SWTOR’s $300 Million Virtual Bridge to Nowhere

Although I’m not a very big sci-fi or Star Wars fan I figured I’d take a gamble on purchasing and subscribing to EA’s and Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. After focusing on WoW for all these years, I felt it was time to take a break and try a new AAA+ MMO.

I have played about 20 levels of SWTOR and this review is by no means complete or comprehensive. It is just my thoughts based on my limited experiences. However, I’ve spent enough time playing MMOs to know if I’m going to like a MMO within short order.

Naturally there has been a lot of buzz and hype about this MMO over the past few years due to Bioware’s stellar reputation along with a massive budget of an estimated $300 million. With that hype and budget come grand expectations. So after 7 years of waiting, the good news is that I’m pleased to report there is a AAA+ MMO to rival WoW.

The Honeymoon

The best part of any new MMO is the sensation of newness mainly derived from exploring the unknown — the heady feeling of anticipation of being a new pioneer in an undiscovered country is very powerful. It’s hard to dispel that euphoric feeling of expectation and potential when you plunge yourself in a brand new MMO like SWTOR.

SWTOR opens up with a cinematic bang and sense of purpose, story and place that is worthy of the Star Wars movies.

After you view the first cinematic, you get to create your character. Most of the character choices are limited to humanoid species — this was done to save art development costs. I’m not very familiar with the totality of the Star Wars universe so I wasn’t bothered by the lack of racial choices that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft currently offers. I did appreciate the facial customization choices that were available.

Is SWTOR a WoW Clone?

So let’s deal with the inevitable WoW comparisons. As expected, SWTOR is fundamentally a variant of WoW with a sci-fi themed skin circa the Burning Crusade era with standard WoW mechanics, itemization and crafting. Even the talent trees are copied from WoW of those days. Bioware has also opted to use the familiar two faction system employed by WoW with the Empire and the Republic.

Questing is pretty much the same as WoW which is basically a treasure hunt. Players get a quest, complete tasks by killing mobs and fetching items and then return for a reward. Player interaction with other players is almost non-existent as everyone was madly running from one quest-giver to another.

A big part of  Blizzard’s success with WoW was the attention to detail otherwise known as polish. While there is a lot of polish in SWTOR, WoW still has the upper hand. For example, when you click on a friendly NPC in WoW you get a scripted audio greeting; when you do the same in SWTOR you get nothing.

I found more polish in the three Republic starting areas than the first planet that you must travel to. It makes sense that a MMO developer would focus on polishing a starter area — this is a lesson they learned from Blizzard.

Precious Little Grouping and Socialization

Grouping is rare and even when it does happen in the flashpoints, nobody wants to talk as they’ve been conditioned by WoW’s dungeon finder to complete the experience as fast as possible. The legacy of Blizzard’s dungeon finder technology is that challenging content such as dungeons has become routine and business-like experience for most players. Adventuring has become an exercise in speed and efficiency. This is a tragedy for grouping and socialization.

SWTOR’s Lack of Challenge is a Constant Theme

One of the biggest problems in MMOs today is the lack of challenge. In an effort to broaden their subscriber base, most MMOs have chosen to follow the lead of WoW and offer a solo to the level cap seemingly endless tutorial that is devoid of any real challenge. Bioware’s solo-friendly SWTOR is no different. Grouping is really not necessary and that’s a shame.

I found little challenge with the exception of an impossible solo quest before I got my companion. Every class gets a companion from level 8-10. While the concept of a sidekick makes sense for Star Wars and adds a lot of flavor, the problem is that they are so overpowered that they trivialize the MMO after they join you. I had more fun before I was awarded my companion because the battles were at least challenging.

Player Abilities

Regarding player abilities, I found I got too many in too short a time. Combine that with the new abilities you get when you specialize at level 10 — the result is that I had 2 full hotbars of assorted abilities cluttering my user interface. I think this is far too much to have to worry about and it detracts from the enjoyment of combat. Actually this observation blends in well with a previous point of not experiencing much challenge — the mobs are so easy you only really need to worry about 4 basic combat moves and you’ll be fine. I wish they would realize that less is more.

Regarding itemization, Bioware has again copied WoW with stats, rarity designations and overly generous drop rates.

