I dream of a world where MMORPG players aren't considered cretins; where fans of the genre haven't been occupying the bottom of the gaming totem pole since the days of Everquest. Instead we live in a cruel world, one where there's a rib-cracking riposte ready to be delivered whenever World of Warcraft gets mentioned. Even with the broad demographic that Blizzard has sucked in, the genre has an image of being as weird, insular and hardcore as it is tediously lazy in design. The MMO design standards have barely moved forward since WoW was first released in 2004, and those were standards put in place in the nineties by Everquest. It's not a genre that's been great at evolving beyond the basic treadmill levelling system.
But in the last year MMOs have gone through a few structural and stylistic changes. Massively Multiplayer titles are beginning to experiment with tropes that typically you'd only see in other genres. Specifically, they're attempting to fulfil the 'role-playing' part of their namesake by developing narrative-led questlines and events.
Don't worry about whether you're interested in MMOs. This is an incredibly interesting time to be watching their progress, regardless of whether or not you have a bias against them. Between the upcoming Guild Wars 2, the unfortunate Final Fantasy XIV, and Star Wars: The Old Republic there has been an incredible change to the basic formula. Story is being used as a motivator for the gameplay; it's being used to develop your character, immerse you in the universe and to give context to your quests. Ambitious, considering this is BioWare's first venture into MMORPGs.
Needless to say, The Old Republic takes place well before Attack of the Clones. It begins 3500 years before the rise of Darth Vader. The Sith Empire has only just emerged from deep space to attack the Republic and its Jedis. Chronologically, this puts the game a good 300 years after the events of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which concluded with the disappearance of Revan into unknown space in search of the threat of the Republic in the form of an expanding Sith Empire led by a mysterious Emperor. Revan never came back but the Sith Empire has, and now after years of war a truce is established between both factions but the events that unfold in the game are slowly leading them back into a full-on war.
The game gives you eight stories to pick from, naturally based around your playable class, be it Bounty Hunter, Sith Warrior, Imperial Agent, or Sith Inquisitor for the Sith Empire, or Trooper, Smuggler, Jedi Knight, or Jedi Consular for the Republic. Unlike older MMOs these classes aren't limited to your standard Healer/Tank/Melee DPS/Ranged archetypes, and instead can be customised by the user, meaning any character can fill any role in a party - something that the genre has been moving toward in the last few years.
In classical BioWare style this story system functions similarly to what you find in the Mass Effect series, with interactions with NPCs bringing up a full dialogue system of possible response/reactions that can permanently open or close possible storylines and affect the conversation of NPCs. Actions and choices that you make have a direct influence on your character's personal story, and their moral standing based on how you complete quest lines.
Many a jaded MMO player has scoffed at the idea of shoving stories into the system of a persistent world - they're opposing ideas. But the glimmer of hope for it working well is that there truly is a blurry line between the forces of the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire.
That can be as simple as deciding whether or not to tattle on other NPCs. In fact one of the more interesting early quests has you tracking down two Padawan to find out whether they're in love, a bit of an issue when you forswear all emotional attachment to become a Jedi. Your choice is to tell their tutors, destroy their relationship but remain faithful to the Jedi code, or keep it a secret, let their relationship flourish, and let them bribe you with a crystal that will be used in the construction of your light sabre. It's a basic Episode II premise but strangely manages to have more of an emotional bearing, especially when you're the one making the decisions.
On the other hand it can work on a slightly larger scale in the story. In the Bioware Dev Diary on the development of Ord Mantell the planet has gone from being the setting for a basic Empire-against-Republic rebels story to being a much more morally vague tale of a planet under Republic control, led by less-than honourable leaders, and areas full of ill and malnourished citizens. So it's far less clear who has the planet's best interest in mind, and shows the game's potential beyond Horde vs. Alliance, Good vs. Evil.
It isn't re-defining the genre so much as taking the next logical step. Even WoW has attempted to incorporated a fuller story arc in its expansions, even Guild Wars has a relatively versatile class system. But The Old Republic combines the natural steps and natural innovations in an impossibly polished package. It will just be interesting to see how similarly it ends up comparing to the Guild Wars sequel which is working from a very similar angle.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is due for release in the latter half of 2011, only on PC.