Tag Archives: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Five MMOs That Have Changed the Most Since Launch

These days, classic and progression MMORPG servers are all the rage. That there’s a demand for these things is a testament to how much an MMO can evolve over time. After enough years, it can almost feel like playing an entirely different game.

A screenshot from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

But which games have changed the most since their initial launch? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates.

Ultima Online

As one of the oldest still-running MMORPGs, Ultima Online has had literal decades to grow and evolve. That’s far too much change to adequately cover here, but one particularly notable event worth mentioning came early in its history: the release of Trammel in the year 2000.

Trammel is the second continent added to the game. It is a perfect mirror of the original, Felucca, but with one crucial difference: Trammel does not allow non-consensual PvP.

This added an entirely new way to experience the game, free from the predations of other players, and it proved wildly popular. All subsequent landmasses added to Ultima Online have followed Trammel’s lead by not allowing open PvP.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

At launch, Star Wars: The Old Republic was pretty much just another WoW clone with a Star Wars skin slapped over top. It took until the game’s third major expansion to change that.

Knights of the Fallen Empire introduced major system changes to make SWTOR less of a standard MMO quest grinder and much more like the single-player RPGs Bioware is known and loved for. The leveling game was adjusted to put the focus on class and planetary stories, allowing players to easily ignore the forgettable side missions that had once bogged the game down.

A screenshot from Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR as it exists today is a lot closer to the story-driven MMORPG it was originally advertised as.

Aion

Aion’s a long-running game with a lot of big changes under its belt, from a free to play transition to multiple expansions.

But its biggest shift in identity came more recently with the massive Awakened Legacy patch. Awakened Legacy radically changed many game systems, hugely streamlined leveling, and controversially removed many whole zones and dungeons. It was a jarring change that angered many, with some comparing it to the infamous “New Game Enhancements” introduced by Star Wars Galaxies back in the day.

For better or for worse, Aion is now a very different game from what it launched as.

World of Warcraft

This list contains a lot of examples of major reboots that rewrote a game overnight. In World of Warcraft’s case, it’s more a matter of incremental changes piling up over time. Over fifteen years and seven expansions, WoW has grown and evolved so much that very little of the original game remains, at least in an untouched form.

Of course, one can identify points in time where things changed more radically than others. Cataclysm rebuilt the original two continents, leaving virtually no zone untouched. Mists of Pandaria introduced a new talent system, while Legion brought with it sweeping class design changes.

A screenshot from the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft

What’s funny is that every once in a while you’ll hear speculation about a possible “World of Warcraft 2,” but really, we’re already playing WoW 2. The game has reinvented itself so much it’s more like a sequel to the original MMO, rather than a continuation.

Final Fantasy XIV

Of course, when it comes to reinventing yourself after launch, no game can quite equal Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It’s right there in the title, after all.

As it launched, FFXIV was pretty much broken. It was such a mess the developers at Square Enix stopped even charging a subscription fee for a time, too embarrassed to ask for players’ money.

For most companies, this would be the end, but Square Enix had the resources to try again. Final Fantasy was ultimately relaunched as an almost entirely new game, rebuilt from the ground up. This makes it not only one of the biggest examples of an altered game in the MMO world, but also one of the most positive and successful. Whereas in other games change can be controversial or even despised, here almost everyone agrees it was for the best.


Five Turning Points of MMO History

The ever-evolving history of MMORPGs is a fascinating one. Sometimes I almost feel like MMOs are more fun to analyze than they are to play. It’s a complex story that could fill volumes, but for today, let’s just take a look at some of the biggest turning points in the history of MMOs.

Text MUDs:

Achaea, a modern MUD

The true origin of the MMO genre is debatable. You could trace it all the way back to analogue tabletop RPGs, and perhaps even farther back from there. But the birth of online RPGs likely lies with the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD.

MUDs were text-based games originally running over small, pre-Internet networks such as those at universities.The term was christened by Roy Trubshaw, a student at the University of Essex. Development of his “Multi-User Dungeon” game was later given over to Richard Bartle, and if you’re active in the MMO community, you’re sure to recognize that name.

When the Internet began to spread, MUDs became more accessible, and eventually served as the inspiration for the first generation of MMORPGs.

Early Graphical MMOs:

Again, we can argue about where exactly the story of graphical online games begins. Meridian 59 is credited by some as the first, while Ultima Online was where the concept began to gain significant popularity. It was the first game to be described with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game.”

This was soon followed by many other graphical MMOs. The most famous would probably be 1999’s EverQuest, which served as an inspiration for many of the games the followed.

