GDC 2013: BioWare expected players to take three to five months to hit SWTOR's level cap

Speaking to a room of game developers and journalists at GDC this morning, BioWare Creative Director James Ohlen discussed the problems that Star Wars: The Old Republic faced at launch. Chief among them was the team's huge underestimation of players' ability to consume content, which Ohlen believes was caused by the studio's inexperience in the genre.

Ohlen's presentation was marked by sincerity and sobriety as he described the ups and downs of SWTOR's launch. "Some of the risks that we identified going into launch were becoming worse than we thought... The most worrisome was that people were going through the content a lot faster than we expected. We had expected our playerbase to play through the game and get to the endgame, on average, in about three to four months, maybe five months. It was 170-180 hours of content. But our metrics were showing us that, on average, for the millions of people playing our game, they were going through the game at a rate of 40 hours a week."

MMO players are notorious for their ability to chew through content infinitely faster than developers are able to produce it. Most MMO and expansion launches have been marked by a race between players trying to reach the level cap first and earn all the accolades, forum posts, and shiny achievements that come along with that.

Still, Ohlen expressed the team's shock at how fast players were playing through SWTOR's content. "[40 hours a week] was the average! We actually had people doing 80 to 100 to 120 hours a week, which I can't even comprehend."

A fast leveling curve isn't necessarily a game-killer. DC Universe Online, for example, was chided at its launch for requiring minimal effort to hit the level cap (a relatively low 20-30 hours), but the game had a wealth of endgame content ready to go at launch, so level-capped players stayed active. According to Ohlen, the real problem for the SWTOR team, and ultimately the game itself, resulted from the team not being prepared for how fast players consume content in MMOs, a genre Ohlen pointed out that BioWare had no experience in before SWTOR.

There was a tone of regret in his voice as Ohlen continued his recounting of the month after launch: "We had people going through the game so fast that within one month, four to five weeks, we suddenly had close to half a million people at the endgame. It was something we didn't expect at all. We had all those people at the endgame and suddenly certain things like having only one Operation, and having no group finder [tool] become much bigger challenges than what we thought they were going to be."

The rest of Ohlen's presentation documented the entire year following SWTOR's launch, with blunt appraisals of the studio's falling morale during the problems of 2012. He ended on a high note, however, praising the game's success after going free-to-play, and revealing that subscription numbers have been rising steadily since the business model change, and that studio morale is high once again.