Not such a long, long time ago, in galaxy much like this one, only more naive, youthful, and able to pull off those jeans the Milky Way no longer has any business shimmying into, Star Wars: The Old Republic was the Next Big Thing. It was billed as a tale for the ages – or six tales for the ages, really. Some soup-tin-sized lightsaber hilts aside, it could do no wrong. Fast-forwarding to today, however, paints a significantly more disenfranchised picture. Where once the level cap was a mystical thing – like the bell at the top of one of those strongman hammer dealies at fairs – now everyone’s dinging it. The credits have rolled, show’s over, and the theater’s empty aside from an incredibly cute cricket and tumbleweed couple in the throes of deep, eerily silent love, right? Wrong. That, lead designer Daniel Erickson told RPS, is a classic case of the Internet’s peanut gallery making a lightspeed jump to conclusions.
“Although the Internet loves to pronounce the doom of all things, what we’re seeing is a huge increase in activity with [update] 1.2 as people return to see all of the new content,” said Erickson. “The community has generally been excited about the direction the game is going as we finish up our last must-have quality of life features (group finder, etc) and can start concentrating full-time on creative things like the world events.”
The recent, almost completely out-of-the-blue Rakghoul Outbreak world event is the first product of that, Erickson noted, and many more are on the way. Quite obviously inspired by World of Warcraft’s (largely accidental) Corrupted Blood Plague from 2005, the Rakghoul virus spread from player-to-player by making them, er, explode. As such, it came as a rather large mid-storyline surprise in more ways than one.
“Part of the magic of doing something like this is that it feels organic and gives you a sense that the world is changing,” Erickson enthused. “A surprise you’re warned about ahead of time isn’t much of a surprise.”
“We definitely learned a lot of cautionary lessons [from World of Warcraft] about what to watch out for and protect against if you let your players loose with a contagion. We had a pretty good idea players would spread it no matter how hard we tried to stop them, so instead we encouraged it with rewards and quests and then ran every possible scenario we could think of to make sure it didn’t create any unintended consequences.”
Granted, one could argue that dispels a fair bit of the magically emergent madness that made the Corrupted Blood Plague so groundbreaking, but it’s hard to think of a means of bottling that lightning that wouldn’t cheapen it in some way or another. Moreover, for BioWare, this was just one step toward a much larger goal of erasing the lines between SWTOR’s story-rich (though lacking in longevity) PVE and its PVP, which is still slowly limping behind the rest of the pack.
“We never see it as two different sides,” explained Erickson. “Players play their stories together, craft in groups or by themselves. Our philosophy has always been about letting players play the way they want and rewarding them for doing so. There were two things we actively tried to encourage with the event, and those were community involvement in solving the mystery and free-roaming PVP on the PVP servers. Both were successes.”
Even so, he also admitted that this is still very much a learning process. BioWare’s well aware that its massively multiplayer journey through George Lucas’ equal parts loved and hated universe is, well, equal parts loved and hated. But, since day one, it’s been a process of evaluation, addition, and subtraction, and already, SWTOR’s evolved to suit its players.
“There were two big lessons coming out of not just launch but beta testing that impacted development direction,” noted Erickson. “The first was that although we had not originally planned the game to be heavily PVP-focused, the ease of getting in and playing the Warzones combined with their fun design gave us the highest PvP participation of any modern triple-A MMO. At that point we turned a huge amount of our resources to PVP development, but we’re still playing a bit of catch-up, and that is understandably frustrating to our most advanced PVP users.”
“The second was that the better your leveling content, the longer people would play in single sessions, and that when people are playing an average of five-or-six-hours-a-pop, they devour your content at an amazing pace. That meant moving more teams to end game content earlier than we had expected.”
So no, it probably won’t have EVE’s breathtaking breadth of possibilities or TERA’s combat or Guild Wars 2’s PVP any time soon, but it’s making its own way. And, if the Rakghoul Outbreak is any indication, it stands a good chance of at least being interesting – whether or not it sets the world on fire. Or turns its populace into exploding zombie monsters, as it were.