WoW and Its Clones:

There is an eternally raging debate over whether World of Warcraft is the best or the worst thing (or perhaps both) that ever happened to the MMO genre. The one thing everyone can agree on is that WoW changed everything.

 

In the early days, MMOs had achieved a respectable level of success, with playerbases measured in the thousands. But WoW blew all that out of the water. It parlayed the brand recognition of Blizzard Entertainment, more accessible mechanics, reduced grind, and the increasing prevalence of high speed Internet connections into a perfect recipe for success, achieving a previously unimaginable level of popularity.

A low level zone from the MMORPG World of Warcraft

WoW eventually peaked at around twelve million players worldwide, a population greater than that of some nations. While it’s popularity has shrunken significantly since then, even now it remains more successful and more populous than the large majority of its competition.

The success of WoW created ripple effects throughout the genre. Everyone wanted a bite of that pie, and developers spent years churning out MMO after MMO that sought to emulate World of Warcraft. It was the era of the dreaded WoW clone. But these games often lacked personality, and none of them ever rose to rival the success of the game they so desperately sought to imitate.

The Free to Play Revolution:

For a long time, if you wanted to play an MMORPG, you had to pay a monthly subscription. That’s just how it worked. Oh, sure, there were a few exceptions. Anarchy Online began offering a free to play option back in 2004, and the original Guild Wars was buy to play from its launch in 2005. But those were mostly considered oddball outliers.

Things began to change in a big way when Dungeons and Dragons Online relaunched as a free to play title in 2009. Previously struggling, it saw a huge uptick in both players and revenues, and the world began to take notice.

Before long, big name MMOs were dropping their subscriptions left, right, and center, from Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Lord of the Rings Online, to Aion. At first this was seen as an act of desperation made only by dying games, but as the years went by and subscription games became an ever shrinking minority, it started to just be normal.

Nowadays, subscriptions are the exception rather than the norm, and most new games are free to play or buy to play.

Maturity and Diversification:

A screenshot from the new MMO shooter Anthem

That brings us to the modern day. The MMO genre has matured and stabilized. New releases are not so common as they once were, but there is more variety, more creativity. Gone are the days of WoW clones. Nowadays MMOs, MMO lite games, online co-ops, MOBAs, and battle royales all simmer together into a diverse melting pot.

In this writer’s opinion, the future is bright.


Build MMOs for More Alts, Not Less

I like playing alternate characters. In fact I play alts so much the concept of a “main” in my case is nebulous at best. Bouncing around between different characters with different playstyles and aesthetics keeps MMOs fresh for me.

My Jedi knight alt in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Yet always I’m left with the feeling that playing alts is a case of swimming against the current. It’s something nearly every game allows, but which very few actually encourage. It’s never been viewed as a valid playstyle worthy of its own content and systems in the way PvP or raiding might be.

And I ask: Why?

Why Alts Matter

In most games, playing an alt means repeating the same content, doing all the same grinds, and getting nothing to show for it. At best some games are now offering a certain degree of account-wide progression — such as how mounts in World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online are shared across all your characters — but for the most part playing alts still means starting over from scratch, and there’s almost no reward for it.

Why must this be so? If you’re putting in two or three times more effort, why not get at least some reward for it?

I’d even argue that there is a certain degree of skill required to maintain a stable of alts. You need to not only learn all those disparate mechanics but remember them as you continue to swap between them. I have found this is a skill that can be improved with practice — I’ve played so many classes across so many games that I can now pick up new playstyles and rotations almost immediately.

Now, I’m not saying that alts requires more skill or is otherwise superior to other playstyles. But I think you can convincingly argue that it doesn’t deserve to be the red-headed stepchild developers seem to treat it as.

So how can we properly support alt players?

Alts as Endgame

The first thing alts need is some variety in the leveling path. These days far too many MMOs make every character take the exact same path to level cap. Alts are much more appealing when there are multiple leveling paths. Some games offer differing content based on race, class, or faction, but I’d like to see more games vary the leveling experience based on choices made after character creation.

My templar alt in Elder Scrolls Online

Global level-scaling is also a good way to add variety to leveling, as it gives players more flexibility on where to go and what to do.

Next, at least some degree of account-wide progression is a must. Sharing cosmetics across characters is a good start, but more can be done. For instance, gear could become account-bound rather than character bound, allowing your alts to inherit hand-me-downs from their forebears.

But all that only makes alts less of a chore. What the genre really lacks is games where alts are not only tolerated, but encouraged. Alts have the potential to be an endgame unto themselves.

The best example of this I can think of is how the original Guild Wars allowed players to use their alts as NPC hirelings, though that was largely a cosmetic feature. Star Wars: The Old Republic also has some perks for altoholics. In that game, reputation is usually gated by daily quests, but gains are shared across all your characters on a server, so the more alts you have, the more quests you can run and the faster you can earn rep.

