Hyperspace Beacon: Star Wars The Old Republic’s Uncle Owen problem

When Star Wars: The Old Republic first released, an old Star Wars Galaxies argument popped up, and the crux of that argument was this: “No one wants to be Uncle Owen.” If we say that SWG pre-NGE was the Uncle Owen game, where players could successfully play a simple moisture farmer, and compare it to SWTOR, where you can be a member of the Dark Council, then we would see that SWTOR is clearly the winner if we are talking about the sheer number of players. However, SWG was one of the founding MMOs; it helped kickstart the genre. There were just not that many people playing MMORPGs at that time, so comparing the raw numbers is a bit unfair.

The argument continues. If we look at the story in the upcoming Battlefront II game, we see a kind of Uncle Owen story. The main protagonist of the game is a Commander of a squadron of Imperial soldiers that we have never heard of until now. Her name is Iden Versio, and she is, for all intents, a faceless Stormtrooper. Star Wars fans are very excited about playing through this storyline. I’m one of them.

However, the biggest place where we see the Uncle Owen controversy is in the SWTOR roleplay community, and I believe that if we study their arguments for and against playing a powerful character, we will gain a greater understanding why some storylines work and others do not.

Let’s put aside misconceptions

First of all, I would like to say the statements “No one wants to be Uncle Owen” and “Everyone wants to be a Jedi” are completely wrong. We all know this. Even if we put aside the fact that those statements are completely hyperbolic, it discounts those gamers who actually like to be the Han Solos and Jyn Ersos of the Star Wars Universe. And as I make the arguments for each side, I want to be clear: Playing a character who doesn’t use space magic or doesn’t have all the power of the galaxy in his hand is a perfectly viable and fun way to live in the Star Wars Universe. But for the sake of the argument, I have to ask whether there is enough interest to make it a worthwhile pursuit from both a developer perspective and a player perspective.

I would also like to clarify what I consider a success when it comes to the MMO space. In a contest of raw numbers, EverQuest can’t come close to touching World of Warcraft, but I believe that EQ had just as much impact on the genre as the mammoth from Blizzard. But if it hadn’t been for EQ, a game like WoW would not exist, so in this case, EQ was a tremendous success on multiple fronts. For this reason, I measure success not only on raw numbers but on the game’s impact on the greater genre. Under those parameters, I would say that SWG was also a success, even though the number of players at any given moment was not as high as a modern blockbuster. The game made a heavy mark on Star Wars games and MMOs, and players still use it a gauge for quality systems like crafting.

An argument against Uncle Owen

I think we have heard the argument that everyone likes to feel powerful, and I’m not going to deny that. There is a definitely an endorphin boost when your character grows into a behemoth of the Force. The Dark-Side ending for Knights of the Old Republic was great: millions of people bowing down to the all-powerful Darth Revan, right?

But that’s not all there is to playing a powerful character.

I recently saw a roleplayer who goes by Seraph in the Ebon Hawk community say something interesting in the Citadel Discord chat. She said, “In the books and in the games, it implies that there is a larger level of politics that Sith engage in once they become a Darth.” As someone who likes the Netflix show House of Cards and really enjoys the political side of Game of Thrones, I admit that the idea that there is another “game” beyond gaining the top Imperial rank excites me. In the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion, we see a taste of this struggle in the scenes with Empress Acina and Minister Lorman.

Without the ability to rise to the top, we would not be able to see the political game. As Uncle Owen, we would just be attempting to survive — making a living in our own little world, as the galactic powerhouses fight each other. Not that there isn’t merit to that kind of struggle — there is! — but it’s not necessarily fun for everyone.

An argument against player power

Once you’re at the top, where do you go? If you are the Emperor of the Eternal Empire and have defeated the galaxy’s greatest enemy ever, what is there left to do besides rest on your laurels? Currently, that’s the issue with Star Wars: The Old Republic. The conflict at Iokath is interesting, but siding with the Empire or the Republic kind of loses its impact when you already have the most powerful army in the galaxy and could easily take out either one of those other factions.

