By David Radd
“So what are you doing?” I asked my wife playing World of Warcraft.
“I’m questing,” she responded.
“What are you doing it for?” I inquired.
“I’m killing some things and collecting some items for this guy,” she responded. (At the time, she mentioned the proper nouns for what she was doing, but trust me when I say it does not matter what exactly it was).
“But why are you doing it?” I continue asking, intrigued by the surroundings.
“To get experience,” she informed me.
“No, what’s the REASON for the quests?” I followed up.
“Because it’s next in the chain,” she said, engrossed in her task.
“No, I mean what’s the story importance of these quests?” I persist.
“Oh…” she said, understanding what I was getting at. “I don’t know, I didn’t read the flavour text from the quest giver.”
It didn’t take long for me to realise that this is the MO for almost all of the quests in World of Warcraft, and MMORPGs in general. You go to a town/hamlet/crossroads, one or more people with an exclamation point are standing around, they tell you 99% of the time to do a variation on three basic quests – find/deposit X number of items in the area, kill Y number of monsters, receive Z number of item drops from monsters in the area. Doing so results in being showered with gold, experience and (usually) item rewards. When you’re doing variations on that for hours on end, you usually aren’t incentivized to read the small amount of text explaining the reasons behind theshopping list of quests and many players simply learn not to.
It is into this environment that Star Wars: The Old Republic hopes to carve out a niche. Yes, the game from BioWare. Yes, the game with a huge amount of voice work doled out by NPCs in meaningful, story driven decisions. It’s a main point of scepticism for me, since the pursuit of many MMO gamers that I have observed (gaining experience, getting better “loot,” crafting items, spending time with other people, joining guilds and going on raids) does not seem to be complemented by the comparatively contemplative route of a story-driven RPG.
If anyone has spent any time trying to play a slower, more story-oriented game with or around other people, they’ll know it can be a challenge. Often, one or more parties present won’t have the patience to sit and listen/read and sometimes players will want to return to the action as soon as possible. Yet other times, some people can’t take the story seriously and will joke and make comments during the dialog (anyone who has been to a theatre has problem experienced this as well). MMOs are typically the antithesis of a serious story experience – players make references to the real world all the time, constantly joking and making smart alec remarks; they’ll jeer bosses in dungeons if they soliloquize for too long before getting to the fight (understandable when you realise that most players have seen the “touching” moment multiple times in a night). In worlds where death is a trivial inconvenience and players are a smaller cog in the machinery of a group/guild/faction, individual story importance for BlondeBombshell the elf mage is neither asked for nor required.
There is a way around this problem in an MMO, however – make every story part of the game into what is called an “instance.” Perhaps there will be larger “hub” areas in which players interact in larger groups, but when they go out on quests and missions, they’ll either be by themselves in their own “instance” of an area or with a very small group of people. From the sounds of it, Star Wars: TOR will rely more heavily on NPC companions with personalities than perhaps any MMO previous, and use of instances has worked for MMOs like Global Agenda in the past.
So perhaps this is both feasible and preferable in a story-reliant game like this to instance out the wazoo. This does present a problem, however: if people are going to be spending all their time in their own little instances of the universe by themselves, it calls into question what reason, if any, the game should be an MMO in the first place. It’s a careful balance between having a persistent world where you see other players running around and feeling like you’re someone unique and special. Nothing ruins immersion faster than queuing up to complete a quest, tapping your finger waiting for things to respawn because someone just came through and steamrolled all the enemies dead. Descriptions of MMO quests as being like an “amusement park” seem apt; you go on the same path of thousands before you, you see the sights but nothing in the world changes because of your actions – it’s all a facade that you’re somehow reducing the population of X monster or permanently solving the problem of Y NPC. MMO players have gotten used to this because of the mindset of being a “soldier in an army”… but if you’re supposed to be a galaxy saving hero, can the illusion survive the fraying that an MMO naturally produces?
Going back to the necessity of this being an MMO, the question I have is… why in the blue hellwasn’t the game developed as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 3, a continuation of a single-player experience that’s been critically acclaimed and well received in the past? This offline RPG series lets players play the role of saviour /destroyer of the galaxy without the possibility of someone named LightsaberInMyPants running up and griefing them. The most persistent complaint I’ve read about Star Wars: TOR is that it’s not a single-player experience for PC/PS3/Xbox 360. Given the time and resources they’ve already devoted to the game, it seems like a game (or two!) could have come out in the Knights of the Old Republic series and would have been that much more graphically impressive. Speaking of graphics… the style of TORseems to be trying to replicate the look of the Clone Wars CG animated series, a decision that irks me. I realise the ongoing Clone Wars series is the most current Star Wars product out on the market now, but I would have preferred something closer to the aesthetics of the Knights of the Old Republic series. That’s just a personal gripe, however, and not as much of a deal-breaker as class balance.
Star Wars: TOR also has multiple playable classes; if this were a Knights of the Old Republicgame, the player’s character would be a Force-user and his companions would fill out the roles of soldiers, droids, bounty hunters, etc. In the Star Wars universe, people want to be a sagacious mystical warrior, and who can blame them? This presents an issue in Star Wars: TOR, however, because it means that players will overwhelmingly play the Jedi/Sith classes. Anyone who has spent time with MMOs knows that class balance is always an issue and players tend to gravitate towards the classes seen as having the most utility/power; it’ll be worse with Jedi/Sith because they’re the stars of the galaxy (so to speak). From what I can gather, the presence of Bounty Hunter/Imperial Agent/Trooper/Smuggler classes isn’t necessary in scenarios involving a group of adventurers, but that may make them all the rarer.
Despite my reservations, I’m not expecting Star Wars: TOR to be “one of the greatest failures in the history of MMOs.” For one, the Star Wars brand is still very strong, even over five years since the last of the prequel films (though that certainly didn’t help Star Wars Galaxies). EA has also invested too much in the game over the years (estimated $80 million on development alone) to not push it very hard, and will probably market it successfully to the masses. BioWare is also not a force to be trifled with; if anyone was to pull off an ambitious project such as a story-based MMO with full voice work that blends the best parts of Mass Effect with World of Warcraft, it would be BioWare. They’ve certainly been given the time to polish the game to the state that is needed to compete against other subscription MMOs that have been on the market for a while.
The “launch” period of the game, I’m not terribly worried about – enough people will give the game a try that EA will probably make their investment back; what I question is if it will be a world-beater in the long term to truly contest against World of Warcraft. The main wag of the game appears to be its story content where players can make choices that affect their storyline, and each of the eight classes is said to have their own unique backstory. That’s an impressive amount of content, and maybe that will keep players occupied for 100 – 150 hours per character. That might seem like a lot, but to a determined MMO player, they’ll blow through that in a month or two. There’s always the option to play multiple characters (and some will certainly do that) but most people will just care about advancing their one character. Will these people care enough to play the non-storyline end game content to keep their subscription?
The process of generating new story content for Star Wars: TOR, if it’s going to take into account different player choices and include spoken voices for all the NPCs, is going to be nearly as monumental a task as making the game in the first place. Will people really want to keep their subscription for several months, perhaps even a couple years, while waiting for the next “episode” of the adventure? I suppose we’ll all get to find out when the game finally releases at the end of the year (or early next).