Those are all good ideas, but I think more can be done. Imagine, for example, a game wherein classes are highly specialized, but you can swap characters on the fly. The more characters you have, the more versatile you are, and the more you can accomplish. You might change characters multiple times in a single dungeon to best counter the challenges within.

That’s just one idea. Undoubtedly professional game designers could come up with others.

I’m not saying that every game needs to encourage alts. Not everyone wants to play alts, and variety is a good thing to have. But right now alt play is an under-served niche. The genre would be enriched by at least one or two MMOs where playing alts is not only welcome, but the best way to play.

How would you make alts more rewarding?


Exploration Is the Ultimate MMO Design Challenge

Insomuch as I put any faith in the Bartle player types (which is to say not very much), I self-identify as an explorer. I play online games because I like exploring imaginary worlds, and MMORPGs are arguably the best way to do that.

A screenshot from the Path of Fire expansion for Guild Wars 2.

But while I love the idea of exploration, it’s something that a lot of games struggle to offer in a satisfying way, and the more I think about it, the more I think exploration may just be the ultimate MMO design challenge.

The Search for New Frontiers

At the end of the day, what the explorer seeks is new experiences. But that’s harder to achieve than you’d think.

Once you’ve seen a dungeon, or done a quest, or taken screenshots from atop a beautiful vista, it’s not new anymore. Then it’s time to move on and find something else wondrous to discover.

For this reason, a game that wants to provide satisfying exploration needs to have a lot of content. There needs to always be something new on the horizon.

But to meet that level of quantity, you have to cut corners. Few if any MMO developers have the resources to provide an endless supply of novel experiences, at least until the day player-generated content becomes mainstream. Thus, they often turn to cookie cutter design.

Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online are both games I view as prioritizing exploration as a playstyle. Both offer a wealth of open world content that is largely non-linear in presentation. In both games, you can set out in any direction and find something interesting to do, and at first, I loved the sense of freedom that offered.

But with both games, I eventually realized how formulaic the content was. Each zone provides largely the same activities presented in largely the same way. The sense of exploration died as it became clear I was merely repeating what amounted to the same content endlessly reskinned.

The ultimate example of quantity over quality exploration would be procedural generation, which can produce massive worlds or even universes, but cannot achieve true artistry save by chance. A program is never going to able to consistently design beautiful art or memorable story-telling the way a human can.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can choose quality over quantity. You can carefully curate the content players experience, making each quest or dungeon unique and memorable. This keeps new content continually fresh, but it tends to lead to a lot less content being produced, and it often (though not always) makes for a more linear and restrictive experience.

A screenshot from the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

An extreme example of this design philosophy might be SWTOR’s recent expansions. They’re high quality, and each new chapter feels exciting to play the first time, but it’s an incredibly on-rails experience. There’s no sense of liberty or player agency.

I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to quite solve this problem. Not entirely. The struggle of quality versus quantity will always be there. It’s up to each developer to strike the right balance for each game.

With that being said, I think there is something that can help, and that’s adding depth to content.

There’s a tendency nowadays to make open world game design akin to a checklist of chores. You get a bunch of icons on the map representing activities, and you try to tick them all off. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there should be more.

Stick hidden side quests in out of the way locations. Design areas off the beaten path that have no purpose other than to be pretty, or to add to the texture of the world. Put in hidden areas with random caches of loot.

In all honesty, one of my favorite memories of playing Guild Wars 2 was of finding a patch of strawberries hidden in out of the way place with nothing to lead you there. It made the world feel very real.

And don’t let the world stay static. Add new things, big and small, to old zones. Perhaps even without mentioning it in the patch notes. Just the knowledge that there’s a chance to find something new in old areas will completely change the feel of a game.

At the end of the day, good exploration design is about giving players the impression there’s always the potential for something amazing around the next corner. Even if it’s an illusion.


Six MMOs with the Best Story-telling

Story in MMORPGs doesn’t have a great reputation. A lot of people think there are no MMOs with good story, and many others feel story is pointless in an online game, preferring the organic stories they make by playing with their friends.

But I refute both positions. I think scripted story is a crucial part of the MMO experience. If I’m going to spend hundreds of hours in an imaginary world, it had better be a world that interests me, with characters I care about.

Luckily for me, the field of MMO story isn’t as barren as some would have you think. Indeed, I think the persistent nature of an MMO presents unique story-telling opportunities. There are games out there that make plot a priority, and tell memorable and engaging stories through their evolving game worlds.

