I believe the first element in any MMO is not one of the four pillars -- combat, exploration, progression, and story -- but rather ownership. Some might call it immersion. Persistence helps separate MMOs from other video game genres. However, persistence is useless unless the players feel some sort of ownership over that world.
When SWTOR first launched, much of the ownership took the form of personal stories. My Agent experienced something different than your Sith Warrior, even though we were in the same world in the same faction. And even if you rolled an Agent as well, my Agent's story, however slightly, played out differently from yours. I could compare my experience to yours, and I could own my experience as uniquely mine.
But when you whittle down the unique experiences to a couple of pieces of dialogue, like the Makeb expansion did, then each individual player ceases to own part of the world again. Although they are attempting to hit the mark from a different angle, the developers want players to regain that sense of ownership by giving the players housing.
So far, BioWare has announced housing -- called Galactic Strongholds -- on Nar Shaddaa, Tatooine, Coruscant, and Dromund Kaas. The studio has explained that each stronghold will have its own price. We know that the Nar Shaddaa Sky Palace, which subscribers will get for free if subbed before August 19th, costs 250,000 credits and is the most expensive. With all five additional rooms unlocked, the Sky Palace costs 4 million credits; players will snag it for free if they are subscribed by May 11th.
In these strongholds, players receive decorations from many aspects of the game including reputation vendors, loot drops, flashpoints, operations, crafting, and PvP. The way you acquire the decoration determines what type of decoration it will be. Of course, these decorations can be placed where the player likes, but we are don't know the limits yet. The important part is that your stronghold will be unique to you, and your friends can visit, observing your personal accomplishments and decorating prowess. Once again, players gain a bit of ownership in the SWTOR world.
To a lesser extent, factional pride plays into the ownership factor. Blizzard leverages that all the time with World of Warcraft. Its latest installment of factional competition takes place in the "reality" YouTube series Azeroth Choppers. It's fun; it promotes pride in your faction. Ultimately, I think both sides will win because I think Blizzard will eventually put both mounts in the game.
Over the last couple of years, the SWTOR story has been disconnected from what made the story great. During the leveling process, the Republic and Empire attempted to thwart each others' efforts to gain supremacy. But since then, players have been chasing Hutts, Trandoshans, and Dread Masters, none of whom perpetuates the original Republic-vs.-Empire conflict. Sure, the mechanics of the endgame flashpoints and operations kept the game part fun, but it became hard to connect to what was happening because player and enemy motivations didn't align with the original thrust of the galactic story.
This year, BioWare hopes to change that around by allowing players to participate in the galactic conflict more directly. We've already seen the first flashpoint, which allows us to dive into the war by defending or attacking the Jedi or Sith home worlds. Our character joins the frontlines again, hoping to gain victory for his or her faction.
Not only can our characters join the galactic conflict individually through flashpoints, but our guilds can participate in planetary conflicts, too. At this point, the details are sketchy at best, but as Producer Bruce Maclean explained in his blog, "To conquer a planet, Guilds must complete weekly Conquest events earning points to place at the top of the Guild Leaderboards. Conquering a planet gives the Guild special perks and rewards." He continues by listing a few of the perks of the guild capital ships: player buffs, instant travel, and competing in Conquest Events.
Of course, at this point we don't know what's involved in those Conquest Events, but we can be sure that they are all leading us back to the galactic conflict between the Empire and the Republic.
Both of these items aid BioWare's plan to give SWTOR players ownership of the game again. Although I believe that BioWare will run into issues because of the timing this year in terms of the WildStar and Warlords of Draenor launches, I have only compliments for its efforts. Even if I take a break to play WildStar and continue with Elder Scrolls Online, I will return to SWTOR because I want to see how these things turn out.
For those who are concerned about the canon announcement on Friday from Lucasfilm, know that it will not affect the story of SWTOR. However, it does mean that story is now "Legend," aka non-canon. But being non-canon hasn't stopped people from making great stories in the past. In fact, the writers are taking it in stride. Charles Boyd said this on Twitter: "Whether we're canon or 'Legend', we'll be in damn good company. Proud to work on Star Wars, period."
I think that sums it up nicely, but if you'd like to read more about my thoughts on the new canon and what it means for SWTOR roleplayers and fans, I have an additional article coming out today on my personal blog discussing how to handle this specific situation.
Larry Everett writes for the Star Wars fan site HyperspaceBeacon.com and pens the Tamriel Infinium here on Massively. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to send him a holocom at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, may the Force be with you.