Although I bring up "Is it still Star Wars?" I think the larger question is "Is it still SWTOR?" As many of us who followed this game since before launch can attest, the story of Star Wars: The Old Republic has been one of its biggest draws. Knights of the Old Republic was one of the chief catalysts for BioWare's success. And the idea of continuing in that section of the timeline was enticing to many Star Wars fans. Many SWTOR players will agree that the level-up storyline certainly held pretty close to that standard. I loved the Sith Warrior and Imperial Agent story, for example. However, we've been watching storytellers leave BioWare over the last couple of months, including two lead writers: Daniel Erickson and Alexander Freed. Freed, by the way, wrote the two most popular SWTOR comic book series and arguably the best SWTOR in-game storyline, the Imperial Agent. Is the game going to be the same without them?
First, I certainly hope that the whole of the game's storyline didn't hinge on just a couple of people. And there are other original writers still on the team, including Hall Hood, who wrote the Jedi Knight storyline and the snarky dialogue of the Smuggler. Secondly, Erickson said in multiple interviews that writers work way ahead of the development curve. I believe he mentioned at launch that the writers were already working on the next expansion. This is not at all uncommon, and it also says that we haven't seen the last of Erickson's or Freed's works in game. Because of the writing schedule, former Community Manager Stephen Reid was able to comment on the same-sex romantic arcs coming to the game soon. That was said nearly a year ago now, and we've yet to see them. That's how far ahead the writers work.
As far as the story goes, I believe we will be at least in the middle of next year before we see any sort of difference in overall storytelling style. On top of that, I don't believe we've seen the end of the individual class story arcs, either. Erickson, again, likened telling a story in TOR to writing for a TV series, not writing for a film. The writers specifically wrote the class quests so that they could be continued. That said, I am interested in how they twist some of the stories to work given the vast differences in some of the ending choices.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk and Dr. Ray Muzyka stepped down from BioWare officially a month ago. For the longest time, these two have been the face and motivation of BioWare as a company and as a creative force in the gaming industry. Under their leadership, groundbreaking games like Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and of course, KOTOR were created. Over the last five years, one of my primary motivations for picking up a video-game has been the BioWare label. If a game carried that label, I didn't even have to know what it was about for me to buy it. (That's how I ended up playing the DragonAge series.)
However, now that the two founders have left, have my motivations changed? Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn't a simple one. As with the game's writing, I don't believe that quality of a gaming company rests solely on its founders. There are many people who make BioWare great, including Mass Effect Producer Casey Hudson and SWTOR Creative Director James Ohlen, just to name a couple. That said, without the doctors to cushion the full force of Electronic Arts baring down on the studio, I'm not sure we will see the same quality of work being produced. I believe this is already evident in DragonAge 2, which wasn't exactly received well, and Mass Effect 3, which received a storm of complaints from fans. I'm not blaming EA specifically, but I do believe that quality is compromised when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. I will wait until SWTOR goes free-to-play before I decide whether EA's involvement has hurt the vision of the game or BioWare.
The easy answer is "yes, it's still an MMO." But really there are many games that teeter closer to the edge of MMO than SWTOR; those games are still called MMOs. I think the main motivation behind such a question isn't the definition of the term MMO but rather the issue of whether the game is enjoyable to play with friends or other people in general. To that end, I believe the game is more of an MMO now than it was when the game launched. Besides the existing raid, dungeons, and PvP zones we had at launch, BioWare has added two dungeons, three raids, and one PvP zone, as well as a new daily quest area and a group finder tool. On the horizon, we have a new daily area (Section X) and new PvP warzone coming soon. I am truly confused by the people who claim that there isn't enough content in the game. Maybe they lack the motivation to play what's available, but to say there isn't enough content is unjust.
The honest answer is that there are many reasons I could leave SWTOR. BioWare could introduce a game-changing combat mechanic that no longer suits my playstyle. I could literally complete everything and have nothing to do. Or maybe I could simply find the next new shiny. However, I think the biggest reason for my staying or leaving revolves around not the game itself but the people I play with.
Over the last several months, I've found a circle of friends who have very similar playstyles as mine. Out of game, we get along really well, and we really enjoy creating characters and stories within the MMO setting. If these people, for instance, move to Cryptic's Neverwinter when it releases, then I will probably move with them. Simple answer: If my friends stop playing, so will I.
I don't like leaving without asking for comments from you. Do you have a group of friends whom you travel with from game to game? What motivates you to switch games? Would you stick with a game you didn't like because your friends did?
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!