The Soapbox: Adding story to SWTOR

Star Wars: The Old Republic - show me the story
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I'd like to take a few moments this week to prognosticate about story in The Old Republic. I'm not talking about the story that's already there, mind you, as I've barely scratched the surface (a 20 Sage, a 15 Gunslinger, and a beta-flavored Trooper are the extent of my experience thus far).

No, what I'm more interested in talking about is what's going to happen story-wise when I get to level 50 on one of these guys. The easy answer is, of course, roll an alt! There are seven other classes after all, each reportedly featuring 200 hours worth of single-player story content.

What happens if I were to get to level 50 on all eight classes, though? Is The Old Republic's gameplay still going to revolve around the heavily hyped story angle at that point?
This isn't a trick question or one designed to incite a riot in the comments section but rather one that I'm actually curious to have answered. You see, story content done the BioWare way is expensive, and it seems highly unlikely that the firm will add a lot of story content to the game over time.

Nothing about TOR thus far has convinced me that the mighty "fourth pillar" is a feasible way to make a long-lasting MMO, nor is it the watershed moment in gaming history that BioWare is making it out to be.

The reason for this is simple. MMO story (the dev-driven variety at least) costs significantly more than generic leveling content, and that makes MMO story the exception rather than the (new) rule. TOR's story is a diversion, and however pleasant it may be in the short term, it's not a viable long-term content model.

Don't believe me? Go ahead and count how many upcoming MMOs are taking the BioWare story route. I'll wait (and if you get past one potential imitator, that being The Secret World, let me know). Sure, a lot of PR types are now telling us that their MMOs have stories because it's the new buzzword, and perhaps the games do feature bare-bones static backstory if you stop grinding long enough to read the quests. But few if any of them have the lengthy cutscenes, dialogue trees, and moral choices of The Old Republic.

BioWare, bless its heart, is having a few delusions of grandeur over a mechanic that is nice but hardly revolutionary (a recent press release actually compared The Old Republic to the The Jazz Singer, sincerely and with a straight face). What the company is really doing is giving MMO players a brief respite from MMO gameplay. Or, if you want to get technical about it, it's mixing that brief respite in with the tried and true DIKU mechanics we've all grown accustomed to over the past 15 years.

That's fine, except for the fact that this approach is prohibitively expensive for most dev outfits, and therefore TOR is more of a temporary vacation from MMOs than a sea change in MMO design. BioWare knows this, and it's one reason why the company front-loaded the game with such a huge amount of single-player story content.

Your average TOR fan, and BioWare's target audience, is probably in his early thirties, with a wife, kid(s), and a mortgage, and 200 hours multiplied by eight is going to take him a couple of years. At the end of that two years -- when the game has already paid for itself many times over -- what is BioWare's incentive to crank out some expensive new story content for the post-level 50 crowd?

I'm not saying it's impossible, but is it likely? Or is it more likely that TOR will do what all themeparks do, which is let a couple of junior content designers loose with the dungeon maker tools and fall back on the the raid-to-get-gear-to-raid-to-get-gear model?

If we assume that the current game's story content is a professionally constructed narrative that features a definitive end, will that necessitate that entirely new classes be created to deliver new story content? Put another way, can you bolt on additional chapters to a narrative that already offers some sort of meaningful conclusion?

Now, I haven't seen the end of any of the game's current class story arcs, and maybe some of you who have can enlighten me. Perhaps BioWare planned for recurring story content by writing a bunch of cliffhanger endings or sequel-friendly denouements. If not, though, that could be a pretty significant hurdle to overcome for a company that prides itself on its pro storytelling chops.

A final point to consider is the fickle nature of MMO gamers and the F2P-driven attention deficit disorder that is becoming a hallmark of the new player generation. Two years from now, will TOR still be a fan and critical darling, or will it be another in a long line of themepark games that burned bright for a time and were then forgotten in favor of the next new shiny? The Star Wars IP ensures that a certain subset of hardcores will stick with the game until the end, but will the casual fans necessary for a long-term blockbuster be similarly enthralled? Will BioWare itself be as enamored of Star Wars in two years, or will it be eyeing a Mass Effect MMO and the associated windfall?

Ultimately, I will be surprised if BioWare adds a lot of story content to TOR. If you look at recent developer comments on what's coming next, for example, you see a lot of basic MMO functionality as opposed to new story content. Combat logs are coming. Customizable UIs are too. New flashpoint dungeons are in the mix as well. All of this stuff is great, and none of it requires voice actors, writers, or cutscene animators and directors.

As I was writing this article, BioWare scribe Alexander Freed attempted to address fan concerns about new story content and voice-acting in a posting on the game's official forums. He said that the company is keeping voice actors under contract, and he also pooh-poohed the supposition that story content is time-intensive and unlikely to happen very often.

While that might be the case, it's also exactly the sort of vague PR that gets pushed out to anxious customers regardless of its accuracy. My point is that TOR's stories are relatively enjoyable, but you'd best make them last. Stories, particularly the high-gloss Hollywood type that BioWare has built its reputation on, are quite expensive and time-consuming to produce even when you're not bolting them onto an ancient MMO framework that wasn't designed to support them. Also, unlike many successful MMOs, good stories need to end.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

This article was originally published on Massively.