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EA are giving Shadow Realm’s team “the ability to fail”

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EA are giving Shadow Realm’s team “the ability to fail”

Shadow Realms is the first new IP we’ve seen from Bioware since they released Dragon Age: Origins back in 2010. It’s easy for a studio to get stuck releasing games in the same franchises, especially when under pressure from a major publisher like EA. While at Gamescom, James Ohlen, Shadow Realm’s creative director, explained to me how he got EA to take a chance on his 4v1 dungeon crawler and how he got the publisher to leave his team alone while they made it.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic subscribers are about to get player housing

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Star Wars: The Old Republic subscribers are about to get player housing

BioWare’s first MMO will never be the game Galaxies fans want it to be. And that’s fine - Star Wars: The Old Republic is quite good in its own right. But it can learn lessons from its predecessor, and ensure players are inhabiting its world rather than just passing through.

That’s what next week’s Galactic Strongholds expansion is all about: habitation. Or as BioWare put it, "customizable bastions of personal luxury".

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BioWare's Shadow Realms is a 4 vs 1 "story-driven" action RPG from the SWTOR team

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BioWare's Shadow Realms is a 4 vs 1 "story-driven" action RPG from the SWTOR team

BioWare have finally let us in on what on Earth Shadow Realms is. It’s a co-operative online RPG inspired by pen-and-paper RPGs, from the Austin studio behind SWTOR.

And it is on Earth: set in both a fantasy realm and a demon-infused but contemporary real world populated by “heroes who wouldn’t look out of place in this room".

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Star Wars: The Old Republic preps for largest story expansion since Rise of the Hutt Cartel

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Star Wars: The Old Republic preps for largest story expansion since Rise of the Hutt Cartel

In retrospect, overarching MMO plotlines can sound like supervillain whack-a-mole. The Galactic Republic and Sith Empire might be at war, but together they’ve bopped the Hutt Cartel’s invasion of Makeb on the head, and given the Dread Masters of Oricon a good malleting.

For now, though, Star Wars: The Old Republic’s next major storyline is swathed in mystery, preceded by two new flashpoints that make up its prelude. It might be time to take another look at Star Wars: The Old Republic.

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Take another look at Star Wars: The Old Republic. It's quite good.

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Take another look at Star Wars: The Old Republic. It's quite good.

Whatever it was that draws millions to Star Wars, many were unconvinced that The Old Republic had it. The feeling of adventure, heroism, mysticism and drama just wasn’t quite right. In the old days, SWTOR just didn’t feel “Star Wars-y" enough for core fans. It’s not an opinion I ever held, but I am an extremely patient person and SWTOR, in the early days, was tailored to a player like me. But I struggled to argue with the naysayers on a critical point, it was a poor MMO.

Over two years have passed since Star Wars: The Old Republic launched.  And it has changed almost beyond recognition.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic made $165m in 2013, according to SuperData report

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Star Wars: The Old Republic made $165m in 2013, according to SuperData report

Despite Guild Wars 2, Wildstar, and its own efforts to split its playerbase into have-mounts and have-mount-nots, Star Wars: The Old Republic remains one of the best PC MMOs around. 

That’s reflected in the findings of SuperData Research, who report that SWTOR made $165m last year. They say BioWare’s first MMO accounts for 8% of the market for MMOs with subscription options.

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Pyramid scheme: The Old Republic's PvP Huttball to get a vertical makeover on April 8

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Pyramid scheme: The Old Republic's PvP Huttball to get a vertical makeover on April 8

One of those things that must have made KOTOR seem such a prime candidate for MMOification - besides its cooldown-based combat system and setting in bloody Star Wars - was its proclivity for minigames. 

In 2003, a player might have interrupted their journey of extraordinary self-discovery to play a few rounds of pazaak and watch the pod-racing, before decamping to the Ebon Hawke for a spot of turret target practice. 

These are precisely the sort of embedded distractions MMO players like to get involved in. In SWTOR, that’s manifested as something called Huttball: “the most brutal game in the galaxy", funded by its slimiest residents. To date it’s had a single PvP warzone to its name - but BioWare Austin have built a new one in portrait, on the atmospherically poisonous adopted homeworld of the Hutt: Quesh.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic's 2014: two new expansions and a storyline to span "the whole year"

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Star Wars: The Old Republic's 2014: two new expansions and a storyline to span "the whole year"

SWTOR’s 2013 wasn’t anything at all like its 2012: last year its live team witnessed the game’s playerbase shift from subscription-only to primarily free-to-play; instigated the release of its first proper expansion; and oversaw mammoth construction of an all-new PvP dogfighting mode to banish the memory of on-rails space combat.

In 2014, BioWare Austin hope, there will be no paradigm shifts. Free-to-play will continue to draw in thousands every day, and there’ll be another two expansions - one about the size of a Hutt Cartel, the other as big as a Galactic Starfighter.

