Droids Gone Wild

This week I’m going to spend some time talking about my impressions trying out Star Wars: The Old Republic.  As the breakout MMO for BioWare, the game had a lot of hype to live up to given the company’s past performance with several blockbuster franchises such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age.  Overall, I found the leveling experience in the Old Republic to be worth the money I shelled out on the game – mostly due to BioWare’s ability to get a player involved in a great story.  But I do have some reservations about the game’s ability to draw in long term loyalty from fans.  I expect that being tied to the Star Wars franchise itself will keep the game alive for some time, but without streamlined multi-player features, I doubt that I’ll be playing the Old Republic over the long haul.  For those with attention issues, I’ve captured my key thoughts below.  Everyone else, feel free to hit the text wall at hyper speed.

SWTOR…

… plays like a single player game despite being massively multi-player.

… feels like you’re in a Star Wars movie, to include cross-planet road trips.

… offers some unique gameplay mechanics, despite replicating a lot of WoW’s game design.

… rewards players for their choices, but not necessarily the way you want.

… does a poor job of facilitating group content, a major problem for a multi-player game.

… looks to have a development team who appears to be willing to tackle the game’s weak spots.

Disclaimer: When I started writing this post, I tried not to compare the Old Republic to World of Warcraft because so many others have done it.  However, many of the similarities (like the way player skills are grouped) were so obvious that it was like BioWare wanted the familiarity.  I’m relatively forgiving of those decisions because who wouldn’t want to copy some of the success of a game with over 10 million subscribers?  Where possible, I’ve tried to highlight some of the game’s unique features, many of which do not get much press despite providing substantial portions of the gameplay.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

The Old Republic continues BioWare’s track record of emphasizing player-driven story interwoven with gameplay.  I find the Star Wars movies entertaining, but I’ve never a diehard fan of the franchise . In spite of my inexperience with the Star Wars universe, playing through the game felt like I was the star in my own prequel movie.  Even though I had initially planned to only play a single character, I ended up making and leveling a character in the Republic and the Empire just to see how the plot played out for both sides on various planets.  Most MMOs struggle in that every player is a hero, so no one actually feels that way. The Old Republic’s personal stories for each class and the overarching plot woven across all of the planets eliminates that problem by letting each player feel like a real hero.

The visuals in the game contributed heavily to the overall feeling that the story was actually one of the Star Wars movies.  Planets, space stations, and abilities alike are aesthetically rendered with details true to the experience at every turn.  However, after the initial cool-factor of slicing down enemies with a lightsaber wore off, some of the environmental detail did become a bit much.  For example, planets really did start to feel like planets in both detail and physical size around level 25.  Even with a speeder at my disposal boosting my travel speed, I often took what can only be described as road trips just to move between quest hubs.  Couple that with my compulsive need to leave no stone unturned, and I ended up wasting large amounts of time just traveling.  These are forgivable sins for a novice MMO team, but it was a numbing experience and definitely detracted from the overall experience.  In total, the graphics of the Old Republic struck a good balance balance between intentionally bright and trying-too-hard-to-be-real-life graphics.

The implementation of a personal crew also went a long way to making the game’s story come to life.  Honestly, if I had to pick one feature from the game to take into future games, it would be the crew system.  Crew members offset the impact of intentionally compartmentalizing player abilities by giving you the ability to have someone along who can complement your character abilities even when soloing.  It dramatically smoothed out some of the edges in the single player experience. Even better, BioWare allows your crew members to craft items, gather resources, and even perform their own missions.  This resulted in a similar crafting system available in other games but took the emphasis off of having a player perform repetitive player tasks in favor of simply making scheduling decisions for their crew.  I am a huge fan of any system that lets players multi-task and perform some functions away from the keyboard.  I hope that the BioWare developers eventually allow players to queue their crew up for multiple back-to-back missions similar to how players could queue skills to learn offline in Eve Online.  Coupling your crew to a personal ship even offered BioWare a way to tackle the personal housing in an MMO by giving players their own real estate that does not impact the games static world space.  The technique may only work in science fiction games, but this implementation works by giving players a place to call home while still being drawn to major hubs to interact with other players and for other in-game services not available on the ships.

