A while back I asked if Star Wars: The Old Republic really was an innovative title. I talked about a couple of its features and linked some commentary from some other notable figures. But my conclusion at the time was that while SW:TOR does try and do a few things different, it ultimately does not bring anything "new" to the table in terms of MMO's. Fast forward a month later and I have completely changed my opinion, but not in the way you might expect. I still maintain that SW:TOR does nothing new for MMO's. That is because it really isn't an MMO at all. No, SW:TOR is innovative and revolutionary because it is an entirely new kind of online game.
Rise of the Jackalope!
I can already hear the fanbois gathering their torches and pitchforks... err, lightsabers... to storm my virtual castle and hang me, but hear me out. By its own admission, SW:TOR places a high emphasis on story telling, and in that respect the game succeeds. The class stories and the planet "arcs" are both entertaining and engaging. But that is also the problem. The emphasis on story encourages you to play within your own "world" essentially. A story driven game drives YOU along that path. It does very little to encourage you to take others along on that journey. In fact if your buddy is the same class as you, you can't take him along with you... at least not at the same time. They have to be on a different "step" in the chain in order to help you at all in most cases. This is a double-edged sword. As I said, the story arcs are fun and bring a depth to the game that most MMO's can't come close to duplicating. But the downside is that it fosters a sense of isolation. Following YOUR story takes something away from the "massively multiplayer" part of the experience.
I will admit I only have anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I feel like the actions of the community at large support me on this. People generally play SW:TOR in total isolation, or "isolated" within their guilds. Chat channels on virtually every planet are silent. Even LFG requests for things like Heroic quests have been reduced to a trickle. And the other faction? Would you even know there IS one outside
of Ilum and the warfronts? I can literally count on one hand the number
of opposing faction players I have "run into" out in the game world. The Fleet hubs are increasingly quiet. Guild recruitment or advertisements are virtually nonexistent. There is very little effort to reach out, to acknowledge other players, to involve them in things. This again reinforces this concept of isolation. To me this is just a "response to stimulus." SW:TOR encourages solo play and solo behavior and so the players are reacting to that.
But all this does not mean SW:TOR is a failure. No, instead what I see is a new "creature," hence the Jackalope reference. What I see in SW:TOR is a new kind of online game, one entirely driven by a single-player experience... call it massively single-player if you will. While it possesses the "trappings" of an MMO, it is obvious that those features are not the "main attraction." SW:TOR is an always will be about its storytelling. That was what they built it on and that is what it will live or die on. All of its other aspects are handled better by other games. As MMO's, World of Warcraft and RIFT are light-years (pun intended) ahead of SW:TOR. And while one could argue that WoW in particular has "dumbed down" the group experience to little more than interactive NPC's via LFD/LFR, the emphasis still is clearly on group activities. The entire game pushes you to the level cap and pushes you to do things like raid or organized battlegrounds. Or take RIFT's UI. Even without addon functionality it completely blows SW:TOR's cruel joke of a UI out of the water.
Can this Creature Survive?
So ultimately the question to me is not whether SW:TOR is innovative or not. I believe that question is answered simply by the nature of what it is, a new kind of online game. No the real question is, can a game like this survive? Can a game that is fundamentally built on offering a powerful single-player experience convince people to pay month after month to continue to play it? I wonder if Bioware has considered this in designing additional content. New Flashpoints and Operations will keep a few people happy, but it is not what the game is based on. Players are "told" throughout the game that the story is what matters. That story is going to have to continue to be told. So in addition to extra FP's, are we going to get story expansions? New quests that follow up on the class story lines? Or are those going to have to wait for a formal expansion and level cap increase?
Personally, I don't think Bioware can take that approach. I think new story content is going to have to be released on a semi-regular basis in order for them to justify the subscription cost. And while Star Trek: Online just went free-to-play, I think that game is a good comparison on this point. The "Featured Episodes" and associated story arcs became a significant selling point for ST:O and the community became rather upset when they dried up last year during the Atari-Perfect World transition. Bioware "hitched their wagon" to the story in SW:TOR. They are going to have to continue to "ride" it if they want the game to succeed.