Although I understand that SWTOR is a themepark game (to be honest, I don't want it to be anything but), that social element will still exist, if for no other reason than that there are hundreds of thousands of people running around occupying the same space. I also find it very interesting that the social aspects of the game were pushed pretty hard in recent news, even up to last week with the April Fools' Day Wookiee jokes -- the emotes of the characters were the actual update. BioWare wished to show us that it realizes how important social elements are to players.
After the cut are some quotes and impressions I have received from developers regarding the more social aspects of TOR.
I would be remiss if I did not point out this quote from James Ohlen, the Lead Designer for Star Wars: The Old Republic. He said this at PAX East, and I quoted him in my article about defining MMOs: "What defines an MMO is when you have thousands of players in a game at the same time engaging in social activities together. If you want to be successful -- and we want to be successful -- you have to have that social glue that holds people together and keeps them coming back month after month."
There is another game that I play regularly that I believe works as a wonderful litmus test regarding social vs. non-social MMOs. DC Universe Online is an awesome game, but admittedly the social aspects of the game at launch were (and in many ways still are) broken. We could speculate for hours as to why this is, but the unfortunate truth is that socially the game didn't work so well. The other broad mechanics of the game have always been intact, and they're solid -- game mechanics, non-grindy leveling, endgame, even story elements like players' not having to read quest text because the game has full voiceovers (which is one of the major selling points for SWTOR).
However, despite the game's being the highest-selling game SOE has ever had, the population of the severs dropped rapidly even after major new content was introduced a month after release. I still think that DCUO will survive and continue to be a great game, but it does show us what happens when you are missing that social glue. I'm interested in seeing how a social game like Free Realms does on a very non-social platform like the PlayStation 3.
Stephen Reid has reiterated to me that although many of the people who are speaking for SWTOR are BioWare people (like James Ohlen and Daniel Erickson), many more people who are actually building the game hands-on have come straight from other MMO companies. In fact, we did a story on one such person who transitioned from Star Wars Galaxies to The Old Republic. For instance, when I talked to Live Producer Cory Butler about incentives for player grouping, he mentioned many of the MMO tropes like over-arching quest rewards and boss difficulty. However, at the end of that part of the conversation, he did note that "there are other parts of the games that we haven't talked about yet that will lead to that as well." I'm not sure whether he was just talking about a match-making system or something bigger, but given the importance he and others seemed to put on grouping, I suspect it's something bigger than a simple match-making system.
Another mechanic that has been talked about (though not in deep detail) is the guild system. Amazingly, BioWare has put out a pre-launch guild system that will allow players to form, recruit, and chat with guilds prior to the game's even being launched. This is an amazing social tool that tells me that the community team is definitely headed in the right direction regarding the social side of the game.
On a final note regarding this issue as a whole (because I am promising myself that I will not bring up this subject again for quite a while): BioWare and the community team are and have been extremely responsive to player feedback. When the community has been concerned about a specific issue, the team has been pretty quick about trying to calm those fears. No pre-release game has had an update every Friday for two years; no game has as many developers speaking directly to the fans via the forums; and no company has gone so far out of its way to not only discuss but show its fans the growth of the game over time.
Despite my concerns and despite my sometimes ignorant statements, let me say this: BioWare, keep doing what you're doing. I cannot wait to see what comes from you next. Until then, may the Force be with you all.
P.S. I'm glad I can finally say this: I would like to give my personal congratulations to Brooks Guthrie, formerly of Mos Eisley Radio, who is now working with the Star Wars: The Old Republic Community Team as an audio engineer. Good luck to you, my friend. Maybe we can get lost in Boston again sometime.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!