No system is perfect, however, and the story system did have one major wart worth mentioning.  BioWare chose to implement an alignment system tied to player choices.  Periodically through the course of the plot, player decisions are labeled light or dark.  Often these decisions are clear cut, such as letting someone go or killing them, but quite frequently the choices presented to characters are significantly more ambiguous.  In previous BioWare games, a character could do what felt right, but in the Old Republic, your light and dark decisions are tied to points which act as a form of currency for some really nice rewards, the best of which can only be purchased if you go to one extreme or the other.  This resulted in several situations when my dark-side character had to kill someone to get the dark points I need, even when I wanted to leave a character alive to provide material for future plot.  It’s unclear how much of an impact the occasional swap from light to dark would have on a character, but as a player I definitely experienced the pressure to stick with one, ultimately denying some of the choice around which the game is centered.  The good news is that BioWare has acknowledged some of the limitations in their initial design and plans to add more rewards for players walking a more neutral path.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, BioWare’s emphasis on personal story in the Old Republic completely turned me off to the game’s multi-player features.  For a game that was built and billed as a massively multi-player game, this struck me as a fairly substantial problem looking toward the game’s future.  Whenever I tried questing or some of the game scripted content for groups which BioWare has termed “flashpoints,” I became impatient and frustrated that I was not in control of the action anymore.  Waiting on my partners to choose dialogue options becomes tedious and my light-side character now carries the title “the Backstabber” because my ally in one of the game’s flashpoints decided to vent some engineers into space to deactivate a security system rather than take an alternate airlock (as I alluded earlier, my rule in these games is never kill someone unless you have to, if for no other reason than that they may offer interesting plot twists later).  I ended up leaving many group quests incomplete because the equipment and story rewards in no way justified the time scraping together a group or dealing with problems when group members got out of sync on objectives (this happened often enough for me to get very frustrated several times).  As you go up in level, the group options become more numerous as players can choose to participate in warzones, conflict flashpoints (four man adventures) and operations (larger group encounters), but the lack of an effective way to find partners for these features is also going to become an issue as the player base ages and people level characters more sporadically.

BioWare has yet to implement patch 1.2, but the preview appears address some of the features the game seems to sorely lack such as more max level content.  One of the most unique features to be added will be the first stage of the game’s legacy system which encourages players to make new characters and level all over again.  Leveling up over and over is definitely more compelling in this game than others, and legacy will make it even better, but it will still lose its appeal.  So, I still have my reservations as to whether the company will be able to produce content fast enough to keep people occupied. Interestingly however, for the past few months, BioWare had a job vacancy for a social systems designer.  The position description included designing unique dynamic content for max level players.  The fact that the position is gone now gives me hope that we’ll see more complex design at the end-game in the future.

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  1. Actro
    March 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    I am going to preface my first response here with the fact that I am already a little biased against the game. I never did actually play during live, but the beta had already left a poor taste in my mouth and couple that with my perception of Bioware now that they are owned by EA… If you recall EA had a hand in the first Star Wars MMO “Star Wars Galaxies”, which some consider to be the largest failure of an MMO to date. Also, anyone who has seen the Mass Effect 3 ending will understand where I am coming from here.

    Anyway, with that said it does sound like a fantastic single player game directed at the wrong market. You mentioned how the choices you made affected the plot as well as your character which are both key in keeping a player interested in the story. The two problems you mentioned with this system though I somewhat suspected would be an issue. Being a group based game, someone else could make a choice on a mission that does actually affect your character negatively in the game. Also, the fact that light side and dark side points contribute to items or abilities means that you can’t truly create your own personality within the game. You must choose to be completely good or evil or you risk having a sub-par character. Honestly if this were a single player game that might not even be an issue, but with the focus on it being a multiplayer game gives players the mentality that they must maximize the effectiveness of their character. Not doing so risks you underperforming in groups and not being taken to raids. To use a World of Warcraft example, that is much like playing the talent specialization you love rather than the one that does the most damage. 9 times out of 10 the player will choose what is the most damage.

