MMOs seem to have drifted off the radar of public consciousness, even within the narrower circles of the gaming industry. Their main gimmick--playing online with your friends and other far-flung players--has now become standard for every game. But what remains unique about them, even in this age where we swim in wi-fi, are their persistent worlds. Most other online games only have, say, a shared battlefield or some other heavily circumscribed place.
In MMOs, you get a whole world to run around in where the barriers and invisible walls recede to the horizon.
The “massive” part of MMOs remains a unique, if diminishing, feature of the genre. And I call them a “genre” despite MMOs spanning a panoply of more traditional narrative genres because the nature of their design is necessarily distinctive. There’s nothing quite like them--and I’ve long feared that they may disappear forever. As World of Warcraft’s runaway success increasingly appears to be a fluke rather than a harbinger of a new trend, MMOs are retreating ever deeper into the niche they occupied at the start of the last decade, and perhaps fading altogether. For the ones that still exist, keeping things fresh isn’t merely preferable, it’s a matter of life and death.
On a lark, I decided to dive back into an MMO for the first time in years: Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which has just celebrated its fifth birthday. Much to my surprise, the game is holding my interest. Part of the reason has to do with Bioware’s unique attempts to prevent SWTOR from being afflicted by the heat death of the genre. Its latest expansions--Knights of the Fallen Empire and --are vintage Bioware storytelling that are worthy of being given the much-coveted title of KotOR 3. EA finally let Bioware be Bioware by allowing them to essentially build out a single player RPG story in the middle of an MMO, complete with consequential moral choices, romance, and something approximating narrative depth. But this also represents a certain concession on Bioware’s part to the limitations of the genre.
Other than Funcom’s The Secret World, and perhaps Lord of the Rings Online, MMORPGs tend not to be especially good at narrative. The nature of the game, which revolves around players making meaning through multiplayer content like PVP and dungeon-delving, is in many ways like the earliest iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, where the emphasis was on providing a ruleset for combat strategy with only minimal narrative garnish. Bioware tried to go in the other direction from the start with SWTOR, with each class having its own extensively written and voice-acted main story.
But it still suffered from the nature of the MMO genre, with many kill-ten-rats style quests littering a fascinating galaxy that we saw all too little of. The game still felt overdesigned, channeling players into dreary combat experiences that became obsolete the moment you leveled out of an area. Iconic worlds like Tattooine and Hoth were left in the dust. There were too few towns and cities that didn’t feel like blatantly obvious quest hubs. A sense of place was always somewhat lacking. Coruscant, a world whose entire biome is “Gigantic Freaking City,” feels painfully small and is dominated by endless, indistinct corridors of low level mobs waiting to be mowed down.
Yet in recent years, Bioware has slowly but surely tried to correct some of these problems, or at least redesign the player experience such that they’re less painful. A few simple but crucial changes have made SWTOR a better experience.
First is level scaling. This means that even if you’re max level, the game will automatically scale your stats to match the planet you’re on. It means you can revisit lower level content and still face something of a challenge, even on your endgame-geared main character. It also means that, from a pure gameplay perspective, you now have a reason to go back to all those worlds previously left in the dust; max level characters can also end up grouping and mingling with lower level players, making more efficient use of the smaller populations of non-WoW MMOs.
Second is making certain dungeons (called Flashpoints in this game) and most heroic quests, which previously required multiple players to complete, soloable. It can seem paradoxical, but often an MMO is kept hale and hearty by providing players with something to do by themselves. It diminishes stress and allows for flexibility. By being less demanding, you give players a gentle on-ramp to more challenging, group based content.
Bioware has dived headfirst into this paradox, raising fundamental questions about what an MMO should be--an interesting irony considering that, at launch, SWTOR was one of the least innovative entries in the genre. It did some unique things with its story and light side/dark side moral choices, but overall the game played it quite safe. Now, however, Bioware is making clear that it wants to provide solo players with extensive and valuable content that they can complete on their own, replete with rich rewards.
