Should SWTOR Innovate More?

Something I've long appreciated about SWTOR is that for most of its ten-year run so far, the devs have been sticking to what's known to work. They know that most of the players are mainly here for a story in which we get to make decisions that flesh out our characters and in which we can build relationships with NPCs, with some group PvE and PvP in a shared world on the side to keep us busy between story releases.

On the rare occasions when they've tried to deviate too much from that formula, such as during the "Knights of" expansions, I was not a happy bunny, but looking at the bigger picture, fortunately there hasn't been too much of that sort of thing, especially when you compare it with the (former?) market leader World of Warcraft and the way that's been trying to make every single expansion about some exciting and totally new feature for many years now.

That said, after several years of playing it very safe with new content additions, Bioware is finally looking to make some more daring changes with Legacy of the Sith, and I can't help but wonder whether they haven't already missed a trick or two.

Actually, the very first time that thought occurred to me was after the launch of Final Fantasy XIV's Shadowbringers expansion two years ago. I've never played FFXIV myself, but something that intrigued me about the reports of people who did was the addition of a new feature called the Trust system. From what I understand, this allows you to run certain story instances that are designed for group gameplay with NPCs instead of actual players, and the NPCs are all characters that you know from the story. When I first read about that, one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was something like: SWTOR really should have thought of that first!

This isn't to say that I feel SWTOR desperately needs a feature like that right now. I strongly disliked the introduction of the GSI helper droid for solo modes back in the day, but I've been quite content with the way Bioware has handled more recent flashpoint releases by simply scaling the content so that story/solo mode is easily doable with your one or two companions.

My point is more that companions have been one of SWTOR's distinguishing features since launch, and back in 2011 just having them was one of the game's genuine innovations. Sure, other games had combat pets or mercenary NPCs à la Everquest, but no other MMO had them be fully fleshed-out, permanent companions with their own stories. It was a trend that other games felt the need to catch up with by adding their own spin on combat companions over the years, but in that same time frame, SWTOR itself hasn't really done much with the feature at all. The last major changes came with KotFE, when companion abilities were homogenised, affection was replaced with influence, all companions became capable of playing any trinity role, and more. However, since then, all that's happened is that we got more new companions and... that's it.

And that really seems a shame considering SWTOR's focus. To get back to the idea of being able to bring multiple companions into combat at once like in FFXIV's Trusts, one of the original trooper missions has you storming an enemy ship with your whole squad going in guns blazing, and everyone I ever talked to about that mission said that it was really cool and that they'd love to see the game provide more of that, yet Bioware never did. Again, I'm not saying that being able to run group content with a group of companions is exactly what we need... but considering the large stable of them that we have nowadays and how core they are to SWTOR's gameplay, you'd really think that Bioware would have come up with something new for them to do or contribute to by now.

You could say something similar about crew skills. I mean, crafting in SWTOR was hardly revolutionary even at launch, but the idea that your companions were doing all the work for you was kind of novel. This was around the time when a number of MMOs came out with companion apps on the phone, and players opined that it would be neat if they could manage crew skill missions from their phones as well - but that never happened. And neither did anything else, other than that new crew skill levels were added over time and some details about crafting progression were tweaked. It used to be that different companions had bonuses to different crew skills (remember when Elara Dorne had a bonus to both bioanalysis and biochemistry for example), but that was also taken out.

Looking at the way Bioware is overhauling a lot of UI elements with Legacy of the Sith, and considering that the crew skill window is one of the oldest, almost completely untouched UI elements in the game, I wouldn't be surprised if doing something with that was somewhere on their to-do list as well. I'm both excited for and scared of the day that will happen, as I'm not a fan of the companion window they introduced in KotFE, and crew skills is the only place where I can currently see my companions sorted by influence, so I'd hate to lose that.

But at the same time, I can't help but think that Bioware could do so much more with the crew skill system. Having played a bit of retail WoW on the side over the past year, I finally had a chance to have a look at the frequently derided "mission table" there and its various permutations throughout the last few expansions, and while you can say that they're all essentially phone mini games, I actually found myself quite engrossed by at least a couple of them. I also couldn't help but think how much more interesting it was that my in-game "companions" for these systems had different strengths, weaknesses and abilities, as opposed to SWTOR's companions - for all the depth they have as characters - being all the same when it comes to crew skills aside from potentially differing influence levels.

Again, I'm not saying that SWTOR needs to copy WoW and that crew skills should become an auto battler - in fact, that sounds like a pretty terrible idea when I put it like that. But my point is that the idea of having companions do your crafting/work for you was something that was originally unique to SWTOR, yet nothing has been done with that over the last ten years, while other games actually ran with the idea and even experimented with various ways of making it more interesting.

So I'm not saying that I think the Bioware team needs to come up with drastically new ways to play the game - I think Galactic Starfighter showed well enough that e.g. adding a first-person space shooter to an old-school tab target MMO with an RP focus is not a recipe for success. However, just looking at the areas in which SWTOR excelled at launch and which have remained a focus throughout the years, it feels like things have become a bit stagnant, with no real attempts to improve or expand on many existing core systems since around Knights of the Fallen Empire.

I think the combat changes coming with Legacy of the Sith are their most daring step in that direction that we've seen in a long time. So I do hope that these work out well, and that in the years to come we can perhaps see a similar amount of thought be put into other parts of the game that could do with a bit of freshening up, such as companions and crew skills.

1 comment :

  1. I hope they keep trying to innovate so as to keep bringing in game improvements. Yeah, not every changes works, but if you don't try things may just fade out over time. I say "may" because it seems like Daybreak has kept EQ 1 & EQ 2 successfully going by catering to their existing player base.

    I do think one downside to trying to innovate is the player base. There's definitely an ugly vocal minority that rages against any proposed changes. The is just my impression, but it seems like there are so many who have never played a different MMO (and don't want to) that using examples of how similar things worked in other games ends up being a waste of time. The sky is always falling and Bioware can't do any good, to them. :sigh:

    Another downside to trying to innovate is Bioware having the resources to implement innovations. Do they work on things they know their player base will like or do they try things that may end up being another GSF? It's a tough call.


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