The Fall of The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic has garnered a lot of criticism in the first year of its existence. A lot of that is well deserved, but I think some of the criticism is a result of residual blowback from other recent fumbles on BioWare/EA’s part, specifically the controversies revolving around Dragon Age II and Mass Effect III. That being said, it has been a long and somewhat rocky road for the fledgling MMO with a star franchise pedigree on its own accord.

First off, I love The Old Republic and BioWare for what they accomplished best: bringing the rich, fulfilling storytelling BioWare is known for into the open-ended world of an MMO. I loved the epic scale of Knights of the Old Republic and this new iteration recaptured that feeling of being the hero for me again. Having recently broken my WoW addiction last year, my introduction to SW:TOR was like playing an entirely different sort of game. I thrilled to the story I was playing through as my Jedi Knight and was especially excited about the various story hooks with previous storylines, specifically that of the fallen Jedi Revan. When I finally faced off against the Emperor and ended his reign, I truly felt like I had won the game.

The problem is.. the game continued on after that. Now for an MMO, that’s the point: to have a never-ending experience. But when the last month and a half is spent in a deep, enthralling storyline, the abrupt loss of that story and immersion left me with the same MMO grind I had left less than a year earlier. My time in SWTOR stopped being about pushing forward some fantastic narrative and became a daily regime of repetitive quests and group instances with the express purpose of getting better gear. It was like going to a five Michelin star restaurant, having the most satisfying meal you can imagine and then having to go into the kitchen and wash your dishes.

I have a job, I don’t need my entertainment to feel like a job.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not limited to SW:TOR; every MMO ultimately ends like this. It’s a flaw (to my way of thinking) in the entire genre. World of Warcraft has been the same for the last 8 years. Rifts, Guild Wars I & 2, Everquest… every MMO ends up being an exercise in grinding and gear acquisition. The problem with The Old Republic is that it tried to be more than its peers -especially WoW– but ultimately achieved far less.

World of Warcraft is successful in the same way that McDonald’s is successful: by mass producing a consistent product that is familiar and easy to consume.  People don’t play WoW because of its consistent innovation; it’s the same game just with a new coat of paint, year after year.  Yet -like McDonald’s- they excel at what they do and people respond by continuing to subscribe.  As such, WoW is a tough franchise to beat.

The problem is that SW:TOR even tried.  I applaud them for ambitiously gunning for the biggest game in the market.  However, to accomplish that, you need to be able to grab those subscribers and keep them.  The Old Republic certainly got everyone’s attention with the highest initial subscriber base in the history of MMOs.  Now, popular logic tells you that a large portion of those people are dilettante games, only truly playing your game for the first month, but they still had a large subscriber base, even factoring those losses in, enough to become competitive with WoW.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to “out-big” World of Warcraft, they created a expectation they were unable to fill.  They started the game with more servers than any game before The Old Republic; this created too many servers with too light of populations per server and so players became bored and left in larger numbers than would be expected.  They created a fantastic, story-driven experience; yet, once gamers finished their class story line, they were left with a game that was functionally identical to WoW and felt an enormous let down at the degradation of their playing experience.  They started the game with more instanced flashpoints (dungeons) and operations (raids) than WoW had after its first year, but inevitably paled in comparison to the amount of instanced areas World of Warcraft currently has; this is not a fair comparison of course and few people if any even do the Vanilla or Burning Crusade areas anymore, but gamers are fickle by nature so it’s not surprising.

I think the biggest mistake BioWare and EA made was in overestimating the sophistication of their audience.   In some ways I think they felt that a superior Star Wars franchise would provide them a comfortable advantage.  For all of its faults, Star Wars is still a fun game and very well written.  Still, Star Wars -even the currently more attractive Old Republic portion- is no longer as powerful of an intellectual property as it once was, thanks to the wear and tear of time and George Lucas’ antics.  That aside, the greater failing is simply that gamers are far more demanding and less forgiving than BioWare gave them credit for.  Plus, the SW:TOR‘s audience is substantially different than the audience I think they were aiming for: the longtime fans of the earlier iteration, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  The assumption was that MMORPG aficionados are also RPG aficionados, which unfortunately is not true.  The sad fact is that most MMO gamers love the game not because of a deep storyline, but because of the mechanics of the game.  MMOs are a lot like collectible card games: it’s not the experience that matters, it’s the acquisition.

So, BioWare/EA misjudged their audience and now The Old Republic is being pushed to a hybrid free-to-play (F2P) system.  This is good in the sense that more players will surely begin playing the game again and with a system of micro-transactions in place, EA will continue to make money on their product.  However, F2P usually doesn’t earn the type of money required to maintain a big budget property at full capacity.  The strength of SW:TOR was in its storytelling and cinematic quality.  That will inevitably go away.  I doubt we’ll see an expansion that continues the various class plot lines, at least not with the quality and depth the game originally had.  That’s a shame because an MMO that gives you a solid story line to follow is a rarity in the market.

At worst, The Old Republic will most likely become a niche game, much like Lord of the Rings Online.  I doubt it will enjoy any true type of resurgence, because the path they have chosen is gong to severely limit their potential for anything more than just small, periodic updates with new content, but without adding any true depth or complexity to the game.  As for myself, I might return to SW:TOR sometime in the future, but I’m content with being free of an MMO for now.  Still, I’ll miss the MMO that it could have been.

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