It is no secret that Star Wars: The Old Republic has entered a period of identity crisis as an MMORPG with the release of 4.0, Knights of the Fallen Empire. Bioware, long known for its epic story content in games like KOTOR and Mass Effect, has been touting a return to epic storytelling and an increased emphasis on the RPG aspects of the game -implying a self-perceived departure from their epic-story trademark as a game production company and from what they feel their players have truly come to expect from a Bioware game. This renewed emphasis, weighed against the player community’s perceived developer neglect of commonplace community-building MMO features like PVP and end-game operations, has many in the player community asking ‘Just what kind of game is SWTOR anyway?’ This question is being debated hotly by the SWTOR player community at present, and I wanted to take a moment to weigh in on the discussion myself. (What follows is my perception and my suspicion about what is happening, but I am open to correction).
At the core of the problem seems to be a shift in Bioware’s revenue model for SWTOR. Prior to 4.0, the Cartel Market received the vast majority of the emphasis as players were encouraged to use it to acquire mounts, weapons, armor and stronghold decorations of all kinds. With only a handful of exceptions like the Wings of the Architect and ranked PVP rewards, all of the best in-game items were available exclusively through the Cartel Market.
Of course, among the unintended consequences of the Cartel Market was a massive incentivization problem for cooperative missions, repeatable content, and player crafting -activities that retain players by keeping them socialized, focused and engaged. With such important features of the MMO game so inadequately incentivized, I believe the problem for SWTOR became one of player retention as players who would otherwise have stayed for these aspects of the game moved on to greener pastures. The result was a waning player community and an unnecessary bottleneck in earnings.
The solution, it seems to me, would have been to depower the Cartel Market juggernaut somewhat and bring the model back into balance by incentivizing repeatable, community-building activities with exclusive rewards that could not be earned any other way. The result would have been players teaming up to earn the items, and a stronger, more cohesive player community. (Bioware’s most recent player retention strategy has been to use unlockable tiers of purchasable items tied to the reputation system to reward dailies and event participation. However those unlocks, together with achievements, strike me as a poor comparison to epic item rewards like the Wings of the Architect. Moreover, dailies as a grind mechanic that becomes boring quickly are also somewhat socially isolating and do not serve to build community. Suffice it to say, a change in player retention strategy has been warranted for a long time). A shift toward proper incentivization would have resulted in greater levels of player retention and a larger population shopping the Cartel Market on an ongoing basis.
A deeper look into the incentivization problem is a topic for another post where the crafting economy, PVP (between warzones and Galactic Starfighter), Conquest, and PVE operations each seem to be atrophying because of developer neglect, and ironically Bioware’s new strategy does not seem to be addressing the incentivization of community-retaining and community-building activities at all, but instead to try to capitalize on what they feel is their competitive advantage as a company: Story-driven content.
At this juncture I feel it is important to take a sober-minded look at Bioware’s marketing strategy, touting a “return” to epic storytelling, and see it for what it is: A market strategy. The core stories, the Rise of the Hutt Cartel and the Shadow of Revan expansions do not strike me as substandard storytelling or a departure from strong storytelling at all. Instead, I believe Bioware is trying to put a positive spin on a new player retention strategy by restructuring how story content is released.
To date, new story content has been released in large chunks as expansions, a strategy I believe has proven to create a player-retention roller coaster as dormant players return to the game hoping to be impressed, play through the new content, become bored after experiencing all they can of it, and then phase back out. Bioware’s solution as of 4.0 is therefore to slow the flow of story content by releasing it in smaller chunks (chapters) more often, and to emphasize subscribership through efforts like the new subscriber benefits program. The hope is that players will stay subscribed between the chapter releases, hopefully spending their time between releases experiencing the story on multiple characters.
The result of this strategy is a distinctive shift toward the single-player RPG genre which is particularly jarring considering the culture of expectations Bioware has already set with the SWTOR playerbase -reasonable expectations a player community would have regarding any MMO, all things considered. Players have certainly been expected to push through story content to level up characters until now, but always in an open world with instanced areas for particular story events where necessary. The option to include other players and work collaboratively has always been available. Now, however, the KotFE expansion stands in stark contrast to the rest of the game as a large-instance “story on rails” where players are expected to step outside of the rest of the MMO to engage the content.
The quality-of-life improvements of 4.0 were certainly impressive, but without massive attention to PVP, conquest, operations, crafting, etc. -and with none on the horizon- many perceive the change as a distinctive shift toward single-player RPG -a genre well inside Bioware’s comfort zone, but a step in the wrong direction for those whose expectations of the MMO genre are reasonable (in my opinion) and entrenched.
Tags: 4.0 Bioware Cartel Market Community Conquest epic story Galactic Starfighter Knights of the Fallen Empire KotFE Operations player community playerbase PVE PVP Ranked PVP Ranked PVP Rewards Repeatable content reputation Revenue Model Star Wars: The Old Republic story story-driven content Subscriber benefits program SWTOR Wings of the Architect