    Two things I would like to point out though, Bioware wasn’t the first to bring in this concept of player housing, and they also are not the first to give this concept of a “personal crew”. Players have long wanted their personal space within the game world and many games have tried to give something along the lines of instanced housing. I can’t speak much on what Bioware has done with their personalized ships, but of the games I have played both Final Fantasy XI and Everquest 2 had player housing. They included ways of setting them up how you liked, buying bigger and better houses, decorating them, having other players visit you inside of them, etc. So I don’t think this is necessarily a new concept. It is definitely possible in non space genre world. Maybe you could elaborate on what makes the ships in Star Wars different from player housing in other MMO’s to help me better understand. The other point though, the “personalized crew”, is definitely something I would like to see in other MMO’s. While not the first to implement this idea of having companions in an MMO, Bioware does seem to have taken it to the next level. Everquest 1 actually has companions you can raise and take with you to supplement your group. They can tank/heal/dps just like any player character can and really do help you out when you just can’t find that healer or tank to fill up your group. Bioware appears to have built on that by adding companion crafting, farming, and even missions, which don’t require much attention from you. So while not a new system, I can definitely applaud Bioware here for possibly leading the way for future MMO’s.

    Overall I don’t see myself giving the game a try. As I stated at the beginning, the beta coupled with Bioware’s recent history since their acquisition by EA has put a bad taste in my mouth. I will however be trying out Diablo 3 when it comes out, and possibly Tera online as well 🙂

    • March 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      If I suggested that SWTOR is the first game to implement companions or player housing, I apologize. As you pointed out, many games have done it in the past. What I was trying to get across was that their particular implementation was well done.

      I played Asheron’s Call during most of the Everquest era and they had player housing which came in different scales. Apartments grouped together inside an instance. Houses were in small neighborhoods dotting the landscape. Villas were larger and more rare, but also dotted the landscape. Mansions were the largest, mostly for large allegiances (guilds). This system resulted in very weird experiences where you’d be out running in supposedly wild uninhabited territory and come across a cul-de-sac with 10 or so houses in it. Most of the time the owners of those houses wouldn’t be around. As the game progressed and more and more people wanted houses, this became more frequent. It never reached the point where houses covered nearly everything like in Ultima Online, but it was definitely an issue.

      The flip side is the instanced housing. The WoW world really isn’t suited for players to have houses out in zones and that only leaves instancing as an option for player housing in the game. However, Blizzard’s stated multiple times they don’t want to do that because they already have enough trouble getting people out into the world without giving them a new place to hide.

      The ships in SWTOR offer an interesting compromise in that they are instanced, but don’t feel outside of the world. They serve a purpose in the game by acting as the quick travel bridge between planets, while also offering some basic amenities like access to your bank and some dynamic content with your companions. They also bridge you into the games space combat system, which while not my favorite implementation, does work as a different aspect of game play. The ships aren’t visually customizable yet, but you can upgrade it. I appreciate how this design integrates the player’s personal space into the game world with a practical function.

      • Actro
        April 4, 2012 at 10:35 am

        I had one more question to ask you about here when it comes to the SW:TOR MMO. Recently I had been praising the companion system, or personalized crew, when I came across a complaint from a current max level player. He said, “You spend the entire game with an immersive story that includes heavy involvement of your companions. Then, when you hit 50, your companions cease to be even a remote part of your existence in the game. You can’t take them to Ilum (The highest level zone), you can’t use them in Ops, Flashpoints, or 4 Person Groups for Dailies. They become utterly useless. Major, major, major disappointment, I can’t believe the lack of foresight in this one.” I was wondering if you had made it to max level or had any experience with this issue? If true, that would be quite the disappointment.

        • April 4, 2012 at 3:24 pm

          I only made it into the low fourties. I had intended to go back and finish leveling one of my characters once next patch 1.2 hit because I wanted to see some of the new stuff, but life has gotten in the way and I haven’t really gotten around to it.

