Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Star Trek Online vs. Star Wars: The Old Republic

Well I figured it was time to get into this Goliath versus Goliath battle, the likely next great MMO tussle of our time.

Beginning with Star Trek, it's definitely had a tumultuous development cycle to date. STO was originally slated to be developed by Perpetual Entertainment, who acquired the licence and commenced work on the title in early 2004 with an announcement of its development later the same year.

Information was scant regarding the title. Perpetual released some low-res screenshots here and there, along with various vague allusions regarding possibly making STO a more "casual" title funded not necessarily by subscription fees but perhaps with micro transactions. Needless to say this didn't go down too well with the (rabid/hardcore/basement-dwelling - this is really choose your own adjective time) nerds that comprise the Star Trek fan-base.

Fast forward to 2007 and Perpetual are having financial issues, to the point where they close down work on the other MMO they have in development, Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, with an effort to focus resources on STO. This fails to help matters, however, and it is announced in early 2008 that Perpetual has closed up shop and all code of STO has been transferred to an unknown Bay-area developer (now known to be Cryptic Studios, creators of the successful superhero MMOs City of Heroes and City of Villains).

Finally with an established name at the helm, and not least one that knows their arse from their elbow, it seems STO is at last in the hands of someone who know what they are doing. Interest in STO has been ramping-up, with an official site that actually has some content. The game is set a short number of years after the TNG timeline, where relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire are strained if not broken down completely. Your bridge crew will be comprised of NPCs whom you can co-opt onto your Away Team when you beam down to other planets, and you will be able to specialise your Captain (as you will be on your ship, unless you plan on taking orders from the toaster) in various fields such as Science and Diplomacy.

For visuals STO is adapting the engine Cryptic used to power CoH/CoV, which is tried-and-tested if not a little mundane. Maybe they will tweak the hell out of it and make Borg Cubes jump out of your monitor; stranger things have happened.

But for all this, STO just has not grabbed me. That's unusual in itself because in any Star Trek vs. Star Wars contest I am usually firmly on the side of Trek. I can't say that it's the best sci-fi of all time (I'm afraid that particular honour goes to Babylon 5) but I've always enjoyed the Trek series (except - shudder - Enterprise) and thought they were well-produced and well-developed. For some reason though the MMO just isn't pressing my buttons.

On to The Old Republic, which also has an interesting development history of its own.

Rumours were circulating for the past couple of years in the gaming press that BioWare were working on an unannounced game, likely set in the Star Wars universe to capitalise on the tremendous success of their games Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1+2. The rumour mill said that the new Star Wars game was going to be an MMO, such as had been tried before with the terrible Star Wars Galaxies but with less utter, utter badness (always a good thing).

Invitations started popping up in the gaming press and on various gaming sites that BioWare was going to make an announcement in October 2008, and finally on 21st October 2008 the world knew officially what had been the worst-kept secret in the MMO world: that BioWare were working on a Star Wars MMO tentatively titled The Old Republic.

The game is set some 300 years prior to the events of Knights of the Old Republic which also predates the films by some 3,700 years. Given the quality of the last few films this is not a bad idea. a la WoW there will be two factions, the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire. Playable classes announced so far include: Jedi Knights (of course), Sith, Bounty Hunters, Troopers and Smugglers. BioWare also recently announced that ToR will be the first MMO to be fully voiced; no more reading tiny windows crammed full of text in order to glean the only two facts you require (what you need to do and where you need to do it).

The official site for ToR is equally as good as that for STO. BioWare release regular updates detailing new features and classes, and also several trailers, screenshots and even comics filling-in some of the back story, as well as regular updates on social networking sites from some of the producers.

In short, both ToR and STO have figured out that to make an MMO based on these iconic sci-fi franchises the best way to do it is by firmly involving the established communities that already exist. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and the PR people at both Cryptic and BioWare are to be commended for their involvement of the fan-base at large to date. Some of those nerds don't even wash, which that makes the developer's contributions all the more impressive.

Of the two it seems that we will likely see STO first. As of writing it has a pending release date of "early Spring 2010", whereas BioWare are adopting a Blizzard/Valve approach of "when it's done." Will one affect the other? Both developers will say no but they'd be stupid if they weren't keeping at least one eye on the competition. In saying that, I think there is ample room in the MMO universe for both games to flourish and succeed, but that is really going to depend on the finished products.

A lifetime Trekker hates to admit it but ToR really does look superior (in my eyes) right now. If BioWare can re-create the magic of KOTOR and add a dash of MMO sprinkles to it, I think it would be very hard to see that game not become a commercial success. If STO meets their release date of early 2010 perhaps this will encourage BioWare to shove ToR out of the door a little quicker than usual, but with EA bankrolling their operation they aren't exactly poor these days.

BioWare, feel free to toss me an alpha/beta invite. You too, Cryptic, since you've got ground to make up with me.

(I also accept any hard currency)

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