Critical Hit: The Trouble With Lightsabers

Playing though Star Wars: The Old Republic a month ago, and spending a good chunk of time then reading comments on the many previews since, I’ve been thinking about how almost nothing holds back a genre more than the world mistaking its conventions for its laws. You know the kind of thing I mean. Little quirks, usually, that we simply accept as part and parcel of how the genre works, such as strategy games where Step 1 of conquering a town is ‘Build a self-sufficient town.’

With MMORPGs, the rules are far more exposed, and not without cause. They’re ferociously complicated games that cost a fortune to make, they're a gamble to run, and they foster an audience that demands data that it can use to crunch every number and exploit any weakness. That alone is a great reason to stick with tried and true templates honed by the likes of World of Warcraft, Everquest, et al.

That’s before we even get to the psychological quirk of assuming that because X did Y, Y must have been key to its success. That’s a really baffling phenomena and it's the same idea that lets people market diets about losing weight fast by rubbing chilli powder into their eyes twice a day.

Critical Hit: The Trouble With Lightsabers
Take 2HP Damage from the Sith Uber-Lord

It works!’ they say, ‘as long as you take time out from screaming in agony. Also, go vegetarian and start running marathons every weekend.

The problem with all this comes when it goes a step further, so that anyone merely questioning the status quo becomes The Enemy. I’m only really using TOR here because it’s the last big MMO I played, but let’s take one specific element: lightsabers. We’ve all seen the movies, and instinctively know what lightsabers do. They’re one-hit kill weapons, unless you’re fighting someone else who has one or some obscure defence. As a number of people pointed out in previews, that’s not the case in TOR (nor was it in Knights of the Old Republic, of course) and on some level, it just feels wrong.

Of course, yes, that sound you just heard was a million MMO fans screaming ‘Class Balance!’ And yes, obviously, that’s why this part of the game is what it is, and why Jedi will be duelling womprats like everyone else. But let’s take a step back from that.

Critical Hit: The Trouble With Lightsabers
This will be easy, right?

The average TOR player won’t be signing up for Star Wars: The Well Balanced Mix Of Classes. For such a story-heavy game, where many will effectively be playing a single-player RPG that just happens to have other people running around it, does class balance actually matter? Would it actually harm the majority of the game if everyone decides they want to be a badass Jedi or Sith instead of taking jobs as Smugglers and Agents, or if those classes were based on mechanics beyond simply questing and pest control?

I’m not saying that the answer to any of these is Yes or No, just that it’s often worth having a thought experiment before simply dismissing a complaint on the grounds that ‘the noobs just don’t get it’. Nothing makes a genre turn stagnant faster than making the importance of the overall experience subservient to the mechanics intended to facilitate them, and even the greatest games are built as much on compromise as inspiration. There’s always room for improvement and new ideas.

Even a noob knows that.

Critical Hit is a twice-monthly column looking at recent events, trends and issues within the games industry.
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October 14 2021 | 15:04