10 Years of SWTOR, Split into Periods

SWTOR's tenth birthday is still more than a month away, but I've decided to get in on the reminiscing a bit early. It's crazy to think that I've been subscribed to this game continually since launch - at this point I've played SWTOR for longer than even my early love World of Warcraft. During this time, I've been witness to a lot of ups and downs... and I think it's interesting how - at least from my point of view - the game's history can be broken up into a number of very distinctive and different periods, usually lasting around two years on average.

The Short-Lived Subscription MMO - December 2011 to November 2012

SWTOR launched in late 2011, towards the end of what I'll just call "the WoW Killer Years", a period during which a lot of different publishers tried to get into the MMO business after World of Warcraft's runaway success, hoping to outdo Blizzard and earn even more subscription money than they did - just to fail pretty spectacularly (at least in terms of achieving that goal). SWTOR looked like it probably had the best chances of them all, having a massive budget behind it (some estimated that at release, it was the most expensive video game ever made up to that point) and being based on one of the world's biggest IPs.

It launched to resounding critical success and an initial subscriber pool of nearly two million, causing Bioware to open lots of new servers during the early weeks just to accommodate everyone. As late as three months later, the game was still celebrated as a success and even dubbed "the fastest growing MMO of all time". But as the like-dislike ratio on that video shows, clouds were already starting to appear on the horizon as subs were stagnating and people were expressing discontent with the game.

I'll go out on a limb here and say that there wasn't anything fundamentally wrong with it in terms of gameplay, even at launch... it's just that trying to out-WoW World of Warcraft isn't something that's worked for anyone, ever, and Bioware tried to do so with a budget and degree of ambition that might have been unrealistic even if they had gotten ten million subscribers. At the same time it wasn't actually different enough from other MMO launches of the era from a player's perspective: People who played it like they were used to playing WoW rushed to max level and then complained that there wasn't enough to do. Many who embraced the more narrative-driven nature of the game enjoyed the story, but felt that it was dragged down by all the "MMO stuff" such as needing to do content other than the main story to level up.

With how public Bioware and EA had been in their boasting about the game's success, the fall from grace was no less publicly visible: After initial brags about how they weren't worried about sub numbers at all because even in their projected "worst case scenario" the game was going to be totally fine with as little as 500k subs, it was very uncomfortable to watch the publicly reported subscription numbers approach that number at a pretty rapid pace. Soon, servers were merged and devs laid off.

It's interesting to note though, that if (like me) you really enjoyed what the game had on offer and didn't pay too much attention to the bad PR, it was actually a great time to be a player. Eight unique class stories provided months of story content to play through (assuming you didn't play 24/7 like some people), and new MMO content (such as flashpoints and operations) and quality of life features were being added pretty much every other month.

Still, thanks to the dropping sub numbers, SWTOR ended up announcing a conversion to free-to-play after only seven months of being a subscription MMO, which I think remains the fastest U-turn of its kind in the genre to this day. The actual implementation happened less than four months later.

Early Free to Play - November 2012 to October 2015

SWTOR wasn't the first MMO to switch from requiring a subscription to being free to play, but its predecessors like LOTRO and DDO had largely done this by granting free players only limited access to the game and chopping the remaining content up into bits that could then be sold as individual DLCs. SWTOR surprised everyone by taking a completely different approach and making all the then current content free... while also looking for every possible avenue to charge you money in other ways, from restricting certain quest rewards to subscribers to not letting you use emotes to selling random loot boxes in the newly minted cash shop.

This was greeted with understandable scepticism by genre veterans, and some of the more awkward monetisation attempts such as charging for extra action bars in the UI were (rightfully) mocked, even if they ultimately didn't leave much of a mark. The public consensus seemed to be that the rapid and somewhat clunky conversion to free-to-play was simply a sign that the game had failed and that was that. We do know now that behind the scenes, the business model change actually really turned the game's financial fortunes around though.

As a subscribing player meanwhile, you could continue to play happily as you had before, just with the addition of a cash shop with cosmetics. And again, the next three years actually weren't such a bad time if you enjoyed what was on offer. Despite the reduced scope and the admission that there wasn't going to be enough budget to add any more class-specific content, new releases kept coming out at a good pace. During those two and a half years we got two story expansions, housing, space PVP, seven new flashpoints and five more operations.