Elder Scrolls Online

Quest text from Elder Scrolls Online

ESO’s story-telling can be hit and miss. Some of the stories are memorable — I particularly enjoyed the intrigue of the Thieves Guild DLC — but many are more shallow.

However, I do give ESO credit for making story a priority. The game is overflowing with highly polished quest content, and the lion’s share of its DLC is devoted to new story content. Too many MMOs make story take a back seat to gear treadmills or competitive play.

For ESO, story is a core part of the game’s identity, and that earns my respect even when the quality is inconsistent.

Star Trek Online

A story cutscene from Star Trek Online

There are those who say that Star Trek Online — and not Discovery or the recent movies — is the true successor to Star Trek’s decades-long legacy of story-telling.

As someone who enjoys Star Trek but is kind of a snob about it, I’m not sure I would go that far, but I can say that STO makes a very admirable attempt to continue the legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary sci-fi universe.

The quality of writing may not be quite on par with the best of the TV shows or movies, but it is clear that STO’s devs are true fans of the franchise and that providing a good, solid story rooted in Star Trek’s rich lore and history is a top priority for them. That’s worthy of praise.

STO is also one of the few MMOs that puts story first when it comes to designing content. The missions are not just standard kill and collect quests with the story in the background; the plot is a driving force for gameplay, and that adds a richness and depth to the experience that most MMOs lack.

Defiance 2050

A story cutscene from the MMO shooter Defiance

There’s more than one type of good story. Not everything needs to be deeply thought-provoking or emotionally profound. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a fun romp.

That’s exactly what the story in Defiance — and its reboot, Defiance 2050 — is. It might be a bit campy at times, but it’s never boring. There’s plenty of action, humor, and excitement to keep you entertained. It’s a good pulp adventure.

The characters are very colorful, too, and unlike most MMOs, you stick with more or less the same cast of NPCs throughout the game, rather than cycling through an endless procession of throwaway nobodies, which gives you time to get attached to them.

World of Warcraft

The introductory experience for the Nightborne Allied Race in World of Warcraft

WoW’s story-telling has always been a tad… inconsistent, as evidenced by the rather mixed reaction to Battle for Azeroth’s story developments. Blizzard has only a loose relationship to continuity, and their devotion to the rule of cool has its dark side.

But when they get it right, oh, man, do they get it right.

The epic struggle of Wrath of the Lich King and the emotional journey of Mists of Pandaria are genuinely some of the best video game stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.

It also cannot be denied that the Warcraft universe is by now one of the deepest and richest settings of the MMO genre, or indeed all of pop culture. Entire volumes could be filled with Azeroth’s fictional history.

What makes World of Warcraft’s story special, though, is the sheer passion that goes into it. You can question Blizzard’s decision making at times, but you can never deny the love they have for their world and its stories. Every aspect of the Warcraft setting exudes color, personality, and intensity.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A companion mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic

More so than any other title, Star Wars: The Old Republic made story a selling feature, dubbing it the “fourth pillar” of game design. In the end, it may not have been the revelation for MMO story-telling Bioware had hoped for, but it does still rise above the pack, launching with eight unique stories for its various classes and adding some other impressive story arcs with its many expansions.

There are two things that set SWTOR above most other MMOs when it comes to story.

One is the element of player choice. Rather than being a passive actor in the story, players are given freedom to control how their character speaks and reacts, creating a much deeper role-playing experience. Yes, the consequences for choices tend to be minimal, but it’s still far more than most any other MMO offers.

The other is the depth of character provided by companions, a consistent strength throughout Bioware’s games. One of the main things holding back MMO story-telling is the shallow and disposable nature of most NPCs, but by keeping companions around for the long haul, SWTOR is able to foster genuine emotional bonds with the characters.

Secret World Legends

A cutscene from story-driven MMORPG The Secret World

I have tended to be pretty critical of Secret World Legends due to how the transition from the original Secret World game was handled, but one thing that hasn’t much changed is the story. It was amazing before the reboot, and it’s amazing now.

Secret World Legends’ story isn’t just good for an MMO. It boasts some of the best story-telling in any game, period.

The characters are brilliantly strange and unusual, ranging from a mummified occult gangster to a pansexual rockabilly eco-activist to a blind werewolf elder. Each quest is a memorable story filled with pathos, suspense, and sometimes shocking twists. The world-building is second to none, seamlessly hybridizing numerous real world mythologies and conspiracy theories with the game’s own fiction.

Diverse mission design incorporating stealth and puzzles also helps sell both the mystery and the dread of the setting. It’s not just a matter of reading quest text or listening to NPCs talk; the ambiance and character oozes from every aspect of the game.


