It's safe to say 2011 is shaping up to be the year MMORPGs finally take a break from kneeling at WoW's altar, with studios making games that actually shy away from comparisons to Blizzard's big one. After seven years of trying to recreate World of Warcraft's secret sauce it's heartening to see a number of MMOs learning that the answer to developing a niche in the market isn't in trying to topple WoW by releasing a game that operates on exactly the same ideas.
Rift's advertising campaign earlier in the year has been one of the most obvious attempts at unWoWing the market with its "you're not in Azeroth anymore" tagline. Accurate or not it at least shows how much the playing field has changed since mid-2000 when developers were chasing Blizzard's demographic like petulant teenagers following a touring band. Now we're beginning to see more games setting their sights on attacking the genre from some of the less common angles.
BioWare's prominence in single-player RPGs is to thank for its stance on MMOs. They've professed their disappointment with the state of storylines in Massively Multiplayer games, whose epic plotlines tend to get demoted to quest-line duty or at best become padded out in a game's typically-ignored lore. Its aim is to approach the genre from the relatively untapped RPG perspective. Imagine an MMO for the standard BioWare player's palate and you start to get a slightly clearer impression of the kind of game Star Wars: The Old Republic is.
And SWTOR is given exactly what you would imagine standard BioWare treatment to be. The static characters and storylines that populate persistent worlds are replaced by fully voice-acted avatars who can change their moral alignment, cutscenes, and a plotline that can be affected by clambering through dialogue trees - something that is bound to single-handedly fuel the Mass Effect comparisons. SWTOR approaches the issue of MMOs-as-levelling-treadmills by double-dunking the game in a single-player storyline that infuses the traditional grind with some sense of purpose.
So while the standard fetch quests and "Collect 10 X" objectives provide basic XP the main storyline unfolds through particular story-centric quest lines as you level. Story-based quests aren't a major revelation for MMOs. The difference, however, is that SWTOR lets you affect the outcome of that quest.
As a Bounty Hunter the story quests in the first 10 levels have you perform certain tasks as part of a bid to get into something called "The Great Hunt". The tasks are assassination-based once you reach the latter part of those levels, asking you to track down particular NPCs and deal with them. So when you're told by an NPC to kill his daughter after she's gone mad with Sith power, choosing to transport her back to Daddy instead has its own effect on the storyline - something that will feel fairly traditional for fans of BioWare's single-player titles but alien to MMO players.
What's alien to BioWare is having to combine its knack for choice-driven stories with groups, and at some point guilds, of multiple players. However it's SWTOR's Flashpoints (dungeons, basically) where its argument for story-driven MMOs is most convincing. BioWare's stuck to traditionally-styled combat, which translates to standard auto-attacking and triggering skills on your skill bar, and similarly the structure of its dungeons follows the WoW-like approach of funnelling you down through rooms to clear out enemy NPCs. But SWTOR's storyline repeatedly crawls to the surface.
Once you begin a dialogue with an NPC the cutscene will play to each group member, leaving them with a set of dialogue options to respond with. Quest dialogue gets handled through "rolls" numbered from 1 to 100. The response of the group-member who rolled the highest is chosen as the official response, similar to how loot will be rolled for and given to the player who lands on top.
Whether or not the game will cater to multiple Flashpoint runs, however, is still a question. Considering the story of the one Flashpoint played had such a conclusive ending - the death of a particular NPC - it's impossible to gauge how BioWare will handle one of the most common themes in MMOs: groups doing multiple runs, or higher level individual players helping friends through a dungeon for the first time.
Unfortunately beyond the Flashpoints group work feels less than necessary. SWTOR includes a companion system that has you adopting a number of NPCs to fight by your side - essentially more of a tip of the hat to BioWare's single-player efforts than multiplayer gameplay. Each companion has their own individual moral alignment, and will react directly to your actions; so much so that they might be pushed to leave your team if they disagree with your leanings to the dark or light side. Later on companions are used to craft material for you, and become part of what's basically a tailoring team who will give your items better stats. All interesting, but it sways away from the heart of MMOs, which is human interaction as opposed to NPC interaction.
So much of what BioWare is doing feels exciting, often innovative, but also to a degree counter-active to what's typically necessary for multiplayer games to succeed. What worked spectacularly in its single-player titles might not necessarily work in a genre that traditionally requires teamwork. However, soloing has developed more of a prevalent role in MMOs, with more and more games since WoW's vanilla days emphasising solo-able quests. And it will be interesting to see what effect BioWare's single-player-heavy influence has on the overall Massively Multiplayer genre if this does succeed.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is due for release on PC later this year.