How would you like to live in the Star Wars universe? That was the offer made in 2003 to gamers purchasing Star Wars Galaxies, an online game set in a galaxy far, far away.
However, like a Faustian bargain made in The Twilight Zone, the offer proved too accurate. The problem with simulating life is, if it is too real, it’s not interesting. Living in Galaxies proved to be mundane. Sure, you could eventually gallivant around the stars like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. But you had to pay your dues in menial tasks like delivering letters and hunting space rabbits.
In the end, Star Wars Galaxies was about as exciting as doing your taxes. The game was lauded by some for its depth and complexity. You could choose from many professions, stake out a homestead, and even join a player-controlled city with trimmings like politicians, taxes, and law enforcement. The problem with all that art imitating life was, after coming home from real life’s daily grind, logging into a game to meet similar obligations on another planet just seemed redundant.
A decade later, we have a new online Star Wars game which succeeds where Galaxies failed. Star Wars: The Old Republic, like the film series on which it is based, wastes no time yanking the player out of this world and into an action-adventure with high stakes and familiar themes. Most impressive, the game is accessible to the casual gamer and those who have never played its type before.
The Old Republic is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which is a fancy way of saying that lots of people play in the same virtual space at the same time. The most successful game of the genre to date is World of Warcraft, a title noted for peaking at over 10 million monthly subscribers and ruining marriages.
The way these games work is by vesting the player into a character of their own creation, and laying out a steady diet of quests and achievements to keep them playing (and paying) month-after-month. The player gains experience points by defeating enemies, finishing quests, and exploring the game world. These points eventually earn promotions from one level to another, which opens up new quest lines and access to new equipment and abilities. Many tasks require cooperating with or battling against other players, which creates a social element often as alluring as the game itself.
I have personally seen a marriage end over the amount of time a spouse spent playing World of Warcraft. (No it wasn’t mine. Thanks for asking.) Famously, a Sorth Korean gamer played an MMORPG for so long without rest that he keeled over and died. Those are the extremes which demonstrate how addictive these games can be. Nevertheless, for those of us with a modicum of self control, an MMORPG is the digital equivalent of a bowling league.
Veteran players of MMORPGs have a term for spending hours in-game earning experience points and chasing levels. It’s called grinding. Indeed, that is what it felt like in Galaxies, a mindless obligatory grind. Quests were bland tasks with no real context or effect on the world. The player essentially had to provide their own context, their own reason for doing whatever they were doing. In this way, again, art imitated life too well. Left to find a motive for hunting space rabbits, I found I had none.
The greatest innovation of The Old Republic is its focus on character and story, which provides context to what would otherwise be a grind. The game is fully voiced. Every single character the player encounters has a story to tell, a reason for being where they are, and a motive for sending the player on a quest. Each of the eight character classes which the player can choose from has a unique story arc for that class. Players also get companion characters to interact with, fight alongside, and send on missions of their own. These story and character elements provide a stronger motive for pressing on than a simple level grind. The game’s developers claim that each class has up to 200 hours of game content. With eight classes in-game, that translates to 1600 hours of potential entertainment at launch.
Of course, the game is far from perfect. There are glitches and deficiencies which, depending on the eye of the beholder, range from unfortunate to frustrating. To the developer’s credit, much has been done to address complaints through software patches. In addition, a forthcoming major patch will add a significant amount of content to the game. Such is expected with subscription-based games.
One problem which has not yet surfaced on the developer’s radar is the need for some kind of grouping tool to help players find others who want to run the same quest. As it stands, finding a group involves spamming a global chat channel, pleading for others to partner with. In the months since the game launched, server populations have decreased and dispersed, making grouping difficult. It’s kind of like going down to the union hall to wait for a job. Sometimes you get one. Sometimes you don’t. But in the context of a game, not getting to play ruins the whole point of logging in. A casual gamer may often have little more than an hour to play. Spending that time looking for others to play with is a waste.
Other MMORPGs have queues players can join for a given quest, enabling more efficient use of game time. But dealing without such bells and whistles is a consequence of early adoption in MMORPGs. They rarely start well, and often take years to mature.
That said, despite a few flaws, Star Wars: The Old Republic finally delivers on its predecessor’s promise to let players live in the Star Wars universe. Only this time, it’s in the way we actually want to, as swashbuckling adventurers on a personal mission to save – or conquer — the galaxy.