In most subscription based MMO's, when you decide to cancel, the developer/publisher will ask you to fill out some sort of "form" asking you to explain why you left, what you liked/didn't like, etc. I have always tried to answer these honestly as I really do want to give good feedback, even if I am disgruntled with the game in question. Simply "ranting" and telling them how much you hate the game doesn't help anybody... aside from the potentially gratifying emotional release. So I was somewhat disappointed that when I finally went to the website for Star Wars: The Old Republic to hit that magic "Cancel" button, I was presented with only a single question about why I left the game. I answered it in as much detail as I could, but I was really expecting a more robust form. Well, not that any Bioware developers are likely to read my blog, but for my own sense of "closure," I'd like to elaborate a bit on my feelings about the game as I exit.
Things I Liked About SW:TOR
To avoid the impression that this is just a "rant," I'd like to start with the things that I liked about the game, because it did have some positives. First and most obviously, the storytelling. Bioware certainly lived up to its reputation here as I found the story driven quests (both the class quests and planetary arcs) entertaining and engaging. Of course the level of quality did vary. Some classes had extraordinary stories (Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, Jedi Consular) and others were less than stellar (Smuggler, Jedi Knight) but compared to what passes for narrative in the average MMO, even the less impressive class stories look good. Similarly the planetary arcs had their stars (Hoth was one of my favorites) and duds (Taris, no level of nostalgia could save that pit of despair.) Not everything about SW:TOR's questing was positive though. More on that later.
Another aspect of the game I really enjoyed was the crafting system, and I am somewhat disappointed that I could not explore it further. I found the concept of using companions to perform crafting tasks a refreshing take. It effectively can eliminate the "stand around the forge" syndrome where you spend hours making the same copper sword over and over again to level. Yeah you still make lots of redundant patterns, but since you aren't doing the actual work, you can continue to quest, PvP, run Flashpoints, etc. while your companions work. Just make sure and either stock up on the required vendor components, or run the occasional mission to acquire them. Otherwise you can end up stuck "at the forge" anyway. Like with questing however, there is a downside here to discuss later as well.
The third thing I enjoyed about SW:TOR were the Flashpoints. Yeah I didn't get to run them as often as I wanted, or access them as consistently as I would have liked, but all in all when I was able to do them, I found them very enjoyable. "Tank and spank" bosses were kept to a minimum, even in the "leveling" Flashpoints. Almost every fight had at least some mechanic that had to be dealt with in order to complete the encounter successfully. I never found the "trash" to be excessive or time consuming, at least in the Flashpoints I was able to run. And the rewards were generally pretty good. Some items I got from Flashpoints ended up lasting me longer than I would have anticipated.
Things that Drove me Out of SW:TOR
Ultimately there were two absolute "deal breakers" that made it all but impossible for me to enjoy the game and stay subscribed, despite its strengths. The first is the user interface. SW:TOR's UI is a complete joke. I noted this all the way back in the beta weekends I was a part of, and I noted it in my initial "review" of the game. I hoped simply that it was an oversight of sorts and that it would be addressed quickly. Well some fixes are slowly making their way out, but it is far too little, far too late. This UI would have been fine... for an MMO released in say, 2005. But for 2011-2012? Frankly it is an insult to modern MMO players. No ability to move elements. No ability to resize elements. Try using the GTN (auction house) sometime, you'll want to kill a puppy. Try comparing item mods on the GTN to ones in your current gear. It's a joke. A well functioning UI is just a basic "quality of life" feature, and SW:TOR utterly fails in this respect.
The other aspect of the game that drove me out was the combat itself. I experienced SW:TOR's combat from several different perspectives and classes, and regardless of what I was playing, the combat always just felt... off to me. Initially I thought it was because I was playing an underpowered and odd spec (a Sawbones Smuggler) but even after playing a pure DPS (Merc/BH) and a melee tank (Shadow/JC) the feeling of awkwardness never went away. Combat never felt smooth. It never felt responsive. It never felt... fun. Playing the game ended up feeling like a "chore," not something to be enjoyed. Again I wish I could put a concrete term to this feeling, but this is really the best I can do to describe it. And the total lack of "feedback" didn't help. No combat log, no parsing, no nothing. I'm not saying I needed something like Recount, but the game provides NO combat feedback whatsoever. It's hard to know what you might be doing (right or wrong) without more information.
Things that Bothered me About SW:TOR
There were other issues with the game that bugged me, but that I could have overlooked if it were not for the big issues I just mentioned. The pace of questing was a bit too grindy for my liking. Yes Bioware tries to disguise it with the heavy storytelling, but the fact is that the story line quests (both class and planet arcs) are not enough on their own to keep you on the proper "curve" to advance from zone to zone and planet to planet. If you don't stop and do side quests, bonus quests, space missions, or some other activity for additional XP, you will eventually find yourself unable to advance the primary story chains. For a game that emphasizes its story, this is somewhat annoying, but not a "deal breaker." I could easily have dealt with this issue... if killing fifty extra mobs for a bonus quest was actually fun. The problem is that it wasn't.
Another thing that bothered me is that as interesting as the crafting system is, its usefulness comes to a screeching halt when you reach the level cap. Aside from Biochem and (maybe) Cybertech, none of the production crafts offer anything comparable to gear obtained through endgame content (Hardmode Flashpoints and Operations.) So yes, you can reverse engineer tons of items to get Prototype and Artifact level patterns, but all that work will still result in items that are inferior to ones easily obtained from a single Flashpoint run or Op. To be fair, almost every MMO I have played has had this problem to one degree or another. In World of Warcraft, crafting is generally a waste of time after the second raid tier of the expansion comes out. And in RIFT, crafted gear was pretty much junk when I left, not to mention the random factor of actually obtaining the relevant patterns. So again, I could overlook this one... if I could have accessed FP's and Op's consistently. The problem was that I couldn't.
What Would Bring me Back to SW:TOR
Right now I can think of two things that would entice me to return at a later date. The first would be significant UI improvements. Let me resize things, move things around, and improve the overall functionality. Having to fight through things just to accomplish basic tasks like comparing items really takes the enjoyment out of a game. And I'm not even asking for things like macros or addons. Sure some basic macros would be nice for things like activating relics or some cooldowns, but just give me a flexible UI that works. Bioware really dropped the ball on this one, and given the amount of development time that the game had, it tells me it simply wasn't a priority for them. I was not the only one complaining about the UI, even during beta. They had to know it was a problem.
The other thing I would need to see in order to come back would be some form of grouping tool. I know this is a "hot button" topic among MMO players, and I have had my own very strong feelings on the issue. But for a game like SW:TOR, it simply has to have some kind of system to get people into groups. We can debate things like "community" and "responsibility" and those are discussions worth having, but ultimately it does not change the fact that a "themepark MMO" in 2012 needs this functionality. Whether that is a good development for MMO's in general is suspect, but it is a fact none the less, doubly so for a game like SW:TOR that essentially encourages its players to play the game alone. You can't "train" your players to go through the game alone, and then suddenly expect them to act "social" and form groups on their own. You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you train them to play alone, then you have to give them tools to expedite the grouping process.
So there you go. If Bioware had used a more extended form, I would have been glad to give them all that information directly. But as it is, it gives me a sense of "closure" and I can move on to other things... like a somewhat "rude awakening" when I logged back in to RIFT. More on that later this week!