The Soapbox: Episode II - A New Hype

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect that of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Well golly, I think it's time for a bit of contrarian opinion regarding The Old Republic. I know, I know, I don't write about TOR aside from the occasional news post, but here is one of the many joys of Massively (and more specifically, the Soapbox). We all play a lot of games and have pretty strong opinions about them regardless of whether or not they're our bread and butter.

So, while my day job consists of covering sword and sorcery titles for our fine website, it's hard to get away from the oncoming repulsorlift hype train that is The Old Republic. Several months back, I wrote a Daily Grind in which I basically said that all the hoopla surrounding the game was getting tiresome. Predictably, crucifixion by comments ensued, all for daring to question the supremacy of both BioWare and Star Wars.

The fact that a minority opinion generated so much rancor (yeah, I went there) got me to thinking about TOR, BioWare, and the unrestrained optimism that often characterizes MMO fandom in general. On a purely personal level, my fire has gone out of the Star Wars universe, the fandom is all but extinct, a couple of posters and a model X-Wing are all that's left of my former religion. Can BioWare rekindle that fire? Do I even want it to?

Make point five past the lightspeed jump for more.

You want this... don't you?

Star Wars. BioWare. Two great tastes that taste great together, right? Well, in a word or two, not necessarily. The problem with fan logic that says "0mgWTFbbq!!!11!! what could possibly go wrong" is that one of the tastes has been left on high and extensively overcooked since the summer of 1999, resulting in a dish that is nigh-unrecognizable (and frankly, has the consistency and flavor of a jar of Gerber). The other taste is what MMO players like to refer to as a nub noob, at least when it comes to building in the massive space. Though BioWare has the market cornered on cockiness, that doesn't automagically translate into the ability to make a good MMORPG.

Let's tackle Star Wars first. Star Wars, despite retaining some of its original charm, is like one of those 50-something Hollywood starlets who have undergone one facelift too many. The more George Lucas nips, tucks, lifts, and cuts, the less it resembles what many of us fell in love with all those years ago. And to head off the inevitable but-it's-his-franchise-he-can-do-whatever-he-wants bleating -- well of course it is, and of course he can.

Whether he should is the issue, given the fact that he produced products of demonstrably higher quality when he was standing on the shoulders of Gary Kurtz, Irvin Kershner, and Lawrence Kasdan. The saddest part is that Star Wars was a naturally pretty girl and would've remained so far into old age but for the constant finagling, fine-tuning, and farking up of really basic things like narrative cohesion, characterization, (NSFW) and plain old common sense.

The franchise long ago lost any sense of its true self, the self that turned the entertainment industry on its ear in the late 1970s with a bravura display of creative collaboration that has rarely been equaled since. Now, it's become the playground of one man intent on visiting his goofy obsession with infantile accoutrements (farting eopies? Count Dooku? really?) on what was once a sci-fi sacred cow. Yes, BioWare, Karen Traviss, Jan Duursema, and other talented folks have managed to wring some actual artistic merit from the cash machine in recent years, but at the end of the day, they all answer to the Flanneled One and LucasArts (and MMO gamers with long memories probably know how well that worked out for SOE).

Your overconfidence is your weakness

So that's the Star Wars portion of this expectation-tempering expedition. What about BioWare? To be perfectly frank, a part of me doesn't like what TOR represents for the future of MMOs, and another part of me is curious to see what the genre's landscape would look like were TOR to be a financial flop. That's not to say I wish for anyone's unemployment, but when I look at the budget and the rumor the company needs to generate a million subs just to break even, I simply shake my head at the seemingly unsustainable nature of this beast. Coupled with a gaming populace that increasingly thinks it's entitled to everything for free -- and places little monetary value on software or service costs (or worse, prefers to sit back and let neighbors pick up the tab) -- you can't help but be a little worried about the viability of such a huge and costly undertaking.

I also look at BioWare's (and LucasArts') harping on accessibility and instant gratification (as opposed to world-building) at every opportunity, and I don't see it advancing the MMO genre in the direction I'd prefer. To borrow a phrase from Richard Bartle, "people are playing [MMOs] for reasons which are fine for gameplay reasons, but they're not really taking advantage of what makes MMOs special."

