22/11/2018

SWTOR's Golden Launch Days

A couple of weeks ago an old podcast made me muse on SWTOR's pre-launch hype, and this post in turn got Asmiroth reminiscing about his early days in the game. That post in turn made me thoughtful due to how it reiterated the pretty popular narrative of how SWTOR was an utter failure at launch, but managed to correct its worst mistakes and is a better game for it now. Aside from a few nitpicks which I brought up in the comments to his post, I didn't actually disagree with most of the specific issues he brought up... but it made me think about how two people can look at the same thing and still come away with very different impressions of it based on their experiences and priorities. (Also topical: Azuriel likes Fallout 76 and is utterly bewildered by all the negative press it gets. Welcome to the world of being a SWTOR player at launch!)

For example, there's no denying that SWTOR's open world PvP was broken from the beginning - the things going on on Ilum even made the news on several gaming sites back in the day. However, to someone like me, who was a) still levelling at the time and b) not particularly interested in open world PvP, that was barely even a blip on the radar and certainly had no noticeable effect on my own ability to enjoy the game. A year after the event, Ilum was nothing but an infamous and weird zone for most of us who were still around.


And sure, there were bugs. Few games launch without them. But unless they are literally game-breaking, making it impossible to log in or progress, or are particularly prolific, nobody quits over a couple of bugs if they are otherwise having fun. I ran into them too, and have blog posts to prove it, but ultimately they didn't stop me from enjoying the game because I was always way too eager to see what was waiting around the next corner.

Simply put: For me, SWTOR was simply a fantastic game from launch, for multiple reasons:

- To this day you'll find people arguing both that SWTOR should have had fewer MMO elements to begin with and should have focused more on its single-player aspects, and that it was too solo focused while not being enough of a "proper" MMO. For me however, the balance at launch was literally perfect. I wanted an MMO and I got it, with all the bells and whistles that entails, but the class story was more involved than anything else that had been seen in that space before and provided strong reasons to identify with and care about your character.

- The promise of being able to level at least eight different alts, have it be a totally different experience, and then receive continued updates for all of those unique class stories sounded absolutely amazing. That those plans ultimately weren't sustainable is another matter, but the amount of content to play through at launch was huge. And yet the game ended up with loads of players who just speed-levelled one class to cap and then complained that there weren't enough raids. I don't even know. Though speaking as someone who did raid once I hit the level cap, the first few months were good times for me too. While there was only one operation at launch, Bioware had added three more by the end of the year. It was a golden age of constant content additions.

- The group conversation system was a hugely unique feature, and I absolutely adored it. There's just something about the whole idea of rolling off with your group mates to decide how a quest is going to continue. To this day, even with most people skipping the cut scenes in flashpoints, the ones with the big choices still get players talking, even in pugs (usually to complain about other people in the group voting for the opposite alignment).

- The levelling game in general managed to be fantastically accommodating to grouping, despite of the solo story arc. Everything that wasn't your class story was designed to make sense whether you were alone or with friends, and I loved how quest givers would even insert little comments about you having company. Coming fresh off WoW, which had decided to deal the final death blow to open world group quests in its Catalcysm expansion (the odd exception not withstanding), I loved loved loved all the heroic quests that encouraged you to group up with randoms while out in the world. I certainly didn't feel like the game needed an automated group finder or anything.


Pugging heroics in January 2012 on my agent.

- Combat in general was fun. It was traditional hotbar MMO combat, which is something I like, and having come straight out of WoW's Cata expansion as mentioned above, I was glad to see that fighting mobs was a decent challenge. It wasn't super hard or anything, but if you didn't upgrade your gear every few levels or didn't use utilities such as crowd control or interrupts, you would pay the price, so putting that extra effort in made a noticeable difference and that felt very satisfying.

- Doing PvP as a levelling character was another thing that stood out positively to me, again because of the inevitable comparisons to WoW, which at the time featured no level sync of any kind, but put you into tiny levelling brackets instead, which could result in long waits just so you would end up in a match where you could still barely hit your opponents. SWTOR's Bolster system seemed amazing to me in comparison, plus tanks actually having a role to play in PvP beyond flag carrying was cool too.

- Story and lore were treated with respect and attention to detail. I loved discovering all the little connections between different class stories for example that made it possible to put all the stories together, like a giant puzzle, and see a coherent larger image emerge. (Not to rag on WoW again, but storyline consistency was another thing they messed up big time in Cata.)

I could probably come up with more points, but these will do for now. What I'm really trying to highlight is how my view of SWTOR's development over time is almost the opposite of the common narrative of failure and then stabilisation. Again, I'm not denying that the game had issues from a financial point of view. However, to me the reason this happened seemed to have everything to do with Bioware and EA vastly overestimating the size of the niche they were catering to, and nothing with the game's inherent quality.

