As was announced on the official Star Wars: The Old Republic website about two months ago, the game will be moving to a free-to-play model come November. I was discussing this development with a friend of mine a few days ago, and some interesting points were made.
SW:TOR had a great many things going for it. The game was relatively polished at launch, with few game-breaking bugs and a simply massive amount of content. It had several subsystems that were great and some stellar writing. Sadly, I believe that its decline can be mainly attributed to the fact that players do not want single-player stories in their MMORPGs.
It is most unfortunate that the move to the F2P model will be seen as an indictment of the entire game, rather than only its qualities which caused it to fail in the subscription market. When they speak of SW:TOR in the years to come, no mention will be made of the small innovations that it more, nor will they speak of the fact that the MMORPG market as a whole is steadily gravitating toward the F2P model (boldly led by Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online). Instead, each and every thing which the game did will be treated as anathema.
For the purposes of this analysis, let’s look at some of the subsystems that really worked for SW:TOR. The companion system, for one, is something which I think could easily be used in another game to great effect. The idea of a close companion (or a series of them) for the character, with their own goals and personalities, is very interesting. Using the companion as the crafter (for which they had specific skills) was also, in my opinion, an excellent move, removing a significant amount of tedium from the crafting process. If this were done in a more open manner, say, by having multiple procedurally-generated potential companions in a more open-world setting, this could be a great thing in a future game. This was the game’s main innovation, and should be preserved.
The real core of SW:TOR, unfortunately, is the eight epic storylines which are the center of gameplay. I played the Jedi Knight story almost to the end (before I grew weary of the game) and I found it to be excellently written. The others that I dabbled in, including the Sith Inquisitor, were also excellent. If either had been a single-player game (or a series of them), without all the leveling and side-quest bullshit, I definitely would have finished them. I think, while the general rigidity of the single-player story does not belong in the MMORPG landscape, an attention to detail and writing quality such as was given to SW:TOR deserves to be looked at as an innovation, rather than purely as a failing.
Group play and combat contained few innovations atop their predecessor, which was without a doubt World of Warcraft. For a game with such a rich history of various gameplay styles (see Dark Forces, Dark Forces II, Battlefront, X-Wing and more) to draw purely on the WoW combat model may have been a grave error. The only odd part about group play was that during a story quest, only others who did not share your class could participate, which made sense in the moment, but less sense when you saw someone of the same class exiting an instance right beside you.
At the time I played, PvP was badly broken. There were a few instances where one could play arena-style combat in groups, but the open-world level 50 content was a mess. This has probably been fixed by now (I hope!!) but it damaged the early PvP community significantly.
The real shame in all of this is that the writing in SW:TOR was truly stellar. The stories were genuinely engaging (most of the time) with intriguing twists and sympathetic characters. Unfortunately, it appears that Bioware’s great gamble in attempting to merge the single player and MMORPG worlds has not been the revolution that they were expecting.
It is interesting to speculate whether further innovations (such as a Jedi Academy-style lightsaber combat system) would have helped or hindered adoption of the game. Perhaps it is simply an overall malaise that is affecting the MMORPG world, as the glut of games has segmented the small percentage of players which are not playing World of Warcraft. Time will tell: will developers and publishers see the fall of the Old Republic as a rejection of the single-player, linear, instanced game mentality (as they rightly should?) and return to the early days of MMORPGs, where the games were built first as a world (like a MUD) and secondly as a game?
I can hope, but I don’t see much light in the genre right now.
Well… maybe Star Citizen. Maybe. Much remains to be seen.