          That said, I think what that person describes is completely possible and only goes to emphasize how much time Bioware spent on the leveling experience and how little thought they appear to have given to the end-game. I don’t think you can right off leveling entirely, but even their Legacy system isn’t going to keep people occupied with the leveling content for ever. Inevitably, if an MMO is a success, the bulk of a players time will be spent at max level. Design should be prioritized with that in mind if you want to keep players, in my opinion.

      • Actro
        April 4, 2012 at 5:07 pm

        Hmm, for some reason it isn’t emailing me even though I set up to be notified etc… Anyway, I think you are right. You would have thought Bioware would have learned from Blizzards mistake when they spent so much time developing the 1 to 60 content a second time and had very little content (In terms of raiding and dungeons) past the first tier. I actually somewhat miss some of the old quests and zones and sure, people enjoyed the new leveling content, but let’s be honest. It really didn’t even matter in the long run. It takes most people maybe 24 hours(being very generous) to surpass the 1 to 60 content, and many players didn’t even go back and experience it anyway since they already had high level characters. The point is they spent countless hours of development time on something a small fraction of the player base actually experienced and those select few only spent an even smaller fraction of their time doing that content. This goes back to their age old argument of having raids so difficult no one but the top 0.5% can even attempt them. Just not a great use of development time. To be fair though, it was probably a little late for Bioware to change their direction at this point as they were only 1 year from launch when Cataclysm came out.

        It’s hard for a company to go from making 40 to 60 hours of gameplay in single player games to making endless content in an MMO. It looks as if Bioware has done above and beyond for what they normally do, providing upwards for 200 hours of single player leveling content? So in that respect they are a success. The problem with today’s MMO market is WoW though. Honestly, WoW released at a great time because they did not have all that many people to compete with. There were some expectations from an MMO standpoint, but nothing like there is today. At release WoW was a pretty simple game and really didn’t encompass much end game content. That was ok at the time though because other games only had a couple of raids each maybe? There was time to catch up. There were also no concepts of daily quests, dungeon finder, or even battlegrounds. Blizzard was quick on their feet though adding tons of features that revolutionized the MMO industry. Now that it’s been 7+ years they’ve added over 7 years of features! A new developing company almost has to implement all of these features to even stand a chance, which, in itself, is an almost impossible feat. A new MMO in todays market has it rough, that’s for sure.

        That said, I am really looking forward to hearing about Titan. Blizzard has big shoes to fill, but as they said themselves. If anyone is going to be the next WoW killer. It’s going to be Blizzard.

        (I just realized how fanboi that just sounded haha…. *sigh*)

        • April 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm

          God, you are such a fanboi.

          Unfortunately or fortunately, I think you’re right about expectations from an MMO these days. You can’t just copy and expand the WoW model anymore… not even Blizzard can with their own expansions. It’s why we need all the new bells and whistles to keep our attention.

  2. March 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I pretty much agree with about everything you had to say, Drew. I actually cancelled my sub this month… while I enjoyed the single player story and that aspect, the “mmo” portion was so far behind warcraft it made it really frustrating.

    Gathering groups together to do content was nearly impossible sometimes… something easily fixed by implementing a queue system. I also found it really frustrating that the UI was locked so it couldn’t be modified. I chose the imperial operative, but when I was healing I would have to click on each person I was healing instead of being able to hover on click. I found myself very “clunky” in trying to do basic tasks, which imho should have been addressed before the game released.

    Things like queue systems take a lot of back end server support to work properly, but UI issues are just paying attention to details and making sure the shipped product “feels” good. Hard to forgive problems like that. :\

    • March 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      Right now I doubt I’ll play more than another month or so. I’ll probably keep my account past patch 1.2 because I’m genuinely interested in their implementation of legacy. Half the reason I leveled a second character was to see it and when I hit the end of Act 1, only being able to add a last name to my characters was a bit of a letdown.

      That said, it does go to my point about the development team trying to address the issues. One of the other features in patch 1.2 is a customizable UI. I think they may have pushed the game out a few months early, lacking these key features, but their ability to follow through and get them out is promising. My tolerance might be fairly high, however, since the last new MMO I tried before this one was Final Fantasy XIV. These omissions seem small in comparison.

