So the new Star Wars MMO news is pouring in now, and I thought I'd have a little look at what's known about it so far, and post some thoughts.
The thing that Bioware are most keen to emphasise is that this will be an MM that tells a story. They're aiming to make this a game in which their classic RPG-creating skills will come to the fore, allowing MMO players to have a solo adventure of the highest standard. This is commendable, I suppose, at least if you set it against the backdrop of World Of Warcraft and the other big, quest-based MMOs. If The Old Republic is able to tell a lengthy, on-going story that encompasses our entire game life, rather than a series of multi-level bursts of questing narrative, then Bioware could be on to something.
What's perhaps most intriguing about this focus on story is the announcement that players will have "companion characters" accompany them through the game. These are definitely not pets, but sidekicks or party-members, as seen on other full-blown single-player RPGs. Creative designer James Ohlen told Shacknews: “Companion characters–we want them to be more than pets, we want them to be virtual friends. We want you to interact with them and become friends with them. You’re gonna be able to customize your companion character in different ways. Your companion characters are going to be levelling up and getting different equipment.”
I have to admit that this intrigues me. I've long argued that NPCs will undergo a slow revolution in games, the point where they essentially become artificial people. Videogames are the one industry driving the commercial need for artificial life, and I suspect that it's in projects like this that we'll see advancements made. We're already seeing signs of the artificial person in Turing Test-beating chatbots, and plot-driving emotive central characters like Alyx in the Half-Life games, but there'a hell of a lot more to come. When these elements all converge on a demand for believable not-people, then we'll start to see players rating games in similar ways the way they rate friendships and interactions with other people. Of course I don't believe that The Old Republic's companion characters will manage more than another foundational fragment of this kind of future, but if they are a success then they will only inspire more work on NPCs in multiplayer games, and nudge us towards more sophisticated artificial people over time. If nothing else, I hope Bioware deck out The Old Republic world with believable, coherent NPCs, rather than the static quest dispensers we put up with elsewhere...
So we can safely assume that these NPCs will be tied into the story which, we are assured, can be played through solo. What many players will be intrigued to hear, however, is how PvP will factor into this. Realm versus realm conflict - between the Republic and the Sith - will also be tied into this big over-arching story that Bioware are so keen on. "This is Star Wars," they assure us, and that means grand conflict between space empires. We'll be fighting either as Sith or Jedi for the fate of the universe, and it'd be fun to think that if Bioware are really serious about a story with irreversible consequences, then maybe they'll allow for the success or failures of RvR combats to actually end up changing something palpable in the world, rather than being a really big, long game of capture the flag.
Of course this notion of there being story-wrapped-PvP is nothing by vague promises for now. What is clear is that "gamers can even play it as a solo game", which for a multi-player zealot like me is a little disheartening. I'm happy for my single-player and multi-player experiences to converge, but I want big brave MMOs to look at how to make the most of having thousands of people in a single game. If thousands of them are paying subscriptions to play a single player game, then you are doing it wrong. However good the story is, I can't help feeling like people would rather have a single game that they could play co-op with chums, rather than have to deal with a subscription and an "OMG LoL"-spewing MMO universe.
Finally, as a child who was firmly rooted in the "Star Wars is best" camp, I feel somewhat disconnected from this attempt to make a Star Wars MMO. Whether or not the KoToR games were great RPGs is, for me, meaningless. The attraction of the Star Wars world is not the shiny space fantasy of the Republic, but the grungy dystopia of the Empire vs Alliance conflict. The repeated failure of the original Star Wars MMO was monumental and unforgiveable, but I don't think the world of the original films should have been so readily discarded. The Old Republic might make a fine science fiction setting, and Bioware might just make a great leap for MMOs, but it's still not the game that the original, treasured franchise deserves. That, I can't help thinking, might now never show up.