The Old Republic's 'gay paywall' is far worse than its planetary segregation

Relationship systems, romance sub plots and depictions of sex are something of a staple of Bioware games, with their offerings this generation in the form of Mass Effect and Dragon Age becoming progressively more bold in the area. One release stands apart - Star Wars: The Old Republic.

That game is in a difficult old place, most of all because it isn't entirely in the control of Bioware. It's a collaboration with LucasArts and LucasFilm, owners of the Star Wars franchise - now themselves owned by Disney - and what they don't want simply won't make it into the game.

One such feature missing from the initial release of the big-budget MMO wound up being in that relationship department. Star Wars is largely sexless by nature - the stars of the show, the Jedi, see relationships as a weakness anyway, Anakin Skywalker's marital status playing a significant role in his turn to evil - but Bioware did try to find a compromise.

The worlds of TOR were populated with a scattering of potential romantic interests. These relationships were certainly watered down from what was on offer in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but were still there. In addition, all these potential relationships were straight.

If Bioware have been able to wear a reluctant LucasArts down or if they simply chose not to add these relationships initially isn't clear, but the company is introducing a selection of NPCs with same-sex leanings in their first major piece of paid downloadable content for the game, 'Rise of the Hutt Cartel.'

"As we have said in the past, allowing same gender romance is something we are very supportive of," Bioware's Jeff Hickman wrote on the game's official blog. There's a catch, though - all same sex relationships will be limited to the place where the characters have been added, a single planet, Makeb. Both supporters and detractors have taken to calling Makeb 'the gay planet.'

Worse still, Makeb is only available to those customers who pay for the 'Rise of the Hutt Cartel' expansion, meaning players who'd prefer to partake in same-sex relationships will have to buy the chunky expansion even if they're not interested in the rest of its content.

That is actually the real shame here and the thing Bioware deserve to be called out on. Plenty of sites are running pieces on how segregating the gay NPCs to one planet is a disgrace, but to them I say - this may well be a reality of development.

Let's say that making existing love interests bisexual is either difficult or impossible - it'd involve bringing back voice actors and patching existing code and quest lines. This means adding new characters, and adding NPCs to already existing areas is likely a difficult job, and so it's probably easier on Bioware to introduce these new fully-voiced NPCs with their new options into all-new areas.

Makeb is an all-new planet in the Hutt Cartel expansion, and so a perfect home for these new companions. So, to Makeb, the gay planet, I say -- fair enough. Perhaps it was a necessary quirk of the game. I'm not particularly outraged at that.

Locking this content behind a paywall when some 20 straight love interest options were included in the core game is something I'm far less forgiving of.

To be clear, I'm not one of these people who moans and whines about DLC. I love DLC, and I have no problem paying for it if it's of value, especially in a game now free to play - but this particular addition strikes me as Bioware fixing a gross oversight or mistake in not including these options in the first place. Ergo, it should be a patch.

It's damning to Bioware that it isn't - it looks greedy, like an attempt to squeeze money from loyal players who have waited for and politely requested this feature - a feature that arguably should've been in the original release - for some time. Is it entitlement? Perhaps so; but Bioware has built a strong following with these groups through being extremely supportive with same-sex options in their other franchises - and it's no surprise people want the same treatment here. The company should consider working out a way to unlock thse characters in some way for others. Regrettably, I doubt that will happen. 

With that particular grievance aired, it is worth acknowledging that at least Bioware is listening to its users and adding these companions at all. They're bravely ignoring the slew of torrid comments from users threatening to leave if the feature is added, and that should be commended. They're also injecting some of a highly controversial opinion into one of the most conservative properties going. Kudos.

In other areas, MMO gamers are less lucky. Some games don't offer much in the way of romance sub plots at all, while others like the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will support marriage between two player characters of opposite genders, but not allow it for the same sex.

That game's producer described it as an "extremely controversial topic," saying they would start with straight marriage and couldn't say if same-sex marriage would "be possible."

Credit where credit is due; Bioware are at least offering. It may be late, it may be poorly implemented... but it's there. If you're going to complain, complain about the paywall first - and be remember - at least they're trying. Then again, as the old Star Wars addage goes - 'Do or do not; there is no try.' This advice should be followed here - there's no point in doing this by half.