The KotFE/KotET expansions, which have dominated the last two years of the game, are self contained stories that, in significant ways, reboot the entire game. You get new companions, a new overarching story and mission, and even the very narrative of the game is rebooted. Bioware went from telling relatively safe stories with SWTOR to a pair of expansions that see Sith and Jedi collaborating and learning from each other, where the Empire is portrayed as something other than puppy kicking evil.
This emerged from a brute gameplay necessity. For the base game, Bioware had to write, animate, and voice eight different class stories from two different factions. They’ve had to slim down their expectations and resources since those halcyon days after launch, and thus funneling all players into a single story stream became essential. But necessity is not the mother of quality. There was no guarantee these restrictions would produce good work. Instead, Bioware took this narrative limitation and ran with it.
The overall story of Knights of the Fallen Empire begins with both the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire facing down a shared external threat. The Eternal Empire of Zakuul, a mighty, technologically advanced nation from the depths of Wild Space, invades and subjugates both the Republic and the Sith. The short version of your role in this? You end up leading a new Alliance--of a rebellious nature--against the Zakuulans, uniting people from both the Sith and the Jedi, Republic and Empire in the process. This could have ended up being hamhanded, and it does creak in a few places, but overall it’s superbly executed and effortlessly suspends disbelief.
What really shocked me, in the best possible way, was that Bioware’s writers seem to have learned a lot from what Obsidian did with KotOR2, a game that raised existential questions about the nature of the Force and severely complicated the simplistic narrative of virtuous Jedi and evil Sith. SWTOR now, quite unexpectedly, extends that story in crucial ways. Its moral choices get a little trickier, and whether you’ve played the most straight laced Jedi or a Sith who’s kicked every puppy from here to the Outer Rim, you’re forced to re-evaluate some taken-for-granted ideas about light and dark. Again, this was likely a brute mechanical necessity, but Bioware spun a great story from it (I’ll save a deeper discussion of this narrative for another article).
This brings me to the challenges SWTOR faces going forward.
Knights of the Eternal Throne, whose chapters contain the climactic resolution of the story your character has been enmeshed in since the start of Fallen Empire, also introduced a new endgame mechanism to the game. It’s called Galactic Command and it’s meant to chase that other great white whale of MMO design: alternate advancement; i.e. what the hell do you give the player to do at the level cap that simulates the joy of levelling up? Once you reach level 70, you start gaining Command XP, which grants you Command Ranks. These are your new levels--and they go all the way to 300. Each time you gain a Command Rank, you get a Command Crate with random endgame loot, including the new top level gear sets.
In many ways, the Galactic Command system is the apotheosis of Bioware’s solo-friendly changes. Command XP (CXP) is rewarded for every activity in the game, including several entirely soloable challenges--although you gain far more, more quickly, by doing group-based content. But it was fatally flawed from the beginning. By leaving the player’s ability to achieve the best rewards at the mercy of a random number generator, Bioware democratized endgame advancement in the worst way. To their credit, they’ve worked quickly to fix the most glaring flaws in the system, giving players a way to work towards specific pieces of gear and giving players who participate in PVP and raids a way to acquire that gear more quickly.
MMO forums are a litany of un-spellchecked obituaries, and SWTOR’s is no exception; choked with whiny players caterwauling to the high heavens about the evils of Bioware and the entitlements they’re due from having spent money on a game, all while saying that SWTOR is either dead or dying. But in between all the hyperbolic screaming this time around, once you peeled away the excessive language, they had point about the Galactic Command system: it was unfair, it was poorly designed, and it was, above all, grindy.
