The Soapbox: A pre-mortem for Star Wars The Old Republic, a game that never knew what it had

    
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Guns hurt more when you're shot in the back, I can only use this gun for that, sorry, don't make the rules.

Would you believe that Star Wars: The Old Republic is shutting down? I’m going to bet that you could believe it, and I’m even going to bet that the majority of you read that and then scrolled back and forth looking for the story where that was announced before continuing on to read this sentence. It hasn’t been announced, but it feels very plausible, and that in and of itself is really weird.

The past year for the game has all felt like the lead-in to a shutdown. It hasn’t felt like things are moving right along at a decent clip; indeed, it’s felt like we’re marking time and trying to either wrap up plot points or just get as much out of the last gasps before things finally end. And that feels really weird; for a game that started with a huge budget in a gigantic IP with excellent launch reviews, this should not be a game that’s struggling and flailing eight years on, with the sense that it was kind of coasting for a long time even before that.

So what’s the matter? Why is the game struggling? If it’s got so much to recommend it, why is it still flailing in hopes of a resuscitation? I think that’s an answerable question… and one that can be answered now, before the actual shutdown is even announced.

Here’s the thing – on some level, we’ve all known the answer to this question for a long while, and it was restated pretty clearly by former lead Daniel Erickson last year. But the thing is that SWTOR’s real problems didn’t start until after it launched. It should be pretty clear that Erickson wouldn’t really have been dishing on failures if the game had continued to elaborate on what made it good after launch.

And frankly, yeah, there was a lot to recommend it and a lot of good in place, even with the stuff it was clearly aping from elsewhere. It’s all well and good to say that the game’s problem was taking inspiration from World of Warcraft, but a lot of games have done that and been successful. (I can think of a game that clearly took inspiration from that title and is now frequently touted as doing everything WoW does but better.) No, the game’s fate was not a foregone conclusion from launch.

S-words.

Sure, there were things at launch to nitpick – I remember; I was there. Flashpoints were more annoying to get into than they needed to be and frequently longer than necessary. Not every class was terribly intuitive to play. Companions had a bigger impact than perhaps they should have and really needed more systems in place to encourage diverse companion choices, instead of just the raw power of healing options. The list goes on.

All of these were fixable problems. What made the problems grow from hiccups to a crippling mess was the fact that it’s very clear, looking back, how little idea anyone had about what to do next, or even how to balance the game moving forward. What is the endgame here? What are players supposed to do?

The answer they wound up with was just “copy WoW’s endgame, that’ll work.” And that’s where the problems really started. Using that as a basis for the gameplay didn’t cripple the game; using that as a replacement for what people liked did.

One of the things I noted in WildStar’s post-mortem was that the game fundamentally had a problem with courting an audience that wasn’t interested while ignoring the audience that was. SWTOR had a similar problem in that it very, very clearly was trying to be WoW But With Lightsabers, which was a problem insofar as that game already exists. Pitching the heaviest focus at the game’s combat and endgame challenges sounds like a good idea until you realize that this is, arguably, the game’s absolute weakest point even at launch.

It’s not that the game’s combat was bad; it’s that it wasn’t different enough from what WoW had to make these features a selling point. “Do exactly what you can do in another game but with different visuals” is not a compelling marketing point. It’s even separate from the question of whether or not BioWare tends to be very good at these sorts of high-end challenges; even producing the best endgame raids ever would make this a hard point to sell the game upon.

So what was it that the game had that was unique to it? What could have made SWTOR compelling enough to continue holding on to its players? It’s become a tired refrain to cite the game’s story, but a lot of players look at what happened with the whole Fallen Empire arc as proof that just focusing on the story is also a problem. Notwithstanding that this was a point when the game was so resolutely segmented that it only had story and single-player adventures to the exclusion of everything else, that’s missing the point.

See, the problem wasn’t the story, but the fact that the game hadn’t really yet figured out how to leverage a choice-based MMO storyline into actual compelling gameplay. The environment and audience was there, but not the development, and instead of working on that development the game just doubled down on “story through leveling before we give you WoW’s endgame.”

Could this have been fixed? Yes. And while I’m reluctant to write design fanfic, I think that Flashpoints provide an idea of what could have happened. Imagine a player-driven story that is player-driven without the central axis of players screwing one another over.

We listen.

