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The Story's the Thing

Star Wars: The Old Republic Columns - By Jean Prior on August 07, 2014

The Story's the Thing

Star Wars: the Old Republic isn't BioWare's first foray into the Star Wars lore, nor is it likely to be their last due to EA's exclusive contract with Disney/Lucasfilm for all Star Wars games for some years.  The three BioWare studios (Montreal, Edmonton, and Austin) have managed to release games that embrace more diversity than most of the other big names in the industry, have held up an extremely high bar for other studios to reach (most of them failing to do so), and otherwise created an expectation of what we'll get when we pick up a BioWare title.  We don't care which BioWare studio releases something, we all simply see the name BioWare on the bath towels and set our expectations accordingly.

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When SWTOR first came out, I set aside most of my other games for months on end, because I was busy being immersed in a Star Wars setting where anyone could be a Jedi, they could be a sneaky Imperial Agent, they could be a light-side character playing for the ostensibly evil faction or as dark as the dark side of the moon.  The game supported those choices and gave us fifty levels of immersive content that was specialized for our individual classes, whilst simultaneously having fifty levels of rich planetary quests and fifty levels of optional quests that were still pretty interesting even if they fulfilled the generic 'kill ten womprats' MMO questing format.  We also got companion affection mechanics that unlocked other quests or added layers to our main story.  I firmly believed that SWTOR was going to replace World of Warcraft as my go-to MMO.

You see, I didn't really feel like SWTOR functionally played very dissimilarly from the plethora of WoW-like MMOs.  I still button-mashed for combat, I still had to have tons of alts to cover all the craft options, I still had my fetch and carry quests, I still had to do all the NPCs' work for them.  There will always be nuances, but the overarching mechanics are more or less the same.  For me, what separated SWTOR from all the other games I play is its story.  I love the story so much that I still don't often spacebar my way through even starter planet quests, because while I can and have done them so many times, I'm still not truly weary of them.  The only exception is generally if I'm trying to hurry in order to be ready for some public event or something.

The game has been criticized for being a single-player MMO, but yet they gate much of their most epic content behind grouping mechanics.  While there is a Story Mode available for some of the group content, all that means is that you just need a lesser number of people or a lesser-geared group to tackle it.  However, for the folks who have any number of valid reasons for not grouping regularly or at all, they will never see the cutscenes in the Foundry.  They will never acquire HK-51.  They won't get to see Revan in the flesh.

Personally, I wish BioWare would introduce a proper Story Mode for all flashpoints for level 50 and under, because it's elder content.  Lord of the Rings Online once revamped their entire epic questline to make it so that it could be done either as a group or as solo, so players could enjoy the story without forcing them to group.  Sure, it's an MMO and the second M stands for Multiplayer, but after awhile, does it really matter all that much to penalize folks who can't or won't engage in group activities?  You can either gate your old content so that only a percentage of your players will ever see it, or you can make it more accessible.  You might not even need to nerf the mobs to get the job done.  LotRO simply added a big buff to the solo player called Inspiration, which gave them Morale (Health) and Power (Class Resource) to match what an on-level group would have, buff their damage and healing stats to also match a projected group output, and called it a day. 

There are still plenty of instances and dungeons that require a group (all of the raids still do) and have decent stories, but the best stuff that follows the main Lord of the Rings storyline is accessible to any solo player who is willing to have a go at it.  They even give the player the same rewards as if they were in a group and had rolled on the loot, because it doesn't matter if it's a solo player, the story's the thing!  Even if you could run the same content with a group and have a truly epic moment yelling into Mumble when your Sentinel suddenly has to tank a boss because the healer got stuck in the landscape and couldn't heal, the actual tank died, and the Sentinel downs the boss with only 47 health left, the actual story experience should be the same.  It's unfortunate that a player misses out on the social aspect (although with some PUGs, missing the social aspect is actually a benefit), they shouldn't be denied the chance to see the full story. 

