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.”

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. There's much potential for this game. While I think it might be nice for somebody who has the same build as my character to almost be on equal ground… If somebody spends eight hours a day playing the game and doing things to improve his/her character I'd expect them to mop the floor with the two hour a day casual. MMO's have always been time invested = better toon. The problem with WoW was that raiding took far too long and you had to dedicate a huge chunk of your personal life to the game in order to be "uber". Gear levels caught up between the casuals and normal raiders at the end of the first expansion with the badge systems. However, there are always going to be the hardcore that study each and every boss strategy and theorycraft every aspect of their class. These people aren't going to want to be on an equal level with those that don't do the same.

    The best bet for people who want to have lives is to hope the hardcore players are kept entertained off on some distant planet and are kept too busy to come back to that quest hub outside Mos Eisley to 2-shot you during your womprat quest.

  2. That's my problem with it. There shouldn't be the ability to two-shot anyone based solely on gear and time-invested. I think there should be advantages, yes, based on one's playstyle and habits, but I think that the character itself and the player behind it should count for more than any amount of equipment.

    I agree that gear caught up with badge loot at the end of TBC, but that was the main problem: it was the end of TBC. And it still required hours and weeks of grinding for a "casual" to even attempt to compete with a raider.

    I know that time investment is always going to be an MMO mainstay, but I truly hope that Bioware finds a solution that worked as well as UO and SWG had. WoW proved to me that gear alone is not a way to foster an immersive community because it is too artificial; there needs to be development and progression tied to the character itself. Once I spec my character's talent points and reach level 80, he's done, except for gear. There needs to be something else, and I think that is why a skills-based game is superior.

    If TOR finds a way to get everyone the same gear on their own schedule, then I'll be fine with it. If they stick to the exponential difference in 2 hour a day and 8+ hour a day players that WoW has, then there will, again, be this kind of disjointed community, which Bioware seems to want to avoid.

  3. So what you're saying is someone that spends 4 times as much time playing shouldn't be 4 times more powerful?

  4. You're probably correct to assume that Bioware wont be the same as Actiblizzion… If KoToR is the basis I'd be more than happy to stand in the back of my melee spamming push on the enemy with my new Consular who wont even care what crystals are in his lightsaber because it's just for the defense modifier anyway. Perhaps if raiding doesn't take as much devotion as it currently does in WoW the gear gap would never get that severe. Allow crafted gear to be equal to the current tier the raiders get but require just as much time and money that raiding does.

  5. @toelSU: That's exactly what I am saying. I'm not saying they should be on the same level, no. The person who invests the most time should have something to show for it, but I think that the current power disparity in MMOs is too great. I think that a person who doesn't have the time to spend 8 hours a day should be able to at least experience the same game as a person who does. The person who plays 8+ hours a day will have an advantage in the game, but not so much so that the person who can play 2 hours will be considered a second-class citizen.

    @Dafinfan13: You said it perfectly with "Perhaps if raiding doesn't take as much devotion as it currently does in WoW the gear gap would never get that severe."

    I would be fine with that. I actually hope that's the way it happens, if Bioware goes with a gear-based system. I know there will be levels based on the E3 hands-on demo, but I hope they're like KOTOR levels where ranks of abilities matter more than looted items. As long as there are ways for players of different schedules and playstyles able to experience the same game, then I am fine with that. I am just tired of being left out of a game because I have a professional and personal life.

  6. Interesting Read Beej, Thanks for pointing it out to me,

    I'm a veteran of UO myself and I agree with you that skill based games are inherently more interesting then a gear or level based one. However it also presents some issues that are difficult to address and hence why Developers are likely to avoid producing said games.

    The first is ultimate problem is balance. You may or may not be aware but when City of Heroes was originally in development, Cryptic its developers had intended to allow the players to choose any primary power / secondary power combination they wanted. However some combinations as is always the case provided much greater synergy and thus, a more powerful character. They eventually settled on their current system of "classes" where you are say a ranged dps, you can choose from say Fire, Energy Ice and so on blasts. That way, they only need to balance say 4 or 5 things against each other, as apposed to 20+

    Then you've got UO, where even if there where not classes you basically had classes in as that there where a set number of effective skill combination, and you could only really deviate one skill maybe to remain effective.

    The second problem, and just as big in the players and developers eyes is content. If your players aren't stuck in a virtual arms race of equipment needing that causes them to run Molten Core, BWL, AQ40 and Naxx for 4 hours a day 4 days a week for over a year just to maximize their character, What exactly ARE they going to do. SWG and UO aside MMO's are designed with very little freedom and variety. Adding Variety takes time, time is money so its easier to make a game where all you do is raid, and to keep you raiding the same content they dangle the gear in front of your face.

    Moving onto the subject of Player Time VS Power. You argue that a Person who plays 4 times as much as you shouldn't be 4 times as powerful as you. I agree with this, I feel sometimes people forget an actual benefit of playing more is that you become physically better at playing the game.

    Thus even if you had the same character as someone who plays 4 times as much as you, he's likely to win just because he is better. This is completely reasonable in that it works like every other videogame and in fact nearly everything in life.

    One problem with an open skilled based game such as UO however is that the freedom is pointless now. Back when UO was the only game on the block, the people who loved to kill monsters killed monsters, the people who loved to craft crafted, the people who loved to talk and hang out chilled outside the brit bank and made my computer cry, and myself and the other PKs killed all of the above. The reason this would never work again is because the people who love to kill monsters are off playing WoW or or some game with raiding in it, killing monsters. The crafters are off playing Luminary or eq2, the socializers are probably playing second life and the PK's are off playing EvE or Darkfall. In order to get all of these people back in one open world game would involve crafting a game that was better in each of those categories then any other MMO. And Even then PvP might not work because people who hate pvp despise getting killed and the people who love it despise not being able to kill everyone.

  7. I'd like to see an alternative to the standard level system to but I doubt it will happen. It's just too risky from the developers point of view and previous games which have used it (i.e. SW:G) haven't fair well.

    I'm really looking forward to SW:TOR but the cynic in me says it will be similar to every other MMORPG out there. Not a bad thing indeed but nothing revolutionary.

  8. @toelSU: I think what it is, is it's not the logic of "play more, get more" that is the issue, it is the amount of advantage that is the problem. An example being that 4x the time, must mean an exact 4x the power. Yes if you put in more "work" then you should have more to show than someone who doesn't. But when it starts to (greatly) affect the game, and your aspect on the game, then there is an issue. Perhaps only a slight differential in the gameplay would be better. Or even some sort of trophy or access that doesn't create a differential in gameplay power, but just gameplay experience, such as maybe a title that gives access to different sets of quests. In a Star Wars universe, just getting a quest to do the "Kessel Run" would be enough of a reward for me! It doesn't even have to give a reward, just a title that says I actually got to do the Kessel Run. Seriously, how badass would that be? Or perhaps just different skins of already existing armor (ala Guild Wars). In nerd culture, sometimes it's only the different "style" of armor that grants the awe of other players, just because the other players know how hard it is to get that certain skin. There are plenty of viable options to allow for gameplay that goes beyond the basic "more play, more power" structure.

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