As GamerSushi’s resident MMO player (that is to say, the person with the most experience), I believe it is my duty to try out BioWare’s upcoming Star Wars flavored offering, The Old Republic. While I don’t currently play any MMOs, I’ve made my history with that genre well known on this site, starting with Sony’s Star Wars Galaxies, then moving to World of Warcraft and trying City of Heroes and Champions Online in between.
Since I have such a breadth of knowledge about MMOs and what makes them tick, that means I’m well positioned to know that there are certain check-boxes that The Old Republic needs to cross off to be considered a “success” in this most competitive of arenas. While it isn’t going to unseat World of Warcraft, there are some very important features it needs to launch with in order to ensure that it lives past its first year. What are those things, you might be asking? Read on, and you’ll find out just what The Old Republic needs to do to stay afloat.
The most important part of that previous paragraph, if you picked it up, is the the notion of launching with necessary features. Not promising them in an upcoming patch or expansion, but have them right out of the box. Since WoW is so far into its life cycle, there are certain things its players have come to expect, and if your game is lacking those, they will migrate right back.
Small things like the ability to fast travel are essential, even if it requires a level advancement to get there. Star Wars Galaxies didn’t have a mount system for months, and you can imagine what a slog it was to cross the gaming worlds, especially when most of them were the same textures repeating over and over but colored differently. Gamers are inherently lazy, and no one wants to watch the backside of their character march across landscapes for hours, no matter how well designed. That’s why you can fly in Azeroth now, even though the whole world has been revamped. Imagine coming back to the main setting of WoW but being grounded?
One of the major problems with the previous Star Wars MMO was, like I mentioned, the settings. While there were a variety of planets to travel to, all of them basically looked the same with the exception of Endor, which had trees. Based on trailers and screenshots, the art direction of TOR looks like BioWare is giving each locale a unique and distinctive appearance, so that’s one area where they won’t have to worry.
The most essential thing for any MMO to have now is a UI that is at once easy to use but also incredibly customizable. Blizzard is very good about adding things into the game that people have been using mods for; they’re not holding out from adding something in because they want their game to be played a certain way. With the complexity of raids in WoW, custom user solutions were going to be inevitable, and Blizzard either lets people use mods or adds the functionality themselves. The Old Republic will no doubt have a UI that is a facsimile of Warcraft’s as that is the established norm. However, as my time with Champions Online has demonstrated, even the most simple of designs can go horribly awry. All of the icons in Champions were tiny, hard to decipher and not even used most of the time. Additionally, the inventory opened up right over my quest log, obscuring an important part of the interface. That’s something else that BioWare needs to take care with, because if they do what Champions did and stuff a bunch of icons into your backpack with incomprehensible stats and logos, then people are going to waste their time sorting out what they need from the chaff. If you pick up a boot, make the picture representing it a freaking boot!
The Old Republic does have something planned which WoW does not, which is the implementation of player housing via each class’s specific starships. Ever since Star Wars Galaxies, I’ve been waiting for an MMO which would give me a space of my own to decorate with my trophies that I have acquired through hours of questing and defeating foes. Since WoW lacks any space that is able to be customized, the starships of TOR need to be a huge part of the gameplay in order to stand out totally from Warcraft. We already know that you can craft materials on board your ship using your in-game NPC party without needing to be present or even online. Being able to arrange the ship how we desire or even paint it would go a long way towards better integrating this aspect into the game.
While we’re on the subject of personalization, one of the most important aspects of your avatar’s appearance is the outward indication that you are a powerful bad-ass. If you’ll permit me to bring up Champions Online again, the fact that you could make a super hero right off the bat that looked as wicked as you wanted was detrimental in the long run as there was no sign of your character advancing in levels. While World of Warcraft has something like this with raid gear, leveling up in TOR should make cosmetic changes to your character. If you earn new gear, have your avatar change! It may seem obvious, but Crytpic (developer of Champions and Star Trek) seems to keep missing this beat.
If you have a decked-out character with awesome gear, you’re going to want to use him (or her) to tackle high level content right away. Nothing takes the steam out of an MMO’s engine faster than having your player base sit around once they’ve reached the level cap waiting for the developer to implement end game content. The Old Republic needs to hit the ground running in this respect or the years of hard work that undoubtedly went into making this game will be for naught. That was, again, one of my major sticking points with Champions Online which, at the time, did not have end game content; indeed, they planned on making it into a paid expansion pack! The reason World of Warcraft is so successful is that it manages to get its user base into a pattern of acquiring the highest level gear to raid with, then pushing out a new tier of armor to obtain and keeping that on a cycle. While The Old Republic doesn’t need to emulate this system to the letter, it needs to have some sort of high level content to keep people enthralled.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is the emphasis on the MMO part of this MMORPG. Videos shown thus far have made TOR seem like it is a single player game with random bits of player interaction thrown in. If that’s the case, then BioWare would have been better off making another Knights of the Old Republic game instead of using the property to make an MMO. To be a player in the MMO genre, the game needs to have a roll that every user can carve out, something that makes them an important cog in the machine. If everyone can one-man a huge quest with only the help of their NPC companions, what’s the point? There needs to be guilds, Player versus Player battles, crafting items to trade between one another, all that good stuff. When I played TOR at PAX, it was just a bunch of people running through the quests without interacting. True, the game did try to lump us into a group, but that seemed more detrimental than anything as I had to leave the group in order to progress through the chain without waiting. So far it looks like the multiplayer part of TOR is just a tertiary addition, and not the main focus. People have become so accustomed to relying on each other in an MMO, so this is one area where TOR may stumble.
While I believe that TOR will be a success based off the brand and BioWare’s well known capacity for creating addictive and well-crafted games, MMOs rarely make their revenue in the first few months. Like I stated at the beginning, it’s the long game that BioWare needs to play, but those first few months are still critical. If TOR can hook people in the beginning, there’s less of a chance of them going back to WoW or whatever game they came from. If the game starts off with the basic features people have come to expect from Blizzard’s juggernaut, then the better chance of survival The Old Republic has.
What do you guys think about TOR’s chances in the cutthroat world of MMOs? Does it stand a chance against WoW? Will it burn bright at first then fade away? What are you looking for in the game that would convince you to try it?