Character Progression in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Since the E3 trailer, I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars: The Old Republic and what I hope the game turns out to be. Tobold’s MMORPG Blog has another really good post regarding TOR hopes vs. realistic expectations, but I still think it’s too full of cynicism, even for this early in the game. That said, his post got me to thinking about what I am really looking for in the game. Two things are really important to me: storytelling and character progression.

As far as storytelling is concerned, Bioware has me hooked already. Their announcement for a fully-voiced narrative intrigues me, and even if they don’t succeed at having every single piece of dialogue spoken, the immersion involved will be significantly higher than any other MMO I have ever played. Even World of Warcraft, as polished of a game as it is, has some of the most mundane storytelling techniques I’ve ever experienced. There is nothing that makes me want to get involved with the lore and backstory of the game. I just want to get to the next quest to get my experience (XP) to hit the level cap faster. With Bioware’s announcement that each class will have unique plots and quests from other classes, I am intrigued. Finally, I might want to actually participate in the world instead of simply killing my 10 Womp Rats and moving on down the chain, eventually getting to the level cap and hitting the brick wall of artificially limited content.

And then there’s character progression, my main point of contention regarding TOR and other MMOs.

Back in 1998 when I started playing Ultima Online, there was no raiding, but there were monsters to kill which dropped loot. Player characters progressed through the game with a variety of skills which increased through use (only repetition of a skill could advance its ranking from 1-100; there was no experience point system which led to player levels), and one simply lived in the environment. The game was open ended enough where if players wanted to make a town and play politics, they could. Form a dragon slaying party for gold and magic items? Sure, go ahead. Participated in Player vs. Player combat? Yeah, there were three different systems for PvP in UO. Progression in UO was based entirely on the character itself, hinging on skills rather than gear or a rigid class structure. The best magic items were better than the craftable ones, but they were not exponentially better. This meant that time invested in seeking them out might or might not have been more profitable than gathering materials for crafting or even killing another player and looting an item off the body. Eventually, this system was changed to be more item-based in that player-crafted items were clearly inferior and to looted items and character skills took a backseat to artifact hunting. I left for another game.

Star Wars Galaxies combined an XP system with a skill system, but had no rigid class structure. Killing mobs in the game would grant XP which could be used to purchase skills, which could then be learned and unlearned at will. It took the best of both a skill-based system and a level-based system and combined them to create a unique look at MMO character classes. SWG was more item-based than UO, but in a different way. Players could kill mobs of varying difficulty for crafting materials which were rarer and higher quality than ordinary materials, netting better weapons and armor, but again, not exponentially better. I thought this system worked very well, but the developers did not, and when they revamped the game to revolve around a more traditional MMO level, item, and class system, I again left and went to another game.

I played World of Warcraft for four and a half years, and my account is now cancelled. I got tired of the game having no “skill” based systems and instead was entirely level and item-based. Only players who participated in the highest level of content could get the very best items (even if they were the same level—80), and thus a power differential began to take place. Even though players were the same character level, with the same talent specialization (skill allocation), the player with the higher level of armor and items equipped would almost always be more powerful. Players could never compete or even experience the entire game world without extensive raiding or PvPing, simply playing the game would not progress a character past a certain point. A character in “blue” armor would never be as powerful as those wearing “purple” armor because the progression in WoW did not come from the character itself, but the items procured. The game was almost solely item-based, and there was little room for actually “living” in the world, as in UO and SWG. I had fun with it for a while, but I eventually got tired of the grind and the disparity of power between so-called “equal level” characters.

So now I look toward SW: TOR with hopes that they will do something as new and exciting with character progression as they seem to be doing with narrative immersion. At the very least, I hope Star Wars: The Old Republic finds a healthy balance between class and item-based progression and actual character-based progression. The developers have said there will be MMO staples like raiding in TOR, but I hope that Bioware takes the step to make raiding accessible to everyone and not only those who dedicate the better part of their lives to it. I don’t mind if the items and rewards from raiding are great, as long as there are alternate ways to achieve the same level of progression if raiding is not the game I want to play, nor do I care if PvP progression has exceptional rewards, as long as the rewards for other parts of the game are equal in some regard. I would still prefer, in the best of all worlds, that any equipment rewards are only marginal increases in power and the choices I make for my character dictate how my game unfolds.

Such a system would certainly bode well for those who want a persistent world to live in and interact with, as well as those who particularly enjoy the challenges presented by tiered raiding content or PvP. This system I desire is similar to the progression that World of Warcraft attempted: different armor being earned depending on if characters raided or PvP’d (as well as how a player spends talent points), but Blizzard failed because they made weapons and armor exponentially better than the worth of a character’s invested talent points. If the items are only a slight enhancement over the base allocation of skill points, then the character template matters more and more. I am all for having items a purpose and use in a particular area of the game (raiding-earned gear is good for raiding, PvP-earned gear is good for PvP), but I think taking the emphasis off armor and weapons in lieu of personal character progression will help shorten the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” that develop in a typical MMO and eventually strengthen the community in the game because there will be more organic ways for players to group (interests, friends, goals) rather than an artificial barrier between groups created by a player’s inventory.

If Bioware sticks to systems they began using in the original Knights of the Old Republic games, then I have hope for this one. I hope they allow players to again allocate skill-points into various ranks of abilities as levels are gained, and I hope this skill allocation has more of an effect on a player’s character than equipped items. The items in KOTOR I and II mattered, but the abilities bought through character progression were worth more in the long run. My Jedi might have had a few mediocre lightsaber crystals, but I allocated my skillpoints well enough that Force Lightning or Force Heal were more effective in the long run.

SWG and UO had it right in that the better items a player had access to made certain aspects of the game easier, but the fact there was a cap on just how powerful those items could become really created a game where even someone who had been playing the game a month could experience nearly as much of the world as a person who had been playing for 4+ years. Their experience would be vastly different in scope, but there were no artificial limits based on gear; the development of the character itself would be the only limiting factor. In most current MMOs, that is not possible. If Bioware’s emphasis is on making the most immersive world possible, then I hope they consider how limiting non-character based progression can be in that regard. There are benefits and limitations to both systems, but my hope is that Bioware opts for a system with a sort of balance between the typical MMO class/level/item-based system and the point-allocation/training system which will allow players to actually inhabit the world in which they play rather than conquer it for “phat lewtz.”