What kind of community do you get for a game that's just over a year old, not to mention one notorious for a rapid drop from its high initial subscriber base?
Ever since my East Coast-based guild disbanded, I've been a party of one in BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. But 478 people RSVPed on Facebook for the San Francisco stop of the game's Community Cantina Tour on Friday.
Still half-expecting it would be just me, the developers, and a snack table, I showed up early. Was that long line of people us? Yes, judging by the woman in the Chewbacca backpack. I waited outside, chatting with friendly strangers about the game and admiring someone's fully detailed lightsaber replica, until we were ushered in to Jillian's -- a wretched hive of scum and billiards -- for mingling time and a standing-room-only Q&A session.
A scattering of Jedi robes and other costumes enlivened the scene, with a Smuggler, an Imperial Agent, and whatever that awesome-looking black lizard with teeth was, but mostly it was a sea of Darth Vader T-shirts, with some "Star Trek" mixed in to be difficult. This was a cheerful, social crowd, and that's before hitting the free drink line.
"What server are you on?" was a standard question, and it was great being around people trading tips on which in-game cantinas have the most amenities and who understand why you'd take some Dark Side points just to get to punch that guy on Alderaan.
Apparently three BioWare reps were in attendance, but I only got close enough to hear Community Manager Eric Musco -- an energetic MC who explained that when your job involves people telling you you should DIE!!!! a hundred times a day, you have to be able to take it -- and Lead Designer Damion Schubert, who said he's not involved in the story or combat parts of the game, but is more focused on the Cartel Market (a store added when the game went free to play), mods, and general game design.
Despite being warned in the beginning not to ask when any particular feature was coming, most questions were along those lines. When will we get a hood toggle? (Working hard on that!). More tools for guild and raid leaders? (Not any time soon). Ewoks? (Answer drowned out by booing crowd). Schubert carefully placed each one on a scale from unlikely to upcoming and gave one strong hint that armor dyes would be coming very soon (which I personally am not looking forward to. Hot-pink Jedi running around everywhere?).
Asked about same-gender romances with companions -- a familiar BioWare feature doggedly awaited by many fans through many iterations of "soon" -- Schubert looked like he'd bitten a lemon and refused to answer, calling the subject a "hornet's nest."
An expansion of the Cartel Market is on its way, and players were encouraged to comment in the SW:TOR forums saying what they'd like to buy. My jaw did drop when Schubert delivered a passionate speech about how players need to be able to trust the Cartel Market or it all falls apart. Let's just say that if the devs think the game's customer service is living up to that ideal, they're NOT reading the forums as much as they say they are.
The two best things I learned at the Q&A: one, what's up with the escape pod doors on every ship? It turns out that during an earlier build of the game, it was actually possible to kidnap another player on your ship, so those doors were put in so your victim could escape. (There were several shouts of, "Wait, can we have that back?"). There had also been some thought of making it possible to space other players out the airlock.
The other began with a question from one of the women present that got cheers and applause from the mostly male crowd: "I have six different ways of making my female characters look like a stripper..." so when will BioWare finally provide a male equivalent of the Slave Girl outfit? Schubert promised that this is on the way and he'd "seen the art" and it had been "approved" by both women and interested men. So there's that.
A trivia contest for swag (including a Razer keyboard) led to some nail-biting and profanity-spewing suspense, including one perfect moment when a question about a Trooper character got answered by someone in full Storm Trooper armor who advanced to get his prize under a tunnel of raised arms.
Schubert stayed a long time answering questions afterward, and Musco said BioWare wants to stop having a trademark on the word "soon" -- a line I'm pretty sure we've heard before. In short, faithful players may be waiting a long time for answers and features, but the community seems alive and well.