It’s common for many people to say that the real game of the MMORPG doesn’t actually start until you’ve hit the level cap. What I believe most people are trying to say is that the game changes drastically when you hit the top. And that’s true of storytelling, too. When you’re emperor of the galaxy, the game changes from gaining your position to defending your position. It’s Robert Baratheon syndrome. Conquering the seven kingdoms is one thing, but if you don’t know how to play the game of thrones, then the kingdoms will crumble underneath you.

I don’t have a good answer

I really enjoy political games. I really enjoy stories of kings and gods, but Uncle Owen, Walter White, and Rick Grimes all have very interesting stories to tell, too. What is a developer or a community leader supposed to do? Can you make a game where Uncle Owen and Darth Vader are both playable characters?

I hate leaving an article with more questions than answers, but I don’t think that the answer lies with me anyway. The answer lies with you. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Every other week, Larry Everett jumps into his T-16 back home, rides through the hypergates of BioWare‘s Star Wars: The Old Republic, and posts his adventures in the Hyperspace Beacon. Drop him a holocom on Twitter @Shaddoe or send him a transmission at larry@massivelyop.com. Now strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
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45 Comments on "Hyperspace Beacon: Star Wars The Old Republic’s Uncle Owen problem"

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Karl Maurer

I have every class variant at level cap (and most of them at ‘story cap’) in SWTOR and I find myself not very interested in playing them as I would just be grinding command xp and doing the same endgame content again and again. Instead, I play less often, leveling alts with friends, on different servers, to level the legacies there, and just to play with some friends that have NOT hit level cap enough to be tired of things. I do this because, currently, it is the only live MMO that has kept a level of interest that keeps me coming back, even if less often than I used to.

I have played other MMOs to level cap. Usually when this happens with one toon, I try to start an alt (or continue playing an alt, if I already started one)… and usually I find I am not interested, really, in playing the same story again, so when the story threads stop being unique play, I stop caring to push on, and go to other alts or other games.

The only MMO that felt different, to me, was City of Heroes. Yes, CoH also suffered from ‘stories converge’ somewhat, especially at endgame and the incarnate system. But each toon could be as unique as you were willing to design them to be. (Champions Online tries HARD to equal this, but falls down on the job, for me, personally – maybe it’s the ‘action combat’… *shrug*.) So when I went through leveling another alt in CoH, it didn’t FEEL like a grind. Of course, part of this MIGHT be due to it being the only MMO I have played that I could regularly have a full group of 8 other players and play the game from start to endgame with that SAME group. (We made a number of ‘theme teams’ over the years.) I have never had a MMO since that 8-12 of my MMO friends all agreed to play on the same weekly schedule, like I did with CoH.

Most MMOs (even SWTOR) limits a player group (outside of raid/operations content) to 4, maybe 5 players in a single xp/loot sharing group. Of course, at this point, outside of the previously lamented CoH, I usually can’t GET 4 of my friends to agree on a single game that they are willing to invest the time in.

SWTOR is a great game, but currently, outside of the occasional exception, it feels like a SOLO RPG and not an MMO. CoH had such a strong sense of community that it always felt like a MMO rather than a SOLO RPG. Yes, you COULD play it solo.

Just as a note here…. EQ, before WoW came around, also had the sense of community that I describe for CoH. Not the same sort of one, but it felt like it was more than the quests in the game. After WoW came out (as well as some others, even SOE’s own EQ2), that started to fade, though the diehards that may still play seem to still have some of that, but it’s a ‘ghost town’ compared to the way it was in ‘the good ol’ days’. SWG before the NGE, had that sense of community that made it what it was. The NGE diluted that because of the number of people that had been strong in the community that got disgusted and left. SWTOR had it rather strongly for the first year, maybe two. But it has faded some as people drifted away to other games, on consoles, social platforms, and elsewhere.

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Alex Malone

I think the question really comes down to whether you want to live in a virtual world, or do you just want to experience a story as a character.

In a virtual world, just like the real world, you need a wide variety of roles to that many different types of personalities can play and form a great community, each somewhat dependant on one another. You need the gathers, the crafters, the fighters, the socialites, the entertainers, the lone wolves…..they all form a symbiotic network of players, each with their own very different but still important roles to play. It only works if each role is important and valued by the community, which means implementing game mechanics of some variety to keep things in balance.