If dataminers are to be believed, this was at least in part made possible through the use of a lot of art assets that had originally been created in the game's early days to serve as backdrops for more class story and which could be repurposed for flashpoints or different storylines without too much effort. The only thing you could argue which was perhaps a bit lacking during this time was class-specific personalisation, as companions became irrelevant to the story and both the Makeb and Revan storylines were written to be one-size-fits-all, regardless of your originally chosen class.

Knights of the Drastically Different Direction - October 2015 to November 2016

In June 2015, Bioware surprised everyone by dropping a shiny new CGI trailer for the next expansion, called Knights of the Fallen Empire. With it came the announcement of a planned change in direction - instead of piling on more and more of all this MMO stuff, the game was going to focus more on being the always-online KOTOR that so many players apparently wanted it to be, with a more engaging and personalised main storyline and no immediate plans for more group content (though the existing content was going to be re-scaled to make it infinitely re-usable instead of something you eventually out-levelled).

Fans of group content were not well pleased by this - my previous guild leader quit the game as a result - but I think I was probably in the majority in hoping that this was still going to be a positive thing for the game overall. After all, a love for story was why we were playing this over something like WoW, right? And they could always add more group content later, right? (Insert "For the Better, Right?" meme here.)

Knights of the Fallen Empire (KotFE for short) released in October 2015 to what felt like universal critical acclaim. The new chapter format featured much more engaging cut scenes, and changes to companions meant that they were more involved in the story than they had ever been before. The renewed attention from the wider media seemed to bring in a whole new audience. It all looked quite promising... until you got to the end of the initial nine story chapters and were told to wait a couple of months for the release of the next one, with seemingly not much else in terms of goals to pursue. Anecdotally, the new story-only players went "okay, that was great, see you later" and then only came back for new releases or not at all, while the existing audience felt frustrated by a lack of new, social endgame.

Bioware actually did a pretty decent job with releasing one chapter per month over the next few months, even if they didn't manage to stick to their original schedule perfectly. The problem was that there wasn't much to engage players between chapters (which would only take an hour or two even if you were taking it slowly), and as the story progressed, the narrative direction was also viewed more and more critically by an increasing number of players, especially those who didn't main a Force-using class (yes, I'm biased here). Why was there so much focus on these new NPCs? Where were the Republic and the Empire, not to mention our old companions? Why were smugglers and bounty hunters alike shoehorned into a narrative full of Force mumbo-jumbo that made you out to be some sort of Chosen One?

KotFE's last chapter released in August 2016, and already two months later the follow-up expansion Knights of the Eternal Throne was announced, again with a shiny CGI trailer. Taking in the feedback that KotFE had felt unnecessarily drawn out, they did away with the monthly updates and just condensed everything into nine more chapters that could be released all at once. There were also plans to bring at least a little bit of group content back in the form of uprisings, which were meant to be something along the lines of "flashpoints light". Oh, and they were going to introduce a whole new gearing system, which immediately set off alarm bells in every seasoned player's head because it was completely RNG-based, with no more item drops and just a sort of endless levelling where you'd get a lootbox with random contents every time you levelled up.

When the expansion launched only another month later, the story was once again mostly well received as a conclusion to previous events, but uprisings were no great success, and the new gearing system called Galactic Command was every bit as bad as people had feared, if not worse. Once again, I saw several veteran players throw in the towel during this period and to be honest it was the closest I've ever come to wanting to step away from the game myself, as the day-to-day gameplay was just that frustrating.

The In-Between Years - November 2016 to December 2018

In many ways, the game was not in the greatest of states after the release of Knights of the Eternal Throne. It's funny because to this day I can find comments from people who think that KotET was SWTOR at its greatest - but usually they are the type who played through the story once and then left, never interacting with the rest of the game or the community at large (which is a valid way to play, don't get me wrong, but it does make you somewhat less qualified to comment on the overall state of the game and its health).

The new gearing system was terrible and immediately required damage control that took time to implement. Many players who'd previously focused on group content had dropped out or let their subs lapse since Bioware had shown little interest in catering to their interests for almost two years. And even the story, for all the focus KotFE and KotET had put on it as a feature, felt rather derailed, as it had thrown much of the detailed world building of the base game out in favour of telling what turned out to be basically someone's tabletop campaign full of overpowered NPCs and ended with your character pretty much being the most powerful person in the known galaxy. Where do you even go from there?

