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Star Wars: The Old Republic Column: Too Rigid and Longevity

By Jean Prior on March 20, 2014

As everyone probably knows by now, Story is the high altar upon which BioWare trades its wares.  With Star Wars: the Old Republic, we got a rich set of interwoven class storylines and overall game storyline that pitted Republic versus Empire with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance.  It's no secret that BioWare needed help in learning how to write story for an MMO after starting off where the single-player game Knights of the Old Republic left off.  One of the critical challenges for any MMO is keeping things fresh for older players wanting to start a new alt.  Replayability is something that even single-player games have to worry about, but for an MMO, it's the cornerstone to keeping the game's doors open.

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One of the biggest problems with SWTOR is actually the mechanics behind the story.  While there is some flexibility in being able to choose light side, dark side, or monkeying with neutral choices (and getting penalized when it comes to choosing Relics unless you're an Artifice crafter), the game is extremely rigid in terms of what you can do.  Other games have similar overall story arcs that will have to be the same for all players, it's fairly typical of the genre, but not many games manage to lock in the content to such a strict degree that you pretty much have only one singular path through the game's content if you're playing the story quests (i.e. not PVPing your way to cap).

Let's make a comparison here, with a swift disclaimer: I will not be comparing this to Star Wars: Galaxies, because that was an open-world sandbox and built completely differently than The Old Republic.  However, when it comes to AAA MMOs with an overall story, let's go with two I'm familiar with, having played both since 2006 and 2007 respectively: World of Warcraft, and Lord of the Rings Online.  Both games feature a persistent storyline that affects what players can and can't do, with LotRO having a far more pointed and required-by-Intellectual-Property story.  While some accommodation needs to be made for the fact that both games are years older than Star Wars: the Old Republic and thus have had time to add to their in-game zones and story, the relative ability for the trio of game studios to revamp their games to freshen them up or make things easier is markedly different. 

The voice acting and rampant cutscenes are one of SWTOR's main selling points, with the vast list of voice credits having garnered the game a Guinness Book World Record in 2012 for Largest Entertainment Voice Over Project.  Unlike a quick one or two lines in the beginning or end of a question, or the occasional combat bark, SWTOR's entire core gameplay revolves around these static scenes that only change depending on a few player choices.  While the core game is incredibly complex in terms of those choices, everything in regular PVE gameplay is focused on those movie-quality scenes after all the pewpew or womwomm is done. 

On the other hand, in a game like WoW or LotRO, while it's something of an undertaking to revamp a zone, both games allow for multiple paths within their PVE questing to get to level cap and finish the overall game's epic story.  In Warcraft, you can take your Draenei Paladin from Azuremyst and level her through Elwynn Forest if you want to try something different, because the story doesn't really care about your class or species origin.  In LotRO, you can level your Elf Champion past Bree by going east through the Lone-Lands toward Rivendell or go north into the North Downs and Kingsfell before heading to Angmar.  Sure, you wind up riding all over creation in LotRO to complete the epic questline, but in terms of general PVE leveling, you have multiple paths to get to cap once you leave the racial starting areas.

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In Star Wars: the Old Republic, you have two paths: Imperial or Republic.  You can only run starter area quests on your class's home planet, so no Smugglers leveling on Tython, no Sith Inquisitors running on Hutta.  The story is rich, but it's also extremely rigid within the confines of planetary quests and class quests.  Unless you're a subscriber who doesn't have to do a planet's bonus series to remain on-level with content, or it's double XP weekend, every player who levels via planetary and class quests is going to go through the exact same basic content every single time they level a new character of that same class.  After the third or fourth time, particularly on certain planets, it gets really old, really fast. 

Of course, the armchair developer's first response would be, “Well, change it up!  Revamp it!  Other games do it!”  They would point to WoW's wholesale map and questing changes that occurred with their Cataclysm expansion where the Barrens was split in twain, other areas got a complete facelift, quests were redone, reworked, or removed (*sob*, goodbye Tirion Fordring's quests in the Plaguelands!).  They could flail toward LotRO's revamp of the Mines of Moria or the overhaul of Bree-land and demand to know why BioWare cannot or will not do something similar with the quests and areas in Star Wars: the Old Republic.

Setting aside the fact that the game is less than three years old, any revamp of Star Wars: the Old Republic would be a far more massive undertaking than Blizzard reworking Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms to allow for flying mounts.  When I was first getting into writing about video games a few years back, I postulated what it would take for BioWare to go back and rework questing enough to allow for more same-gender romance options within the scope of the current storyline, a much lesser undertaking versus opening up the world to allow for multiple PVE questlines to get to cap.  My basic conclusions on the technical side of things remains sound and are generic enough that they apply to revamping the game in general.  Simply put, the deep story is great, but it's also very rigid, and the entire game would have to be rewritten, re-animated, and re-voiced to accommodate any of these changes.  Now imagine this on a more global scale, rather than just tweaking existing questlines. 

BioWare couldn't revamp the game to shoehorn SGR content in back before they laid off a metric ton of their staff in May 2012, and they sure can't do it now with a much smaller headcount nearly two years later.  It has nothing to do with what players want, don't want, or think the game needs, it all comes down to money and BioWare and EA's willingness to spend that kind of money on the game.  We know that EA is making bank on the game, it's not like they don't have that kind of cash to kick into such a venture.  However, it would require hiring a lot more staff in order to accomplish any of these goals.  Even something as 'simple' as adding all-new planets so you have two different places to go if you wanted to play through, say, levels 24-28 on Yavin IV instead of Tatooine, and then play through Alderaan to finish Chapter 1 would take a massive amount of writing, animating, and voice acting to make it happen.  Compare that notion versus what we've got to the game since launch: Rise of the Hutt Cartel, Galactic Starfighter.  Neither one really did anything involving retrofitting new stuff into elder content, they just added more content on the front end.  We've had Czerka's moon CZ-198 added in there and then Oricon, but they're still not changing older stuff.  The two expansions we will see this year are being touted as adding to the overall game storyline, to pick up where we all left off once we played through Makeb, CZ-198, and Oricon the first time, but won't give us new class content.

At the end of the day, playing a game that adds new content is all well and dandy.  However, when a game doesn't do much by way of spring cleaning on its elder content, that elder content becomes very stale and boring after the first few times you play through it.  An MMO is not and cannot be treated like a single-player console game.  I might adore The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but I've played it many times and generally only hit it up for entertainment once or twice a year, because it takes that long for the 'been there, done that' feeling to fade away.  With SWTOR, once I've played through the class quests and at least one iteration of each planet's quests, my only options are to go back and do it again and play the light side/dark side choices differently or play a different gender to see how the romance paths work out for the other side of the party.  There is a finite amount of non-grindy replayability in the game, hence why I don't often do Flashpoints, because too many players yell at those who don't spacebar through content.  Sadly, what this means for me is that I can see that a game like SWTOR will have a finite shelf life even for fans such as myself, versus a game like World of Warcraft, where Chris Metzen said last year at BlizzCon that they had several expansions already in mind or in the works.  To be fair, I see the same sort of limited lifetime on tap for Lord of the Rings Online as well, mainly because their canon really doesn't extend into the Fourth Age, but their game is still better geared to doing things like revamping the North Downs and Trollshaws quests in an update later this year.  Without that flexibility, Star Wars: the Old Republic isn't likely to survive past its initial contract.  While there are many other reasons why that might happen (mostly having to do with the change of ownership to Disney and the new movies coming out), I believe the game itself would need a complete redesign to regenerate like a Time Lord if it's going to survive beyond when its initial contract is up.  

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