The Star Wars gaming industry has had its fair share of controversy in 2017. These types of grievances are not unknown in Star Wars gaming. In recent memory, Star Wars: The Old Republic has suffered through similar issues and yet the game is still chugging along like an old Corellian freighter. SWTOR, as it is commonly referred to, will be celebrating its sixth birthday on December 20th.
SWTOR has had numerous controversies over the years that have dwindled its player base, from players leaving the game due to many things such as the lack of new story-driven experiences, the implementation of microtransaction loot boxes, an overall lack of content and a poor progression system. All of these issues have also plagued other recent Star Wars games, including the Star Wars Visceral game that was delayed, and, according to EA, was shaping up to become a linear, story-based adventure game. EA seemed to decide that was no longer what they wanted, ultimately closing down Visceral and delaying the game to make adjustments to better fit their vision. Battlefront II has been criticized for its microtransaction and progression systems, and Battlefront I launched in 2015 to numerous complaints surrounding its lack of content. SWTOR was developed by Bioware and produced by EA and it has experienced all of these aforementioned controversies in its six years.
When SWTOR first launched in 2011, gamers were unaware that less than a year later George Lucas would sell Lucasfilm, and therefore LucasArts, to Disney. We had no idea that we would be given the opportunity to watch a new Star Wars film in the theater! We were also blind to the fact that the slate of Star Wars canon was going to be wiped clean of the Expanded Universe. Yet SWTOR has survived it all in this ever-evolving landscape that is Star Wars of the twenty-tens.
To understand how SWTOR is still surviving to this day and what that may hold for the future of Star Wars gaming, we must start at the beginning. SWTOR was first announced over nine years ago, with the initial reaction being very divided. There were many players who were excited about the game and many who were upset that the sequel to Knights of the Old Republic would be an MMORPG — an online RPG game where thousands of players play simultaneously at the same time. The negativity surrounding this announcement was due to many factors. Some players didn’t want to pay for a monthly subscriber fee, which was common at the time for any MMO game and others didn’t want to have to perform the mindless grinding which MMOs are known for.
Despite these issues, SWTOR released in December 2011 to overwhelming success. After the first three days of SWTOR’s launch, there were already over a million players playing the game. SWTOR was initially highly received because of its high-quality, cinematic and fully-voiced storytelling, which was even recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest “Entertainment Voice Over Project” ever. All of these things contributed to SWTOR’s initial success.
SWTOR ended up with 1.7 million subscribers by February of 2012. However, that success would not last for long, as the player base slowly began to crumble in the spring of 2012. At the same time, some reports suggested that SWTOR had lost nearly half a million players by early spring. The main reason that players were leaving en masse was due to the lack of endgame content, such as dungeon raids or player-vs-player combat, once their character reached max-level. The game was new and didn’t have years of expansions to build up its content like its direct competitor, World of Warcraft. This ultimately caused the player base to falter, prompting Bioware to begin an overhaul of the game.
By November of 2012, a month after the Disney sale was announced, SWTOR went to a hybrid Free-to-Play (F2P) system where the game could be downloaded and played for free. However, the developer often limited the actions of the F2P gamer as an incentive to subscribe to the game. In SWTOR, these limitations included fewer character slots and a slower leveling experience. This incentivized the F2P player to subscribe to the game or use microtransactions to purchase everything from experience boosts to raid passes. SWTOR then proceeded to introduce the Cartel Market, which is a store in which real-life currency could be used to acquire cosmetic items such as armor or weapon skins for their character. The system utilized the currently-maligned loot crates to generate income. A player could purchase cartel coins with cash and then purchase a cartel crate with the cartel coins that they had purchased. This crate would have random loot inside but the higher quality items would have less probability of appearing in the loot crate. There was a small backlash against these microtransactions at the time, however, few would argue that SWTOR would still exist in its current form today without the cartel market.
SWTOR has had numerous ups and downs along the way. They have added numerous new features to the game such as player housing and Galactic Starfighter, which features player-vs-player space combat using its own unique gearing and leveling system. SWTOR has also had numerous expansions that brought more endgame content, including raids and new planets to explore. One of these expansions, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, pitted the two player factions (Sith and Republic) against the Hutt Cartel over a precious resource. The next expansion, Shadow of Revan, featured a return of a certain popular EU figure from the original Knights of the Old Republic game and brought new planets into SWTOR — Rishi and Yavin IV. Each expansion would briefly satisfy the player base but they still desired more endgame raiding content and the return of cinematic storytelling.
SWTOR brought back cinematic storytelling with the launch of Knights of the Fallen Empire, or KOTFE. This expansion featured a completely new enemy faction that required the Republic and the Sith Empire to put aside their animosity toward each other in order to save the galaxy. KOTFE was propelled by the belief that players just wanted cinematic storytelling. The KOTFE era consisted of releasing story content on a near monthly basis as a way to incentivize subscriptions (you had to be an active subscriber in order to be granted access to the new story content each month). They also updated a lot of the original game to remove the grinding factor. Essentially, they put all their cards on the table in the belief that the story was the most important thing to SWTOR’s future success. However, the player base called their bluff and saw that this return to cinematic storytelling meant that Bioware was neglecting the other parts of the game. This caused a mass exodus of players as there just wasn’t enough content, including new raids, at endgame.
In late 2016, SWTOR doubled down with another cinematic storytelling expansion, called Knights of the Eternal Throne. This expansion was a continuation of Knights of the Fallen Empire. The story was praised but there was a huge backlash immediately with the endgame content and progression system. Essentially, the progression system utilized a new type of experience points called Galactic Command points. These points would grant the user a loot crate where they would have a random chance to get top-level gear. This type of system was heavily unpopular among the players and it even blocked F2Pers from using it.
For SWTOR 2017 has been a year about recovery from its many previous mistakes, including making the Galactic Command progression system more streamlined and adding various types of content that most SWTOR MMO players desire: raid bosses, story chapters, game balancing, and a new PvP arena. Last month, SWTOR also merged a lot of the servers in their United Forces Update combining the seventeen remaining SWTOR servers into 5 new servers. This server merge was needed due to all the players who had left over the issues of previous years. There are currently no announced expansions for the game but there are numerous updates planned with the most recent update including a visit to Chiss Space. Perhaps in their quest to fix the game since launch, SWTOR has made a blueprint of what to do and what not to do when developing the next Star Wars game.
SWTOR’s history is a nearly perfect encapsulation of the Star Wars gaming world today. It shows us just how much gamers desire a story-driven game set in our favorite faraway galaxy, how players want a fair progression system, and how players want adequate content. Gamers want to have a character walk up and talk to the bartender at a cantina or visit Tosche Station. They want to be able to go and fight a rancor or engage in battle with a Sith Lord, or find Marka Ragnos’s old lightsaber, not because of a random loot box or their credit card, but because of their skill. Gamers just want the chance to leave their troubles on our world and see what it would be like living in their favorite distant galaxy. This type of experience has been sorely missing from Star Wars gaming for a long, long time. I hope the turbulent history of SWTOR can be a lesson for the future of Star Wars video games and we all get the chance to live for a brief moment in that galaxy.