Dreading Star Wars: The Old Republic
Pre-orders are being taken for Star Wars: The Old Republic now. There was a time in the game’s development cycle that I was greatly looking forward to TOR being released. I was a World of Warcraft burnout and a huge Star Wars fan when it was first announced a few years ago. This week, though, when I heard about pre-orders, I surprised myself to feel my own reaction of… “meh.” I did some soul searching, and I think I figured out why I am dreading the release of The Old Republic.
People in their mid 30’s really went through the golden age of video games. We were young enough to be able to enjoy the Playstation and Xbox when they were released. We remember and played the heck out of the SNES and Genesis, and many of us got our start way before on the NES or Colecovision, maybe the C-64 and the Atari. We remember and enjoyed video arcades. A huge part of gaming to me has always been the people. The friends I sat on the couch with, or went to the arcades with, or played online with. The Massive Multiplayer genre really changed how people played games together.
The video game industry has really grown with us to where it is today. Similarly, the MMO is a genre that really has started and grown with us, much like many of us have grown up with South Park. I remember playing some MUD and MUD-like games in the BBS era, but it was nothing compared to the excitement around Ultima Online. I was living on my own, I was in college, I had money and time and a bunch of friends who were all excited about this new idea coming to gaming. “So, we… all play together? And solve riddles and quests and fight evil, and even build castles? THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!”
And it was, at first. I remember being lucky enough to do some beta testing of the game, and being filled with the sense of wonder and possibilities. When the game went live in September of 2007, several of my friends and I joined the adventure together. And we had a great time. There was a sense of danger and excitement as you adventured out. There was a very real chance of open world PvP, where it actually mattered, as you could lose your items and gold. You didn’t know where you were going or who you were going to meet. There were no global chat channels. You talked to the other adventurers out in the wilds or in the dungeons and figured out how to interact with them. The game even had a day and night cycle where shops were closed. It really was a virtual fantasy world.
Not knowing where you were going or what you might find was incredibly fun and exciting. Being able to stake out your own claim, build your own house and decorate it in interesting ways was a blast. It wasn’t just the sort of game you could look up online and go do it. This was before Wiki and FAQs and Google. You never needed to kill X Wugglebats or collect X piles of Beetledung, and there was no achievement for killing 10,000 Skeletubbies. You made your own adventure. You explored on your own. You made your own goals and quests. It was great fun. You chose to be a hero or a villain. You could be a wizard or a warrior. How exciting! Some people complained about the lack of content and imbalance and grieving issues, but I didn’t really mind. I learned how to adapt and adjust, just like in life. And it was fun, and the imagination of what might come next was part of that fun.
Ultima Online had 100,000 subscribers after 6 months of release which, back in 1997, was incredibly impressive. Impressive enough that it caught the attention of other developers who decided to start their own MMOs, and games like Everquest, Anarchy Online, and Dark Age of Camelot started being developed. There was potential here, a market.
Some people complained about getting mugged by a guy wearing gray robes and wielding a stick and losing their very expensive set of plate armor and shiny sword. Instead of learning how to play the game as designed (traveling light, with friends, and learning how to defend yourself – as the developers stated their intention to be), these people complained and threatened to cancel their accounts, enough so that the folks behind Ultima Online decided to remedy the situation in 2000 by creating mirror worlds, Trammel and Felucca, where you could choose to exist in the new PvP free zone or remain in the old world with the old rules. However, in the old world, they made everything look dead and ugly, and pretty much the only people that stayed were people in death robes and clubs running around fighting each other for the nothing they carried. While the game continues to this day, I mark this change as the death for Ultima Online, and in some ways, a downhill for the genre itself (a topic for another editorial). This change is what made me want to try the next MMO.
Everquest, a 3D-based MMO with a higher focus on in-game quests and content, had been released in 1999, and Dark Age of Camelot, a heavily PvP-based title, was due out in 2001. Many of UO’s player base felt the way I did and took their time and monthly subscriptions to one of these two titles, including myself. I gave Everquest a try and was thoroughly unimpressed. Everquest obviously added the element of the first-person adventure but still didn’t add the open world excitement that the early days of Ultima Online brought to the table. After 6 months of play, I canceled my account, knowing that Star Wars: Galaxies was on the horizon. “A Star Wars based MMO? Me and my friends can wander around, kill Stormtroopers, be Bounty Hunters, and fly X-Wings? SOUNDS AWESOME!” Except… it wasn’t.
