Fans of both Star Wars and role-playing games were excited when veteran RPG developer BioWare announced that it would be creating a massively multiplayer role-playing game set in the Star Wars universe, titled Star Wars: The Old Republic. After all, BioWare is famous for valuing strong stories and interesting characters in its games, as well as for allowing players to express their personalities through role-playing choices during gameplay.
Because of this heritage, BioWare was the company of choice to do something that had never been done before on a major scale in an MMORPG: develop a quest system that involves a large number of moral choices for players to make, providing stronger storytelling and more interesting role-playing opportunities to players. To do this, the company needed to balance its experience providing dialogue and quest choices in single-player RPGs with the demands of the massively multiplayer environment and audience.
Along with that mechanics-based balancing act, The Old Republic's development team had to work with the pre-existing concept of morality found in the Star Wars universe. George Lucas' concept of the Force is of a power that connects everything in the universe. Those who tap into its positive ("Light") side value compassion, peace, and serenity. Force users who give in to anger, passion, and the desire for power are said to tap into the Dark Side, and generally become rather corrupt and evil. This binary moral viewpoint necessarily shaped the development of The Old Republic.
The basic way that BioWare has put together the morality system in The Old Republic involves adding dialogue choices to almost every quest in the game. Not all dialogue choices are moral decisions; some are merely flavor choices that allow a character to present a particular attitude (kind, aggressive, sarcastic, etc.) towards non-player characters, but the majority of questlines have at least one moral decision that takes a character closer to the Light or Dark Side of the Force.
As every character in The Old Republic must choose to side with the democratic Republic, ally to the "good guy" Jedi, or the autocratic Empire, ruled by the "bad guy" Sith, BioWare could have forced characters into those good and bad molds. Instead, the company wisely chose to allow players to make their own decisions, adding a much-needed dose of moral complexity to the setting. In The Old Republic, Jedi can choose to kill their opponents in anger and Sith can oppose the practice of slavery. Non-Force-sensitive characters such as smugglers, spies, troopers, and bounty hunters have less pressure placed on them to follow a particular philosophy, but can choose to be generous or greedy, forgiving or vengeful. All players can decide whether to slavishly follow Light Side or Dark Side philosophy or to think carefully about every decision they make.
A player's overall Light Side or Dark side alignment is determined on a points system. Every "Light Side" or "Dark Side" decision the player makes is assigned a number of points depending on the severity and importance of the choice. The player's alignment is then determined by subtracting the smaller point value from the larger value, with the remaining points counting towards either the Dark Side or Light Side track. Players begin with a neutral alignment and can remain at that alignment by earning approximately the same amount of Light Side or Dark Side points. If players earn a large number of either Dark or Light Side points, however, they will start going up in tiers such as Light Side II, III, etc.
Currently, there are various pieces of equipment that require a certain Dark or Light Side level to be used, and there are no rewards for players who remain neutral. This has upset players who prefer to remain in the neutral zone, particularly those playing morally gray classes such as smugglers and bounty hunters. Thus BioWare has announced that it plans to add neutral rewards in the future. There are also cosmetic titles such as "The Pure" that are rewarded to players who reach high tiers of the Light or Dark side.
Overall, the alignment system appears to be used mainly for cosmetic purposes, which is likely due to the constraints of MMORPG structure. The MMORPG player base traditionally doesn't like being penalized in terms of gameplay for role-playing decisions. It certainly wouldn't work to force characters with high Dark or Light Side alignment into the other faction, away from their friends and guildmates. Still, it would have been nice to see some overall story-related consequences for a high Dark or Light Side rating. Wouldn't a Light Side Sith begin to be attacked by some of her fellows? Wouldn't an evil smuggler attract the admiration of criminal gangs and the antagonism of the Republic's lawmakers? So far we've seen no sign of unique quests based on moral alignment rather than simply class and faction, which is a shame.
The wide variety of decisions that characters can make helps to make up for the lack of overall storyline consequence for alignment level. Although some quests present fairly cut-and-dry, good-versus-evil decisions, most introduce more interesting dilemmas. Is it more important to fully support a democratic system or to make sure that good politicians have the upper hand? Do you value the good of the faceless masses over the needs of the people in front of you? Is it possible to be a loyal citizen of the Empire while also disagreeing with the philosophy of the Sith? In some ways, the game undermines these dilemmas by assigning Light Side or Dark Side points to them, and sometimes the alignment assigned to a particular decision doesn't seem to make sense. Why would a Jedi earn Dark Side points for deciding to refer a particular decision to the Jedi Council? Still, most of the time the system makes for a gratifying role-play experience, especially when players regularly receive mail from non-player characters that they have helped or hindered, containing words of thanks or threats of retribution.