BioWare’s upcoming “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (SWTOR) hardly needs an introduction. Talk to any gamer or any Star Wars fan and they’ll likely recount the development process from the game’s inception to present day, whether you ask them to or not. Simply put, it’s the most anticipated, most hyped, most heralded MMO release of the last decade. It is the gaming industry’s last hope that an MMO, or any game for that matter, has a shot at dethroning Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft.” Scores of MMOs have tried and failed to hit WoW subscription numbers. Many have failed to even reach profitability. For all the life consuming potential “SWTOR” might offer gamers, it seems the developers are the ones watching most closely, wanting someone to prove that MMOs have a future outside Azeroth.
Unfortunately, for gamers and developers alike, “SWTOR” is going to fail.
One of the biggest problems facing MMO developers today is time. The development cycle for a game designed to support potentially millions of players is long, like years and years long. SWTOR was announced in October of 2008. I’d say we won’t see release for another year, six months if we get extremely lucky. That’s a solid four years, four years in which the face of game development has changed in serious ways, ways that BioWare can’t hope to integrate into a game that is three years along in its development.
That’s to say nothing of the fact that BioWare, like so many developers before it, started development with plans to use mechanics that were outdated in 2008 and look absolutely archaic now. For one, the game attempts to draw players into story through cutscenes, most of which can be experienced in a group, giving each player a chance to make a decision in the conversation. The idea sounds cool at first, but to think about actually playing with those kind of mechanics is really disheartening. It’s a game, a game I’m hoping to play, not spend waiting for the guy who went AFK to grab a hot pocket to return and ask Yoda to explain the force. There’s a YouTube video from PAX East this year in which a team of four players accepts a quest and then heads off to complete that quest. It takes a full four-and-a-half minutes to get through the quest dialogue, and that’s with a demo crew. Imagine what that will be like when people are trying to figure out how the controls work, what morality they want to spec, what answer fits their characters’ personalities best.
If I sound impatient, it’s because I am. I’m tired of waiting for a developer to wake up and realize that great games are about experience, not slogging through hours of dialogue decisions. Unless those decisions are going to be truly important to the development of my character, meaning there are not ways to go back and undo the changes and the other dialogue options don’t yield virtually the same result, don’t waste my time with them. Game worlds feel alive when players feel like an integral and important part of shaping that world, a feat that seems almost impossible in an MMO environment.
And yet, there are games today that do just that. I spend a lot of my time crowing about “Minecraft” and the genius behind the game’s development. The single player experience is certainly cool, but it’s the multiplayer that makes “Minecraft” a real wonder. The difference is in the opportunity to inhabit a world that other players have shaped and changed and continue to shape and change. Towns spring up out of nothing, roads and rail systems develop over the course of a few hours. Players build lava traps, farms, disco clubs, gigantic functioning music boxes, impenetrable combination locked vaults. In short, the players change the world in meaningful ways that impact the other players in the game. Minecraft isn’t the only game offering that sort of experience. A somewhat similar offshoot, “Ace of Spades,” has turned the Minecraft idea into a first person shooter, giving players the chance to build defensive structures and bridges, all while trying to fend off the enemy or advance into hostile territory.
By giving players agency in the world, “Minecraft” becomes much more than just a place to build a wheat farm. Each server has a constantly evolving story, one the players create as they continue to play. Just like any MMO there are villains and heroes, but those characters are actual players. Play on any PvP “Minecraft” server and you’ll quickly learn who to most active killers on the server are. I’ve seen players band together to hunt down a particularly skilled target, build massive traps in the hopes of catching that person, even offer bounties to hopefully bring about that player’s demise. I’ve been the hunted player, carefully treading through dangerous land hoping I’m not caught.
This is the experience most MMOs fail to deliver. Instead, games like “WoW” and “Champions Online” and yes, probably “SWTOR,” present the player with a paradox. The player is told he or she is going to be a great hero someday, defending the world from some great evil, and yet, as long as the player is playing the evil persists, the villains respawn, and the game world remains virtually unchanged as a result of that player’s presence.
That’s why “SWTOR” will fail. At the end of the day, it’s just a reboot of the exact same experience we’ve had since “Asheron’s Call” or “Everquest” or whatever other MMO got us all into the genre. “SWTOR” isn’t so much a new game as it is a remake, and like remakes the world over, the original is almost always better. “SWTOR” will probably sell hundreds of thousands of copies on day one, but I can’t see a future in which the game actually makes a dent in “World of Warcraft’s” subscription numbers. Until someone innovates at the gameplay level, delivering a brand new experience, a world the player can affect in meaningful ways, we’ll be stuck constantly fighting against the impending and yet undefeatable evil that is “World of Warcraft.”