I'm not really trying to say that SWTOR is an all-around worse game now than it was in 2012 either. I sure am grateful for all those bug fixes and for the fact that the game doesn't crash on me every hour anymore, not to mention the many bits of content as well as quality of life fixes that have been introduced since then. However, as far as those big bullet points go that originally drew me to the game, things have got worse in almost every respect. To go through them in order:


- The (for me) perfect balance between MMO content and solo story started to crumble back in 3.0, and the last two expansions went all out on focusing on the solo player. Recent patches have backtracked on this a bit, and to me it feels like the game is now on the right track in terms of regaining some balance... but I still miss the questing content for flexible group sizes. These days it's all either solo story or fixed-size group instances, with nothing in-between.

- Class stories were abandoned quickly, but we still got updates at a decent pace for quite a while. The last two years things have been pretty slow though.

- While the group conversation system hasn't been removed from the game, Bioware effectively stopped utilising it during Shadow of Revan. The only new content added since 4.0 that has you roll off against group members to make a decision is the cut scene where you blow up the shield surrounding a Star Fortress, but the following cut scene only shows a single person running outside, regardless of whether there were other people in the party. It's almost as if the developers who originally worked on the system aren't with the company anymore and nobody else knows what to do with it.


I wasn't playing alone when I did this, but you can't tell.

- In 4.0, heroics as a concept were effectively removed from the game by being turned into just another type of daily quest and yes, I'm still bitter about that. Rumour has it that 5.10 is supposed to see the return of some open world content that you're actually encouraged to group up for, but I'll believe it when I see it.

- The overall combat system hasn't exactly changed, but the way they sped up levelling combined with the introduction of level sync and multiple buffs to companions has led to combat while levelling being quite boring as everything dies in a couple of hits unless you make a point of staying underlevelled, which is actually quite tricky to do if you actually enjoy playing your character and doing things.

- In general I would say that PvP has maintained its quality, but the levelling brackets took a huge hit from the increased levelling speed and the removal of all worthwhile rewards from sub-max-level PvP, which makes it much harder to get into lowbie and midbie matches these days than it used to be.

- Bioware also still loves its story, but Knights of the Fallen Empire certainly played havoc with the established order, and all classes being funnelled into the same personal story meant that the beautiful puzzle essentially broke down, as canonically, all your alts of different classes couldn't co-exist anymore as only one of them could really be the Outlander. I suspect a lot of people would also agree that KotFE and KotET took the game off into a drastically different story direction from what we had seen before, which didn't gel too well with the existing content.

So what's the tl;dr of all this rambling? That I honestly thought SWTOR was great as it was at launch (bugs not withstanding), and from this long-term player's point of view it's been less of a story of a failure finding success and more of a succession of weird ups and downs as Bioware tried to appeal to different types of players in turn who hadn't been satisfied with the launch game for whatever reason. It's only more recently that they finally seem to have remembered what made their game so great at launch (and I'm really thankful for that and am excitedly looking forward to the next update).

12 comments :

  1. I suspect that Bioware listened to all the "We want KOTOR 3!!" complaints and made the KotFE expac in response, in effect creating its own Cataclysm level disruption expac. The two complaints I had about KotFE mirror yours: they removed the old Heroics in the original worlds for Heroics that any reasonable player could solo, and they eliminated some of the build-ups in some of the planet stories (the final area in Tatooine was shorted considerably to a quick waltz to the end as the most egregious example). Leveling certainly sped up, but that could be corrected with fine tuning that hasn't been done. Making the side quests optional --and hidden-- was a lesser thing that I would have personally left on as a default and if someone wanted to turn off, let them.

    As an aside, the more I play ESO the more I find the same voice actors who worked on both SWTOR and ESO. Not just the main characters, but the quest givers and random NPCs out there. The guy who voiced Garnik in the Tatooine Republic story voiced Breton questgivers in ESO, and the oldest mini-Red caught that even before I did. The similarities between the two games are pretty amazing, which makes me wonder if Bioware made a mistake in not making SWTOR into a buy-to-play game with a subscription option like ESO has. If they had, what would have happened to SWTOR is anybody's guess, but we'll never know now.

    One thing that ESO does is they have "public dungeons", which are the equivalent of Heroic areas on SWTOR, while "delves" are the equivalent of Heroics that can be soloed. ESO doesn't really have instances/flashpoints in the same way that SWTOR and other WoW-esque MMOS have, which means you can wander into a public dungeon and just tag along with another group that is clearing the dungeon. What that tells me is that there's a lot of value in the old Heroics out there, because --just like ESO-- you could wander into a Heroic out from the regular questing zones and join up with a group already there. There's a lot to be said for a "Hey, here comes Rotgut! Anybody want to bash his head in?" coming in over the zone chat.

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    1. I have always thought the same about KOTFE. I still wonder if the rumors about BioWare's plans to make 3 KOTFE-like expansions were true with KOTET getting shortened because of the fans' reactions and the 3rd one never getting off the ground.

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    2. @Red: Once you get used to a prolific voice actor it's hard not to notice them everywhere! For example Steve Blum has voiced so many NPCs in SWTOR that I now always go "oh, it's Steve Blum again" whenever I run into yet another one. Also, my mind was kinda blown when I realised that Laura Bailey, who voiced Kira, also does Jaina in WoW these days.

      I don't really see buy-to-play making much of a difference vs. free-to-play for MMOs these days, especially when the price of the base game is down to a mere pittance anyway.

