Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Why Makeb Hits LGBT Players So Hard

Robert Rath | 17 Jan 2013 12:00
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It is a time of civil war. Once again, game forums are afire with controversy. The target: BioWare's decision to include long-promised same-gender relationships (SGR) on Makeb, one of the new planets in the latest expansion to Star Wars: The Old Republic. Makeb, to put it mildly, is a big problem. Dubbed "the gay planet," (a term that is inaccurate and I will not repeat) Makeb is one of those temporary measures that pleases no one while offending everyone. Those that want the option to have gay relationships in SWTOR dislike it because the romance options are shallow and confined to a single location, while opponents feel affronted that the option exists at all. What's extraordinary about this particular controversy is the strength of the pro-SGR crowd's reaction, which I believe is due to a very specific reason: The drama over including same-gender relationships in SWTOR mirrors America's ongoing debate about LGBT rights, and touches on open wounds and unresolved frustration in the LGBT community.

Looking back, it's difficult to see this controversy as anything but a self-inflicted wound on BioWare's part. Players started requesting gay relationship options as early as SWTOR's beta, and BioWare confirmed it as a post-launch feature in September 2011. According to the statement, BioWare excluded same-gender romance arcs in the original release due to the "design constraints of a fully-voiced MMO," but promised to add "more companion characters who will have additional romance options." That seemed understandable, since the game contained 200,000 recorded lines of dialogue.

That December, SWTOR released to solid critical acclaim and sales of 2 million units. By February, the game clocked 1.7 million subscribers, some of whom bought the game looking forward to SGR options. Those players waited.

And waited.

And waited.

They waited more than a year - assuming they bought the game at launch - all the while paying subscriptions, supporting the game even as it lost subscribers and went free-to-play, and occasionally asking on the forums when BioWare might get to the post-launch features they had promised. Finally, on January 2nd, they received their answer from Executive Producer Jeff Hickman. First, Hickman apologized that the implementation was taking so long, and said SGR companion characters would "take a lot more work" than the team realized. Next, he said the team was focused on converting the game to the free-to-play model, meaning all promised post-launch features had to take a backseat for the overall good of the game. Hickman then reiterated BioWare's support for SGRs and - as a sign of good faith - announced that there would be some SGR options on Makeb. Full implementation of SGR companion arcs, he claimed, would come at a later date.

To understand why this announcement caused a stir you have to know a few things: First, players can only access Makeb in the new expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which costs $9.99 for subscribers and $19.99 at regular price, meaning players who want SGRs have to pay for the features they were promised with the original game. Second, limiting gay relationships to only Makeb seems on the surface like it's segregating players who want to pursue SGRs. (It's important to note that this isn't the case: Makeb is the only new planet in the expansion, meaning that it's where much of the action takes place. It doesn't solely exist for SGR-seekers.) Finally, the "relationships" aren't companion arcs as originally promised, and are little more than flirty dialogue options with NPCs.

In many ways, it's understandable why BioWare Austin took this approach. A great deal of things have happened in the year since the game launched, including a massive fall off in subscriptions that forced the game into its free-to-play model. Staff layoffs after the game's release no doubt compounded the difficulty of this changeover, meaning that Hickman's claim that the team is swamped seems plausible in context. Moreover, we must remember that BioWare doesn't own the IP for Star Wars, and I'm guessing that convincing LucasArts/Disney - both of whom are notoriously protective of their brands - to allow gay relationships in their ostensibly family-friendly galaxy was a lengthy process in itself. Given all this, plus BioWare's history of designing SGRs into both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I feel comfortable saying that the SWTOR team was making a sincere gesture with the SGR options in Makeb.

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