I’m still playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’m just not entirely sure why.
It’s not that it’s a bad game or anything or that I dislike playing it. My Raptr page certainly puts that notion to rest, since it says I’ve played 32 hours of the game this month, making it my #1 title (though it still can’t detect when I play Star Trek Online, which I’d estimate I’ve put in about 10 hours with, or League of Legends, which I’ve played considerably less). But when I sit down to play it, I don’t feel like I’m sitting down to play an MMO. It’s entertaining enough but, apart from the PvP, it feels more like one of BioWare’s single-player games. Which again, are very good (my issues with Dragon Age notwithstanding), but when I sit down to play SWTOR, I feel like I have to be in the mood to play a single-player game, not an MMO, to truly enjoy it.
A few years ago, that might have been fine. And, for a large number of people, I think it still will be. For all the hubbub surrounding Guild Wars 2, especially in the wake of this beta weekend (which I wasn’t in /sadface), there are still a lot of MMO players who are happy with the traditional “go to quest giver, do quest, go back to quest giver, get reward, repeat until endgame” structure of an MMO, especially when it’s as gussied up as SWTOR is. And I haven’t even made it to endgame yet, rolled an alt, or been to Ilum (shudder), so I realize that I’ve still got a ways to go before I can really deliver a final verdict on the game.
And maybe that’s what’s fueling my relative disinterest. I think that, totally separate from the issues of quest design, story (or lack thereof), rigid adherence to a trinity system, or anything else that “sophisticated” MMO players grouse about, the leveling process is maybe the most… unnecessary? Is that the word I’m looking for? Basically, I’d like to play with my guildmates, I’d like to go on adventures with them, but I’m still only level 42. And folks are spread out enough across the entire server that I can never find a group for a flashpoint or four-person heroic anymore, and even finding a buddy for a two-person heroic is dicey at best. I know that leveling isn’t nearly the grind it used to be, but why should I have to play for hours and hours essentially solo before I get to do the “heart” of the game and get to play it with other people, which is the point of an MMO in the first place? (And for a game that’s been out for a while, I would expect to see the low-level areas barren, but for a game that’s been out for two months?) I logged into LOTRO, which I’ve barely been playing lately, and spent three hours in the game last night, just because I wanted to be social and do things in a group — something I guessed I wouldn’t be able to do in SWTOR.
So why do we have leveling? Because MMOs are based on single-player computer and console RPGs and they had leveling. And those are based on the old pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and they had leveling. But in both of those genres, you never had to “LFG,” so to speak. Single-player games don’t require a group, and if you had to incorporate a new character into your 12th-level D&D campaign, you could just whip the new guy up a 12th-level character in short order. Keeping leveling in MMOs would be like buying a modern-day computer that still had vacuum tubes. It worked a long time ago, for something that had a different purpose, but it’s just not the most effective way to get things done today.
MMOs are a different beast, and it’s taking companies nearly a decade to figure that out, if they do at all. City of Heroes was among the first to try and mitigate this imbalance with its sidekicking system, and games like SWTOR and Rift make some concessions in PvP arenas. Moving forward, Guild Wars 2 and especially The Secret World will further blur the leveling lines, either by making characters across different levels able to play together relatively seamlessly or eliminating them altogether. There still is progression, as there should be, and there should be at least some sort of learning curve over the first few hours of a game to acclimate you, but having to play solo or near-solo for 50+ hours before getting to the “real game” is a trend that needs to die faster than Earthrise.