For example, suppose you have a flashpoint. The developers track how many players of each faction take part in it, and what the Big Decision in the flashpoint is resolved as. Make the experience itself something that is meant to be repeated in-universe. Then, depending on which story choice and faction clear comes up most often… that’s the direction of the story. So, if you have an instance wherein a Hutt flotilla is raided by the Republic more often and the Republic overall chooses to capture the Hutt weaponry, then the next patch is developed with the Hutt weapons in the hands of the Republic and the Empire on the back foot.

Obviously, this is just a quick suggestion and not a single magic bullet solution for the game. But it gets at one of the core issues that the game had, from launch until right now. The developers never seemed to really have any idea what players were there for, slotting people into very narrow fields and treating things like story and gameplay as entirely different experiences.

So now we’re here, with the developers refusing to even give us a roadmap for the game ahead and with players trying and failing to feel some optimism about what comes next. And even if the developers did now have the resource to really lean in on what could be done with storytelling, the ship appears to have long since sailed.

Hence, a pre-mortem. The game isn’t dead. I think it has some change to recoup some players and at least bring its storytelling to a satisfying conclusion. But it’s never captured that flare that it had in the beginning, and the whole thing goes down as a missed opportunity. Not just because of where it took inspiration, but because it never seemed to know what it actually had.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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Thomas

Well, I hope SWTOR doesn’t close, as I enjoy the game and find that it just keeps getting better and better. It has always worked just fine for me as a single-player/co-op game, and it seems to be gravitating more and more in that direction in its expansions and new content.

I don’t give a holy rip about PvP or Operations (and I seldom run flashpoints, truth be told, unless I can run them solo). In its current state, the game is fun and is worth — in my opinion — paying for a “minisubscription” (60 days, here and there). Frankly, if SWTOR completely chucked any and all attempts to “be a real MMO” (PvP and Operations/raids) that’d be A-OK with me.

And so I’ll continue to dabble at playing SWTOR on and off (they can’t/don’t generate new story/campaign content fast enough to justify a continuous subscription, but the occasional “short sub” works well for me).

I’ll be really sad if SWTOR ultimately shuts down, but in the meantime I’ll ride the SWTOR train till it reaches the end of the line, whenever that may be.

A lot of the posters here seem sad and/or disenchanted with SWTOR, but I am perfectly content with the game and hope it plugs along for a good while yet.

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NecrococoPlays

About a month ago, I started playing through all of the character stories and recording them – even though I’ve played them all before. Because I know I’m going to have some crazy nostalgia pangs when this beast gets shut down.

Nuzan
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Nuzan

I loved the SWTOR stories and I loved to play SWTOR as a normal MMORPG with a good mixture of immersive stories, daily quests and instanced group content.

But I stopped my subscription a few month ago although it breaks my heart to leave my guild (or rather its remains) who still play there.

1) Subscription is way to expensive.

2) Free-to-play is far too restrictet and player harrassmant only.

3) Strategic management mistakes: Around the time when KOTET/KOTFE stories startet, there was no new group content implemented for nearly 2 years.
Until KOTET/KOTFE we were a quite active guild, a happy mixture of pve and rp players and engaged raiders and pvpers. We used to raid regularly minimum twice a weed (the rp players too) and there was lots of community feeling and social fun. Without group content, the raid players left the game. The rp players went on with rp events for some months but slowly dropped out too.

4) Misguided game design: The ‘command crate xp system’ (end game level system > level 70) is a horrible lootbox gambling system, hardcoded into the in-character skill system. There is no way to avoid this gambling system.

It is an absolute humiliation for a player to get a gambling box (‘command crate’) as ‘level reward’ for a hard earned character level. It is like you trained hard for a math test and you know you got all answers right, but teacher says: ‘Well, the RNG device will decide if you get an A or an F.’

I have no problem with external RNG game systems for boss loot or some mission rewards.

I tried to get accustomed with the new ‘command crate’ gambling system but it killed my SWTOR fun over time.

There would be more to say but these are the basic points

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David Zurhaar

I played for years and was also there at launch and I find your memory very poor of that time. The real problems did start before the launch and saying that they started after the launch means to me that you have no idea about the development process or disaster that was SWTOR. And next to the development issues which led to a game that had too little too offer on launch particularly for endgame, there was also the attitude of the studio that thought it did something amazing and not being able to be self-critical.

Sure, the problems didn’t crystallize fully till the game was launched but you too should remember that the exodus of players already started in the first weeks after release because, to the studio’s great amazement, people were already level 50 and wanting to do endgame in two weeks. Except there weren’t that many people there yet so PvP was pretty much dead for obvious reasons and there really was only one raid available which was so bugged that it was unclear whether you would be able to beat the end boss, not because of the difficulty but because it would reset in the middle of the fight constantly and if you did beat him it was uncertain if the loot actually would drop.

