Star Wars: The Old Republic's next expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire, is coming Oct. 27, armed with a broom.
Not literally a broom. There will be lightsabers. But figuratively. BioWare is using the expansion to have a big house-clearing of its MMO, which is now more than three years old and has been in development for nine years.
For a start, the expansion is free to subscribers. Also, anyone who engages with the expansion has the option to immediately jump to a Level 60 character. It's basically a personal role-playing saga starring the Outlander, a veteran of the Great Galactic War whose task is nothing less than taking down the Emperor of the Eternal Throne.
EA is essentially saying that anyone who is interested in a big Star Wars RPG from BioWare can play one right now. But not only is this story an RPG and an MMO, it's also episodic. The expansion — which BioWare says is its biggest to date — offers up nine episodes with more coming month-by-month in the New Year.
According to BioWare Austin General Manager Jeff Hickman, all of TOR's stories are being "streamlined to make them more fun." He stressed at a recent press event that anyone who wants to engage in traditional MMO activities can do so, but that leveling up is now going to be a less time-consuming activity.
"At launch, a lot of people talked about how we had these eight storylines," said Senior Producer Bruce Maclean. "There are literally hundreds of hours of gameplay across these eight storylines. Now we're just honing in on each one of them. If you want to come in and play the story of the Jedi — probably the best video game Star Wars story ever written — you can now come in and just focus on that if you want to. You don't have to do the 'now go collect things' side stuff. In the past we've had you do that."
He's talking about grinding.
"We don't think of it as grinding," he said. "We think of it as 'the MMO bits.' But we're not taking it out, either. We're repurposing it for the alliance content. If you level a Jedi knight now, it doesn't take hundreds of hours. It takes a fraction of the time. It could be 50 or even 30 hours now, depending on who you are and how you play. But you're not going to be doing anything that's not your personal story."
EA has shifted the subscription pitch for this free-to-play game away from merely faster leveling, more bank space, more inventory slots toward more stories. Standing content is being streamlined for players who do not wish to grind, but do want to feel like they are part of a vast Star Wars story.
This shift in focus is almost entirely driven by observed player behavior patterns and by player feedback, according to Maclean. "We have three years of data on how people play the game and what they want. We know what our players want. They've told us. They've told us in person, on the forums. They've also told us through their play behaviors.
"We can look at this stuff and say, 'look, if you want to go and play the standard MMO game — PvP, doing a flashpoint, operation raiding — we have that. We've always had that. We continue to expand on that. But we also heard, loud and clear, this scream for story, for personal custom story.'"
Five new companions will be available throughout the quest, taken from a cast with very different allegiances.
"You're able to recruit help and additional companions from an expanded cast, including companions who were previously exclusive to other classes," said Maclean. "Building that alliance involves going to all the planets in the galaxy and doing activities and missions that build faction. If you want to recruit a character who's favorable to the Mandalorians, you'll be able to do missions for them. You want to recruit a character who hates the Hutts, you'll do missions to build your alliance standing against them."
Despite all these changes, BiowWare is clear on thing: The Old Republic is still very much an MMO, with all that genre entails. It's just been streamlined, with new options for the way each player approaches the game.
"I want to be really clear to our fans out there who are deep MMO fans. We're not forgetting about that part of the game either," said Hickman. "We just have a focus right now on the story. We're doing lots of stuff around flashpoints and operations and raid bosses and PvP and that stuff. But it's all about story this year.
"If you want to come and play eight really awesome BioWare Star Wars game, come to Star Wars: The Old Republic. We'll give you eight of them. You can level up your character through your story. Be deeply immersed in it. Come to cool romances and betrayals. Come to moments with the choice wheel where you choose between light and dark.
Star Wars: The Old Republic - Knights of the Fallen Empire will be released in October, as a benefit to subscribers.