Accessibility to new story content is going to be a big deal for BioWare Austin in the coming months.  After Galactic Strongholds comes out (Early Access this month, full launch in October), we've been promised since February that we will be getting another 'Makeb-like' expansion after that.  We still haven't been told the name of this expansion or when it's coming out after October, but we're pretty much solid on the fact that the planet that will be the focus of the expansion will be Manaan, the watery homeworld of the Selkath and sole source of all the kolto in the galaxy.  This brings BioWare a bit full circle, as they invented the concept of kolto and infused it (hah, see what I did there?) into the Star Wars canon in Knights of the Old Republic, even if this Old Republic era is now considered part of the Legends imprint.

Another issue is the simple fact that the number one request I've seen out of lore-hungry players in my unscientific perusing of the forums and social media is that people want more class quests.  They want that vaguely personalized intense storyline we get via Chapters 1 through 3.  Despite the question being asked or the suggestion being made just as often at Cantina Tour stops as people pestering Community Manager Eric Musco about guild ships had been in the past, we've repeatedly been told by BioWare representatives that it's not happening.  No coy 'I have no information at this time', no posts with a rakghoul emoticon, just a firm 'no'. 

The follow-up question of 'why not?' is easy to answer.  BioWare simply doesn't have the staff on hand to actually pull it off, in my opinion.  The game launched with sixteen people with the job title 'Writer', whether it was Lead, Sub-Lead, or just Writer.  An additional ten people were credited as 'additional design and writing'.  Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which gave us Makeb and simply two main stories rather than class quests on top of planetary quests, had thirteen writers and seven others listed as 'additional design'.  Galactic Starfighter merely lists six writers and no extras.  Of those six, two are definitively still working on SWTOR, two have migrated to the Montreal office to work on other BioWare properties, one is freelance but still occasionally contributes to the game, and one has been working on some as-yet-unannounced project since at least November.  I suspect that said writer is part of the team making the new game that I believe BioWare will be unveiling next week at Gamescom, judging by the mysterious 'You Have Been Chosen' emails I've been getting hinting at something happening in Cologne, Germany.  Couple this with the fact that BioWare Edmonton and Montreal General Manager Aaryn Flynn tweeted this on July 25th:

So if it's not BioWare Edmonton or Montreal, then it has to be Austin, right?  So, factor that in with the notion that I've heard no whispers or rumors that SWTOR's staff ramped up, and they only have a certain amount of space in their office building despite the mass layoffs in May 2012.  We're left with the conclusion that BWA logistically cannot give us an expansion with more stuff in it than something like Rise of the Hutt Cartel.  They don't have anywhere to put the amount of additional devs it would take to make it happen.  Thus, the last major solo game content that advanced the game's overall story was in February of last year.  One could argue that the Czerka dailies on CZ-198 don't count, but the Oricon content does; however, you still have to do at least one Heroic 2+ in order to unlock the Oricon solo dailies.  Also, neither new area's quests or story actually affect the game's overall story like Makeb's story did despite the potential for the Dread Masters to start chewing the scenery and unleashing five kinds of hell upon both Republic and Empire. 

Now we have the Forged Alliances story arc, something we were told early in the year would help the game reclaim some of its storytelling mojo.  When Game Update 2.9 launches Galactic Strongholds, a new Tactical Flashpoint centered on the new beautiful watery world of Manaan will be available as the next waypoint in that story arc.  My concern is the fact that both the already-released Tython and Korriban Flashpoints and the new Manaan one are all group content.  So, any player who cannot or will not do group content, whatever their reason for not doing so, is going to be left out of the game's now-primary means of storytelling.  It's a big change from previously, where Flashpoints were nice and had some pretty rich storytelling but were the secondary story of the game.  The biggest question I have is whether or not this trend will continue when the 3.0 expansion hits.  If so, then there will be some number of lore-happy players who will have fewer reasons to enjoy the game because it simply isn't accessible to us.  BioWare has the metrics to know just what percentage that will be and I do not care to make a guess.  All I can say is what I will do.  I'll play what I can within the scope of my abilities and inclinations and then go off and play other games.  I might go watch Youtube videos of various guilds running the group content, but there are only so many hours in the day.

What say you?

Jean Prior / Jean has been writing about MMOs on her blog and via fansites for several years now, taking over the MMORPG duty of writing the SWTOR column in 2014, as well as reviewing other games from time to time. She got into MMOs because of a song. Follow her on twitter @druidsfire. Watch out for horrible puns.