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Columns: The Story Problem

By Michael Bitton on September 15, 2010

The Story Problem

When rumblings of a new Star Wars MMO by the renowned RPG makers at Bioware were still in their earliest days I couldn't help but find myself excited as the prospect of an MMORPG made by Bioware, especially one based on the Star Wars IP. However, I wasn't really ever expecting them to take a literal approach with the KOTOR formula to the game. Instead, I expected a new MMO based on the MMO designs of the past with a few new twists and that Bioware touch that's made their games stand-out against other non-MMO RPGs for over a decade.

Once the project was officially unveiled, we learned that Bioware was not only making a Star Wars MMO, but they were spearheading the ambitious task of bringing a full story-driven experience to the MMO genre, something that has been lacking for one reason or another since the very first MMOs hit the market. The news got a lot of people excited but also stirred a good deal of understandable doubts, or at the very least, questions about how this would all work in an MMO environment.


For those of you living under a rock, Bioware is taking the KOTOR approach to the game and injecting fully-fledged planet-hopping storylines for each of the game's eight classes. The entire game will be fully voice-acted and you'll even have access to a number of companion characters that can be influenced by your decisions. Players can even invite other players along for their adventures, and these players can also make a lasting impact on how your personal story unfolds. I've been excited by the promise of the above for some time now, I even had a chance to sample the starting experience for the Imperial Agent at E3, and came away pretty impressed with the storyline and attention to detail.

Many of you out there are just as excited as I have been about a story-driven Star Wars MMO, but there have also been just as many detractors, many of which have been vocal about their disapproval of Bioware's direction since they first made their ambitious goals clear. Setting aside those who simply believed it couldn't be done, there are many gamers who simply don't care for a story-driven MMO experience, and others who felt that the story-driven design would necessitate compromises in other areas of gameplay (such as heavy instancing), as this would get in the way of the game being a "good MMO".

Over the past year we've learned more and more about how storytelling in Star Wars: The Old Republic would work, including learning details on multiplayer dialogue, an area that's perplexed many of us for some time now. Bioware's had the benefit of the doubt from me for some time now, but as information continues to roll in I find myself questioning their direction with the game.

The cause for my concern is the fact that the more we hear about the game, the more it appears to be weighed down by its lofty ambitions. Just about everything that goes into the game appears to have to further this overall design of providing players with a cinematic experience, and this seems to be narrowing down the scope of the game somewhat.

To be fair, Bioware hasn't fully shown their hand on all their more traditional MMO features, but there have definitely been some disappointing reveals of late. Most recently, and this is what prompted me to talk about this problem this week, Bioware's Principal Lead Writer Daniel Erickson clarified something he mentioned regarding race restrictions in SW:TOR during an off-the-cuff booth conversation at PAX. Grel of the official SW:TOR forum community recalled Daniel stating, "If you can't imagine it making out with Princess Leia, you probably won't be able to play it." Daniel responded to this quote on the official forums, clarifying that "We started talking about what made a hero in Star Wars and then, once that was clear, there were some jokes about what the romances would look like had we gone for the toybox approach of letting you play anything in the action figure line."

It didn't end there, though, and Daniel took things a bit further, discussing racial restrictions in Star Wars: The Old Republic and essentially revealing that players would only be able to play as human-like races that players could relate to easier. I don't take too much issue with Daniel's assertion that when writing a story it is easier for the player to relate to a character that is human or very human-like, and heck most of their games, most Star Wars games in general, and all the Star Wars films feature a human protagonist. This simply doesn't change the fact that the end result is that players will have a much smaller and less diverse pool from which to create their characters, and this would also exclude notable races such as Rodians, Trandoshans, and Wookiees. It's important to note that Daniel did leave the option open for the future, explaining that they would have to create a story that exposes players to what it means to be a Trandoshan or a Wookiee, and I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, but it is disappointing nonetheless that players will have to look beyond launch to recreate their dreams of a Rodian or Trandoshan bounty hunter, for example.

As someone that has been eagerly looking forward to SW:TOR's story-driven content, it's possible for me to get over the initial lack of convincingly alien options, provided there are enough interesting alternatives (go Chiss!). However, I have to play devil's advocate here, and I imagine those of you out there who don't care about the story content at all are less than thrilled at the restrictions being made in the name of story. This single revelation is disappointing in of itself, but I am now left wondering what other areas of the game are being compromised in a similar fashion.

This isn't all a case of Bioware not knowing what they are doing, they appear very conscious of what exactly they are setting out to do with this game, but I'm a bit less convinced that it was the right approach to take with an MMO. Bioware often touts that Star Wars: The Old Republic is basically KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, etc., and I'm beginning to wonder if we'd all have been better served with those sequels actually being created, leaving room for something a bit more traditional, or at the very least less restrictive, as an MMO. Don't get me wrong, I'm still excited for the game, but based on what I know right now I'm looking forward to playing all the classes and getting my KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6 etc. out of it, with the hopes that the MMO underneath when I'm done with all the story content is worth playing as well.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined as the site's Community Manager.