Marketing, a word many of us gamers both hate and love.
We love marketing because as human beings we invest emotionally in things we like, it is human nature if we think something is good we want people whose opinion matters to us to think its good too. For various reasons, Some people do this because it validates their choice, others for socialising and conversational reasons, there are dozens of other reasons too, but the fact is, we want people to like what we like.
A quick look on any gaming forums will show there are people who buy into marketing and those who rail against it. Star Wars the Old Republic is currently dividing opinion on many sites with some people (Like me) willing to invest emotionally in it. Willing to take Bioware at their word due to a long history of very good games (I am aware of Dragon Age 2, but I am willing to look at that objectively now) and their history with the NWN community and say "You know what, yeah you guys have sold me, I will give you my money now".
Sadly however, I feel EA and Bioware have really messed up the Pre-order and releease schedule of ToR.
Why? Multiple answers
1, They have release Pre-orders requiring a deposit, with no release date or even a window. Vague talk of early access and September testing windows have done little to clear the muddy waters here. The Old Republic has been beta testing for months, I have friends who are in it (lucky gits) yet they announce "Testing weekends" this confuses the less informed consumers who believe that their testing schedule is only just starting.
The lack of a release date also does not help, people are essentially being asked to buy a pig in a poke, "Targetting Holiday 2011" also does not help, because Holiday season in America is vastly different to holiday in the UK, Americas holiday season as I understand includes Haloween and Thanksgiving, where as in the UK, "Holiday 2011" means Late December.
2, This one is unforgiveable, and yet not really EA/Biowares fault. The fact that their website states "We will charge you £5 now and the rest when the game is released" and yet when you order it, if you pay by CC some people are finding the full amount has been locked as a "pre-authorisation" charge, meaning the money remains in the users account but they can not use that money. Essentially they have had the full amount removed. This also works with some Debit cards too. Its not EA /Biowares fault, but they should have and more importantly COULD HAVE warned the consumers. I can not believe they have not dealt with CC companies before to know this happens. Given that my support ticket requesting clarity over this was answered within 5 minutes I belive they are aware of this, but did not do enough to warn me.
Now, this is my fault too, I should have know BUT good PR would have been to be upfront and inform the consumer.
3, The Collectors Edition Store.
Now they have confirmed that there will be items "Comparable to easy to get drops" in the store but with a unique appearance. Personally I am ok with this, I did not order the collectors edition but for those who did sure knock your self out, Me I am going to use the extra money to buy Batman Arkham City and a copy of Space Marine, I think I got the better deal.
However! people are sensitive about using real money to acquire ingame items in a subscription MMO, it sets a BAD vibe, people will extrapolate from this policy that you are ok with selling power. If this connection is made, some will be put off.
4, The lack of Story on the pre-order page, Come on Bioware, I thought nothing happened with your game without there being story.
Now lets look at how PR can be used well.
Guild Wars 2, the Original Guild Wars when it came out promised the earth and delivered on half of its promises, the new Guild Wars promises many things and yet glosses over a lot of the more pertinent questions. Yet because Anet have been very careful to present them selves as "listening to their fans" citing examples of this and picking very carefully who they give exclusives to, no one has yet questioned them. The buy to play model buys them a lot of good will and the fact that the original guild wars has been kept running for so long also encourages people.
Arena Net have focused on their strengths and what they intend to bring to the table, Dynmic events personalised stories and the works. Its a massive feature set when they lay it out and yet in reality its simply an evolution on the public quest system, just with the possibility of multiple outcomes. Guildwars had a fun plot not the most deep and engaging but fun and the lore is strong. While I have no doubt they too will deliver a strong MMO, you can not deny they have used PR well, where as EA have really fluffed with theirs lately.
Yet of the two I would rather have EA looking after ToR than NCSoft (Tabula Rasa fans will know what I am talking about)
Trion Worlds when they were hyping up Rift did a massive scale PR Campaign including the "We are not in Azeroth any more" tagline. Personally I felt a sub-caption of "Its more like outlands" would have fit with this as the game its self felt very much like TBC but with better graphics. Yet during the build up to their release and ever since they have engaged with thier players. Given value added services away for free and generally celebrated their successes in a loud but humble way that endears them to me, despite the fact I did not enjoy Rift. This is an example of PR Done right, even a product that did not engage me gets and keeps my interst due to the publicity it gets.
Sony Online Entertainment continue to thrive simply on the amount of Hype they can generate, I got burned badly with DC Universe but part of the reason I even considered it was just the sheer amount of hype they put out. I wanted to love that game because you could tell the people working on it loved it, and USUALLY when you get people who invest emotionally in their own product, you will find that product to be a labour of love. Sadly DC universe did not deliver in the long term and now I have a life time sub ticking away for a game that I probably wont go back to for more than an hour here and there.
The point is PR and Marketing makes us as humans invest emotionally in a game, it makes us long to explore the world, sample the story, Delve into the lore and most of all give our money to other people.
EA and Bioware constantly seem to be doing a desperate attempt to keep their heads above water with The Old Republic, I strongly believe this is because they intended to launch the game over a year ago already. However they realised that in order to deliver the game that people would want to invest in, that people would stick around in they needed more time. So an open ended developement cycle was basically brought in to replace the current one, and now, they are almost ready for launch. I believe that the test weekends in September WILL determine when the game will actually ship. I believe that EA and Bioware are ready infrastructure wise to ship in October but are happy to wait untill December(I had an email 2 months ago that they were starting to hire GMs in Ireland where ToRs EU support will be based).
All of this is pretty much common knowledge on the internet and yet Bioware and EA are keeping quiet about the whole thing, they are simply allowing conspiracies and counter conspiracies to take hold. The hype they are starting to generate now is mostly positive, but there is some negative in there, for that reason I believe they way they handled pre-orders was a mess. Because quite frankly the scale of the product they are making is so huge that now they are near the end they are SCARED to commit because so much could happen in such a short space of time. Their investment is so huge they cant take ANY chances with ToR.
That for me is why I have pre-ordered a Digitial Deluxe edition, but EA's marketing department nearly managed to put me off.