If you just want to experience a story, that balance gets thrown out of the window. For narrated stories to be interesting, epic things need to happen. Stories, especially those told over long periods of time, also suffer from epicness-bloat – if you kill a bad guy in chapter 1, you need to kill a worse guy in chapter 2, then someone even tougher in chapter 3 etc. If the level of epicness drops off, the story can be viewed as trivial and unengaging. For example, if I killed a Nazgul at lvl 50, how am I supposed to get excited about killing an orc at lvl 60?

There is an active and valid market for both approaches to designing games. My issue is that focusing on stories, like SW:TOR, means a narrowing of scope. If your main content is the stories, then all players need to be able to complete the stories, which means everyone needs to have roughly the same role (combat). Everything else becomes a sideshow and unimportant. Stories also do not translate well into the MMO universe, as the narrated story as told through quests is often at odds with what is actually happening in game. In addition, due to everyone being able to complete the main story and thus the majority of the content, there tends to be a complete lack of interdependence. This is really bad for building communities and thus bad for retention.

I personally think that SW:TOR was a massive mistake for Bioware. They should have just stuck to building a KOTOR3, rather than attempting to build an MMO. Virtually every single design choice for the game gets in the way of building a community, from the heavy instancing, linear zones and stories, poor class design, lack of hobbies, pointless crafting to the crap engine. Bioware had the budget, the IP and the talent to create a truly genre-changing game, instead they built a bare bones MMO that only works as a single player game and required rescuing 3 months after launch as it was heading for financial failure.

wandris
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wandris

I think the entire hero archetype and good vs evil plot has been done to death and tired. It is fun but after so many years of it the entire premise becomes predictable. Some of the most interesting stories I have read are ones which are difficult and not happy stories where there is not any real win condition in the end.

Tragic characters, tragic stories seem to stick in my mind for years. Pain teaches, and painful experiences stick and provoke genuinely different ideas. Playing a game as uncle Owen a regular guy living out in the Tatooine badlands surrounded by hostile sand people, and various hostile alien cultures would be a very interesting story. Who is to say on a lawless planet run by the Hutt cartel uncle Owen didn’t break bad during a difficult water farming season, or employed a bit of Rick Grimes style justice on some of his tribal enemies.

Star Wars as a whole has come a long way but to me it seems that it was originally a space fantasy spectacle mashed together just because. Years and popularity have built it into a large work of sci-fi but it follows the same old story for the most part. Good vs Evil, hero vs villian, good wins in the end. This newer era of star wars is a bit more promising though, or perhaps spectacle still has its appeal. I always sort of though there was numerous very similar parallels between star wars and Isaac Asimov’s foundation series which was written decades prior to the movie. That story like most of Asimovs works was way ahead of its time, and very interesting.

amkosh
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amkosh

I think the author here doesn’t like SWTOR anymore. And hey, that’s fine. But I also think the author of this article should move on and stop heckling, because that’s all this article really is.

First off, he puts way too much stock in EQ. Guess what, do you really think had EQ not existed there would be no WoW? Yeah freakin right. Understand this, World of Warcraft was an inevitable game. Once Blizzard put out Warcaft 2 and Diablo, it was pretty much set that they would make WoW.

Of course EQ has influences in WoW, but had EQ not existed, other MMOs would have had influence. Remember, when WoW was initially greenlit, EQ wasn’t the largest MMO, UO was. It wasn’t until midway in 2002 that EQ overtook UO, and “little” Asheron’s Call was also out there. And by that time Blizzard had already announced it.

Next thing is the author overestimates SWG’s influence. Yes, SWG was enjoyable. However, when you really get down to it, there are probably only a few hundred thousand players out there that really revere it. If you get down to it, EVE Online probably has way more influences on sandboxes than SWG does.

SWTOR was also designed and intended to give the KOTOR audience (which by sales volume and revenue so far eclipses SWG as to be laughable) a game they would want to play and pay a recurring sub for. It was not designed for SWG players, and I’ve heard the SWTOR team was mortified when LA/SOE cancelled SWG.

This article is basically sour grapes. Larry, dude, I think you should move on. You don’t like the way SWTOR is, get on something you do like. Stop being a twit and let the SWTOR fans like their game in peace.

