The past 11 or so years of World of Warcraft has effectively shut down any new hopeful MMO's chance of success. The amount of polish that went into that particular game has ensured that no other game in the genre can compete with Blizzard's MMO masterpiece. Even as subscriber numbers are dwindling, the amount of monthly subscribers is still at a number most other games can only dream of. Over the years, many games have tried and failed to match WoW's profitability, but that doesn't mean that there aren't others worth checking out. Let's take a look at a game that, despite it's less than great launch, has managed to persevere and even thrive. The game I want to talk about today is Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I was one of the people that bought into the hype when the game got announced back in the holiday season of 2011. The promise of an MMO experience like WoW, but with a more heavy focus on narrative, piqued my interest so much that I actually went to the midnight release of the game to pick up my physical copy. My very first character was, of course, a Jedi Knight. Armed with my lightsaber and a couple of friends, we jumped into the proverbial fray. It soon became apparent that even though the promised Bioware style of narrative was most definitely there, with 200,000 lines of spoken dialogue—which got them a Guinness book of records acknowledgement—I didn't respond well to the skinner box that is the modern hotkey gameplay style that was made popular by Everquest and perfected by Warcraft.
The game's heavy grinding soon made my enthusiasm grind to a premature halt, and the game became a somewhat sad ornament on one of my shelves. I loved walking around on the planets I saw in the films when I was a kid, and I was impressed by the overall writing of the class stories, but after about 60 hours the game got so bogged down by fetch and kill quests that I just couldn't be bothered anymore. It goes without saying that a WoW veteran such as myself is more than used to the daily grind, but the difference there was that I had been playing WoW for years at that point. As such, I was much more invested in WoW than I was in The Old Republic. And, judging by how quickly the game started to bleed subscribers, it seemed like I wasn't the only one with that opinion
So the game launched with critical acclaim and public indifference. By July of 2012, a mere 7 months after the game was released in North America and Europe, less than 1 million people were still active players, and The Old Republic was teetering on the brink of being cancelled. In what seemed a desperate bid for survival, EA and Bioware announced that the game would adopt the free to play format in December of 2012, a little over a year after the game saw the light of day.
The new model put pretty severe restrictions on free to play players who were new to the game, while returning ex-subscribers got the slightly less restrictive "preferred" status. The option to subscribe was still there, and the people who chose to keep their subscription active received some conveniences—like quicker cooldowns for fast travel stuff and faster leveling—as well as a monthly pack of Cartel Coins. Cartel Coins are the game's real money cash shop that allows players to buy outfits and unique in-game items. The one thing that was unrestricted to every player on every tier were the fantastic class stories.
Surprisingly enough, the game managed to drag itself back up from the edge of irrelevance and is now sitting at a respectable 1 million active players as of August 2014, with EA saying that the game needs around 500k active subs in order to stay profitable. Since the game went free to play, it has seen the release of several expansion packs that added new content to the game. The newest of these, titled Knights of the Fallen Empire, brings with it a slew of quality of life changes in addition to a continuation of the game's story.
It is now possible to complete the base portion of the game, dubbed the "origin story," by just doing the class-specific missions, removing the need for a long grind almost entirely. No longer will you be stuck going to and from a base to turn in a log full of quests only to discover that 10 more fetch quests await you. Datacrons, collectible items that give your character a permanent stat increase, now give all your characters a bonus so you don't have to look for them with every character you have created. The game's typical Bioware companion system has also been reworked, with every companion now able to have all 3 roles—healing, tanking, and damage—available to them, giving you the option of never having to group with other players while out in the world doing quests. You can now also solo some flashpoints—Star Wars: The Old Republic's version of a dungeon in other MMOs—with the game giving you a droid to help you fight the bosses.
The way the expansion is structured feels a lot like Guild Wars 2's living story system. New chapters will be released on a monthly basis in 2016 and are only available for solo play. I have not yet reached level 60, so I can't yet speak for its quality, but several outlets on the web seem positive and this makes me look forward to the point where I can sink my teeth into it. The game promises a return to the heavy narrative focus on the base game, something that was sorely lacking in previous expansions, with a heavy emphasis on player choice—or rather the illusion of player choice since you'll always be choosing choices the game presents to you. The expansion launched with 11 chapters available at release, with the others coming in 2016. Once I've played through all of them, I will be sure to tell you my thoughts on it. Until then I will be enjoying playing my light side Sith Inquisitor while I dismantle the Empire from within.
All the changes made to the leveling experience and the shift to a more single player kind of game feels like the right choice for The Old Republic. The game never really felt like a multiplayer game to me, and it's good to see that Bioware is slowly starting to warm up to the idea that singleplayer is just what this game needs to keep on keeping on. The community has responded well to these changes, with EA's quarterly report proudly boasting a whopping one third subscription increase. Star Wars: The Old Republic , by rights, should not be enjoying the success and stability it has right now, but I'm glad that it is. I'll see you once the review for the expansion is finished!