Also a lot of things that you could call QoL or basic amenities were missing. Things like account storage, which had become commonplace in MMOs, were not present and there were many such things.

And as much as it was commonplace for MMOs to lose 40% of their player base in the first few months, SWTOR lost double of that. You were right about it being WoW in space but that only exacerbated the problem because WoW had advanced over the years and SWTOR was trying to compete with the vanilla WoW game as if people would be fine without the content and QoL that people were used to by then. SWTOR just did too little at start and that problem happened before launch. BioWare basically messed around for too long and then got a deadline before which they had to complete what they could. A typical BioWare problem which was felt strongly also with Mass Effect: Andromeda which suffered an eerily similar development.

I also have to disagree with you on the story element. Story was and still is the Unique Selling Point of SWTOR. However, that is referring to the vanilla game where you have actual class stories. That was new and gives replay value. The quality and value of this went down with the first expansions when they dropped the class stories. And the problem with the last two expansions where story was chosen over all else was still the story. A lot of people, myself included, did not like the story. It was too farfetched and illogical even for a space fantasy game and it was just poorly written with lots of plot mistakes and deus ex machina moments. It was utterly contrived and uninspiring and it wasn’t what people were asking for… namely the class stories.

Group content had been expanded over time after launch and for a time there was a thriving raiding community and a PvP community. However, PvP was ignored for years and raiding was abandoned for this story content. The expansion that brought that new story was the most successful expansion (4.0 aka KotFE) but as the promises of story didn’t deliver what many wanted, the game also couldn’t hold on to the players. I mean, once you played through the story and the gazillion sky troopers that were used to artificially increase the length of story chapters, there really was still nothing else to do.

Sure they tried to add some things but half-*ssed them. Galactic Starfighter was actually done pretty well but lacked variety and especially balancing. It suffered the same fate as PvP after release. Then housing came in the form of Strongholds but they overmonetized it and still do which makes it an expensive hobby and the hook system and particularly the poor placement thereof also made it more frustrating than fun.

The final problem was the last expansion (5.0 aka KotET) which introduced the most ridiculous reward system ever created called Galactic Command. On the test server people complained, when they started releasing information about it people told them en masse that was a bad idea and when they implemented it, it caused another exodus the game could ill afford. I’ve never seen BioWare turn around so quickly with livestreams and promises of improvements starting pretty much the day after release. They tried damage control but it ultimately lead to server merges.

It’s poor judgment from the side of BioWare that is the core of the issue here. SWTOR has a lot of good things in it and for me the combat was just fine. However, BioWare made it a sport to listen to players and then implement things in a way so it was no longer what players wanted. It was clear that the moment the game bombed in the first few months that EA wouldn’t back them with investments to fix the game. So it added an F2P option and a cash shop that became the main source of income and is so expansive that it’s more interesting to buy stuff than to earn in-game rewards. The game was originally said to require 500k subs to be viable. Today there may just be tens of thousands left and the game still goes on. That should tell you how much impact the cash shop has. It’s also part of the reason why I finally quit aside from boredom due to a trickle of new content and introduction of content that nobody wanted.

And as for roadmaps… they’ve always been poor. In fact BioWare has been poor in communication from the start. That’s not a sign by itself. Could the game be announced to shut down? Sure, it’s become a small MMO with 5 servers worldwide and a cash shop. But they are saying that they have some really cool things to announce but are waiting for the Star Wars celebration to share. I would wait for that before jumping to any conclusions. The game has been doing poorly but people have already said for years that it feels like it’s going to shut down and it hasn’t. I just wish that more of that cash shop revenue translated into investing into actual meaningful content. Recent patches have shown a little bit of that. I wouldn’t say that SWTOR will shut down very soon, but then, I also haven’t picked it up again since over a year ago. Because for an old player like myself, the game needs to be restored from the damage they did to it with 4.0 and especially 5.0. And until they do that, there is no reason for me to go back.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I may badmouth the game sometimes, but for the time I did spend on there, I had some decent memories of it.

I was a person who bought Collector’s Edition and then stuck it out as a subscription user for a bit over 6 months after launch. I left because they took so long to merge that all the worlds were dead and I couldn’t do any of the group required content.

After they went F2P, I tried to get back on there…but they hadn’t ‘grandfathered’ any of the content I’d had access to into the accounts. They expected you to basically play F2P and re-pay for the game again with almost everything locked. I had 2 full servers worth of characters, and all of them were locked down except one toon. Almost nothing I’d had access to was accessible.

