Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 28, 2009
 
Skipping pillars

Imagine that in some MMORPG at the start of a combat you could hit the ESC key and by that way skip all the boring details of the fight, and fast forward directly to the end, with you having lost some health and mana, and the mob lying in front of you, dead and looted. Ridiculous idea, combat is one of the pillars of MMORPG gameplay, skipping combat makes no sense at all.

Now Bioware claims that in Star Wars: The Old Republic storytelling will be another pillar, as important as combat. But people definitely have a habit of skipping storytelling in previous games. If SWTOR tells you the quest text with voice acting, will you be able to hit the ESC key and skip it? And if that functionality isn't in the game, will players demand it?

The new SWTOR gameplay trailer shows how this voice acting works in a bit more detail. Fortunately it isn't just one long droning quest text, but there is some dialogue, with dialogue options. But if you look closer, you'll wonder whether these "options" really influence anything in EVERY dialogue. They sure do in some dialogues, but when you see the developers point out especially how in this one dialogue with the captain you can choose to kill him or cooperate with him, then what about the previous dialogues? There is a scene in the trailer where the bounty hunter has dialogue options like "I'm just here for the money" and "I'm just here to kick ass and chew bubblegum". Now theoretically that could influence the quest reward, giving more money in one case, more bubblegum in the other. But I have a faint suspicion that these dialogue options are just for fluff. You get to choose what your character says, but the quest afterwards proceeds exactly the same way whatever you say. Between you clicking for the first time on the quest NPC and you finally having the quest in your log and leaving there might be several minutes of voice acting dialogue with no consequence, and one could well imagine that some people would prefer that ESC key to skip it. So if people want to skip storytelling, but not combat, is storytelling really such a pillar?

By the way, 20-minute, 4-part trailer then proceeds to show SWTOR combat. Which, predictably, looks very nice, and starwarsy. I couldn't really get all that excited about the dev telling us how the warrior has this wonderful charge ability, as I'm already playing a warrior who has charge, even if it doesn't involve jumping through the air and wielding light sabers. Looking at the UI I saw, predictably again, that combat will involve clicking on an enemy, and then using hotkey buttons to launch a range of special abilities, different from class to class. Now which previous MMORPG did I see a similar system in? Oh yeah, I remember: All of them! It worried me a bit that in the part which supposedly was "high level combat", the character had a choice of a grand total of six different buttons to press, but then I thought that this is probably just the early version, and there will be many more abilities in the final game. So all in all, combat looks good, appears to be solid, but doesn't offer much in the way of innovation, apart from a cover system for smugglers. I'm looking forward to SWTOR, but sooner or later somebody will call it "WoW in space" or "WoW with jedis" or something like that, and Richard Bartle will say "I already played SWTOR, it was called WoW", and we'll have that whole discussion again about how different a MMORPG has to be before you can consider it innovative.
Comments:
Other games tackle this by allowing you to skip cinemas or story sequences when you repeat the content. Very few people skip the original story content if it isn't trivial.

Not trivial-mission cutscenes the first time.

trivial-"kill ten rats" flavor text, mission cutscenes the third time. (though some can be so badass you watch them again for the fun of it)

I'd only demand it if the game forced a lot of grinding flashpoints for reputation or because you often wiped them.
 
You are almost 100% right. Everybody who played the prior RPGs (Baldurs gate/Neverwinternights...) knows this. They claim they like stories and some of them are good.

(Planescape Torment is unbeaten and Mask of the Betrayer really wasn't bad if you played the really evil guy - actually it was amazing .. need to replay this)

However, your dialogue options almost never had any meaning, and from a RP background: Most of these dialogue lines were made for little children who want to be cool.
If you want to play a reasonable, credible guy, you always run in the problem that you had to say nice things, to get the people do what you want them to do.

The game, however, then also thought that you are a real nice guy and suddenly you were not the evil villain, but the hero who just safed the world - although he only did it, because playing nice was for his own benefit and he didn't care at all about being a hero.

Very frustrating this was ;)
 
From what I saw in those TOR videos, I wasn't very impressed. It was Mass Effect meets WoW. It wasn't revolutionary, just evolutionary. It's not going to change the genre.

But in Mass Effect, you would skip the voice crap by hitting the space bar, and move onto your next chat option to get things moving. I'm sure it will get lots of use in TOR.
 
Hmmm now that EvE is having some connection issues, at least for me, I've gone back to some AoC, and I find myself rarely skipping through voice acting. Unless for some reason I've heard the same line before on the same char. In NWN and Mass Effect, I did the same, only skipping those I had heard before. So if the voice acting is good in SWTOR, I'll see that as a nice bonus. I find that some proper voice acting really makes you feel part of the world that bit more.

And SWTOR being WoW in space? Well if that means WoW in space with a dash of Lotro style storytelling and better graphics/more convenient UI than WoW and...

Heck I'm just saying that SWTOR doesn't need to be revolutionary, the WoW gameplay model is no more broken than RTS's or FPS's are. Sure, both evolve, but the basic idea is still the same as in Dune II and Doom. And errmmm. It will be Star Wars, you know? Star Wars is cool and all.
 
I've experienced this in AoC, during the trial I played about 2 months ago. I loved many aspects of the game, but the "storytelling" was nothing short of torturous. All quests in your Destiny chain and all quests in Tortage, the famous starter zone, are voiced (and all the accents are silly). And every single interaction with a quest-NPC throughout the entire game puts you into "interactive cutscene" mode, complete with awkward camera angle and a selection of answers.

And you already wrote yourself what the two main problems are. For one, there might be a complex dialogue tree, but your effective choice always ends up being "accept the quest" or "stand around, doing nothing". There is no secret path to uncover, no reputation to gain or to lose, no matter what nonsense responses you click, you'll always be driven to that basic choice. And for another, the quest you'll get will be "kill 10 rats" in 80% of the cases anyway (although there are notably nice exceptions).
 
