Every MMO should aim to be fun, first and foremost, but the second most important aim is immersion. Immersion is a tough concept to define exactly, though it is something you recognize instantly once it hits you. It is that element of a game, especially of a MMO game, that almost effortlessly pulls you into the world, your character, and the gameplay. It is the engine in your escape vehicle, and a necessary element to make MMOs work. Often, storytelling and narrative design function as means in which a designer will immerse the player in a game’s world. MMOs like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic offer fundamentally different approaches in immersive story-telling, one of which, for me, is obviously the preferable choice.
As I have mentioned before, I don’t really care for the amount of focus modern MMOs put on heroic figures and actions. I miss the design of games like Ultima Online where I was a participant in a fantasy world, rather than its savior. Sure, I had my share of heroics in that game, but they always felt earned within the context of the situation and the results of sandbox-style design rather than developer intention. Even a game like Everquest, which eventually allowed players to kill actual gods, felt less heroic than these modern games, which do everything they can to point out your being a hero. World of Warcraft is not an exception to this rule.
In World of Warcraft, your character can do incredible things, things normal people in Azeroth would never dream of doing. You can ride around on a dragon, you can adventure into alternate dimensions, you can delve head first into dungeons filled with giant monsters all of which you are capable of dispatching. You can even kill gods and legends, or at least their closest equivalents.
And because your character can do these things, that means your character in some way has to be unique, rare, and powerful, within the context of the game’s story. This is an odd approach, for me, because MMOs are all about playing with friends. Surely, everyone you know, have ever played with, and will ever play with cannot be a hero. But they are. They are for a simple reason that I find infinitely preferable to the approach in The Old Republic.
Your character is not unique, rare, and powerful because they were born a hero. Your character is not unique, rare, and powerful, necessarily because they were raised as such. Your character in a game like WoW is these things because your character is a participant in a class that is itself unique, rare, and powerful. For World of Warcraft, the story isn’t individualized down to your character specifically, but is instead about The Warlock or The Mage. Everything special about you is derived from an archetype, and anything left over – like name, background, and race – is a blank slate for you to immerse yourself in.
Contrast this with the very different approach of a game like The Old Republic. In TOR, your character is unique, rare, and powerful, not because they are a Jedi or Sith, Bounty Hunter or Smuggler, but instead because your character is specific to a story. Sure, there are choices in the story, but by design, the story reinforces that your character is innately unique, rare, and powerful. You were either born that way or raised that way.
There is less about the character that makes it your own. Sure, you have your own name and your own race, but your voice and mannerisms are handled for you. You can steer your personality through moral decisions in dialogue, but the words are all written by someone who intended a certain set of possible personalities for the character participating in his storyline. By being a more closed off approach, I feel that The Old Republic intends to immerse you in the story alone and not much else. Which is a problem. Given, the game still can and does immerse you, but at what cost? Clearly, at the cost of its design.
MMOs are about public participation, yet in The Old Republic, you are The One. When your story finally ends, and you realize there is a whole world around you that you have ignored because you were too immersed in a single entity of it, you don’t care. Why? Because it does nothing to reinforce how special and incredibly powerful you are like the story. You are suddenly thrust in a world where saving or destroying your enemies requires teamwork and coordination. Where rising to the highest ranks of your order doesn’t mean that you now have minions or peons to boss around.
The Old Republic only contains a single-player level of immersion, not a MMO one. And it suffers greatly from it.