I learned about SWTOR on February 4th, 2009, and promptly created an account on the website to keep track of the game prelaunch. I was a Star Wars Galaxies refugee at the time and was excited about the prospect of a new Star Wars MMORPG. At that time, BioWare was allowing account holders to create and organize themselves into guilds on the SWTOR website with a plan to assign them to servers at launch, guilds already formed and ready to go. I had signed up with a Republic guild named Vigilance that found itself assigned to the Warriors of the Shadow server on launch day, a server which was later merged into The Bastion.
Vigilance soon fizzled out as the launch rush died down and the membership fell into inactivity, but not before we claimed a server-first title nobody cares about now: One of our members was the first to reach level 50, or what was max-level at the time. I don’t remember his name now, but I remember the effort he put in: He played the game without sleep, without breaks, and without relent for about a week, give or take, and arrived at the end-game hungry and exhausted, only to discover there wasn’t much waiting for him.
My former guildmate wasn’t the only player thinking this way. At James Ohlen’s admission, at SWTOR’s launch BioWare had seriously underestimated players’ ability to consume content. An old PC Gamer article dated March 28, 2013 and entitled GDC 2013: BioWare expected players to take three to five months to hit SWTOR’s level cap lays out James’ confession on BioWare’s behalf:
Some of the risks that we identified going into launch were becoming worse than we thought… The most worrisome was that people were going through the content a lot faster than we expected. We had expected our playerbase to play through the game and get to the endgame, on average, in about three to four months, maybe five months. It was 170-180 hours of content. But our metrics were showing us that, on average, for the millions of people playing our game, they were going through the game at a rate of 40 hours a week… [40 hours a week] was the average! We actually had people doing 80 to 100 to 120 hours a week, which I can’t even comprehend… We had people going through the game so fast that within one month, four to five weeks, we suddenly had close to half a million people at the endgame. It was something we didn’t expect at all. We had all those people at the endgame and suddenly certain things like having only one Operation, and having no group finder [tool] become much bigger challenges than what we thought they were going to be.
The article sums up the problem well:
MMO players are notorious for their ability to chew through content infinitely faster than developers are able to produce it. Most MMO and expansion launches have been marked by a race between players trying to reach the level cap first and earn all the accolades, forum posts, and shiny achievements that come along with that.
There is an old addage that states “Numbers never lie”. I’d like to believe that statement is true, but I have also learned our interpretation of numbers can often be hopelessly misleading. I contend that the resounding lesson the analytics were teaching at launch was that players weren’t interested in story content at all. Instead, they were interested in one thing: Progression. And not just any progression, character progression.
To state my point another way, I believe that an MMO player’s character is a representation of themselves in the virtual world. Just like earning more income, achieving that next promotion, suping up a car, or buying a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood are all ways that a person might progress himself in real life, leveling up, picking up better gear, optimizing character stats, achieving rare decorations and finding that new look are all ways he might progress himself in the virtual world that is SWTOR, living vicariously through his character. Essentially, players are interested first and foremost in building their characters with a hunger that is almost insatiable. All else is secondary.
The urgency behind the character progression hunger has consequences: Anything that gets in the way or slows the process down is viewed as a hurdle, an inefficiency to be overcome as quickly and as effectively as possible. Why else would characters race to end-level, spacebarring through all BioWare’s carefully crafted cutscenes, consuming new content at rates upwards of 80 hours a week? Why else would many MMO players be content to grind through repeatable content? And why else would players gripe about the lack of 224-rated gear drops in Nightmare-mode operations? The answer is simple: Players want to progress their characters. They want their characters to get stronger, to look better, to have rare items and to be as unique (and therefore, because of rarity, as valuable) as possible -and they want it now.
I must state here that there are indeed exceptions to the rule, Teo being among them. Teo has often stated during Ootinicast episodes that for him the game is all about the journey, and he adopts a completionist approach to questing even after 4.0’s streamlining of the SWTOR leveling process. Teo demonstrates that what I have argued above is not the hard-and-fast rule for everyone, but by and large I believe this principle applies to most MMO gamers.
So what of it? Perhaps we ought to revisit the idea of “Content Locusts”, a term I believe to be an unfortunate misnomer, a derogatory term used to describe gamers who consume content insatiably and then move on. Yes, in some sense I agree with the assessment that many play games and grow bored with repeated content. Who wouldn’t? But in their defense, I think there is an added layer of complexity that is often overlooked, a drive that many don’t understand: They are in it to progress their characters, and if that progression becomes stale -if their characters aren’t growing and achieving and conquering- they move on to other environments where their virtual self-representations can grow and achieve and conquer. I believe this need is inherent in the human psyche, and virtual environments allowing a fast-forwarded expression of this human need are especially subject.
Furthermore, I believe this dynamic powerfully influences the player community’s gripe with BioWare’s current single-player, story-driven approach. Many players simply do not play for the story. They play for the levels, the stats and the gear -all of which are methods of character progression- and operations have been a traditional vehicle for gating and creating rarity in this regard. Every Nightmare Mode raider will attest that it is simply not easy to put together a team of competent, committed, patient individuals who are willing to put in the effort to conquer top-tier content -and coupled with higher-tier gear rewards (i.e. incentivizing character progression), the resulting challenge is considered indispensably valuable. Along these lines, many have argued that it is the cooperative and social elements of the game that they miss, but I argue it is more complex than that: Social elements have been leveraged to gate character progression in these instances, and since I believe the primary goal of players is character progression, social content is sought as a means to that end.