There’s just too much loot and too many items. My bags were constantly filing up with junk and it gets even worse if you choose a couple of gathering skills.

Enemy Mobs

Mob placement and A.I. is primitive — at least in the solo-friendly areas which is most of this MMO. Pulling single mobs is impossible as mobs are all linked; agro one and you agro them all. This is because with the exception of the occasional tougher mob, most mobs are very easy to defeat.

Since the mobs are no challenge to kill, splitting them, single pulling them or using crowd control is pointless.

Mobs are so easy to defeat that you really don’t have to worry about upgrading either via crafting or purchasing them in their version of the auction house.

There were rarely any patrolling mobs once my character made it to Coruscant; this removed any sense of modest danger I had experience in the starting zones.

Where a Sci-Fi/Technology MMO Falls Flat

One of the areas I am concerned about in a primarily sci-fi and technology based universe such as Star Wars is that everything looks similar after a while.

Every crafting vendor and location looks the same, as opposed to a blacksmith forge compared to a tailor’s shop in a fantasy based MMO. The bank is the same as the auction house — every location seems to look the same after a while. This contributes to a sense of blandness that can make finding locations problematic as the brain has few visual cues to remember them by.

Zones like Coruscant have a particular problem in that they contribute to zone fatigue as you are stuck in a claustrophobic city environment that ends up looking and feeling tired. At this point in my character’s progression I yearned for the earlier outdoor environments. Bioware wisely ensured that level 1-10 zones are all outdoor to make the typical MMO player who is used to traditional fantasy MMOs more at home.

SWTOR is the Pinnacle of the Story MMO

Where SWTOR shines is that it takes the story/narrative MMO to its ultimate destination with fully scripted, well animated and voice acted cut-scenes where the player often has three dialog choices. Finally we have a MMO that gives players actual dialog choices. Additionally you can actually flirt with NPCs which is something very new for MMOs who have been playing it very safe for many years.

Without a doubt, the quest cinematics are the saving grace of this MMO if you like that sort of thing. SWTOR’s compelling quest and story system is top notch.

The voice acting is superb. It hooks the player into the Star Wars universe and never lets go. I found myself eagerly waiting to complete my NPC quests to unlock what would happen next.

There are two serious problems with the story based MMO approach:

  1. Lack of Ownership: Even though my character had some pivotal choices to make during quest interaction, it still felt scripted nonetheless. I was playing somebody else’s story and destiny — not my own.
  2. Episodic TV Feel: SWTOR feels more like interactive episodic TV than a virtual world making me wonder how far we have come from sandbox MMORGPs like EverQuest

Moral and Immoral Choices

Good and evil have been blurred in MMOs of late. Players really haven’t had serious MMOs that offer this but Bioware has created special dialogue decision points where the player is forced to choose a moral path. These decisions come with actual consequences in the form of “dark” or “light” points. This is a truly brilliant and refreshing mechanic that blows the mundane WoW right out of the water.

My only concern is that players can start to grind either the light or the dark paths because when you make these choices a light or dark side graphic comes up and certain gear is only available if you have sufficient enough points in either morality.

I wonder if the light or dark graphics should have been hidden from the player so as to prevent the player from clicking through the dialogue and gaming the system. I suspect most players behave differently when they know they will accrue either light or dark side points. Still there is a quite a satisfying glow to the screen when you make your decision.

Some Gripes

No day or night cycle. It’s hard to believe they omitted this crucial bit of immersion.

Sadly Bioware are in good company as one of the elder statesman of virtual worlds and creator of a parallel Star Wars universe also doesn’t think much of immersion these days. The rats have been leaving the sinking ship of virtual worlds for a while. I fully expect that one say soon we will find out that Raph Koster has been hired by Zynga.

Various parts of the interface cannot be moved. This is extremely frustrating. I also encountered this on a recent trip back to Norrath for EverQuest2. For those of with poor eyesight and big monitors, this is quite annoying not being able to see important user interface elements.

EA’s authenticator is frustrating to enter when you first log into SWTOR as it has 8 characters instead of 6 which is the number that the Blizzard WoW authenticator uses. It’s hard to remember those numbers and enter them.

