Greetings, fellow TORwarriors, I’m Doug Bonderud and welcome to what I’m calling “Open TOR policy”, where I’ll examine some of the challenges BioWare’s flagship MMO faces on its road to super-stardom. First up: the great sandbox debate.
Tusken Raiders in the Sandbox
If you ever choose to visit the Star Wars: The Old Republic forums (a choice for the brave and the heavily inebriated), you’ll see that there’s always an issue under debate. Along with the last large-scale Beta test BioWare ran from November 25-28 came the typing sounds of a thousand trolls at a thousand keyboards, many raging that SWTOR isn’t the sandbox or themepark game they’d hoped for. So where does SWTOR fall?
MMORPGs are commonly placed in one of two categories:
“Themepark”, in which the player is given things to do by the developer and can either enjoy the park for what it’s worth or go sit in the car.
“Sandbox”, in which an intrepid adventurer is dropped into a world without any restrictions on where to go and what to do (although the three-headed uber-beast one valley over is a bad idea to take on alone while still wearing the linen pants the first quest-giver handed out).
Themepark games provide a fun, albeit linear experience for a player, while sandbox games allow a player to create their own experience by connecting their dots in random order.
The Galaxies Factor
If you listen to those who played the sandbox MMO that was Star Wars Galaxies, SWTOR should have been the same thing. Players should have been able to level their skill in Coruscant Algae Reclamation as easily as Armstech or Biochem, and should have had the option to let their Companion Characters dance and sing in cantinas for increased skill points (you can make your character do this in SWTOR all you want – what you’ll get for it is anyone’s guess). The addition of “fourth pillar” storytelling and BioWare’s penchant for creating narrative-driven games, however, meant that such a world was all but impossible.
Indeed, playing the SWTOR Beta gave a real feeling of being “herded” from one quest hub to the next and completing the assigned missions there. In this sense it’s very much like the Game It Always Gets Compared To, a game which features a linear leveling path and one from which SWTOR borrows a great deal of inspiration. There was also a sense in the Beta of knowing that progression would happen in measured chunks on a planet before your hero would be sent off to the next one, and the segregation of worlds and quests conspired to lend a straight-line feeling to the game, though one easily broken by the vast array of planets and missions to choose from on-board a Trooper’s BT-7 Thunderclap or Inquistor’s Fury.
Sandparks & Themeboxes
Perhaps the trouble with SWTOR is that it doesn’t easily fit into the sandbox or themepark categories. While the “go build a house in the wilderness and craft furniture” options aren’t there for sandbox-lovers, there’s also an element of unpredictability inherent in the game that sets it apart from being a themepark: player choice. Watch any teaser media on the SWTOR website and you’ll hear the term “story-driven MMO” – playing the Beta has shored up the impact of that facet on player experience; though the game’s mechanics are themepark-ish, the story reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure. Sure, my level 50 Imperial Agent will have the same overall plot arc as yours, but the choices you made in that story unfolding were entirely up to you.
Take the experience of my level nine Jedi Knight as an example (I’ll miss you, Rem!). Without giving anything away, he was called to make a choice on Tython that was fairly hefty and came with the standard Light and Dark Side options, but also featured a third option that wasn’t just “forgive” or “kill”. This choice gave me pause, and I found it was far more difficult – and interesting – to factor in a “gray” choice. It took me a full two minutes to make the call, and even then I had second thoughts about it.
This ability to make a player think, to alter the arc of character development even slightly is where I think SWTOR shines and manages to add a new layer to the themepark. A themepark where you own the place instead of just having purchased a ticket to ride the roller coaster while stuffing your face with cotton candy.
What do you think, TORwarriors? Does SWTOR fall into the sandbox or themepark category, or has it found a middle ground?