It was like they had their hands out with palm up expecting me to lay even more cash in their hands(after having paid for Collector’s edition). At that point, I said ‘No, I won’t support this.’ and walked away.

I’ve since seen lots of similar nonsense from micro transaction stores in all sorts of games, run by all sorts of companies…so it’s not even just this company, it’s a common theme. They don’t want to provide you a service/game/etc for your money, they just want to take your money for as little as possible given in return…and companies that act like that, should be put out of business.

If you’re actually willing to provide your customers with a decent product in return for their money, then you should also be willing to listen to them, and I didn’t find that to be true of this company either. We’d post things on forums and they’d completely tone us out and do whatever the heck they wanted instead. If you, as a company think you’re better than your customers, you also deserve to be put out of business.

Also, when I watched the two ‘founders’ of the game basically pull their money out and walk away, that was pretty much a sign that there wasn’t any real hope for the future of the game. It was like they were in it just to get the big cash boost at the beginning and didn’t care about their product’s future. Going ‘Yeah, I got mine, and bounced’ isn’t going to make your customers truly feel like investing more into the product.

Yeah, maybe it pulled through after I left, and managed not to go under and keep it’s feet/stay the course/get basically put into maintenance mode…where it’s not profitable, but it’s not going under…but that’s not looking good for the future of a game either.

If I thought things had changed for the better, I’d even consider going back and looking under the hood again, to see if it’s worth another chance, but from what I’ve read, it’s not improved things. Same old problems…

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Kevin McCaughey

It launched with no endgame, just a repeating battle in the same old place. Players are looking for progression and end game with gear and bosses. And in a variety of settings. When our guild got toward max level everyone just totally lost interest and it died a death for our guild. Also, the engine was hopeless and the graphics pretty shit. I think they got the most out of the engine and it was just a bad choice made early on and it really limited them. They then went down the road of endless talking by NPC’s instead of just walls of text you could scroll past. Heard one voiceover, heard them all. The game was full of bad design choices and I do not know how it is still running. Get it buried and let someone else have the IP.

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Chosenxeno .

The Game was dead when they thought not having Macros and Addons was a great idea. I still managed to do a few things but that was a HUGE mistake.

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Syrath Xaj

I loved SWTOR warts and all the real issues started when they changed directions and didnt give pvp the attention it needed. Then the Glactic Commamd Crap killed any motivation to play as the pvp gearing completely flipped from being easy to get geared at a close to even level. And there’s never been a battle ground as fun as Huttball imho.

The people running the show had no business being in charge and they drove the loyal playerbase away with bad dev choices.

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Dankey Kang

News at 11: Old game with outdated systems and graphics is at risk of closing due to lack of interest.

Every game has a shelf life, and the slow as molasses tab-targetting games we enjoyed in 2006 can’t compete with modern games.

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Tamanous

Oh really? So the Classic hype means nothing?

Swtor ruined itself early. It was built on an engine that couldn’t support the original design and scope. Development focus shifted wildly from early through late design and post release. The engine is the PRIMARY reason why the game changed focus.

Swtor, from the earliest moments with it’s demo pitch, was mismanaged and WAY over budget. Even EA was smart enough to realise this and put hard limitations on the game’s late development and hosting and fired and slapped the wrists of the original leads.

You are over simplifying it’s decline.

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Dankey Kang

I’m gonna make a predicition here, I think people like the idea of playing Vanilla WoW more than actually playing it.

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Nathan Aldana

I doubt its even that so much as the people who do enjoy classic are very vocal. me, i dont really give a shit about classic, but I;’m not gonna spend my week yelling about that.

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Chosenxeno .

The only 2 games people pay a Subscription for ARE TAB TARGET GAMES!

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Sarah Cushaway

I loved the IA story–lots of neat plot twists. As an author, that tickled my fancy quite a bit. I liked the companion idea where you could have romances or stories with your “minions”. There were some fun characters.

However, most everything else about the game was pretty dull. I got reaaaaallly tired of killing the same androids over and over, I didn’t like how instanced the planets felt, I didn’t like the railroad quest-hub design, or how the classes played. There were some really good stories buried in a terribly mediocre game. I mean, it’s Star Wars–a bit of creativity and effort OUTSIDE of the story-telling and this game could have been an absolute gem. It’s one of the most popular IP’s of all time, people eat it up, and yet all we got was a half-baked WoW clone.