critical mass might be that much bigger.

#4 – System Requirements: WoW‘s graphics are dated, but the game is still one of the best examples in the industry of how stylized art direction and world-building can compensate for low-end technical specs. A game that limits itself to people with the raw power to run it is unnecessarily cutting off its audience, and The Old Republic will need to consider the bottom-end PCs if it wants to come close to duplicating the success of WoW (and lacking the cartoonish Warcraft style makes it more difficult to do that).

Blizzard games are very rare in that they work on PCs and Macs right out of the box. While I haven’t heard word on whether SW: TOR will have Mac support early on – it very well might – being able to play on both Macs and PCs is crucial for enabling gamers to jump ship to a different MMOG. Remember, MMOGs are social games: people go where their friends are, and they go with their friends. If you have a group of ten friends, and two of them play on Macbooks, how many players do you miss out on if your game isn’t playable on a Mac? If you answered “two,” you’re wrong – you’ll probably have lost most, if not all of them, as potential customers. If their friends can’t come play, then they won’t come play either.

#5 – The Impossible Bar: Back in September, I spoke with Cryptic’s Bill Roper about the launch of Champions Online. He admitted that there was a very high bar set for entry into the MMOG market, because new games are invariably compared to titles that have been on the market for years, fair or not. He pointed to the concept of “phasing” zones introduced in Wrath of the Lich King – four years after the release of WoW – and said that he’d heard criticism of his own Champions for not including the feature, even though one game had been out for five years and the other less than a month.

By this point, the senior members of the World of Warcraft team have been with the game for almost a decade. Each expansion teaches the playerbase and the developers more, and each iteration is an improvement. The Old Republic might be better than WoW was when it launched, but it won’t be compared to WoW at launch, it’ll be compared to WoW as it stands now, with five years of “How did we go without that?” under its belt. Is it fair to do so? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Of course, none of these five points are insurmountable. Anyone who thinks WoW won’t ever face a real challenge is incredibly foolish – that’d be like saying five years ago that EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and Final Fantasy XI wouldn’t be challenged by this dinky game from newcomer Blizzard – but then again, it’s equally foolish to think that unseating the current industry leader is easy.

At the end of the day, I would be incredibly surprised if WoW were truly toppled from power as the #1 MMOG, or if The Old Republic ended up a complete failure. TOR has more going for it than any other MMOG in recent memory, but it’s up against an incredibly formidable foe in WoW. Speculation is fun and there are arguments for the success of both games. The only sure bet is that we won’t know how it’ll turn out until they go head to head for real when TOR is released.

John Funk wants to know why he can’t just play a Night Elf Jedi.

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