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'Old Republic' sees up to 1.5M pre-release players

Though Bioware's highly anticipated massively multiplayer RPG "Star Wars: The Old Republic" doesn't officially launch until tomorrow, up to 1.5 million pre-orderers are estimated to have played the game, having been granted early access to the code over the past week.

Cowen & Company analyst Doug Creutz notes that "The Old Republic" was already running on 140 distinct servers over the weekend — 77 in the U.S. and 63 in Europe — up from 106 servers running on Wednesday.

Those servers were consistently packed with players, too, with many complaining about long queues before being able to log on to the game over the weekend. Bioware said in a statement it is "taking this matter seriously and constantly reviewing [queues] to make sure that they are manageable and reasonable" as the title continues to roll out to more players.

Creutz estimated that "The Old Republic" servers have actually been filled a little more densely than those for Activision Blizzard's long-standing MMO leader "World of Warcraft," which hosts roughly 4 to 4.5 million players on 491 servers in North America and Europe. From those numbers, a little back-of-the-envelope math generated Creutz's estimate of 1 to 1.5 million early "Old Republic" players so far.

That pre-release success will be welcome news at publisher Electronic Arts, which has previously said the massive development costs for the game could be paid off by just 500,000 monthly subscribers. Of course, EA is projecting a much larger player base than that — EA Games president Frank Gibeau said earlier this year he sees the MMO as a "tens-of-million-person opportunity."

An eight-figure subscriber number would make "The Old Republic" the first MMO to compete seriously with the popularity of "World of Warcraft." That game still boasted 10.3 million worldwide subscribers last month, though it's off from a peak of 12 million players recorded last year.

So, does "The Old Republic" have what it takes to be the MMO industry's long-sought "WoW-killer"? Well, early impressions from the press have been glowing, and obsessive players have already reportedly reached the game's highest levels, suggesting that EA may have struck on a winning combination of addictive gameplay paired with a recognizable license.

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Kyle Orland has written hundreds of thousands of words about gaming since he started a Mario fan site at the age of 14. You can follow him on Twitter or at his personal website, KyleOrland.com.