Jedie? The problem with Star Wars: The Old Republic

By James Pinnell, Monday, 23 January 2012 08:31 GMT

Is Star Wars: The Old Republic the next great subs-based MMO, or is it already on a one-parsec course to free-to-play? A month after launch, James Pinnell’s assessment isn’t the most positive.

Unless there’s change, such as the introduction of dynamic play and a lot less of a focus on instancing, many planets risk becoming ghost towns. WoW managed to stop this by placing important cities in various areas across all of the continents. SWTOR needs to take the next step and push players into truly defending their chosen side.

MMORPGs are the most fickle beasts in gaming’s ecosphere. Developed unlike any title, the experience is a very slow burn, a drip fed crawl through various worlds, cultures, battles and social interactions. The design schematic becomes the story of a lifetime, a career rather than an event or series of events, as is the usual course of action in most games.

But whether an MMO lives or dies has almost nothing to do with the quality of the graphics, nor the enthralling nature of the story. While many casual players will come and go, sub and un-sub, it’s the addictive, repetitive elements of the endgame and the constant stream of minor changes that ensure the longevity of any perpetual experience. Hardcore gamers are tough to please. Browsing almost any forum on the web will feature at least one thread of players complaining about nerf.

So it’s with some aspect of sorrow that I predict that SWTOR will most likely find itself in the doghouse, fighting for F2P scraps with its brethren (who were also once powerful and idealistic). What will make the transition harder, and more rabidly fought, will be the sheer amount of money pumped into the game by its venerable overlords. EA is desperate, after WAR, to bank a subscription-based cash cow which draws players away from Activision’s own well-known property.

My pessimism may prove amusing and slightly silly to some, especially in light of my glowing review (on another site) of the very same game barely three weeks ago, which found me showering Bioware with praise and admiration. But what makes the game so groundbreaking is that the story becomes the focal element, and yet that’s the same reason players will abandon it. While fun at first, almost all MMOs that feature the “cat herding” raid system of play become reduced to gear farming and spreadsheets. Story is a dear ninth on the list of priorities, next to the colour of Tier 2 armour and a new mount.

The design of the game becomes almost counterproductive to the most successful parts of most MMOs – PVP battlegrounds and PVE instances. While SWTOR very admirably tries (and succeeds) to add substance to pretty but generally shallow battle runs, by the 70th time your guild treks through the place they’ve already found ways to skip half the mobs and most of the dialogue. Without story, as I’ve found running a few flashpoints, most of these dailies are actually pretty short.

Afterthought

PVP is almost definitely an afterthought, and while I’m not personally a fan of battlegrounds, they tend to make up a significant portion of non-raid endgame. SWTOR should be congratulated, again, for attempting to add substance to another usually shallow part of MMOs, but there are still far too many balance issues in relation to skills, the (staggeringly small) size of the battleground and the sheer inability for anyone to understand the basic idea of how “Huttball” works.

Then there is the shamble of Ilum. Bioware, in the almost complete absence of any actual world PVP, haphazardly decided to drop some quests on this planet, which was supposed to push the two sides to trade blows for gear. Unfortunately, it ended up being so broken that when the developer attempted to fix it in 1.1, it became even worse. Try getting out near the opposing base without getting stomped. Thanks to server imbalances, it’s very likely that you won’t be getting any of that gear.

The issue here is that during Bioware’s very laudable attempt to make KOTOR multiplayer, they forgot to add the same level of finesse and craftsmanship to the social systems. While many will praise the lack of an LFG system, others will find having to spam general chat every time they want to run a heroic frustrating. The guild system is laughably basic, with absolutely zero incentives, bonuses, achievements or unlocks to reward even being in one. But hey, you can get badges for doing conversations together.

The game flows so well when you are playing it solo that it’s almost an inconvenience to drag someone else into that experience. Every part of it feels so tacked on that even running raids at 50 feels unnatural. There needs to be almost wholesale change to the way the entire game operates for players to find a reason to stick around once they’ve completed a few of the main story quests.

The game flows so well when you are playing it solo that it’s almost an inconvenience to drag someone else into that experience. Every part of it feels so tacked on that even running raids at 50 feels unnatural. There needs to be almost wholesale change to the way the entire game operates for players to find a reason to stick around once they’ve completed a few of the main story quests.

First of all, Bioware needs to decide whether space will play a meaningful role in the game. There is a mass of untapped potential to branch the game out from the fun-but-meaningless rail shooter to something that involves some of the ship-to-ship battles we’ve all enjoyed in the movies. The developers have hinted at “guild capital ships”, but are yet to explain any context.

Secondly, the guild system needs to be overhauled from “chat channel” to “powerful clan”. Give us rewards for playing together and helping each other out, or provide us with special objectives during flashpoints or via PVP. Provide us with something that other games haven’t, like special guild-only raids granted through progression rewards. Put into practice what you and every other developer have promised to do with guilds: make them have a true impact on the world.

Thirdly, overhaul how players interact with each other. Make it easier to find groups or guilds, make it simpler to return to your ship with an entourage (or even alone, Jesus). Expand on PVP offerings, fast, by making them more organic and dynamic. Make contested areas actually “contested,” by forcing players to complete non-instanced objectives to capture part or all of towns and areas. Simply dropping PVP quests around the place doesn’t exactly invite fair or entertaining play.

And lastly, start to take full advantage of the license. This is Star Wars for Christ’s sake. Where are the wars? Where is the risk of planetary destruction? Where is the galactic threat emanating from? Unless there’s change, such as the introduction of dynamic play and a lot less of a focus on instancing, many planets risk becoming ghost towns. WoW managed to stop this by placing important cities in various areas across all of the continents. SWTOR needs to take the next step and push players into truly defending their chosen side.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments