Long long ago, in a development period far far away, Bioware announced it was embarking on an ambitious MMO that would be the continuing adventures in the Star Wars universe, the more-than-spiritual sequel to Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2.
And we've been waiting to see it ever since.
This is the way of Bioware. The developer, to put it lightly, takes its time on new projects. And at about this point in a development cycle, its fans (and even some of its employees) start getting cranky. For any other company, things going this unbearably long without some display of meaningful progress would be cause for concern. But in the case of the Edmonton-based developer and its sister studio in Austin, they build huge, deep games, and that just takes time.
But it was getting to the point of do or do not, there is no try. This year, Bioware did.
Producer Blaine Christine presented not only a game demo, but also a mini-thesis on Bioware's philosophy of RPGs, both single player and multiplayer. Then he promised to change the MMO genre as we know it. And if Bioware can make good on what they're planning, they just might.
They're attempting the first fully-voiced, story-driven MMO. A long-term frustration of mine with the MMO genre is that there's really very little role-playing involved. They are, frankly, class-based, open world multiplayer action games by another name... and now I'm delivering a thesis on the genre. Anyway, Bioware is working on an MMORPG that really is an RPG.
Christine outlined the four pillars of the MMO experience: exploration, progression, combat, and story. In a universe made up of planets like Tatooine and Alderaan, and with powers like the Force, weapons like blasters and light sabers, and spaceships that can travel at the speed of light, those exploration and combat marks are easy. ... Well, okay, the Force Unleashed 2 blew it, but it should have been easy. However, in ToR, it was nice to see that classes like the Smuggler a rogue type character mean that the game isn't too Jedi heavy. As much as I love the Jedi, they're not always the droids I'm looking for.
Christine took us through the multiplayer combat experience, which will be based in 4 player parties, but there will also be large-scale PVP areas and ToR's version of raids, which the game calls Operations. The 4 player structure looked promising, as the party dialogue functions through collective choices that seemed to legitimately amuse the guys driving the demo, and they've likely played through that level hundreds of times. That peanut gallery was so enthusiastic, however, that I think that their blood makes some sort of coveted happy juice. They even liked my hat.
Regarding progression, it's not just about loot and XP. Characters evolve based on the "sum of the choices" they make during the game. The experience, Christine promises, will be different based on the choice of faction and class, and Jedi characters can still make Dark Side choices. In fact, the trailer they ran is even called "Choose". Do we get the point? There's a lot of choice. Yep. I think we've got it. But, just in case, they showed up the sprawling progression trees illustrating the myriad of choices available.
We got a gameplay demo of how those choices are made in 1P dialogue, and it's basically just like Mass Effect. What I saw promises a far more immersive experience than one normally finds in an MMO, where pubbies yammering on about US politics totally destroy the illusion of being in another place and time... I'm digressing again. Moving on.
The game also sported an updated, cleaner, interface, as well as other appearance and playability improvements it actually was playable on the show floor. It also now includes a codex, a staple of Bioware single player RPGs that both creates a deeper storytelling experience and prevents the more mundane of us from falling behind. Think a Pureblood Sith might be a Harry Potter character? That's okay. The codex will set you straight. Christine's team seems to realize that many people will play The Old Republic not because it's an MMO, but because it's a Star Wars game, so there's plenty of meat for casual and hardcore players alike.
In the end, however, the focus came back to story, and the emotional resonance at which Bioware excels. It's a Star Wars game. But it's also a Bioware game. The proof of this is in the fact that Sith Big Bad Darth Malgus looks like a cross between Darth Vader and Baldur's Gate II villain Jon Irenicus.
So I'm going to trust my feelings on this one (last Star Wars quote, I promise), and say that if fans stay away from the dark path of anger, fear and aggression (okay maybe it wasn't the last quote), if we wait patiently for this potential juggernaut of an MMO and don't get too picky about a release date, then we're in for a huge shift in what is possible in this type of game. It's very possible that we will see The Old Republic back at E3 next year, despite rumblings of a fall 2011 release. But, based on what Bioware Austin is attempting here, it's worth the wait. Strike down the weaker conventions of the genre, and MMOs could become more powerful than we've ever imagined.