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Paragon Lost

I think the poster misses the point of MassivelyOp and why the writers and posters are here. Maybe the poster might want to take his own advice and move on? I don’t see Larry calling the poster names…

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Mewmew

NGE was never going to work. The game would have needed a total relaunch, like games do today, and from all accounts NGE was pretty horrible. The only thing I can compare it to is the “Omega” system that Marvel Heroes went through in their “BGUE” – it dumbed down the game, turned massively open areas into a bunch of small straight corridors in some areas, did so many things that made the game not nearly as fun – and from what I hear NGE was much much worse.

The players who were still around SWG obviously were the ones who liked SWG the way it was. Which as I understand, wasn’t too great either. Leaving the totals out of it because as you say, the total numbers of players would be different then – still it wasn’t engaging enough to keep enough of a percentage of the people who did play at the time. I hear they did a pretty good job at making Uncle Owens toiling in the background farming moisture but that people at the time were expecting something else so most didn’t stay. I do wonder how such a game would do today. It would be done differently of course but someone could make one of these “survival and crafting” games out of it that are all the rage now.

There’s a really good article posted by one of the main developers about all the stuff that went wrong and they had to leave out at release. It also talks about when things started to shape up and such, but I guess my point is that it had a lot of trouble at release by these accounts and took a while to patch into something considered playable. Yes, NGE was a disaster that never should have happened (again, as someone reading about this and who didn’t experience it, that’s what I get out of it) – but the core game before that wasn’t engaging enough to support itself with subscriptions because there just weren’t enough people staying to play. I get that a few writers here were a couple of people who did like it and so write fondly about it but I also see that they were in the vast minority.

Is it okay to link it? It’s from a few years ago but had some great insight from an insider’s view:
http://gamasutra.com/blogs/RaphKoster/20150417/241406/A_Jedi_Saga.php

There’s a difference in being a toiling moisture farmer watching the days go by and being a nameless Imperial Commander of a squad. Those are two very different things. Although honestly I would be interested in seeing what a game made today like SWG would be like and I would probably play it, what I read about the game and what people recall or imagine it should be like seem to be two different things.

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Cypher

That link was quite an interesting read🙂👍🏽

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Witches

As far as i can tell only LOTRO gets it, in a multiplayer game you don’t get to be THE ONE, you’re not Luke , Leia, Han, Chewie, Vader, Palpatine, but you’re right there with them when the action happens, that way when you meet another player, instead of both claiming to be the one responsible for that heroic deed, you are just another guy who was there to help the hero.

In a sandbox game it makes sense to have lots of Owens, if people want to be moist farmers let them, i would leave Tatooine on the first available shuttle.

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Melissa McDonald

even more important, you have CHOICE to make your own way (world quests) or rub shoulders with the iconic characters (epic quests). You can just happily be a pipe weed farmer in the Shire and sit on a rock and break out your lute and play (really play, in real time) Grateful Dead songs.

We need to cherish LOTRO while it lasts. It’s one of the top 3 MMOs ever.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

I don’t want to be Uncle Owen. But I wouldn’t mind being Aunt Beru.

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Melissa McDonald

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thirtymil

At the end of the day it’s the same Stormtrooper barbecue you get invited to.

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AussieEevee

My SWG guild leader back in the day said “Not everyone wants to be a Jedi”… and it’s a phrase I’ve repeated so many times since then. I don’t want to run around with a laser sword and space powers. I’m perfectly happy being Han Solo.

That said, I think it’s quite bad to say “no one wants to be uncle owen”… I know quite a few players in SWG, WoW and Even TOR who make their entire game about farming and selling resources… They don’t play the game to be a Jedi, or a Paladin, or whatever else… They play the game to get resources and to sell resources.

SWG was better in this regard because you could set up a base with extractors all around, and set up your own shop to sell those resources. Or you could craft them and sell the crafted ships, weapons, etc.

Sometimes in games, you just want to be the average joe… the uncle owen, as you call it.

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Iridescence

People want to play a character that is interesting and cool. If you make being Unlce Owen interesting I think quite a few people would do that. Unfortunately most games do not give RP tools to make anything other than combat interesting as they are basically (poor) combat sims.

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starbuck1771

Larry Owen was Vader. Vader started out as a slave and he didn’t have jedi/sith ability’s until he was taught them. Choice is what makes you who you are. Destiny is a bogus concept.