Star Wars: Galaxies was released in June of 2003. Again, my first impressions were wonder and excitement. What a huge world! Look at all these planets! There’s Star Wars lore everywhere, points of interest, and cool looking terrain and ruins and stuff everywhere. We can create our own city? AWESOME! Sure, there wasn’t really much to do, and the X-Wing flying was going to have to wait, but the groundwork for a fun and exciting game was here. There was potential. We just needed to wait for Sony to put in the good stuff.
Which never happened. Despite being a futuristic world, the most powerful fighters in the game were the Teras Kasi, the Star Wars equivalent of a ninja. Instead of actually putting in content, Sony went back on its original intent for there to be no Jedi in the game, knowing that the Jedi carrot dangling and the infamous “Holocron Grinding” would keep some players interested. Eventually, they released the space expansion called Jump to Lightspeed, which was less fun than firing up my old copy of X-Wing. Jump to Lightspeed was released on October 2004, roughly a month before Blizzard’s mammoth World of Warcraft would hit shelves. Myself and many other SW:G players were disillusioned enough that, despite the lack of Stormtroopers, World of Warcraft was starting to sound pretty good.
Before WoW, my real life friends (and a few good friends we met in games) and I moved as a group, and there were a lot of us – 15+ at one time. We played UO For a couple years until it ran its course, then tried EQ. Most of that same group went to SW:G, and we even brought in more friends who were huge Star Wars Fans. Except for a very few stragglers, most of us went from SW:G to WoW together. A funny thing happened on the way to the next big MMO. though. It never arrived. World of Warcraft is coming up on 7 years of being released, and while its momentum has slowed and, some may argue it is not as good as it once was, it has a titanic and loyal player base worldwide and the resources to adapt to new games. So there has been no new game that we all wanted to go to together.
Over the years, my friends and I have entered different phases in our lives. Some of us have had kids. Most of us are married; some divorced. Several have somewhat meaningful employment. Other than real life situations, people decided they liked the open world PvP servers and moved there. Some decided they wanted to be Horde, others Alliance, and split up along those lines. Some can only play at certain hours. Some didn’t like the time commitment of raiding and have stopped playing. Others didn’t like the changes to the game and have stopped playing. Others just have other things they’d rather do with their time. The 15-20 friends that I had at the start of World of Warcraft have dwindled, and due to my own real life schedule, I only get to play with a couple of them.
New MMO’s have come out since WoW, of course, Rift perhaps being the biggest and most recent, though few of my friends played any of them for more than a month or two. And though I hate the phrase “WoW Killer” (as I don’t think such a thing will exist; WoW will run its own course), The Old Republic has the potential to cause a big impact. Again, you have the Star Wars license. You have the solid reputation of Bioware. You have the promise of lightsabers and Jedi and Bounty Hunters and space combat. Of my remaining MMO friends, several are very interested in TOR. However, several are uninterested in leaving WoW. A few like myself are… “meh.” It’s unknown who will go where, play what, and with who when TOR comes out.
What is known is this: It’s not 1997 anymore. Or 2001, or 2003. It is now 2011. Our lives, priorities, and schedules are in very different places. I know many of my friends just don’t want to start over again in a new game. I know some are looking forward to the change. Some are tired of the same old MMO, which really hasn’t seen much innovation since 2004, and for some people, the genre has actually gotten worse.
I don’t know how successful TOR will be, or how good it will be. But I do know that it’s the end of an era in my life, because that time where a bunch of my friends eagerly anticipated the next adventure to face together has come to an end. Gaming is as much about the people to me as it is about the games. We go to high school with our friends for 4 years. We go to college with other friends for 4-6 more. I’ve been playing games with many of these people for nearly 15 years now, and that is changing. They aren’t just friends to me, they are like family (and some actually ARE family), and I know things will never be the same. It’s a hard change to deal with, and that’s what I find myself thinking about when I think about TOR being released. Not the new adventure, not the fun, but the end of a phase of my life.
That is why I am dreading Star Wars: The Old Republic.