Factions Have Outstayed Their Welcome

The hype around Battle for Azeroth has once again brought the seemingly endless conflict between World of Warcraft’s Alliance and Horde into the spotlight. Despite being a long-time WoW player, though, I find myself giving serious thought to passing on this expansion altogether for the simple reason that I have long felt the factional conflict is, in a word, stupid.

A Lightforged Draenei character in World of Warcraft

And that’s not just true of WoW. Factions in MMOs — or at least in PvE focused MMOs — have always been one of my pet peeves. They harm games far more than they’ve ever helped them.

Factions Add Little

First of all, it needs to be said that factions really don’t add much to the experience of playing MMOs. They’re unnecessary, at best.

The chief argument that seems to be put forth in favor of dividing players into factions is that it instills a sense of pride and faction identity, but I’ve never heard anyone clearly articulate why that’s actually a good thing. Mostly it just seems to feed toxicity between players (more on that in a minute).

The next biggest argument for factions is that they provide a basis for PvP, but in reality they’re completely unnecessary for PvP. It’s entirely possible to still have player competition without them. Guild Wars 2 offers multiple PvP modes, including massive world versus world, without any discrete factions at all. And that’s just one example that I could give.

If anything, factions harm PvP more than they help it. It’s very difficult for developers to balance the population numbers between factions, especially given people’s predilection to gravitate to whichever faction has more “pretty” races. Just look at Aion’s eternal struggles to balance the Elyos and Asmodae factions.

The only benefit from factions that I personally have ever seen is that they offer variety when it comes to storylines and leveling content. Leveling up as an Imperial character in Star Wars: The Old Republic tends to be a very different experience from doing those same levels as a republic character.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2, a game blessedly free of player factions

But even then, factions aren’t really necessary for that. Guild Wars 2 offers a healthy selection of distinct starter zones and personal stories based on its various races without any need to divide players between arbitrary factions.

They Go Nowhere

Another thing that grinds my gears about factions is that the conflict between them can never truly go anywhere. It’s a story with no drama. To keep the game balanced, neither side can ever win a major victory or suffer a major loss. Doing so means favoring one group of paying customers while disadvantaging another, and that’s such bad business it borders on economic suicide. No developer is ever going to do that, nor should they.

When Blizzard revealed that Battle for Azeroth would be an expansion focused on the Alliance-Horde war, they immediately revealed that it would be a filler expansion and killed my hype right out of the gate. We already know this story can’t go anywhere. Neither side is ever going to win or lose this war.

We see this already with the pre-patch. The Alliance losing Teldrassil or the Horde losing Undercity each individually could have been a powerful moment for this story, but this perfectly balanced eye for an eye scenario pulls the curtain back from how stale and artificial this conflict truly is.

This isn’t a unique problem to WoW, either. The fundamental nature of MMO design prevents faction conflicts from ever having a proper resolution. Even in games where players are able to fight other factions for territory directly, true victory or defeat is impossible. It doesn’t matter how often the Daggerfall Covenant loses in Cyrodiil; they’ll always keep coming back.

And They Drive Us Apart

For all the reasons listed above, I consider factions in most MMOs to be superfluous. But that’s not why I’m really against them. The worst thing about factions is that they divide the community.

Even Star Wars: The Old Republic frequently unites the Dark and Light sides

Firstly, they divide us in a simple, literal sense. If I’m playing Alliance and my friend plays Horde, one of us has to transfer, or we can’t play together. If your game has two factions, you’ve effectively cut your playerbase in half. In a genre where more people to meet and group with is almost always better, that’s a powerfully asinine move.

You can mitigate this by allowing people to group across factions — as Elder Scrolls Online wisely has — but at that point one has to wonder why bother having factions in the first place.

Worse, it breeds toxicity in a genre that already has far too much of it. Developers seem to think factional rivalries lead to fun, neighborly competition, but the reality ends up looking more like a blood feud between competing mob families.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone make the earnest claim that Horde players are bullies or that Alliance players are crybabies (both stereotypes that have more truth to them than I care to admit), I could pay for my subscription for years to come.

It’s not just the occasional snide comment on forums, either. The bile between player factions can sometimes escalate to serious, ongoing harassment. Developers have been known to receive death threats when one faction or another is viewed to be unfairly favored.

MMOs should be about bringing people together, but all factions do is drive people apart.

* * *

There are some games for which factions make sense. PvP focused games like the upcoming Camelot Unchained simply wouldn’t work without player factions, and I have no problem with that.

But it’s time to acknowledge factions as what they are: A niche feature that doesn’t fit in most games. For a PvE themepark, factions offer little, and take away much.