I wrote a LOT about SWTOR in the day – nearly 1/3rd of tagged gaming posts were about this. I’ve always been fascinated by MMOs, and the Star Wars mythos has held a special place for many years. When SWTOR was announced, I was giddy. Even when the Lightsabers were 3x larger than normal. I seem to recall the main pitch
- The mystical 4th pillar of story
- The feeling of a hero vs the masses. Less busywork, more large scale fights
- The ability to support a grey playtstyle
- Applying lessons learned from other MMOs, with a focus on accessible content
I played beta from the first day until launch. I submitted more than my share of bugs, I interacted with the devs, I wrote very long guides, I wrote DPS calcultors, I played a stupid number of hours and was one of the first folk to hit 50.
I was playing up until the massive server merges (90% population drop from launch) and go back maybe every 18 months for a look around.
If we consider an MMO launch to be the first 3 months after go live, then SWTOR was a massive failure. It was riddled with bugs, the max level content was almost non-existent, the professions were broken, the social tools didn’t work, the loading/travel screens were ultra long, PvP wasn’t balanced, and the Hero engine clearly had issues. The F2P conversion will certainly go down in history as the floor from which no other game could possibly reach.
Still, let’s cover those larger points – in relation to the game at/near launch.
The 4th Pillar
We were spoiled rotten with KOTOR 1 & 2. Expectations were set for a multiplayer KOTOR 3. I would say that Act 1 supported that notion… then it just died as the game grew on. The planets and storylines from Act 3 onwards were very bland, and there was simply too much Darth Malgus. The Imperial Agent class storyline was amazing, but that simply shone a negative light on most of the Light side classes. It was somewhat clear that it was more than could be chewed upon.
The idea behind dungeon storylines was neat, but after the 10th run, you had memorized every speech. It was a race to skip dialogue. Which also impacted the overall replayability of a game.
Companion storylines were all over the map, some with really interesting backgrounds and other were just a background for your story. I really like Khem Val, much better than Talos Drellik. And Skadge… that guy didn’t work. The issue here was that you had a primary companion that you enjoyed, and the others just sat there. Very little dynamic between them. And to unlock more stories from them, you needed to feed them with gifts. Where Dragon Age and KOTOR always had 2 with you, this seemed like really cool idea that just didn’t pan out as well as it could have.
Do You Want to be a Hero?
The idea of being the savior of a galaxy is certainly intriguing. The storyline certainly pushed that mind set, and the leveling content with class story quests was big on that idea (for most classes at least). But it broke down with the masses. How many heroes can there be? It’s certainly better than green jesus in Cataclsym, or Yrel/Khadgar in WoD – as your character was essentially an assistant to the in-game heroes.
In terms of actual gameplay, this did work out for single player content. Quite a few personal instances had you taking out a veritable army of opponents. It felt epic. Group content… that part was painful. The Hero engine just couldn’t give the right amount of data to players to figure out what to do next. Interrupt, move, defend, attack…it’s hard enough against 1 large foe – but 5 or more? The enemies had to be down-tuned to trash mode.
I’ll compare to the depiction of Legolas in the LOTR trilogy. His level of awesomeness in combat has nothing to do with his ability to react, but everything to do with his ability to turn enemies into fodder. It’s almost pure offense. We have that in MMOs. It’s called AE grinding. Never in Star Wars would you see a hero take on 5 enemies in a climatic battle.
All told, I think the system worked better after that realization came to pass.
It was certainly possible to play a grey playstyle. You were just punished for it, due to the MMO mechanics. The best loot and power items were locked into deep alignment requirements. This was probably the first bit of beta feedback I had, and the problem arguably got worse after launch with even more alignment-focused items were deployed.
So if you did end up playing grey for most of it, and wanted to swap, there was a fair bit of grinding involved. I do think this system worked well, if you ignore the rewards handed out for alignment. Especially if you turn off the light/dark visual cues for decisions.
Lessons Learned from other MMOs
When SWTOR launched, MMOs were in the transition from slog fests to games of convenience. LFG may not have been the best thing for WoW but it was miles better than EQ’s version of finding other people to play with. SWTOR had no real social or grouping tools at launch… or for 6 months after launch.
Alt support, through the Legacy system was pretty neat. I think this was one of the few highlights from SWTOR that other games should have attempted to replicate.
Role balance for leveling was ok, but had some balance tweaks needed. It wasn’t really practical to level as a healer with a tank companion. It also heavily favored specific companions for leveling, even if you may have found another one more interesting. The concept of any companion filling any role took a bit too long to come to fruition – but again this was due to the MMO mechanics getting in the way of the storytelling.
Travel took forever (loading zones!) and the zones with the most travel tax were empty (Illium). While it was fun exploring Hoth, there were limits to the sanity of a player spending more time travelling to have fun, than the actual duration of the event.
I’d talk about crafting, but the less said the better.
Side quests were a near requirement for progress. Which is fine, if those side quests have any merit. They often didn’t, had horrible respawn timers, significant bugs, and moving from one area to the next was train city.
Stat balance was all over the place. In nearly all cases, Alacrity (haste) was a downside as it certainly made you attack faster, but that caused your ‘mana’ to drain faster too – with no way to speed up recovery. Ooh, this one brings back memories.
Player-driven story elements. Remember that SWTOR triggered the shut down of Star Wars Galaxies, which was mostly player driven (NGE excepted). People really wanted to set up their own piece of the large world, and SWTOR allowed next to no flexibility in that regard.
PvP had a really interesting mechanic where if you were sub-50, your stats were buffed to level 50. The downside was that actual level 50 players had much worse stats – so it was better to be level 49. PvP zones were randomized based on faction balance, and the only zone that allowed the same 2 factions was Huttball. So PvP ended up being something like 90% Huttball. I loved me some Huttball! But PvP gear scaling, and pre-made groups really took that fun away quickly.
Sense of ownership. At launch, the only piece that was yours was the spaceship. Sure, everyone had one, but it did feel like it was yours once inside. It took a long while to get personal quarters – and even then it’s not exactly intuitive or easy to make work. Better than most other games mind you.
The biggest challenge for SWTOR was trying to be one game while delivering another. It really wanted to be KOTOR 3, but was also clearly mandated to be a WoW copy. For every risk it wanted to take with telling a story, it was shackled by the MMO construct of number-based progress.
It lacked the tools (Hero engine) and the experience (this is another long post) to build a real number-based MMO. It needed a solid 6 months of more work before launch in order to iron out the bugs and build the social tools to keep people connected. SWTOR today is a much different game, with many of those earlier mis-steps corrected. It’s both unfortunate that it had to learn the lessons the hard way, and good that we still have it around.