BioWare’s SWTOR Team Peaked at Over 650 Team Members


At GDC 2012, I attended the panel on launching SWTOR as a AAA-quality MMORPG hosted by SWTOR Executive Producer Rich Vogel and Director of Production Dallas Dickinson. Massively provided a nice writeup on the panel.

There are two takeaways from the panel that I wanted to discuss:

  1. the team size and ballpark burn rate
  2. the parallels of working across disciplines between the gaming industry and online business

Team Size and Ballpark Burn Rate

Rich and Dallas talked about the massive headcount involved in delivering the work:

  • 30 Producers / Project Managers
  • 75 Designers
  • 80 Engineers
  • 40 Platform
  • 10 Localization
  • 10 Audio (not including LucasArts)
  • 140 Artists
  • 280 QA

That’s 665 people total! What is not clear is whether that was the max concurrent team size, or the number of people involved in the lifetime of the project, etc. My impression is that it was the former.

When you know the headcount numbers, you can ballpark the resource costs, i.e. the sum total for of the costs per resource for compensation, benefits, training, equipment, licenses, etc. If we were to assume an average cost per resource of $100K* per year, that’s a burn rate of $67MM USD annually, excluding costs for PR / Marketing, Community Management, hardware / network / data center costs, etc.

* Keep in mind I’m not saying the average salary of a BioWare team member living in Austin is $100K per year. The $100k estimate is simply a ballpark that includes not only the compensation and benefits, but the complete costs for each person including training, hardware & software, the facilities they worked in, travel costs, and the associated non-developer resources needed to support them (e.g. HR, IT, etc).

So when we hear numbers being thrown around for the cost of developing SWTOR running in the hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re not unreasonable. A team of that scale generates a significant burn rate of millions of dollars on a monthly basis, and the extent to which such a massive team is structured to deliver effectively and managed effectively has a huge impact on the total costs and quality of the deliverable.

Parallels of Working Across Disciplines Between the Gaming Industry and Online Business

One of the big aha’s that Rich and Dallas had was the critical importance of setting up “strike teams” that were multi-disciplinary, i.e. teams that consisted of Designers, Engineers, Artists, QA, etc to work on specific issues and solutions. After the panel, people from other development shops, e.g. from Microsoft’s XBox 360 team, shared that they recently came to the same realization.

What I find interesting is we reached the same conclusion in the Internet business space over a dozen years ago. Launching online products and services required close collaboration across multiple disciplines: Product Managers, Information Architects (who define the site / app structure and functionality from the perspective of the user), Content Writers, Graphic Designers, System Architects, Front-End Engineers (the ones writing the web scripting / pages), Back-End Engineers (the ones implementing the middleware, business rules, databases, integration with other systems, etc), etc.

The good thing is that as developers learn to better execute and manage these large-AAA launches, the smoother the process should be and the better the end product for gamers.

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7 comments on “BioWare’s SWTOR Team Peaked at Over 650 Team Members
  1. Good breakdown, and good to see the multi-disciplinary action that is being taken by Bioware (and other companies now). Especially like the love for Information Architects. Definite soft spot in my heart for the information professions. ;)

    • taugrim says:

      Jacob A. Ratliff :

      Good breakdown, and good to see the multi-disciplinary action that is being taken by Bioware (and other companies now). Especially like the love for Information Architects. Definite soft spot in my heart for the information professions. ;)

      I’ve worked with some very talented IA’s and ID’s and learned from them how to structure information in ways that are intuitive and clean. Some of my favorite “business” books were Edward Tufte’s books on Information Design.

      • I may have to pick those up, I haven’t read them. O’Reilly has some really good books on IA and structure. I came at them from the opposite direction, studying information theory and structure in library school, rather than a business perspective.

  2. aceofspadez619 says:

    Nice article Taug. I think it’s great when you step back to inform or just give your opinion on the big picture topics related to the gaming industry. It gives players better insight and perspective into what really is a ‘quality’ game and to spend their gaming dollars and time accordingly. As a working IT Systems Engineer and a self-described “Grown ass man”, I sometimes can only get my gaming fix by checking out your blog and playing with some talent builds online. Keep up the good work and I hope your business decision to transition to Full-Time Gaming Guru is working for you. The scope of your content (i.e. not the typical walk thru blog) really reflects your efforts.

    • taugrim says:

      aceofspadez619 :

      Nice article Taug. I think it’s great when you step back to inform or just give your opinion on the big picture topics related to the gaming industry. It gives players better insight and perspective into what really is a ‘quality’ game and to spend their gaming dollars and time accordingly. As a working IT Systems Engineer and a self-described “Grown ass man”, I sometimes can only get my gaming fix by checking out your blog and playing with some talent builds online. Keep up the good work and I hope your business decision to transition to Full-Time Gaming Guru is working for you. The scope of your content (i.e. not the typical walk thru blog) really reflects your efforts.

      Thanks ace for the feedback. I know that people like the gaming videos and guides, but I’m not sure whether people find articles like this informative / useful.

      Like you, I’ve worked in the software and online business industry for years, and there are a lot of parallels in terms of how games and online products are developed, launched, and managed.

      • aceofspadez619 says:

        True, the vast majority of eyes on your site(s) are going to be here for the top-notch game analysis and helpful vids for veterans and rookies alike.

        But there is always that certain percentage of folks that when they enjoy something, want to learn how to get involved in producing what they enjoy and would be interested in learning about careers/business side of the gaming industry. I think an article like this now and again gives the proverbial “peek behind the curtain” for those interested. As this hilarious article below points out, the average MMO gamer is in their mid-twenties and wanting to make that “It would be cool to work on video games” dream a reality.

        On a side note and speaking of the hilarious article I referenced, have you seen this?:
        http://kotaku.com/star-wars-the-old-republic/

        BioWare’s decision to allow same-sex love interests doesn’t bother me. Those that agree or disagree are all entitled to their opinion, of course, but here’s an example of people protesting something without being fully informed of what’s actually being implemented.

        I just thought the picture of the Darth RuPaul (taken right from this protest group’s website) is classic. He looks pretty tough! I wouldn’t want to face him at Illum!

  3. aceofspadez619 says:

    Correction:

    ” the average MMO gamer is in their mid-twenties and [could be] wanting to make that “It would be cool to work on video games” dream a reality.”

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