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For Better or Worse

Jon Wood Posted:
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I’m going to say this, I’m going to say it boldly and with sincerity, even though I don’t have access to anything but rumored numbers to go on: Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to be the biggest, most expensive MMO created to date.

You’ve heard it before, and you’ve read it eloquently written across any number of gaming websites or magazines over the last few months.  For better or worse, Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to change the MMORPG industry.

On the one hand, if the game is a success with long term retention of subscribers and hot box sales, that makes a firm statement that players want to see story-driven, theme park designed AAA MMOs. It will set a precedent that if you want to succeed in this market you’re going to have to cough up the how many millions and millions of dollars that Star Wars’ budget is rumored to be.

On the other hand, if the game fails to live up to its own admittedly ridiculously heightened expectations, it has the potential to serve as a cautionary tale for big investors and big publishers. Too big and too broad is very likely to give way to smaller, niche targeted titles.

Whichever way the wind blows though, I think that the story of Star Wars: The Old Republic, its development, existence and eventual success or failure is as much about us as a player community as it is about Bioware, EA and their teams.

You see, it’s been a long progression getting here but we, as an MMO fan community, are watching the construction of a monolithic project that we helped to create. Not with our mad design skills or even our money (ok, some of our money, I’m sure), but with our participation in the MMO genre as a whole.

The game is, after all, the perfect representation of what MMORPG players have been pushing for (with their wallets, not with their forum posts). It’s a theme park, with questing and easy solo-ability. It’s got a lot of the hallmarks of the MMO genre, crafting, housing, PvP battlegrounds, questing, leveling, classes and the like. The UI looks exactly how you’d expect an MMO’s UI to look and will function the same. It’s going to look amazing, sound amazing, and run as close to lag-free as the developers can make it. It’s also going to be chock full of content.  By last count, I think that they said it was the equivalent of five new Knights of the Old Republic RPGs. Like many of the recent MMOs, it’s going to have some kind of endgame that the developers just keep refusing to unveil.

So how did we get to the point where we’re looking at the only successful MMOs being the games that meet the above description? The answer, at least as far as I’ve figured it out, is actually fairly simple if we stop to look at it:

We don’t and haven’t as a whole really supported anything else.

Those of us who talk about wanting to play another kind of MMO, the sandbox kind that grows and evolves with the players and is based more on player action than it is developer made content, just haven’t put our money where our mouths are.

Let’s for a moment exclude EVE Online, which is the exception to this rule and has been for quite some time. If we look at the games that have been even remotely sandbox over the last few years (titles like Fallen Earth and Earthrise spring immediately to mind) the support just hasn’t been there.

What’s that you say and are immediately rushing to the forums to comment on before reading the rest of the article? The games felt buggy and only partly finished? They weren’t polished enough? They didn’t look good enough? They need to release a full game before they get your money? They weren’t enough of a sandbox?

Honestly, it’s comments like these and the attitudes that come with them that have contributed to building the Star Wars monolith. The reason that all of the money and all of the publishers turn away from open, sandbox MMOs is because they’re absolutely impossible to build in the current state of the market. Not because of the games being made, but because even the audience that screams as loudly as they can that they want something different isn’t willing to support the natural process that comes with that kind of game.

The industry-wide perception is that players today simply aren’t willing to stand by a sandbox game and give it the support that it needs in order to grow into the game experience that its community expects. The more direct interaction and control that the players are given, the less that the developers can or even should do right out of the gate.

Let’s look at EVE Online (ok, so we’re not so much setting it aside as I thought) as an example of a successful sandbox-style MMO. Like the game or not, you can’t deny its constant growth and the success and the expansion of its developers:

EVE Online started out a small, buggy little program with not a whole lot of variation in what players could do. Over time, and with a small group of devoted fans who stuck with the game, the developers added more and more, expanding their game, getting a handle on bugs (and creating some new ones), and with that came more and more subscribers.

Sandbox MMOs, the kind that many of us want to play and love, build up over time. They aren’t just magically pooped out of some machine at the end of a development cycle complete and ready to be populated. The start is supposed to be rocky and incomplete. If you want polished and finished and full of content, which honestly seems many of us do, then the theme park monoliths are your best bet. They were, after all, built out of the general public’s sharing of those same desires. Not everyone “gets” why they would pay for something that isn’t done just so that they can have an ideal experience down the line, and that’s fine.  It’s a perfectly reasonable argument. Just don’t make said argument at the same time that you complain about wanting a great new sandbox to play in.

This isn’t to say that we’re entirely responsible for all of the ills of gaming. For example, there’s really nothing wrong with the Star Wars monolith and the vision of MMOs that it represents. It’s just not what old school hardcore players think of as an MMO.

Then there’s the fact that some sandbox developers don’t get that they may have to suffer through a long-term period of growth before player numbers really pick up and they fail to plan for that.

So whichever way the wind blows with Star Wars: The Old Republic and whatever the fallout from it may be, it’s a bed that we all made, from developers to the media to theme park players and even sandbox hopefuls. The most expensive MMO ever developed was created by the industry and the market that we helped to build.   


Jon Wood