Why The Old Republic Will Succeed

15 07 2011

Last week’s update on Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s official website was pretty amusing. For more than two and a half years, Bioware have released an update of some sort every single week, from 15-minute gameplay walkthroughs to the much-dreaded Fan Fridays. They don’t always appear at the same time each Friday, but last week’s took a little time to emerge, spawning an enormous thread on the forums that quickly moved past the 1,000 post mark. Some users were spluttering angrily, most were having a good laugh and revelling in the ridiculousness of the game’s hype machine.

Then it emerged – a blog post about the in-game map system. Good stuff for the sensible community member, but the internet is not particularly known for being sensible. Cue riled posts about Bioware’s lack of concern for their fans and their general stinginess.

I desperately hope that this week’s update helps placate such users, because to my eyes it showed the essence of what will make The Old Republic succeed. Never mind the mini-update on the game’s appearance at Comic-Con; take a look at this Studio Insider entry instead. It’s about the opening cutscenes that will run after the player has picked their class, with the Sith Warrior and Smuggler intros both getting a showing. The Smuggler segments are a work-in-progress, but it’s the Warrior cinematic that really stands out, despite still being a bit rough around the edges graphically.

It shows precisely what will make The Old Republic such a potent force in the MMO genre. The game will be perfectly good in terms of core gameplay – discussions on DPS, PvP, PvE and a whole host of other acronyms tend to dominate the front page of the forum – but its success hinges on two features. One of them is story, as has so often been proclaimed by the developers. I sometimes think that after such a long time in development, the naysayers have forgotten just how amazing the news was it was revealed that the game would be entirely voiced, that classes have stories explained through speech and action rather than through text in a quest box. The mere sight of these intros, which show your character having a reason for existing and starting their galaxy-spanning quest, seems to me to be immensely potent when compared with what is considered good MMO storytelling at present.

The second hinge-point is perhaps more important still, certainly from a commercial point of view. It’s Star Wars. It’s ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ in a familiar blue font. It’s that yellow text-crawl, that theme tune, that camera pan away with those same stars in the background. Other MMOs have terrific licenses behind them, from Warcraft to Lord of the Rings to the superhero canon of DC – but none of them comes close to matching the power of the Lucas license. Watching Deathwing emerge from Deepholm in the intro cinematic for Cataclysm was mighty impressive, but such scenes will never have the same cultural resonance as that first brazen chord of John William’s score and the sudden appearance of those two big yellow words on the screen.

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