All RPGs, but especially MMOs, contain an element of grind--repetitive motion on a grand scale. It’s not necessarily bad, either. It can be relaxing to lose yourself in the simple and repetitive play, offering the tranquility of a mantra. But it has to be disguised well, and there should be at least some element of it that’s rewarding purely for its own sake. The Galactic Command system demands you grind for CXP in the hope of getting a good loot crate at each CXP level, and it can be agonizingly slow, no matter how you do it. As I noted earlier, the maximum rank is 300. This spectrum is divided into three tiers; each successive tier grants better odds of getting the best gear in the game. You get to Tier 2 at Command Rank 80. For reference, I’ve been beavering away at the game for hours every day since the new expansion launched on December 2nd, and I just made Command Rank 40. In that time I got exactly one piece of gear from the endgame set for my class.
Further, SWTOR is a game that has distinguished itself by being extremely alt friendly. The practice of creating multiple characters is a way of life for many MMO players, but Bioware institutionalized this in a beautiful way. Each of your characters belongs to a “Legacy,” a kind of extended family (complete with a family tree) and there are multiple bonuses that apply to all characters in your legacy. Level ling multiple characters also makes each individual character you play stronger: you unlock special abilities and gain the buff bonuses of each class, for instance. Your achievements and reputation ranks are also legacy wide, so your gameplay accomplishments always transfer to new characters. But the Galactic Command system, at least as implemented at KotET’s release, was seemingly designed without any regard for alts, raising the hideous specter of having to grind endlessly at max level on all your characters.
This is untenable and simply unfun. Thankfully, Bioware is working to address this. They’ve also implemented alt-friendly changes. You now earn a special currency that you can transfer to any alt to help them get the best gear more quickly. That will bring the GC system more in line with the rest of the game’s philosophy: each character you level up makes your next alt easier to play. But this should only be seen as a starting point.
Meanwhile, some players have angrily stated that the Galactic Command system should be scrapped altogether, but this would be a mistake. The basic concept behind the system is sound--and, indeed, it’s quite bold and clever. The GC system is meant to provide every player with a path to endgame progression and gear, regardless of how they play. This philosophy should be preserved; it puts all in-game content on a more equal footing, validates multiple playstyles and grants flexibility to players while still allowing them to remain competitive. For us gamers with jobs and families, that is all to the good. But the system-as-implemented requires a lot of work and is clearly going to be the overarching project for SWTOR going forward. Based on the changes made elsewhere in the game--indeed, I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that’s been updated and tweaked over the last five years--I have some hope that Bioware will turn the GC system into a model worth emulating.
More concerning is the fact that its subscription model is one of the most onerous, nickel-and-diming affairs in the industry. SWTOR is a putatively free to play (F2P) system; you can play free, but subscribers get bonuses and goodies. Yet, here, if you opt out of a subscription, the limitations you face are severe: you can’t get endgame gear, you get less XP, fewer reputation points, even fewer quickslots and other UI customization options. You can take a glass half full perspective on this and say that Bioware is giving you a lot of bang for your 15 bucks a month, but given that most of these “goodies” come standard everywhere else, even in other MMOs with F2P models, it rings hollow. Naming the microtransaction shop after the avaricious Hutt Cartel feels painfully on the nose.
The shop is also one of the most roundabout ways I’ve seen an MMO studio sell its own in-game currency. You can buy goods off the Cartel Market for real money, then sell it on the in-game auction house for credits--often seven to eight digits worth. I freely admit to doing this, and it’s seen my main character roll in cash. But such a system exacerbates the economic inequities that microtransactions inherently bring to the table in an MMO; players with money to spend won’t just get certain little bonuses, cosmetic items, or minor rewards faster. They’ll just be plain richer and better at everything in-game.
This needs more than a minor tweak.
But for me, as a longtime MMO fan, the broader question remains: can any amount of experimenting create a financially viable MMO that’ll keep enough people playing and paying to ensure the promise of a virtual world without end? SWTOR hasn’t given me an answer yet, sadly. But I’m convinced that it deserves continued life; for all its flaws, I want to see what happens next. This game can still rise above the fetters of its playing-it-safe classic MMO design. There is a beauty and boldness to this game that transcends any poor development choice or cash grab; what it does poorly merits ample criticism, but what it does well should be studied and imitated. Frankly, that’s more than most games in this genre could say.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.