  3. MoodyAllDay
    March 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    When I first learned of the game, I was extremely disappointed. I couldn’t believe that they were taking such a great set of games (Knights of the Old Republic and KoToR II) and then instead of making a third, they were making a damn MMO. I have never really had any interest in an MMO, but decided to give this game a try mainly because of the content material and that Bioware was doing it.

    I agree about the group stuff being frustrating, but, for me, my only point in playing was to check out the single player. Learning that you could play your entire class story without ever having to team up with another player really appealed to me. The crew companions were great to have along as there was no way I could have done much of the quests with just my character. The downside was that I really only ever used one. The one that complemented my play style/build. I’m not quite finished with my first character’s story, but unless a specific quest made me bring a different companion, I stuck to one or I’d get destroyed by any moderately difficult fight.

    I don’t see that those decisions while in a group really matter to you. Most of the flashpoints are dailies for your current level and can be played over and over again. If you choose the dark side option, but the person that wins the roll chooses lightside, you still get your darkside points. You may gain a title, but that doesn’t mean that you have to use it if it doesn’t fit your character. So, if you’re playing those over and over again, it doesn’t make sense that the outcome of it would have any real bearing on future endeavors.

    I like it, but I now realize that I will, in the future, stick to single player games. At least I won’t be being a monthly fee for a game. Dota 2 takes up enough of my time as it is and I didn’t even pay for it.

    • March 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      MoodyAllDay :

      The crew companions were great to have along as there was no way I could have done much of the quests with just my character. The downside was that I really only ever used one. The one that complemented my play style/build. I’m not quite finished with my first character’s story, but unless a specific quest made me bring a different companion, I stuck to one or I’d get destroyed by any moderately difficult fight.

      This was definitely something I noticed too. One character I tried for awhile didn’t get a “best fit” companion until much later in the game. The difference in solo play was huge when compared to another character that did get a companion that matched the play style. I think this has to do more with the fact that the game is so focused on story that companions have to come at certain times. If the game was a bit more free-form and you had more flexibility in choosing who goes with you, it would go a long way to alleviating that issue.

      Another major change would be if they implemented dual-specialization as World of Warcraft and Rift have done. This would let you flex your play style more easily to compliment different companions. As it is, to even consider it you need to go back to town and completely respecialize.

      On the issue of losing control of the story, despite being dailies, I rarely did flash points or group quests more than once because getting a group was such a hassle. If I lost the dialogue roll, I wouldn’t get to see how I wanted the story to play out. It was less about the loss of points (which as you point out, doesn’t happen) and more about the fact that control of the experience gets handed over to a random number generator.

      • MoodyAllDay
        March 17, 2012 at 5:36 pm

        Yeah, I did forget to mention in my first post that I have the same issue you do with not wanting to leave any stone unturned. It really started to drive me nuts that I’d have these group or heroic area quests left unfinished in my list of quests. Eventually I got over it and as soon as I would get them, I’d abandon them. I didn’t really need the added experience and even if I may be missing some of the story, it wasn’t worth the added hassle of waiting for other people. I do need to get cracking to finish the storyline on at least one character before I cancel my subscription. I wish I could devote more time to it, but the pay off in enjoyment of the game isn’t worth $15 a month.

  4. April 12, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Well written review; you make some good points. I love the game, but I personally found that I did often log in simply to enjoy the story (which compared to single player bioware games doesn’t quite live up.) I often got frustrated when other more social players kept trying to get me into multiplayer or talking to me constantly while I was trying to enjoy a dialogue scene. I did however, enjoy teaming up with my friends and using our abilities together as a team. As a new MMORPG i have been left quite impressed, but my main concern is how long it will actually be able to hold player engagement after the stories have been completed and major plot points revealed. I think the best thing for the game is if they can add more multiplayer aspects to help make it more social, and to include more end game features.

    • April 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Totally agree on the engagement part. For any game that’s built on a subscription model, it’s almost crazy to not build in repeatable content to keep people occupied over long periods of time. If SWTOR was free to play, it might make more sense to ignore that aspect of the game… but not if you want to drive long term engagement. Thanks for the comments!

  5. April 23, 2015 at 5:02 am

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  1. April 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm

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