August 21 2012
You would think that a massively multiplayer game based on a blockbuster sci-fi franchise like Star Wars would be sure to succeed, and yet two such attempts have, so far at least, failed to live up to expectations of the developers that created them. Star Wars Galaxies struggled for years to attract and hold an audience of a respectable size, although it did have a long run before closing its doors to make room for Star Wars: The Old Republic. The latter recently announced a free-to-play option, which is clearly an effort to reverse the game's dwindling subscriber numbers. One has to wonder, given the different approaches that the two games took, how could they both miss the mark?
Star Wars Galaxies, in its original form, had little in common with the deluge of MMORPGs that came after World of Warcraft and largely followed WoW's format. It had a flexible skill system and a very complex crafting component which probably still hasn't been surpassed in a game of this kind. They were eventually able to offer player housing in the persistent world along with "twitchy" space combat that, for the most part, felt appropriate. We haven't really seen a sandbox MMORPG of same stature since.
Galaxies did attract some extremely loyal followers, but the game suffered from a multitude of problems right from the start. They included everything from broken professions to unrefined combat to grindy skill progession to long travel times. There was also a lack of structured content, and the PvP-oriented Imperial War was imbalanced and dysfunctional at the best of times.
The Combat Upgrade and the catastrophic New Game Enhancements were efforts to deal with a declining subscriber base, but the latter, inparticular, backfired in an epic fashion by completely alienating the game's existing players. The result was a mass exodus from which the game never really recovered. Ironically, most of the features removed by the NGE were gradually re-introduced in a more polished form over the following years, but few were willing to give it another chance.
Star Wars: The Old Republic was designed more or less in the image of World of Warcraft, making it a very different game from Galaxies. The Old Republic adheres to the familiar themepark model, going the extra mile with intricate class storylines that are entirely voiced-over. It looked like a reasonably sure thing, and yet, less than a year later, the game is taking the last resort of going F2P. That doesn't necessarily make it a failure, but it's a clear indication that people aren't willing to pay the full price of the client and subscription for it.
Player retention has been a problem for many recent themepark MMORPGs, in part because it's very difficult to launch with enough content to keep people going month after month at tne level cap. This has been the most common complaint about SWTOR, but there are clearly other factors contributing to the game's declining numbers, not least of which is that many veteran MMORPG fans are simply fatigued with WoW/EverQuest-style gameplay.
Further complicating matters is the space component, which every Star Wars MMORPG is expected to have. Essentially it means creating two games rather than one. In the case of Galaxies, space combat came with the Jump to Lightspeed expansion which was released a little over a year after the game launched. Space battles had a first-person shooter feel to them, and although progression was a significant grind, the expansion was well-received. Unfortunately Jump to Lightspeed arrived very close to the launch of World of Warcraft, which undoubtedly took a lot of wind out of its sails.
The Old Republic had space combat at launch, but in a very limited form that feels more like a mini-game. It entails playing through instanced solo missions with a ship that is "on rails," so movement is quite restricted. At best it serves as a brief diversion from the ground game, falling well short of what most fans want from a Star Wars title.
Of course, there are countless other things which set the stage for the current state of these two games, but the gist of it is that neither the sandbox not the themepark approach has worked all that well. I still believe that there has to be a way to make a hit MMORPG based on this franchise, and I wouldn't be surprised if the solution landed squarely between Galaxies and The Old Republic. The former was in many ways a world without a game, while the latter comes across as a game without a world. We won't find out anytime soon, as it's hard to say where the The Old Republic will go from here, and it's a safe bet that there won't be another Star Wars MMORPG until it has run its course.