Droids are an everyday part of life in the Star Wars universe. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and perform about as many functions as any living creature. If there is a repetitive or dangerous task that a sentient creature could perform, there is a model of droid designed to do that very thing. However, droids are not mere automatons - some of them are so advanced that they seem "alive."
The droids of Star Wars: The Old Republic are more or less the same as droids from any other known era. In some cases, they seem much more advanced than the droids of 3600 years later (the era of the movies), and in other cases, less advanced or unchanged.
The term droid is applied to any mechanical being, but the word itself derives from "android," which means "man-like." Despite the origin of the word, the term "droid" applies to all mechanicals regardless of their resemblance to a humanoid. R2-D2 is just as much of a droid as C-3PO.
The original droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, were loosely based on peasant characters from the Akira Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress. Their role in the storytelling is to provide comic relief and an "everyman" narrative perspective on the great events unfolding around them. They are essentially outsiders looking in at the chief figures of a great war, characters of low social standing and armed with very little information about the events transpiring throughout the story. This allows the storyteller to expose the story through dialogue - the other characters tell the droids what is happening and why.
The original Ralph McQuarrie concept drawings for C-3PO were based on the "female" robot from the silent 1927 German Expressionist film, Metropolis. R2-D2 was designed to be distinctly separate from his humanoid counterpart, both in physical appearance and personality. His design was influenced by, among other things, the drone robots from the 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running.
From these two characters, an entire industry came into being. The movies are littered - in some cases, literally - with droids. In the original trilogy, droids are largely background street-crossers, part of the scenery or comic relief. There are a few notable exceptions, mostly in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: 2-1B is the medical droid who fixes Luke up after his run-in with the wampa on Hoth; IG-88 is one of the bounty hunters gathered aboard the Executor and sent out to find the Rebels; and the menacing Imperial Probe Droid provides some creepy foreshadowing, announcing the arrival of the Imperial fleet at the Hoth system.
According to Expanded Universe sources, part of the Millennium Falcon's extensive modifications included three droid brains, wired directly into the ship's computers, which automated many of the ship's functions and allowed one pilot to monitor and control everything from the cockpit, rather than relying on an extensive crew. The downside of this modification is that the droids' personalities didn't always mesh smoothly, and occasionally the ship would have arguments with itself, which caused myriad problems in its other cobbled-together systems.
Droids take on a slightly more central and villainous role in the prequel trilogy. In Episode I, they form the backbone of the Trade Federation's occupying army. In Episode II, the sheer size of the droid armies of the separatists necessitates the formation of the Republic's grand clone army. Droids in the prequel trilogy play the same role that Imperial Stormtroopers played in the original trilogy - the footsoldiers of the bad guys.
There are a number of factors that separate droids from simple robots. They possess adaptive reasoning (allowing them to move beyond their basic programming to accomplish tasks), self-awareness (allowing them moments of human-like introspection) and some have the capacity for emotions. Not all droids exhibit all of these characteristics, but most droids show some kind of independent personality.
There are 5 classes of droids in the Star Wars universe:
Class 1 - These are essentially stationary computers with droid-like adaptive reasoning. They are organized by sub-category according to their primary functions: medical, biological science, physical science and mathematics droids. Medical droids are unique in that they are able to act upon their programming - the other Class 1 droids just analyze and feed data.
Class 2 - These are engineering and technical droids: astromechs, exploration droids, environmental droids, and engineering droids. Astromech droids are purpose-built to link into starships to program astrogation jumps, automate some ship systems and perform repairs, but they can clearly learn other skills as well.
Class 3 - These droids are meant to interact with human society as translators, butlers, nannies and tutors. Protocol droids are mainly used by diplomats as translators and butlers.
Class 4 - These are droids programmed to fight, and usually carry weapons or have weapons mounted on their frames. Assassin droids fall into this class, as do the mass-produced battle-droids of the Trade Federation.
Class 5 - Labor droids programmed for heavy lifting and hazardous work. "Gonk" power droids, surveillance and interrogation droids and mouse droids also fall into this category.
In some ways, droid technology declines in the 3,600-year span between SWTOR and the movies. Compare C-3PO to 2V-R8 or C2-N2, the ship droids for Imperial and Republic players, respectively. C-3PO is stiff and awkward. He can walk or jog, but not sprint. His frame is fragile and ill-suited for anything more strenuous than butler duties. 2V-R8 has excellent mobility and can throw down in a fight with proper upgrades. These are all Class 3 droids, but the physical construction of the older model is clearly superior.
Asassin droids have likewise undergone a kind of devolution. HK47 might be a 300-plus-year-old meatbag-hatin' machine by the time of the Old Republic era, but he's still a formidable opponent. SCORPIO is also pretty much top-notch, though she seems to be lacking in any kind of advanced empathy programming. The assassin droids in the movies don't get much screen time, but what we do see of them speaks volumes. 4LOM appears to have the standard protocol droid frame with a Gand-designed cranium. As we've seen on C-3PO, the protocol droid body is stiff and ungainly, and poorly suited for combat. Surely 4LOM has some kind of motor upgrades to go along with his radical reprogramming, but we never know for sure. IG-88 is equally unsuccessful. Both of these droids are seen in the background in a recycling room, somewhere in the bowels of Cloud City, when the Ugnaughts are playing monkey-in-the-middle with Threepio's head. Clearly, they failed to catch their targets, and likely fell victim to that clever meatbag, Boba Fett.
Astromech droids, on the other hand, seem more or less unchanged. R2-D2 in a shining example of Galactic Republic-era technology, with a massive array of tools crammed into his barrel-shaped body and jets hidden in his legs. Artoo saves the day at least once in each movie. T7-01 is comparable to R2-D2 in many ways - he is crammed full of the same tricks and tools, has nearly the same irrepressible personality and is a capable fighter when properly equipped.
While SWTOR doesn't have the mass-produced worker-ant B1 battle droids of the Trade Federation, it does have the equivalent of droidekas. Lots and lots of them. As enemy mobs, the three-legged battle droids seem almost more common than the bi-pedal kind. And the Republic Trooper companion, M1-4X, is of the same frame type - cross a droideka with Liberty Prime from Fallout 3, substitute "Sith" for "communists," and you pretty much have M1-4X.
Droids are another example of more or less static technology. They don't change much over the course of 3600 years because they don't need to. They stay on-pace with the other dominant technologies. While it would likely be quite possible to make a droid that is indistinguishable from a living being (check out Luke's cybernetic hand for proof), it is unlikely that anyone would want to.
There is a theoretical curve that defines how well humans relate to a mechanical being based on how life-like it appears. A box-shaped robot generates the least amount of empathy, but the more and more it becomes anthropomorphized, the more we can relate to it. There comes a point, however, where robots can appear TOO real, and instead of feeling empathy towards them, they begin to appear... creepy. This theory, proposed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, is known as the "Uncanny Valley." Want proof of this concept? Check out CreepyGirl.
This concept probably applies to Wookiees, Gands, Neimoidians and any other species just as much as it applies to humans, and seems a likely reason why the droids in the movies don't look all that different from the droids of the Old Republic era.
How do you believe Old Republic droids stack up against later models? Let us know in our comments!