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Checking in with Star Wars: The Old Republic

Electronic Arts’ is betting big on Star Wars – to the tune of nearly $100 million.

“Star Wars: The Old Republic” is one of the video game publisher’s biggest titles of the year – arguably of the last 5 years. While the game’s not scheduled to come out until this holiday season (and could potentially slip to 2012), this seems like a good time to run down the latest on one of the few titles that could give “World of Warcraft” a run for its money.

What is it? – “Star Wars: The Old Republic” is a massively multiplayer online game – or MMO in gaming parlance. First announced in October 2007, the game is being developed by EA-owned Bioware, one of the most respected studios in the industry.

It’s an ambitious game – the first MMO to use large-scale voice acting. Rather than most characters communicating only in words printed on the screen, non-player characters, even trivial ones, will be voiced.

Players can choose to play as either an agent of the Republic or Empire. And the game will feature both space and land battles. Rather than simply putting players on a treadmill and encouraging them to level up, Bioware is paying close attention to the story in the game.

When’s it coming out? – EA’s not saying. Though it’s slated for release in calendar 2011, EA (in an earnings call Wednesday) hedged a bit, saying it’s possible the game could slip to 2012, depending on feedback from the ongoing beta. Most analysts don’t think that will happen, though.

How much has it cost? – Wedbush Securities estimates the company has spent roughy $80 million to create the game – and will spend at least another $20 million to promote and market it when it launches. That’s an extraordinarily high number for a video game, but it’s not the first to reach that. “Grand Theft Auto IV” was said to have cost $100 million and Sega’s “Shenmue” was $70 million. “Halo 3” only cost $30 million to create, but Microsoft spent twice that on marketing.

How the heck will EA make money on it? – Consensus is that EA needs 500,000 paying subscribers to break even on the game and cover operating costs. It should reach that easily. 1 million people are participating in the beta right now and EA is expected to quickly see subscriber totals hit that number (or even 1.5 million) once the game goes live.

Wasn’t there a Star Wars MMO before? – Yes. Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts rolled out “Star Wars: Galaxies” in 2003. The game’s still operating, but never was the smash most people were expecting – and subscriber numbers are dwindling. Once “The Old Republic” hits shelves, don’t be surprised if the death watch for “Galaxies” goes into overdrive.