      @Vulkk: Rumours? I thought Charles Boyd outright said that in an official forum post. Not that I'm going to go off and look for it now or anything... :P

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    3. @Shintar-- And Laura Bailey is also on Critical Role!

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  2. That's exactly how I feel about the game too.

    The first year or so was just fantastic. We took our time, class stories and even side quests were great (the group conversations indeed played a big role in that), combat felt ok to good.
    What's more, I had fun with the skill trees (I successfully ran a hybrid spec on my Guardian tank) and with min-maxing my tank stats.

    2.0 was my huge personal turn-off. They effectively killed hybrid speccing and changed the skill trees into pretty much no-brainer things without any actual choice. They made your stats get worse with every level up from 50 to 55 (just like in WoW I hear), which felt really bad, and even after reaching level 55 and getting new BiS gear you couldn't even get back to the stat levels you had had at 50. Felt bad.

    So yeah, I also feel that the game started out pretty great, but got worse over time. For me that point just came a good bit sooner.

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    1. Hm, I loved the 2.0 patch cycle and played a hybrid Scoundrel through most of it, so I can't really agree there. :) They only really did away with skill trees in 3.0, but as I'm not a huge fan of respeccing I honestly don't miss them all that much.

      And I do remember people complaining about the 50 to 55 thing but it felt very blown out of proportion to me. As a healer I don't pay as much attention to the numbers and I didn't really feel noticeably weaker. Plus it was only a temporary thing anyway.

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  3. Oh wow, do I have some opinions on that topic! ;)

    In general I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you said, except for the launch morning where I couldn't login itself it was pretty good and except for my aging system having low FPS I don't recall nor had I written down any outages at all.

    I found the mix of "WoW-like" and "story mode" quite refreshing and absolutely not overdone.

    One thing I maybe disagree is the Heroic quests. Yes, it was awesome to group up with people. But I had bad memories of that in WoW, never finding someone to do them if you were leveling an alt at some point and were not part of the main expansion rush. I can only imagine it was like that after the initial rush, but maybe I'm wrong here - at least you could ask planet-wide, so maybe the probability of having at least 1-2 more in the first year were not so bad.

    PvP while leveling was great, yeah. I do like games where you can do some other activity than just questing for a bit and not feel like you wasted time if your goal was to gain levels. GW2 with crafting exp is also awesome for that.

    But I did stop playing SWTOR quite soon after launch, but 90% because both my guilds quit after just 1-2 months. Maybe they actually had the WoW problem of too many servers. So yes, I think it was great at launch, but I also have to say that WoW grabbed me back quite soon - especially as I had no one left to play SWTOR with anymore and did have my guild of many years in WoW.

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    1. Well, at least in 2014 I still had no issues finding people to group with for heroics... in fact I made a point of levelling an alt through mostly doing heroics as my side content instead of solo missions. I think the biggest problem were the ones that sat at the very end of a planetary quest chain... but that would've been kind of nullified by the other 4.0 changes anyway, with all heroics becoming available on the fleet and with an easy quick travel option. They didn't have to turn them into easy solo content on top of that.

      Do you blame your guilds falling apart on the quality of the game though? I had a guild fall apart in WoW too, years ago. And my own SWTOR launch guild fell apart as well after about nine months, but I just found another one and that's the same one of which I'm still a member six years later.

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    2. I wouldn't say the quality, per se but I can only guess. I mean, we (in the Rep guild) were mostly softcore? (regular, non-server-first competing) WoW raiders. So we kinda dinged 50 pretty soon, blazed through EV and KP and even I found it a little boring (and some of the others were even more progressed in WoW, and also I guess more skilled). So I absolutely get why some of them would jump ship after just 2 month if the launch content is already cleared, most of it on the first try. Again I'm a bit bit mad I didn't write everything down exactly, because I could be talking total bullshit and we didn't really do NiM, but my achievements say we did... Anyway - I'd also not to waltz through a story mode raid in the first week after reaching max level in a new game/expansion - not if you're used to raiding 2x3 hours in WoW, we're not really "good".
      Not really true for my Imp guild, those were 90% tourists and Star Wars fans, but the amount of bleeding players is probably a combo of bad luck AND them not being in for the long run. People not playing 2 sub MMOs at the same time may be a huge factor as well.

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    3. I want to agree that clearing everything right away sounds boring, but then I remember Wrath of the Lich King and how a lot of raid guilds cleared all of its raid content on release within a week, and yet that didn't prevent it from becoming WoW's most successful expansion ever... so I'm not sure how much it really matters.

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  4. Expectations and delivery are the key points for me. I expected kotor3, with MMO tools. Instead I got kotor 2.5 and half working mmo tools. One of the two needed to improve and bioware chose the mmo part, until they launched the knights expansions and went kotor.

    Everyone found something at some point. Just not at the same time. Looking forward to what they come out with next. Wonder how the Anthem efforts are impacting all this too.

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    1. Looking at your blog posts tagged SWTOR you last checked in during Shadow of Revan four years ago - can you see yourself jumping back in to check out the new stuff?

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