Lots of Concluding Thoughts

A few weeks after the newness and novelty of SWTOR faded, I started to see the real SWTOR emerge and realized all that was left was a MMO built on the foundation of WoW from 2006. Remove the great voice acting, well scripted cut-scenes and the light and dark side choices and you have a fancier WoW clone with a sci-fi skin. On the surface, SWTOR has many great things going for it but the Bioware devs failed to address the shallowness that has besieged this genre in the past few years.

While the inclusion of moral choices and cut-scene quality quest dialogue is refreshing, it’s still lipstick applied to a pig. It’s sad to see Bioware — one of the most respected video game companies today — almost completely abdicate their position of creative dominance in this industry and produce a MMO with such an unoriginal and calculating design philosophy that reeks of the banality of Rob Pardo and Blizzard.

Bioware have blindly copied many of the assumptions, conventions and mechanics  that Blizzard has stealthily impregnated into the MMO zeitgeist over the years. These include: reward desired behavior mentality, heavily scripted narrative and quest-centric game play, the devaluation of challenge, solo friendliness, lack of any consequences for failure or death, an orgy of loot, and a lack of a need to cooperate and socialize with fellow players. This is the kind of MMO that $300 million buys you.

By far the worst Blizzard design philosophy that Bioware has copied is the notion that players should be rewarded for just showing up. The sense of achievement and its progeny: status — both critical motivational factors that keep players playing have been completely eroded. Recklessly pandering to the lowest common denominator leads to the creation a sense of entitlement among players that every ounce of content is theirs by right to experience regardless of skill level or commitment. Instead of being viewed as citizens of a virtual world, players are now seen as amusement park customers and treated as such.

Another troubling thing about SWTOR is that just doesn’t feel like a MMO or virtual world. Instead, the heavily scripted story makes SWTOR feels like a single-player game that players are simultaneously experiencing. Given Bioware’s history of making single-player video games it’s easy to see why they went with this safe approach.

Many years ago, pioneering video game developers (such as the original cast of Electronic Arts) were far more ambitious than today’s practitioners of the art: they dared to think they could make players *feel* things. Back then they realized that great art has the capacity to affect and impact the beholder. The EA of today would have none of this nonsense. This kind of vision and potential was why I fell in love with virtual worlds many years ago during my time with EverQuest.

Today, I realize that I am in the minority. I still want to really feel something other than boredom when I embark into the landscapes of a virtual world. I desperately want to feel a sense of pulse pounding excitement instead of contrived and safe fun. I want a sense of ownership in a world more than just the clothes on my back. I want to feel like I can change that world and that my decisions truly matter. I want to have some impact even if minor.  Achievements should be hard won and status should mean something.  I miss the days where you risked everything each time you ventured into the wilderness laced with dangerous consequences. I miss the bonds we forged based out of necessity that blossomed into friendships.

My utopian MMO would not be a not utopia where everything is given to players and all irritants have been removed and players frollick around the world like omnipotent gods.

To me, SWTOR feels like another predictable and soulless experience. It’s akin to a slick Hollywood blockbuster movie with cardboard good guys and bad guys with copious amounts of explosions and special effects thrown in for good measure.

No longer are MMOs are created with the expectation that anything can happen. Those days are long past. If players were left to forge their own destinies it would result in chaos and conflict which would be unacceptable to the story obsessed new breed of video game designer who insists that every aspect of what a player does should be tightly controlled and scripted. You see, you as a player can’t be trusted.

Instead MMOs have become virtual sausage factories where the spectator-like player sits back and enjoys the ride. Game design has been reduced to process of crafting every moment of the player experience — nothing is left to chance — a philosophy that would make amusement park tycoon Walt Disney proud.

If anything, Bioware’s SWTOR has made me pause to reflect about the current state of virtual MMOs and the unfortunate suicidal direction they are heading in — a virtual bridge to nowhere.

Those of us looking for a serious fantasy virtual world experience have few options. It’s like we are trapped a dark age where ancient knowledge has been lost and barbarism holds sway and I’m not the only one that believe this. I get letters from readers every week that lament the loss of what once was. Perhaps, while we still remember them, it’s time to draft a MMORPG manifesto and codify the noble principles and unswerving constants that many of us believe were hallmarks of the first golden age of this genre.



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