How Star Wars: The Old Republic won me over with its endgame
When I returned to SWTOR, it was after a two-year break from the game that followed reasonably close on the heels of Rise of the Hutt Cartel. I enjoyed that expansion, but what kind of dragged me to a halt with the game was my general disinterest about Star Wars combined with the fact that the endgame was the same unpleasant mire that wasn’t doing World of Warcraft any favors then or now. It’s important to note that when I left, the game had been my main go-to game for quite some time.
Now, of course, The Force Awakens managed to kindle a heretofore unprecedented affection for the franchise in me (a discussion of that would be outside of this particular article’s wheelhouse) and my wife and I couldn’t help but go back. And that brings me around to now, in the wake of a livestream where the prospect of new operations is basically met with a shrug and a guess. That earned some points.
Let’s start by taking a step back to the old SWTOR endgame, or as I like to call it, an Endgame Heartbreaker. Because that’s really what it was, and that requires a bit of further elaboration.
In tabletop roleplaying, there’s a type of game known as a Fantasy Heartbreaker. It is, in short, a game that is trying very hard to be Dungeons & Dragons, usually with class/level systems and all of the generic fantasy tropes firmly in place. These games almost always have something cool tacked on, something to make them distinct and different… but they’re going to break your heart because they’re about as viable in the marketplace as a one-legged chihuahua in a dog race. No one is ever going to see the cool parts because if you want to play D&D, you play D&D.
We’ve had far too many Endgame Heartbreakers: MMOs whose unique and charming systems get buried underneath the eat-sleep-raid-repeat cadence that World of Warcraft has been steering straight into the ground. SWTOR definitely fell into that category. It had some marvelously story-heavy instances that, unfortunately, were best experienced by hammering the space bar as fast as possible so you could get back to the killing as a group. The individual stories were fun and diverse, but once they ended, you basically fell right back into the old habit of raiding to flesh things out.
I don’t need to tell you why that doesn’t work, do I? It’s the equivalent of competing with McDonald’s by opening a competing restaurant called MacDrummond’s with a purple-and-white color scheme, the same menu, slower service, higher prices, and only two stores open on alternating hours. You are competing against the market leader not by being smarter and faster but by doing the exact same thing that the market leader does with a different skin.
The game subsequently did flesh things out, and I thought (and still think) its handling of reputations is pretty good. But on a fundamental level, all of that remained a matter of killing time before the main events. The endgame content – the point of the game – was always to get into those Operations and get those bosses down, just as it was in dozens of other games.
Yet here we are in Knights of the Fallen Empire, and I find myself happy with the idiosyncratic way of handling the endgame. It’s not perfect – very few things are – but it really seems as if that core restructuring of the game goes beyond simply adding story chapters and calling it a day. There is an emphasis on the idea that people may not necessarily want to play in huge groups, and that’s a remarkable shift.
At the start of the piece, I mentioned that my wife and I returned to the game together. Stuff like the Star Fortress is basically made for us – semi-randomized content that’s more concerned with having people there working within their abilities than with having a specific setup of group members. The whole idea of a solo challenge mode getting added in the patch after the next one makes me very happy, especially when dealing with a game that’s historically been pretty good about providing an interesting solo experience.
For the people who really dig on big-group stuff, though… well, it’s all still there. Everything in the game is still in place and made newly relevant for higher-level players. So that’s not even a going concern, you can definitely get in there and get just as much out of the experience. More, even! And if you had already cleared every operation at the highest difficulty possible and want something new to do… hey, most of us have been there.
More to the point, I’m interested to see how this shift in philosophies works out in the longer term. What we have here is a game that’s really trying to refocus and redevelop itself, providing a different context for the game as a whole and a different set of design principles for players to enjoy. It’s a major shift in philosophy, and it’s something we haven’t seen much in other titles that followed the stock MMO plan for large-group endgame content.
If the game’s fortunes take a wild downturn, that’s going to make it pretty clear that this experiment didn’t work. But that’s how I see it: It’s an experiment, a turning away of the old model and a move to something that can be enjoyed by a larger percent of the population. And based on most of the response to the expansion, I’m hopeful about its prospects in the future.
I want to see what the next story chapter holds and how my choices impact the longer term gameplay once we’re over the initial hurdle. I want to see what new sorts of content come along. I want to see how well it handles the new setup with a very different endgame structure. I’m hopeful.
Do I think that solo players with a possible partner are a solid foundation for future content? I don’t know, but I’m interested in seeing how it shakes out. There are still incentives for being in larger groups rather than penalties, and you can enjoy quite a bit as a team with another player along for the ride, and it opens up the potential for interesting fights and content requiring the coordination of two people. I’ve greatly enjoyed running flashpoints with two people already, since there’s much less sense of “perform your role” and far more emphasis on working together as a team to do what needs to be done. And I think that further chapters, more content, and more content aimed at that size can indeed flesh out the game in the long run.
It’s something new, and I’m curious to see where it goes. But the team behind the game set the course, and they’re sticking with it. That’s why I was happy with the livestream – because it would have been so easy for the ultimate course to be “all right, here’s when we’re bringing out the big raid.” That’s not what we got. So I was pretty darn happy.