Knights of the Fallen Empire and how we got here

As I step into the story-driven adventure SWTOR has provided me with I can’t help but fall in love with the plot of this new expansion. Through BioWare-style cinematic storytelling we are offered a high quality narrative filled with well rounded characters, comic relief, dynamic conflicts of interest and many twists and turns in the story. This kind of single player like story telling is new for an MMO and we are all watching with excitement to see what happens once the chapters are completed. Will people stay for the end game? For the community? Is SWTOR taking a chance on a new brave concept or just repeating old mistakes? Before we return to dig deeper into the new expansion, bear with me for a minute while I quickly reminisce over how we ended up where we are in SWTOR today…

Developed by BioWare Austin, SWTOR was first announced on October 21, 2008. In 2009 the game’s first cinematic trailer “Deceived“, made byDeceived Blur Studio, was presented at a press conference and in September the same year BioWare began accepting applications for testers from the gaming community. Within minutes, the official website was down due to the high traffic. The increase in visitors was accommodated and a second  and third cinematic trailer (“Hope” and “Return“) were released. Books were also published to increase the hype. This was a great way to promote the game to Star Wars hungry fans and within three days of its launch SWTOR had one million subscribers, making it the fastest growing MMO ever seen. However, this thrilling success did not last long and in the following months the game lost a fair share of its subscribers. What happened?

There are many side factors that contributed to the declining player base. One must here come to the conclusion that the developers either were unaware of how enthusiastic their players would be and how quickly they would gobble up the content provided them, or that they were aware yet had no choice but to go on with the launch as scheduled despite the lacking end game content. Soon the players had finished the class stories (which had taken BioWare so many years to develop) and even had time to become bored before any new content had surfaced.  That’s not to mention all the performance issues, bugs, lack of communication and the questionable engine which the game is built upon. EA bought an early version of the Hero engine from its developers but choose to not hire them to maintain or improve it. Instead they had their own team of programmers make their own modifications. Eventually these programmers were fired or left BioWare which has complicated things to no end. Without the original programmers it became increasingly difficult to make changes to the script which badly needed attention. This is why the engine struggles with high numbers of people in a single area (which also explains why the open world PvP on Ilum resulted in failure due to the lag). Before the most urgent issues with the game had been fixed the PvE players were just battling bugs, not bosses, in operations. stw_old_republic_deceived_02_by_flothegangstaThis whilst PvP players were desperately trying to do warzones with their own glitches such as the infamous GCD malfunction. All levels of characters were also thrown into the same bracket in warzones. This meant that level 50, fully PvP geared players were beating up level 10s by the dozen. On top of this there was no Legacy system and all of those quality of life features we have now had not yet been implemented. It’s a wonder anyone stayed to be honest. All these things initiated a snowball effect which resulted in the countless servers, once overpopulated, becoming desolate. The major bugs were fixed and server merges begun but it was too late.

Players will try a new MMO for the story but they will stay for the interactions and the people they meet. Unfortunately few will pay the monthly subscription fee for the privilege of logging in to an almost empty server, unable to make groups or get pops. Instead you will very quickly look for a new MMO. Not only that but you will speak badly of the game to anyone who asks you about the experience and you will snort scornfully when talking to someone still playing the God forsaken game. It seems safe to say that SWTOR initially relied too heavily on it’s brand to sell the game and not enough effort was put into making sure the MMO aspects and mechanisms of the game were fluid and functional.

