Will Star Wars: The Old Republic Mark BioWare's First Major Failure?

By Adam Ma on February 11, 2011, 7:00PM EDT

The Old Republic was announced with a sort of trailer fanfare that blew away gamers and Star Wars fans alike on just about every level imaginable. With multiple Sith emerging from a crashed Republic dropship, dozens of Jedi slamming into a massive sprawling melee and a female bounty hunter complete with a jet pack, it's hard to imagine if what BioWare could have added to the teaser, save for making a feature length movie.

BioWare's bomb was dropped and everyone wanted to know more about the next Star Wars MMO. However, it was clear that in the weeks that followed the trailer's release, we were still a long way from the game's release. As such, fans were instead left to BioWare's mercy of releasing a new tidbit of information on a weekly basis. Sometimes it was class information, sometimes it was artwork, occasionally it was background regarding the storyline. Somewhere along the line, optimism and wonder turned to scepticism and fear. By the time the second trailer, Hope, was released, gamers were even less enthused.

It's not that BioWare wasn't showing us enough of the game either. After all, what little bits of information we had been treated to definitely looked interesting to a certain degree. The actions for each class felt unique enough and being able to combine multiple classes sounded exciting - if not at all like Final Fantasy XIV's Armoury system. BioWare certainly has a reputation for solid storytelling, and the 'choice wheel' from Mass Effect, while perhaps a little overused, certainly fits the bill for what they're trying to accomplish. As a single player game, or even a game with limited multiplayer opportunities, this would be looking pretty damn solid.

Then again, Old Republic isn't a single player RPG, it's an MMO. With that comes a long and hard history of 'failure' and 'disappointment' associated with many other MMO titles. Let face it, MMOs have always had an extremely difficult time in the Western market because developers always seem to set the bar far higher than what's necessary. You simply can't promise that your game will deliver an experience unlike any other, particularly when the average MMO player knows that it's the end game content that will define how worthwhile the game is to play.

Enter BioWare's dilemma: end game in The Old Republic simply doesn't look any different than what is currently offered by the major competitors. Pushing hard to become the ultimate storytelling experience is one thing, but if gamers simply wanted to be engaged in a good story they can just pick up a book. End game gameplay, and the commitments attached to it, are absolutely vital to the success of any MMO and BioWare's Flashpoints simply don't look different or compelling enough. In fact, this can be said for just about every single aspect of the game outside of the voice acting and the decision wheel. Just by judging from the state of the game at this point, there are a lot of questions being asked which may not have easy answers.

Perhaps it's a bit unfair to judge Old Republic in such a manner, but the reality is that as soon as BioWare chose to label their game as an MMO, they immediately set themselves up against the monolithic World of Warcraft. Quite frankly, it's pretty hard to imagine if BioWare will be able to craft something interesting enough to compete.

It's not because the subject of the game, Star Wars, is boring either. Star Wars is probably one of the largest science fiction universes out there. It's because, again, every single aspect of the Old Republic is easily comparable to an aspect of WoW. Instances are immediately comparable to Flashpoints, same with Battlegrounds to PvP scenarios. Much like Warhammer and even Aion before it, Old Republic assumes that by offering similar options to WoW while perfecting one aspect, they've already made a successful game. For Warhammer it was open-world PvP; for Aion, it was a large scale ranking system. But while one could look back and say that Warhammer and Aion may have succeeded in their main 'focus', almost everyone would agree that they failed miserable at launch on the other aspects of their games. Levelling was either a massive grind, boring, or a mundane combination of both. There was no reward for levelling outside from the self-imposed satisfaction that you were now one step closer to max level and subsequently one step closer to getting into the 'real' aspect of the game, be it a PvP grind, a dungeon grind, or perhaps just general fun with friends.

Neither games took enough time to make a game that was fun to play from start to finish. In some cases, the style of game you were playing at the start of an MMO is completely different by the time you're ready to play end game. It's like going to play what you think is an action platformer, only to discover that it's really an RTS, not quite false advertising but you (the gamer) should would appreciate some warning as to what you're getting into.

So what can a developer possibly do when high expectations meet unreasonable demands from a player base? Just about nothing, aside from attempt to inject a bit of realism through developer diaries and first-hand interviews; and that's where BioWare stands right now. On one hand, fans are still open to the idea that a game can be compelling from start to finish (or whatever qualifies as finish in an MMO) using nothing but storytelling mechanics, but on the same page there has to be more to it than that. If the combat doesn't really look fun from a visual standpoint, how does a developer convince one otherwise? If having a ship, an auto-crafting system, and an NPC partner all feels like gimmicks that belong in a single player game, when is it appropriate for BioWare to step in and say 'no, this works on a large scale'.  Gamers have heard it all before, and pushing aside doubt is one hell of a task in a section of the industry filled with post-release disappointment.

Either way, BioWare certainly has their work cut out for them. I'm not saying that Old Republic will be doomed from the start and forced to fade into obscurity due to less-than-innovative mechanics. More than that, BioWare has set too high a standard for themselves that is highly unlikely to be met. It'd be interesting to see them run a campaign that maybe scales things back a bit, giving players a better idea of what SWTOR will be all about and, realistically, what kind of end game we'll all have to look forward to. Sure, we've gotten bits and pieces, but if BioWare really wants to turn around all the speculation around their game, it'd be nice to see them take a more realistic look at what will keep players around for the long term. Perhaps all they need to do is show what the story grows into from start to finish. Maybe highlight a bit of the stat progression over time. These are the things players want, let alone what will help a fan base really understand what the title has to offer. Without that sort of preparation, it's hard to see much of a future for The Old Republic which, as any Star Wars fan could tell you, is tragically ironic.

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