How Star Wars: The Old Republic Can Become a Successful Story-Based MMORPG

Star Wars: The Old Republic is the MMORPG we want to root for, but it needs to get a bit better first. Here are our suggestions.

If you’ve read my recent review of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s latest expansion entitled Knights of the Fallen Empire, you’ll find that, despite BioWare’s ambitious plans to firmly ground SWTOR as a story-based MMORPG worthy of Star Wars fans, the expansion fell flat on more than one vital front. That’s not to say the entire game is rubbish, but could it use some improving? Undoubtedly, yes.

As someone who’s played and followed SWTOR since its original release date, I’m one of those players who had (and still has) extremely high hopes for every expansion the game releases. Knights of the Fallen Empire made some fantastic changes to the game, but more is definitely needed. How could SWTOR be fixed? Let’s find out.

Seeking a Better Balance

As I mentioned in my KotFE review, it’s apparent that SWTOR has always suffered from this identity imbalance. The game was created with storytelling and character choices at its core, which makes perfect sense given its creators. The fact that SWTOR is a BioWare game is why many of us tried it in the first place. Not to mention that it descends from the Knights of the Old Republic RPG series. All BioWare games emphasize strong storytelling, companion interaction (including the infamous BioWare companion romances), and player-created choices.

SWTOR’s base game was made with these goals in mind — strong class stories, distinct Empire/Republic arcs, the emphasis on player decisions, and the companion affection system. In a later expansion, we even got a companion romance system that’s truer to those seen in other BioWare games, with the addition of same-gender romance options. Despite all these things being some of the best features of SWTOR, however, one major glaring fact remains—MMORPGs aren’t generally story-heavy games.

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MMORPGs are typically designed around a strong leveling system (that’s typically story-based) followed by a strong endgame system that isn’t quite as story-based, which enables developers to focus on repetitive, challenge-based content like dungeons, raids, endgame world content, and vertical progression systems, such as gear, cosmetic options, etc. SWTOR has all these things, but its endgame content has always seemed somewhat stilted in comparison to endgame content seen in other games. Story-heavy content takes up a ton of developer time and resources, so in MMORPGs, this type of content is generally restricted in some nature.

In trying to tackle both story-heavy features and MMORPG-heavy features, the SWTOR team stretched itself too thin. We see evidence of this in KotFE with the fact that the one new flashpoint (dungeon) is copy-and-pasted multiple times with extremely minor changes in between. We saw this even while leveling through the launch version of the game. Mission upon mission consisted of killing rows upon rows of identical-looking soldiers and droid enemies. NPCs during cutscenes all made the same, mirrored animations. Despite some really great storytelling efforts, so much just fell to the wayside.

With Knights of the Fallen Empire, the team tried to correct this imbalance by swinging the pendulum farther toward the story-based side. While this decision was a bold one and the correct one in my opinion (especially for the game’s target audience), the expansion itself was entirely too story-based and didn’t include enough endgame features or content to even satisfy the most casual of endgame players. BioWare could have easily avoided this issue by holding off on the release of KotFE until more endgame content could be included.

At the very least, we should have seen one full endgame-based planet to explore and at least one other new flashpoint or flashpoint “blueprint” to use as a foundation for Star Fortress. I see absolutely no reason why Odessen wasn’t made explorable in some fashion, for example. The promise of new story content to play through as the months roll out is a good move for the game, but basic endgame content is needed before those content additions roll out.

World of Warcraft made this exact same mistake with Warlords of Draenor and Tanaan Jungle. It’s never a wise decision to roll out an expansion with the expectation that players won’t miss having an endgame-focused map to explore. Leveling content does not last nearly as long as an MMORPG’s developers hope it will. This is a fact that makes itself obvious during almost every single game expansion. Fresh, interesting endgame content must be included during the launch of an expansion—even if an expansion gets delayed a bit in the process.

For future expansions, SWTOR’s team would be wise to continue the story-heavy approach, but take their time to release some type of exploration-based endgame content (and instanced content), along with the boosted story. A good, well-crafted MMORPG expansion isn’t something to rush. If it’s truly worth playing, believe me, people will spend their money on it, even if it doesn’t release the very same week that other thing does.

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The Proof’s Sometimes in the Details

Aside from the odd balance of content found in SWTOR’s base game and expansions, the game has suffered from some minor grievances that have hampered its popularity. Content is definitely king when it comes to MMORPGs, but the small details surrounding that content matter more than many people think.

The in-game cash shop (Cartel Market) in SWTOR, for example, isn’t nearly as good as it could be. The large amount of account-wide and per-character interface/feature locks that need either a subscription or a cash shop purchase to become available still act as a substantial gating mechanism to MMORPG veterans who just want to hop in a game without asking themselves why they can’t use all the action bars they need. Flashpoint restrictions in a genre where dungeon leveling is extremely popular make zero sense. Gating mechanisms like these act as a barrier to returning/new players.

Many other free-to-play or buy-to-play MMORPGs have cash shops that are much more friendly to returning/new players and still help support the game. RIFT, Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, WildStar, and Path of Exile (not an MMORPG, but the example fits) all have far better cash shops than SWTOR and are fairer to both veteran and new players without forcing either group to contend with UI unlocks or large content/feature unlocks. The key is to let players buy extras with money, but not restrict them unnecessarily. The first feels fair. The second does not.

SWTOR’s development team is also often a little unsure of how to handle MMORPG players. Decisions are sometimes made somewhat haphazardly, without the right type of player feedback and without thorough beta (or beta stress) testing. The first implementation and removal of Ilum is a good example, along with the way in which server transfers were handled when they were first announced. A perfect recent example might be the companion balance changes that happened shortly after the launch of KotFE, which nerfed companion power significantly.

These changes occurred after most players were finished leveling through the new content and finished part (or all) of the current endgame content. Large balance changes like this need to happen during the launch of an expansion and should be thoroughly tested. This is what alpha and beta tests are for, and such a change should have been fairly easy to make considering all that was involved was simple number tuning.

It’s a simple fact that post-development decisions made in an MMORPG typically have a larger impact than they would in a single-player game since player progression is always ongoing in an MMORPG. There’s also the fact that an MMORPG’s community tends to be more active and more focused on forward momentum and goal-oriented gameplay. MMORPGs need forward momentum to stay alive. This is why MMO communities are so vital. Without a solid community, momentum can be difficult to harness.

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It would be smart for BioWare to both rethink SWTOR’s cash shop as well as approach player testing and feedback with a more critical eye. If BioWare chooses to tackle the above challenges and continues to release story-rich content that doesn’t neglect endgame progression and exploration, Star Wars: The Old Republic could definitely become a story-focused MMORPG to stand the test of time. Story-focused MMORPGs are a bit of rarity in themselves, and I truly believe that BioWare is one of the few studios capable of creating a successful one. All they need to do is step up to the task. A little knowledge of the Force couldn’t hurt either, I suppose.

Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.