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A new hope: The Old Republic subscriptions "decline" as free-to-play "continues to grow"

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A new hope: The Old Republic subscriptions "decline" as free-to-play "continues to grow"

I don’t know what it’s like to be a subscriber of an MMO that suddenly goes free-to-play, but it must be pretty galling. Every month, I imagine, it becomes tougher to convince yourself that whatever in-game privileges you might have add up to another $10 your peers aren’t paying.

It must be somewhat easier in The Old Republic, where despite change for the better, free players are still visibly second-class citizens. Even so, as free-to-play numbers climb, subscriber rates are plummeting in the opposite direction.

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The Old Republic Galactic Starfighter expansion brings the dogfight to (some) non-subscribers

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The Old Republic Galactic Starfighter expansion brings the dogfight to (some) non-subscribers

Since early December, interstellar jousting has been the preserve of SWTOR nobility - its remaining pocket of subscribers, sheltered under an upturned boat in an otherwise free-to-play sea. But BioWare could hold back the tide no longer, and have made the new Galactic Starfighter expansion available to the riff-raff, the rabble, and the Rattataki, effective immediately. So long as they’ve bought something from the in-game shop.

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BioWare's Old Republic studio hammering away at "several" unannounced projects

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BioWare's Old Republic studio hammering away at "several" unannounced projects

BioWare Austin was born to make The Old Republic. That’s not a comment on the studio’s suitability to build Star Wars MMOs, but a literal fact: its staff were brought together in 2006 explicitly to make that game, and since its release five years later they’ve done nothing else but run its operations, reconfigure its systems for free-to-play, and develop its expansions.

Or so we thought. A couple of new job listings ask for hires with experience in both MMO and action games to help out on some of “several unannounced projects".

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EA implicate shrinking interest in MMOs in The Old Republic's free-to-play fate

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EA implicate shrinking interest in MMOs in The Old Republic's free-to-play fate

Imagine you’re a shit-hot PI looking into the mysterious disappearance of The Old Republic’s prospects. There’s a few places you’d be tempted to start: its publisher’s investment in comprehensive voice acting it would take years to recoup; a broadly conservative game design in an era of Eve and Guild Wars 2; and reliance on a subscription model already starting to look dated in 2011.

But here’s EA’s femme fatale tugging at your ear, pointing to something else - the declining fortunes of MMOs in general.

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Watch a minute and a half's footage of Star Wars: The Old Republic's dogfighting mode

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Watch a minute and a half's footage of Star Wars: The Old Republic's dogfighting mode

BioWare have changed. In Baldur’s Gate II, dog fighting meant handing over 10 gold pieces to a sprite-man named Surly in an iffy pub, and getting 20 back if you were lucky. And lots of barking in the interim.

The Old Republic’s dogfighting, built by an Austin studio that didn’t exist in Baldur’s Gate’s day, is all high production pew-pew and free-flight weaving. It’s like nothing else the developers have ever assembled.

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The Old Republic update 2.4 kicks off the Dread War

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The Old Republic update 2.4 kicks off the Dread War

“CONFRONT THE DREAD MASTERS AND COMPETE IN THE WARZONE ARENAS OF DEATH!", suggest BioWare in anticipation of SWTOR’s next big update. If you find yourself in the Deathzone Arenas of War, you’ve taken a wrong turning. You’ll know you’re in the right place if you can spot new endgame operations, story missions and 4v4 arenas.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion Rise of the Hutt Cartel now free to subscribers

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Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion Rise of the Hutt Cartel now free to subscribers

Now this is the way to encourage subscription. BioWare have used their stick to dig a trough in the earth and plant carrot seeds. After six months spent slowly relinquishing their stranglehold on free players, the developers have pledged access to their first and only expansion to new, old and returning subscribers for a fee of zilch.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic's "super secret space project" yields ten super secret spaceships

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Star Wars: The Old Republic's "super secret space project" yields ten super secret spaceships

Nobody knows anything for sure about SWTOR’s maybe-PvP, maybe-free-flight new space mode, but everybody knows it’ll be better that what we’ve currently settled for: crude rollercoasters and half-hearted barrel rolls.

Whatever it is, it’s merited a slew of new ship models from BioWare’s Austin team: none of which have been cleared for public eyes, but several of which have been unceremoniously unveiled by The Old Republic Reddit’s very own Toto, swtor_miner.

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BioWare tease "super secret space project" for Star Wars: The Old Republic

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BioWare tease "super secret space project" for Star Wars: The Old Republic

If there’s one problem with The Old Republic - sorry, let me start that again - if there are 99 problems with The Old Republic, one of them is that compelling spaceflight is something that largely happens in cutscenes, to other people. More often than not, you’ll teleport up to the mothership and back down to another planet without once glancing out the window to take in the great black beyond. That's probably not quite right.

BioWare Austin might just be doing something about it. Their “super secret space project" looks like a major rethink of the game's limited interstellar combat.

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