Release dates are tricky things. Release your game at the wrong time and it wont be successful no matter how fun the game is; release your game at the right time and a mediocre game can become a cult favorite. MMOs, however, are entirely different beasts. Because of their audience and the way they make their money (through subscriptions or microtransactions rather than initial box sales), MMOs can release independent of the normal release schedule and still be successful. Nearly three years after its announcement, Star Wars: The Old Republic finally has a release date. On December 20 in North America and Europe, we will be able to log in and experience the Old Republic era. On the official forums in the announcement thread titled Launch Date for STAR WARS: The Old Republic, people share their views on the release date, and whether they think it is the right choice or not.
The release date announcement was a bit of surprise to some, though in retrospect it shouldn't have been. During the Electronic Arts Q1 2012 Earnings Conference Call, EA CFO Eric Brown said, "As we get into the bulk of the summer we're going to be ramping up our beta campaign and by the time we get to around September we'll be in a position to really call the ball and give the hard ship date."
At the end of September, that's what they did. BioWare took the opportunity to announce the release at the 2011 Eurogamer Expo, a rather low-key event during the gaming convention season. One would expect a big announcement to be made at E3, PAX, or even Comic-Con, but with news coming out just the day before of Diablo III not shipping until 2012, BioWare seized the opportunity. If Blizzard and BioWare were in a staring contest, Blizzard blinked.
December 20 is the last Tuesday before Christmas, satisfying the release window of holiday 2011 and simultaneously giving BioWare as much time as possible to continue testing. Ezrya questioned the date, saying, "I'm also a bit confused that BioWare would want to launch during a holiday week, given the amount of support that is going to be required for the game in that first week." It's unfortunate that most of the employees down at the Austin studio will be busy during Christmas this year (hint: celebrate Christmas early this year, guys), but then again, how many opportunities do you get to launch a new MMO?
Releasing only five days before Christmas has other downsides as well. I wouldn't be surprised if Star Wars: The Old Republic gets skipped over when end of the year awards are handed out, not because of quality, but because of time constraints. MMOs usually take a few weeks to review. When Rift released back in March, most major outlets didn't have their review up until nearly three weeks later. If the same happens with Star Wars: The Old Republic, we won't see reviews for the game until 2012. How can it be considered for an award if it hasn't been reviewed yet? Will it be considered for 2012 end of the year awards? If so, it'll have to compete with Guild Wars 2 and other games coming out next year.
Those are all well and good on the business and development side of things, but what about the players, the people who waited years to play this game while consuming every piece of information they could each week?
A late December release means people are home for the holidays, for example DarthFalice who said, "PERFECT! Exams should be done by then, SO PUMPED!!" During the holidays, I generally have lots of free time. My family isn't big, only consisting of six people including myself, and we're often doing different things; there aren't many times where we're all in the same room doing something together. But I know I'm the exception to the rule, and others will likely be traveling across the country to spend time with family members they haven't seen in months. Eosur says, "This is most probably the worst release date you could have done? A couple of days before Xmas. Do you realize how many people won't have the time to play it over Xmas because of their families etc? Then we have New Year as well. You really think people will want to play it over the biggest HOLIDAY of the year!"
It also doesn't leave much time for Christmas shoppers to pick the game up as a gift, even if they're aware of its release. Some would argue most people complete their shopping before Christmas, but looking at any random mall the week before and you'll see plenty of examples that debunk that theory.
The only game I can see giving Star Wars: The Old Republic a decent run is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It releases before The Old Republic in November, but it could still be relevant a month later. I've never played an Elder Scrolls game before, so I can't personally speak about how long or expansive an Elder Scrolls game is, but I've heard others spending as much as 150 hours in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, so it's possible it could be in the mind share of gamers even a month later. GarithTannis is definitely looking forward to it, saying "3 month wait notwithstanding, it's the best news. 'Cuz I'll have plenty of time to get BF3 and probably Skyrim or Assassin's Creed: Revelations out of my system, and get that monster CE paid off." Gamers who are dedicated to Skyrim will take as much time as they can, the same goes for Call of Duty or Battlefield players still playing the same game months or years after release.
Of course, we can't forget about Blizzard's World of Warcraft in the scheme of things. Whether it's a patch, expansion, or new feature, they've always had something to present when a possible competitor releases a title. Lamatra believes Blizzard will release their expansion-ending patch 4.3 to compete with the release of The Old Republic, "Patch 4.3 won't be in 30 days or so ._. It's not even on PTR yet, so it will be at least 2 months from now." As of this writing, it is in testing and I'd be willing to bet money it will officially be released the week of December 20.
A late December release is both the best and worst possible release date. BioWare is not oblivious to the fact that Christmas is only five days away, and they are using that to their advantage. Not everyone will be able to log in on day one to start their adventure, due to either travel or family plans, but BioWare knows this. As scruffy put it, "I bet they've chosen these dates specifically so the numbers of people playing (not buying) will be artificially limited by the holidays and thus, the servers won't boil into piles of slag within 14 and half minutes." They know that by launching five days before Christmas, they can effectively soft-launch the game with fewer players than they would at any other time, creating a stable server environment and propagating the illusion of a limited launch. It's no secret that MMOs live and die by how successful their launch is, and Star Wars: The Old Republic is no exception.