Despite the success of the pre-launch marketing campaign SWTOR seemed to have missed it’s chance to be something extraordinary just months after it’s launch. SWTOR might have been a big success for BioWare still, if it had only cost less to make. Though there has been no official statement of figures the production cost estimation for the game is between $200 and $300 million, excluding marketing costs which are assumed to be at least another $100 million. This makes SWTOR one swtor-arcannof the most expensive games ever made. Since going free-to-play the game has been making a lot of money which without the enormous production cost would have been extremely impressive.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has more or less been in hibernation for some time now.
Not dead yet not alive the game has been dormant. Will SWTOR finally be woken up from it’s dreamless slumber? Right now we are seeing a lot of returning and new players entering SWTOR again. Servers are being improved to allow more people onto them in order to avoid making people wait in queues to enter the game. The Knights of the Fallen Empire has given us a dynamic story to follow as well as the promise of more chapters. We’ve been given gripping characters such as HK-55, Senya and Vaylin along with new planets. The Zakuul swamp with it’s dampened blue light, its shallow and exposed tree roots as well as its glow in the dark vegetation quickly became my personal favourite SWTOR environment by far. I truely believe that the writers of this story have done a phenomenal job, but my question is, will it be enough? Are BioWare making the same mistakes all over again? Is the end game good enough to entertain the players after the chapters are finished?
swtor-2015-10-22-00-53-47-03Screenshot by the amazing Ravalation

Michael Bitton writes very accurately on mmorpg.com:

“Star Wars: The Old Republic has always suffered a bit of an identity crisis. The original game leaned more on the game’s MMO trappings, but wrapped it all up in BioWare style storytelling. Shadow of Revan pushed things a bit towards the single player RPG BioWare is known for, but not quite all the way. Finally, Knights of the Fallen Empire completes this shift by fully leaning into that single player RPG design. The result is that SWTOR is now a bit of a muddled experience, with all these different ideas sort of rolling around and bumping into each other like clothes in a dryer. Game Update 4.0, which launched with Knights of the Fallen Empire, is a massive overhaul of the game that attempts to blend all of BioWare’s contradictory design directions into a streamlined experience that fits in well with the game’s new direction.”

One has to wonder, would BioWare have been better off creating a KOTOR like single player game? They could then have fully focused on the single player RPG experience by continuously releasing DLC content. As the creators of acclaimed series such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age I would have had faith in BioWare being able to pull this off with great success. All the MMO aspects of SWTOR are still suffering. With class imbalance being as prevalent as ever and the complete lack of a competitive PvP scene or new operations for PvE players, would a single player game with less interruptions to the story and a higher level of immersion not have been preferable? Looking at PvP it’s easy to see that not only the old issues remain but new ones have arisen. The classes have been simplified to accommodate the returning influx of casual players. This means that experienced players who know their specs inside out are be able to squeeze so much more out of  their classes in this patch. With an increasing knowledge gap between casual and hardcore players the need for PvP with a functional rating system becomes crucial. SWTOR does not have this which results in a highly frustrated  PvP community where neither the casual or the hardcore player gets to enjoy the game. As someone who only plays the game for the PvP this is a real concern for me. What this means for a player such as myself is that I play the released chapters through for the story and then stop which does not help to foster an active and stable player base.

I know I commenced this post expressing how much I liked the story in this expansion, this remains true. I have to say however, if I’m being honest, that I am mostly let down by this expansion. This might sound like an odd contradiction. Let me explain. Though I enjoyed the new content very much I would personally have liked to see BioWare using all those resources to finally turn this MMO into an actual MMO. The problem from the start wasn’t the lack of story. There was too much focus on the brand and the story. Despite the years it took to develop, with writers working full time on the game, it wasn’t enough. The many, extensive class stories weren’t enough to keep people’s interest in SWTOR. There are glaring issues which are mainly focused around the dysfunctional or lacking end game content of SWTOR. What is there to do when the chapters are finished? That’s the end game and that’s what is missing. It’s what has always been missing from SWTOR. Instead of working on what was lacking in the game as the MMO it is, BioWare decided to work on what was lacking from a single player RPG perspective. Personally I do feel that SWTOR is making the same mistakes all over again. But who knows, maybe The Knights of the Fallen Empire will attract a whole new playerbase who feels differently. We can always hope.
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What is your opinion? What have your experiences of PvP in this patch been so far? What do you think of the single player RPG like chapters being built on top of this MMO foundation? Yay or Nay? Tell us what you think in the comment section below.
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