A note before beginning: this article is pure speculation on my part. No official mention of a console port of SWTOR has been made by any employees at Bioware, EA, or Disney.
2021 is a milestone year for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Likely because of the lack of big-budget western MMORPGs to have been released over the last decade, SWTOR still feels like one of the newer games in the genre. In my mind I place it alongside Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online – four games which, for a while, all bore that most prestigious of titles “WoW Killer”. SWTOR was the first to be released, and this year it reaches its tenth birthday (GW2, FFXIV and ESO will celebrate theirs in 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively).
While the last year has been a slow one for SWTOR thanks to y’know, obvious reasons, the game is still in active development and has a healthy population. It might not be one of the “Big Four“, but it’s certainly hovering not far on the periphery of those titles. With that ten-year marker on the horizon, where could SWTOR go next? The obvious answer would be an expansion, but let’s assume for a moment that Bioware might be feeling a little bit more ambitious and are instead aiming to bring the game to consoles.
From the very start of 2020, the game’s devs have been teasing big things for SWTOR‘s tenth anniversary. A forum post in January from the game’s Project Director, Keith Kanneg, teased that 2021 “seems like a great target to work towards doing something major”, and continued that the team were making plans for “the next few years”. These kinds of empty teases have been repeated over the course of the year, but we’ve yet to be given any clue as to what this “something major” could actually entail.
Of course, an expansion is the likeliest candidate. The last expansion, Onslaught, arrived in late 2019, so a two-year gap would be the usual timing we have come to expect between MMO expansions. If that were the case however I feel as though by the end of 2020 the developers would have been more forthright in saying “yeah, an expansion is coming next year”. A simple acknowledgement that an expansion is on the way isn’t that big of a deal that it needs to be shrouded in secrecy, and it has the added effect of reassuring people that the game is still going to be chugging along quite nicely into the foreseeable future.
Alternatively, there won’t be a full-blown expansion in 2021, and that “something major” could just be one or several big patches planned. Even if these were to feature some usual expansion features such as a new planet or species addition, it would still be a disappointment for players, as most would likely interpret it as being an effective end to all major content releases in the game’s future. If that were the case then SWTOR could doubtless tick along for years still, but things are really only downhill from there and that’s not a good look for any live service game – especially one which bears the Star Wars moniker.
One reason why an expansion may not happen in 2021 is that Bioware seems to have its hands full at the moment. New Mass Effect and Dragon Age games are in the works and there’s also the ongoing operation to salvage Anthem – a project which we know has swallowed up many devs from the SWTOR team over the past few years. Things have been silent on that front for a ridiculously long time now, and frankly, with the studio departure of Casey Hudson and Mark Darrah at the end of 2020, I feel that Bioware has either already thrown in the towel with their mega-budget failure to build a new live service game, or are at least on the precipice of doing such. This could be good news for SWTOR.
Bioware and EA had a HUGE amount of cash and expectations riding on Anthem and its failure has without a doubt left Bioware with a big gaping hole in both its wallet and in the goodwill department. The announcement of new Mass Effect and Dragon Age games will hopefully solve the latter problem, but in the meantime, something will have to be done to remedy the former. Being a decade old, at this point, SWTOR is practically bringing in pure profit for the studio. It’s been running a much smaller crew over the past few years, and although it has its issues, the free-to-play/subscriber/cash shop model works at both keeping a sizeable playerbase, as well as providing plenty of options for players to spend unseemly amounts of money. The recent addition of The Mandalorian themed content to the game’s cash shop has been a massive success, and the amount of dev time spent making an armour set compared to the amount of money it brings in must be pretty darn impressive.
While content patches may have been relatively slim for SWTOR in 2020, the playerbase grew enormously last year when the game finally hit Steam in the summer. Even though the game has received more than its fair share of bad press and forum bashing over the years, its popularity on Steam proves that people are interested in trying the game out – if you give them the right platform to do it from. When Daybreak was sold to EG7 at the end of last year we learned in precise figures just how important a wide-distribution model for MMORPGs is. Nobody could have guessed before then that DC Universe Online of all games was wracking up close to half a million monthly players. Only a small percentage of these were subscribers, but that still equated to over $26M of revenue. Bioware needs some of that money right now, so why would they not make it a priority to get the game ported into the console market space?
Outside of the profit motive, there are other reasons why now is a good time for SWTOR to make its way over to consoles. With the game’s 6.2 patch, Echoes of Vengeance, the main overarching storyline has finally been wrapped up, and numerous loose threads involving warring Mandalorian clans and wounded Sith Lords make this a narratively exciting time to be a SWTOR player. A decade is a long time to be dealing with one main threat, and although the conclusion was satisfying the prospect of something new feels way overdue. The fact that players can now play the complete “Emperor Arc” is a pretty good selling point in terms of the sheer amount of content on offer there, and the prospect of a new story arc beginning offers a great jumping-in point as well.
Likewise, there have been rumblings for some time that a graphics upgrade of some sort is on the horizon. This has kind of been going on now for the last five years, with the introduction of improved NPC models in the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, and the steady stream of revamped cinematics being added with every patch. In the November 2020 live stream, there was some muffled talk about rendering that was quickly hushed, so it seems that there is also something in the works on that front. SWTOR may have received some criticism for its janky animations early on in the game’s lifespan, but its heavily stylised graphics means that it has never been an objectively bad-looking game by any stretch of the imagination. Since the introduction of the improved NPC models however there’s a jarring difference in quality between the old and the new, and the game would look much more current-gen if these upgraded visuals were implemented across the board.
Personally, I’m hopeful for SWTOR‘s future. Unless EA can pull another Squadrons-sized surprise out of the bag this summer it’s looking like 2021 will be a Star Wars-free year for gamers. The franchise is currently riding high from the popularity of The Mandalorian, and SWTOR has plenty of themed content available to play to that crowd. Plus this month also see’s the start of the new High Republic cross-media project, so there are obvious marketing opportunities to be exploited there too.
Of course, as I mentioned at the start of this article, all of this is purely conjectural and I could be way off the mark. The opportunities present in bringing the game to consoles are obvious, but perhaps it simply isn’t possible at all. HeroEngine, the game engine on which SWTOR was built, has proven to be a notorious roadblock in the game’s development over the years and there are no other games built on the engine which prove that it’s portable to consoles (The Elder Scrolls Online was reportedly set to use HeroEngine before development switched to an inhouse engine). I’m no expert in such matters, but even if a little bit (or a lot) of additional money had to be spent on making this possible though, the aforementioned reasons prove that it could be more than worthwhile to do so.