Perhaps then we also ought to reevaluate the commonly-understood pillars of MMO gaming and to reexamine BioWare’s approach to these pillars. As stated on SWTOR’s own FAQ page:
Traditionally, MMOs are built on three pillars: exploration, combat, and progression. At BioWare and LucasArts, we believe most MMOs ignore an important fourth pillar: story. Our mission is to create the best story-driven games in the world, and we believe that the compelling, interactive storylines in The Old Republic are a significant innovation in the MMO genre.
I am a committed player who loves the BioWare brand and SWTOR as one of its products. But I wonder, having considered these pillars now in great depth, if perhaps BioWare has hopelessly missed the boat in this regard. They have stated that the analytics say more players are engaging single-player story than any other kind of content, and so they have focused their development resources on story. But my personal experience has been that many players spacebar through cutscenes as quickly as possible -and BioWare have themselves increased XP mission rewards to six times that of the rate at launch to streamline the origin story leveling process. (Now it is only necessary to complete the overarching character story and the individual planetary story arcs). Are these things not indicative of the fact that story is secondary to character progression? Why then, given the analytics, would BioWare double down on story?
Incidentally, I would argue that even exploration as an MMO pillar is secondary to progression. I played the first Guild Wars pretty extensively prior to the launch of SWTOR, and spent countless hours negotiating my way into gated areas and scraping the sides of rarely-traversed sections of the world maps to achieve the Legendary Cartographer title. The truth is, I wanted to be able to display the title on my characters because it was relatively rare, and, admittedly after some soul searching, a way to increase my account’s value. In SWTOR I have achieved every datacron on numerous characters and often ensure I have unmasked every area on the world map before progressing to the next planet. Nobody explores in MMO environments like I do. But I often find myself annoyed at the delay despite pursuing the maps, and working to overcome it as quickly as possible so that I can “get back on track” and not fall too far behind my expected pace.
Along these same lines, I think BioWare is currently running the Cartel Market masterfully. (I hope they are paying their Cartel Market team well, they certainly deserve it). The introduction of planinum-rarity items and their next-to-impossible drop rates leverages the character progression/uniqueness dynamic beautifully. If only a handful of characters on the server possess a highly-sought item like the Defiant Vented Lightsaber, everyone is going to go to that much more effort to acquire it (read that “buying Cartel packs”). Everyone wants their characters to be unique, to stand out among their peers -and what better way than to wield a high-profile lightsaber very few others have?
The reality that everyone wants a stronger, better, more unique character as soon as possible is simply undeniable. (There is a reason BioWare slows down the XP generation rate for Free-to-Play accounts as an incentive to subscribe). Why then concentrate resources developing an inefficiency? The whole doubling-down-on-story strategy just seems so counter-intuitive to me.
Please do not misunderstand me. What I am arguing here does not mean that I propose doing away with story content altogether in favor of some less-engaging, grind-centered content. On the contrary, I love BioWare’s competitive advantage as a teller of epic stories and it would be a grave disservice to SWTOR to abandon it. But I think BioWare would be wise to come to a fuller understanding of player priorities and to offer a product that caters appropriately: Story is secondary to character progression, and players are awfully attached to character progression gated by social mechanisms. That is why the abolishments of 8 vs. 8 ranked PVP and progression raiding have been such a tough pill to swallow for the player community.
Sadly, BioWare’s priorities are not the priorities of the player community, and scaled back social content is the current reality. Even character progression has become secondary to story which releases episodically now on a month-by-month basis. It is here that I must reference the work of our friends Chuck and Brian of Bad Feeling Podcast, particularly in episode 114 where they discuss how the release of episodic story content is changing the way verteran players play the game. (Since there is no well-defined social/character progression dynamic at work, many now log in, play a chapter, and then log out again until the next month’s release. Or they log in, binge two or three chapters at a time, and then log back out until the next time they feel compelled to catch up). I feel Chuck and Brian’s assessment is only too accurate, and I feel that while BioWare’s subscriber numbers might remain strong, they are not an accurate reflection of the withering effect episodic content is having on the player community between releases. Moreover, this effect is circular: Fewer players mean fewer are available to engage in group content. Fewer engaging in group content means the numbers reflect more are engaging story. BioWare develops episodic story content based on the numbers, neglecting group content. And the cycle continues.
The concern that SWTOR is becoming a single-player game is very real and has merit. Once cooperative content is all but nullified, would it not make sense for BioWare to cut it entirely, fill the fleets with NPC’s, limit each player to his own instance of the game running locally on the client, and then scale back the servers to push client updates only? Doing so certainly offers less overhead than the current model which creates a waning cooperative play community while maintaining the overhead required to run a full multiplayer environment -and for BioWare’s part, a self fulfilling prophecy.
As for the content locusts, they will have moved on to greener pastures, growing and achieving and conquering as always. But my hope is that BioWare will be able to adjust their strategy and bring back those who have moved on already. The wonderful thing about content locusts is their mobility, and they can come back if the environment is entiticing enough just as easily as they left.