I'd love to know what was going on behind the scenes during the "Knights of" years and immediately after. Maybe we can get a Jason Schreier-esque exposé on the subject one day. As a long-time player it felt as if someone who didn't really care that much about the game as it was had somehow managed to give a good sales pitch for injecting their personal pet project into SWTOR in a board room somewhere, and when that didn't pan out the way they planned, they jumped ship, leaving the rest of the team to pick up the pieces.

And that's what the next two years felt like, like the people in charge now slowly picking up the pieces and trying to recover what was left of this beautiful MMO. Galactic Command was eventually transformed into something that wasn't totally terrible. The story had to find a way to dial the player character's OP-ness back down a bit, something that never feels great even when it's necessary, and the focus was slowly shifted back to the older factions and existing companions. We even got our first new piece of proper group content in ages, in the form of an operation that was released one boss at a time over the course of nearly a year, plus a series of three flashpoints. Personally I did appreciate the general intentions behind this, it was just hard to be super enthusiastic about some of the results as the team initially seemed to struggle to find its feet again based on the awkwardness of some of the storytelling, plus releases just felt very slow after the rapid-fire way in which Bioware had added group content pre-KotFE and then story chapters during the "Knights Years".

A New Hope (The Expansions Strike Back?) - December 2018 to now

After more than two years of small, piecemeal content releases we were eventually told that we'd get a proper expansion again, though the name and details for it weren't announced until 2019. The reason I put the transition to this period in late 2018 is that this is when we got what you could call the "prelude" to the Onslaught expansion, in the form of the Jedi Under Siege update, which was a sudden return to form in the sense that it was much closer to the sorts of content updates we used to get before Knights of the Fallen Empire, with a whole new planet and separate, well-written storylines for Republic and Empire. This was continued in the Onslaught expansion that eventually released in October 2019, and now we're looking at a late 2021 release for the next expansion, Legacy of the Sith.

I'm sure some jaded old-timers will wonder why I've titled this section "A New Hope" when the content release cadence hasn't actually improved much since the post-KotET years. To that I'll say that first off, it has improved at least a little, even with the disruption by COVID, but secondly, the quality has been so much better and for me that counts for a lot.

Even more importantly though, unlike the early post-KotET content, it all feels very well thought-out and like it's part of a bigger plan, with the devs actually being in it for the long run. They're trying to add different types of content for all of the game's existing players again instead of hyper-focusing on one new idea that someone thinks will be a runaway success. The stories actually make sense and use the game's vast cast of characters to full effect. Old features are getting revised alongside new releases, not to give them some sort of drastic revamp but to keep the early game in shape and attractive to newer players as well. Basically, it feels like the game is finally being handled like an MMO should be handled, with realistic expectations, long-time planning and appreciation for its most loyal player base. And without wanting to jinx it, that absolutely does give me hope for the future and SWTOR's next ten years.


  1. ooooooh... a long shintar blog article... i need to open a bottle of fine wine, get a bath ready... and relax. this will be soooo much fun.

    1. Haha, I've written way longer ones! That's gonna be a short bath unless you read very slowly... but I hope you enjoy in any case. ;)

    2. I'm not a slow reader. I like to think and brood over interesting articles. Food for thought. I like to eat and drink while taking a bath. And if you do a good job with your article, i will have enough food for my brain and my bath time. :)

  2. One of the things I remember from the F2P transition was a rather rash promise to provide content updates about every six weeks. Since I wasn't playing I never really followed up on that promise, but I am curious if you recall if they stuck to it and for how long.

    1. ... They may have meant updates to the cartel market. Like a new cartel pack every six weeks.

      Because it's pretty much (not all the time) been two daily planets with flashpoints and maybe an operation and a major expansion (which usually is another two planets with major story arcs) through one year, every year.

    2. @Wilhelm Ohh, that was a blast from the past! I did have very vague memories of that promise but didn't specifically associate it with the F2P transition, but you are correct. A quick Google search yielded this article, though there they also talk about selling content piecemeal, something that obviously didn't become part of the final F2P plan. Looking back at the patch notes, it looks like they managed to stick to something roughly like that for a good year or so after the F2P transition, but then things gradually started to slow down. I do remember people quoting that 6 week number (and later 6-8 weeks) for a long time when they wanted to complain about a lack of updates later on. Personally I didn't pay that close attention however and didn't really mind because for my personal taste the content was still coming out fast enough.

      Funnily enough, the first result of my Google search was this forum post in which someone complains that a content drop every 6 weeks would still be way too slow and that nothing short of new content on a weekly basis will suffice.

