Are Story and Exploration Really Mutually Exclusive?
I have a hard time coming up with proper ways to include exploration in modern games, especially MMOs. It just seems incredibly difficult to allow so many players to explore a (necessarily) limited world – you simply can’t boldly go where no man has gone before because there usually is no such place. That said, I don’t think that the kind of exploration that you can have in an MMO (which usually includes simply ignoring the fact that you are not alone) is not suited to go along with well crafted stories as Nils does in his post on Bioware’s fourth pillar.
The reason we often speak of “lore” instead of “story” in MMOs is that those rarely contain just a single storyline but rather multiple smaller stories that in combination make up the setting of the game. I’d agree with Nils that having one big single-player-esque story does not go very well with exploration, but MMO stories are not like that and I doubt that the story of The Old Republic will be. Instead there might be an overarching storyline which is fleshed out by a myriad of smaller stories which you may or may not discover.
Your exploration of a remote star system might lead to the discovery of a Sith ploy to undermine a native civilization of mentally gifted people in order to use them as a weapon in the fight against the Jedi. You might gather a group of friends to fight that ploy and allow the natives to leave in peace. You might also never travel to that remote system or not realize the Sith presence at all while being there. Even looking at the Star Wars movies we see a variety of sub-plots that really don’t play a role in the overall storyline. Take the whole cloud city episode in “The Empire Strikes Back” for example, or even the whole (infamous) Ewok storyline.
The only thing that really clashes in those two “pillars” is the intent of game companies (extrapolating from Blizzard here) to have all players see all the content. In order to allow for stories and exploration to coexist (or, really, for exploration to be possible at all), you will need to accept the fact that you will be making content that a lot of players will not see. Expensive, for sure, but not at all impossible in my opinion.