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.
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.
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.
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.