  3. I've also been subbed non-stop since prelaunch. Ten years man... What's wrong with us?! 😂

    I remember promising myself that the moment Star Citizen is out of BETA I'm leaving SWTOR for good. But many years later and though Star Citizen development is still going strong, it's still not even out of Alpha. So here I still am. SWTOR forever!

    Decent run down of the different eras of SWTOR. This subject could be a series of articles actually, because a lot has happened in ten years.

    One thing you said in your article that I wanted to get into:

    "Still, thanks to the dropping sub numbers, SWTOR ended up announcing a conversion to free-to-play after only seven months of being a subscription MMO, which I think remains the fastest U-turn of its kind in the genre to this day. The actual implementation happened less than four months later."

    I'm not saying you're wrong. You're probably correct. I haven't confirmed. But it sure hells felt a lot longer than that. And even if it's the fastest turn-around on record, it took way too long and they weren't able to soften the damage.

    See, most of us were stuck inside dying or dead servers. There were so many servers. So many players left because the game according to their servers was absolutely and unrecoverably dead. If you saw another player, you greeted that play and shared your class buff. Because it was so damn rare to see another player.

    To save the game Bioware did three things. Server merges, f2p and the cartel market. During Alpha I argued the game MUST be f2p and it MUST be translated into Spanish for the Latin American market. I also argued that it should be more like SWG than WOW but that's another story.

    Anyhow, they took too long to make it f2p and to merge the servers. Even if they were relatively fast compared to other games. The damage was traumatic for the loyal playerbase.

    The only reason why I survived 2012 was because I refused to use the running option. I purposely slow rp walked the whole game until SWTOR released their version of Jump To Light speed which came out as Galactic Starfighter and until they fixed the chairs, which they never did but at least gave us the /chair command. I wasn't one of those players who spacebarred all the way to endgame just to say there's no content. Which was bullcrap. I never left a planet until I did all the side quests, the heroics and planetaries, all the secret stuff from datacrons to super rare materials. People were already stuck on Ilum during the great broken server glitch on the now deleted Ilum's open world pvp theme park (which unbeknownst to most, there's a memorial to this bug in a secret place on Ilum), while I was still on Tatooine trying to get an Orokeet pet. I guess this is why I'm still here.

    An MMO is like a woman, a second Universe your conscious lives with for as long as you and the developers desire. It's never something you rush through. It's not numbers. It's cutscenes and story written by the developers and the stories you and others like you experience together and never forget.

    - Hiddenpalm

    1. See, the whole "dead server" thing was something I could never really relate to. I double-checked my own writings from the time to make sure I didn't just misremember, and my server basically had what felt to me like a healthy medium-sized population, and the introduction of the free transfers initially caused a lot of unhappiness and drama. When we did eventually transfer off, things worked out fine, but the way Bioware allowed the origin servers to sit around as ghost towns for several months afterwards was definitely not great.

  4. > People who played it like they were used to playing WoW rushed to max level and then complained that there wasn't enough to do.

    Yes and no! I'd never been one of those people and when SWTOR launched, WoW's Cata was mid-cycle and I was probably actively playing that. I was really excited for SWTOR and got to max level relatively quickly (for my terms) and then raided for a bit but it simply seemed too easy.

    But I guess I simply wasn't interested in the slog (back then without the boosted story XP) to instantly level a 2nd or 3rd char to max level, but I even managed to get a 2nd to close 30 iirc.

    I guess my guild disintegrating was the final nail in the coffin, that's what led me to quit, but I have no idea how many months it was in the end. Maybe it was mostly the social thing, maybe it was the raiding, or maybe WoW was just that little bit better for me which decided the fate. And coming back for Makeb was a nice one month trip but I didn't feel compelled to stay, that much I remember.

    1. I'm guessing a lot of people had more than one reason to quit, but these were the common refrains I heard repeated a lot at the time. And reasons like "I quit because my guild fell apart" can apply to pretty much any MMO at any time and don't tell us much about the game itself. :)

  5. I've been playing Swtor for five years now. It has been interesting to see all the changes it has gone through in such a short time and I'm hoping the devs can continue improving the game for a long time.
    As much as I like KoTFE and KoTET story-wise I feel your pain about non-force users since I main a bounty hunter. Like I do with every other Bioware game, I have created my own headcanon where my Merc isn't even part of the alliance. Still it does make it hard to roleplay sometimes.


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