One thing that’s struck me as I’ve been levelling in SWTOR is the unique feel of the setting created by Bioware’s choice to limit our activity to a handful of planets in a vast galaxy, and a handful of regions on those planets. Despite the war, life for SWTOR’s residents is far more peaceful than you’d expect.
In most non-sandbox MMOs, you’re the hero; you’re a cut above the rank and file, and you get sent where there’s trouble, because only someone with your skills can save the day.
In most MMOs, similarly, you get sent pretty much all over the place while you level. The only areas you don’t see are usually the home turf of your enemy’s faction, or far-off lands of mystery that your civilization has little contact with (i.e. they’re fodder for the game’s next expansion). And because you’re sent to every part of the map as you level, the overall impression is that this place is in big trouble. There are no peaceful lands that aren’t war-torn or in great danger; everywhere you look there’s trouble and strife.
Think of WoW’s Azeroth as an example (and apologies to those readers who aren’t familiar with it). During the course of your levelling, you’re sent all over Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms; there’s no part of either continent that isn’t in dire need of a hero or ten (million). Every single zone has evil cults, rampaging elementals/undead/demons/dragons, political conspiracies, maddened wildlife, or factional conflicts destroying any hint of tranquility for the people who live there. And this is the case for pretty much every square inch of both continents; there’s nowhere on the map that could reasonably say anything other than “Here Be Dragons”. Which really makes you feel, as you grow through the levels, that your entire civilization is doomed.
SWTOR’s setting has a very different feel. Sure, you get sent all around the galaxy to a dozen different hotspots where your skills are needed, but there are many many more planets in the galaxy where you’re not needed. They’re right there on the galaxy map, thousands of little points of peaceful light spread out across a huge galaxy. And even on the planetary level, the zones are restricted to trouble spots; the implication is that outside those districts, you’re not needed, because life is going on more peacefully there.
Sure, a lot of this is for practicality’s sake – obviously Bioware’s not going to develop each of the millions of inhabited planets in the Star Wars galaxy, just so we can go there to sightsee – but on a planetary level Bioware could certainly have developed the whole of each planet and physically spread the content out. The fact that they didn’t doubtless had practical considerations involved, but the net result to me as a player is a setting that feels much more stable and less ridiculously apocalyptic than the majority of MMO worlds.
As the champions of our respective factions we’re all running around fighting the good fight, putting out fires, making a difference, and so on – but there are billions of Galactic citizens whose lives have barely been touched by the war. Their taxes may rise, the odd political figure or military leader gets assassinated, and some manufacturing facilities start churning out tanks instead of bulldozers, but for most people life goes on pretty much as normal.
After the high-tension constant near-apocalypses in many MMOs, it makes a relaxing change.