With the beta weekends over, NDA lifted, and launch approaching later this month, speculation and flame wars about Star Wars: The Old Republic have reached a fevered pitch. Opinions about the beta content vary, but seem to generally fall within two camps: those that love what BioWare is doing with the Star Wars license and will be playing from day one, and those who feel a certain sense of ennui about traditional MMOs and think that SWTOR will be just another WoW clone with lightsabers.
The first camp, which probably agrees with our list of 5 Things We Love about SWTOR, seems to be familiar with the traditional MMO model, and fine with what it has to offer. This familiarity means that they're ok with common tropes found in most MMORPGs, such as conventional quest mechanics, hotbar-based combat, traditional user interface design, and class customization options that build upon models popularized by games like Everquest and World of Warcraft. For these gamers, the SWTOR beta didn't present any huge surprises, but allowed them to get comfortable with the game's familiar mechanics and explore Bioware's new contributions to the MMO genre, particularly the involving storylines, light- and dark-side decision system, companions, and of course, new Star Wars hotness. To some extent, the fact that SWTOR is gearing up to be very "same-y" in the gameplay department to most MMOs that have come out in the past 10 years is secondary to Bioware's clean delivery of the LucasArts-based content.
The other camp is not so excited about what may feel like an overhyped "World of Star Warscraft." They're either tired of the conventional MMO genre, or didn't like it in the first place, and are quick to point out things on our list of 5 Not So Great Things about SWTOR. The sidequests are similar to what you'd find in other MMORPGs and don't always make sense for your stature as a Jedi or Sith, the itemization runs into the same "Attack of the Clones" issue that happens when you have thousands of players running around in similar outfits, and character creation leaves a lot to be desired. In addition, the look and feel of the game is a bit too familiar for those looking for something to revitalize the MMO genre, and even the art design and polish can't mask the MMO sameness evident in the game's systems.
To be fair, these two groups aren't homogenous and there are a variety of speculative opinions about the game which are sure to become more refined after its launch on December 20. SWTOR might be the first MMO for a lot of people, and Star Wars fans will have their own opinion about the importance of the gameplay in relation to the lore and feel of the content. Plus, impressions of space combat are overwhelmingly lukewarm across the board. Still, the discussion around SWTOR's conventional approach to MMO design may signify a pivotal point in players' expectations of top-tier MMORPGs. Put simply, I think the polarized beta conversation begs the question: Is SWTOR the swan song for the traditional MMO model?
If we look at the most highly-anticipated upcoming MMOs, it's easy to see that most developers are trying to do something new with their games which could allow them to stand out beyond their subject material. Funcom is talking pretty big about The Secret World's class-less skill system and rich, lore-driven puzzles, and from Suzie's preview of the game last month, I'm starting to believe them. ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2 is promising to shake up the genre with dynamic event-based quests, personal stories, and a new combat system that looks to be vastly more engaging than what's currently available in other MMOs. Even En Masse Entertainment/Bluehole Studio's TERA, which looks to be very familiar in its assets and content to other games on the market, is being touted as "the first true action MMORPG" with its first-person-shooter styled combat. Surely, we'll be seeing games that recreate the EQ and WoW conventions ad infinitum, but AAA developers seem to be intent on distinguishing their titles based on gameplay moving forward. SWTOR does try some new things with the cover system and fully-voiced storylines, but one could argue that its main draw is the highly polished use of the Star Wars license, not any gameplay innovations.
It's noteworthy that most current MMO developers aren't content to sit on their laurels and recreate the same material either. The Everquest series and WoW themselves continue to receive updates and system changes that demonstrate the close attention that Sony Online Entertainment and Blizzard pay to advancements being made by other devs in the genre. Companies like Trion Worlds are adamant about adding new systems to their games to keep players engaged, and Rift's success is a perfect example of how a game criticized for being "more of the same" can still flourish with some forward-thinking developers. Other games, like Turbine's Dungeons and Dragons Online and The Lord of the Rings Online, along with Funcom's Age of Conan and SOE's DC Universe Online, have met with greater success by changing from traditional monthly subscriptions to free-to-play or "freemium" models. SWTOR will be launching with a $14.99 subscription, and BioWare seems to be as of yet unwilling to try out other forms of revenue for their new and highly expensive venture.
Can BioWare pull it off with Star Wars: The Old Republic? I think they can. The game has all of the fixings of a traditional MMO, with just enough additions to make it stand out in a genre that is saturated with EQ and WoW clones. Most importantly, SWTOR has Star Wars, which will likely be the major factor in the MMORPG's success over others that might offer a similar gameplay experience, but don't have the license and setting to back it up. I mean, seriously folks, STAR WARS. SWTOR is going to sell like gangbusters, and may very well have the staying power to hold a decent amount of subscriptions for a while before Bioware will have to make some decisions about their revenue streams.
People who like MMOs and Star Wars will likely love everything about the game, while others who are looking for something new will have to wait for some of the newer hotness coming down the pipe. Either way, MMO developers post-SWTOR will have to look to new, creative avenues for their games' designs, systems, and revenue models to stay competitive. Smaller MMOs that recreate the same formula will still find modest purchase in the market, but larger-scale projects are going to require a bit more innovation for a piece of the MMORPG pie, not being able to rely on settings as big as Star Wars as their main draw.
That is, until the Harry Potter MMO comes out.
Will you be playing SWTOR when it comes out on December 20? Let us know in the comments below!