This is nothing personal against BioWare either. If anything, I'm a fan (I lost a good portion of my mid-20s to Neverwinter Nights), and I stand in awe of the company's masterful manipulation of media and the nerdosphere in general. Someday, somewhere, marketing students are going to be using TOR as a case study on how to whip people up into a frothing frenzy without releasing much actual information. The manic surety with which forum-goers proclaim that TOR is going to cure cancer, bring world peace, get the U.S. out of debt, and provide universal health care -- all before its initial free month has expired -- is something I've rarely seen in the games industry (or any other one, for that matter).

All that said, I have to admit that there are several things about TOR that look pretty cool. The (former?) Star Wars fan in me is looking forward to seeing BioWare's take on Coruscant, and what little bounty hunter combat footage that has actually managed to slip through the marketing department's fingers looks pretty slick (and apt to ruin a LollerJ3d1's day, which is even more delicious). Perhaps most importantly, if any company out there has the stones (and the clout) to tell George Lucas to put up his hands and back slowly away from the editing machine before he does any more damage, it would be BioWare.

Finally, as much as I'm weary of Jedi and lightsabers (everyone knows smugglers and X-wings are the coolest things about the galaxy far, far away, amirite), I will concede that Knights of the Old Republic is one of the crowning achievements in the long history of the franchise in terms of storytelling, production values, and pure unadulterated ass-kicking. The problem is, I've already played it, and its sequel.


Translating it to a subscription (or RMT) game and dumping a bunch of people in around me does absolutely nothing to ramp up my excitement level. Nothing about TOR looks even remotely dissimilar to things I've been doing in these games for years. My suspicion is that the most innovative thing about the game is going to be its payment model(s), which isn't a bad thing per se, but it's not exactly something that causes my inner nerd to become aroused.

Similarly, BioWare can talk about story until it's bluer in the face than Aayla Secura, but the reality is that many MMO gamers don't give a bantha poodoo about the loftily labeled "fourth pillar." Even though I'm a roleplayer more often than not, I couldn't care less about BioWare's MMO stories, nor the gobs of money it's reportedly spending on voice-acting to bring those stories to life. Why? Because the story my friends and I will create is better, assuming we're given the tools to do so. BioWare, even with its hefty financial resources, doesn't have the time or money to generate enough story content to satisfy this particular gamer. Only player-generated content can do that.

The clone wars

That's not likely to be happen though, given that many gamers seem to want nothing more than repetitive PvP, artificial reward stimuli, and an endless supply of level dings to go along with their lightsaber sound effects. With EA pouring cash into TOR while casting covetous glances toward World of Warcraft's ever-increasing sub numbers, familiarity and linearity is likely what BioWare is going to deliver, simply because innovation in this industry does not sell. It can't sell, not with these sums of money involved. When you've got two of the genre's design heavyweights (Koster and Garriott) tucking their tails between their legs and heading for the land of rainbows and social networking, it's not unreasonable to suspect that AAA MMO development is going to be choosing the quick and easy path for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, TOR is an absurdly expensive MMO, so how much can it really afford to deviate from the industry's most successful formula? Yes, I know, in BioWare you trust. And yes, I also know that the Hope cinematic was six minutes of pure awesome that almost made you forget about six hours of prequel diarrhea.


At the end of the day, and the preceding rant notwithstanding, I will be purchasing a box copy of TOR and trying it out for the free month (or making do with whatever crazy microtransaction scheme the accountants come up with). For a nerd, gamer, and industry-watcher, it's almost an obligation. So while I already hear the snap-hiss of a hundred rantsabers powering up to vent their righteous indignation in the comments, please realize that you (and BioWare and George Lucas) have already won. Mine is but a small voice of dissent amidst a sea of fanboys (and girls, to be fair), and if the game actually turns out to have some depth beyond the baritone stylings of its manly voice actors, then the Force will be with all of us.

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!