Neither long ago nor galactically distant

So, SWTOR, eh? That was really a good game, but never a great one. I stopped playing a couple of months ago and have been pondering what to say about it in post-mortem.

Star Wars the Old Republic is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, designed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. With a design house that good, a publisher that powerful, and an intellectual property that beloved, you’d think it’d be the biggest game ever. New flash: it’s not.

SWTOR had some things that it did very well. The fully-voiced cutscenes were great, and something I definitely appreciated and now desire in all my games. Sadly, a lot of players don’t care that much about those fully-voiced cutscenes, because there was a strange disconnection between the story concept and the implementation. I’ll get into more detail about that below.

I quite liked having choices in conversations; this was even better when in groups, where everyone’s answers actually “meant” something. Which is to say, the choices rarely actually changed anything, but they did give you more insight into the people you were hanging out with. As with the fully-voiced cutscenes, this was admirable dedication to the roleplaying community… but was sadly lacking in much the same way the cutscene idea was.

So what went wrong with the cutscenes and conversation choices? For me, one of the ongoing critical failures of MMOs as a genre is their reliance on random strangers for nigh-everything. If you visit a new planet in SWTOR, you’ll quickly find yourself running errands for strangers. They decide what your priorities are, they decide what your time is worth, and they don’t actually know anything about your so-important choices, nor do they care. If I’m a General of the Republic, you’d think that maybe once… just one time in my entire career… I’d be able to come up with my own agenda instead of relying on someone else to tell me what to do. The closest thing to agency that exists in SWTOR (or in LotRO, or in WoW, or MMOs in general) is the decision of which quest to accept. So sure, I’m free to decide that as a General of the Republic, helping this guy with his farm is beneath me, but I’m never free to decide that I want to make my own plans to ambush an Imperial convoy.

Not only do we rely on NPCs for all of our quests, as usual… they don’t know who we are. If I literally just saved (or defeated) the Sith Emperor himself (or his Voice)… the game wants me to think that I’m something special. I’m unique! But every other player of my class is unique in the same ways I am, with the same (generally unique and compelling) story. This is where single-player games can really shine; when you’ve done things that are supposed to be impressive, it’s helpful if the world treats you differently. You killed the dragon! Now every time you come into town, the villagers murmur “dragonslayer” and throw flowers in your path, while studiously avoiding eye contact. Not here! You killed the dragon, and nothing at all changed. Maybe the guy who told you to kill the dragon (it wasn’t your idea after all; it’s never your idea) will say something about it. Maybe not. Maybe this is the thousandth dragon you’ve slain, but the guy who told you to do this won’t know about that either, nor would he care. You’re just a Completely Interchangeable Player Character (CIPC).

All of the above is harmless enough, really; those aren’t critical failings and SWTOR shares them with almost every other MMO. The problem is, SWTOR was designed and marketed as a story-heavy game, and the stories are good. Sometimes they’re very good. The game however doesn’t really use the story well, and the result is lackluster.

Oh, sure, there were other problems from the start – a lot of them to be honest. The space missions for instance were shooters on rails – you literally cannot steer your ship, but can only choose where and when to fire. Every class ended with literally dozens of skills, so hotbars were a sprawling mess. Character customization was minimal and generally felt nonexistent. A lot of planets used really monotonous color palettes that sucked the joy and wonder out of exploration. Very heavy use of instancing meant that you’d rarely run into many people out in the wilds, which made the game feel empty. Bosses had virtually no unique mechanics, and instead relied entirely on enrage timers; thus pretty much every boss in game is a simple tank and spank dps race.

Having said that, there was a lot that was done well in SWTOR. The classes were all fun. I made at least one of every class. The class stories were generally excellent, although as noted above, the more light that was shined down on this area, the more obvious the glaring cracks and flaws became.

At the end of the day, I think what hurt SWTOR the most was simply WoW. A majority of SWTOR players had played WoW before, and came into this game expecting WoW in space. The designers raced to implement a tiered progression raiding system like WoW’s, but in fairness WoW had years to implement that; years that SWTOR did not get. The raiding community in WoW is desperately looking for another game to migrate to en masse, and a lot of them hoped SWTOR would be that game. SWTOR though was not designed as a progression raiding game, and that aspect was tacked on hurriedly and a bit clumsily, just as token PvP was introduced. It was enough to excite the hardcore, but not nearly enough to satisfy them. To be fair, I doubt that static content will ever suffice for that purpose for long… but anyone who’s read this blog before already knows how I feel about static content. 😉

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