>Richard Bartle will say "I already played SWTOR, it was called WoW"

So long as I don't have to say, "I already played SWTOR and it was called KOTOR".

Richard
 
Why is there so much talk about a MMO being innovative or not? In my experience the successful games do what the player expect but does it really well.

As for the story, couldn't this be solved in the same way you have pvp- and rp- servers in many games. Have story-servers or add non-skippable stories to rp-servers only.
 
Agree with Baktru, there's nothing inherently bad with "WoW in Space". I'm pretty sure lots of people would want to play exactly that. The problem of many MMOs isn't that they are similar to WoW, it's that they fail to hold up to the standards in quality and offered content.

Also funny, how we both brought AoC as an example .. for opposing arguments. Allow me to say that I love a good story. The problem is just, that the stories told aren't really that good. And also, too numerous. Immersing into one deep and well thought out story thread at a time, with voice acting and dialogues, is one thing. Going through the process every time you need to perform some trivial task however, isn't really that spectacular.
 
Yes I've been thinking about the same thing. It's probably one thing to go through the dialogue once, but what if you need to do it again on another character? Do you really want to hear all of it each and every time? Then it might be almost essential to be able to skip at least some of it. Well it will at least be interesting to see how it will function.

And regarding Richard's comment that it might be too much like KOTOR, I think that's really a possibility. That movie shows that it's really not that different in my opinion. I'm not so sure if that's a bad thing though. KOTOR was a single player RPG, so if you can apply most of it to a MMO environment and get the same feeling it really might be good.

Nils commented that PST and NWN-Mask of the betrayer were really good. I agree with PST, but Mask of the betrayer had a mechanic which changed your character in a fundamental way. Therefore it became an object for much debate. I think that's a game where you either love or hate it, rarely in between. I really think that they should avoid falling into such traps when developing games. :)
 
there is skipping of combats actually :) it's called MyBrute (went like the flu throughout the internet for a while)

otherwise i totally agree. the dialogue thing has been tried several times; more recently in AoConan for example;

the thing about cinematics and dialogue is - they have NO REPlAYABILITY whatsoever :/

i remember when way back when GuildWars launched with cnematic in-engine cuts one of the first things patched was... a "Skip" button.

ans when AoC came out - one of the first things demanded was - arranging all dialogues so that if you click repeatedly "1" (for the first option) you get the quest (or otherwise advance in the default way)

I'm not saying SWTOR will be a flop, i'm just more or less expecting 8 single-player RPGs with some online icing (which is not that bad after all).
 
"Imagine that in some MMORPG at the start of a combat you could hit the ESC key and by that way skip all the boring details of the fight, and fast forward directly to the end, with you having lost some health and mana, and the mob lying in front of you, dead and looted. Ridiculous idea, combat is one of the pillars of MMORPG gameplay, skipping combat makes no sense at all."

Honestly I found this quite hilarious, since this is pretty much what most WoW players seem to want. WoW has somehow created one of the most impatient player bases in any game.

Anything that will make the game 'faster' is welcomed with open arms and anything that might force them to take it slower is shouted down. Players are killing mobs faster and faster, leveling is faster and faster, travel is faster, quests are faster... Reagents are out because they slow things down, Ghost runs are faster, in fact every section of the game has been sped up so it can.. I dunno, be over sooner? So what's the point?

Designers can't keep making games this way or we will end up with a scenario where you press one button and the game effectively does everything for you in a few seconds. My guess is that players will then complain that they shouldn't have to watch as their character kills 500 enemies, loots them and gains 20 levels.. they should be able to skip that by pressing escape.
 
I loved the way AoC handled dialogue for the Destiny Quests and later some other quests too. But I realise that as someone who enjoys the more RPG-like elements in an MMORPG I'm part of a small minority. For me the Storytelling pillar will be a major asset whether other people click through or not. I wouldn't mind a click-to-skip-combat in most MMO's today though. With the exceptions of AoC and CoX and some classes in Vanguard most combat is really tedious and often times you can predict with very high accuracy how much health uou will have depleted at the end of combat.

When I saw the low number of abilites available to that higher level Bounty Hunter my thought was "thank God! Finally an MMO that doesn't go for the treadmill of adding a new ability every odd level and an upgrade every even level so you end up with 40+ abilities spread over your 'hotbar'. The finished product will undoubtedly have more than teh six or so we see, but would a maximum of 20 really be so bad? Both AoC (melee anyway) and CoX combat systems are pretty decent and doesn't require 40+ abilities either.
 
There's nothing wrong with having a similar game but very polished. Lots of people would enjoy a WoW clone that is even better then the original, I would.

And you can not let your dialogue options influence everything. The indie game Masq tried that. Every word you said influenced the rest of the game:

The approximate effective playtime to finish the 5 episodes is 50 minutes.

It contains more than 3000 different scenes, hundreds of different paths and many different endings.


Yes, hundreds of paths for 50 minutes of gameplay. It's currently just not possible to let all your actions have an effect. Let alone in a game as big as an mmorpg. But the replay value is a lot higher. I must have replayed Masq twenty times. And for an mmorpg replay value means fun levelling! I'll just quote the rest of the article as I think it's interesting:


Even when our design model limits the branching from becoming an unmanageable process, it still requires a wide range of decision trees, which scares people away. They believe branching is expensive.

Expensive is a relative term, it depends how much available budget you have, and what kind of revenue you are expecting in return.

Let's assume that our branching requires us to produce 10 times more material than that required for a linear story. It may seem that the ratio is 1 seen (by the players) to 10 produced, but our market tests have shown that people re-play the experience on average 5 times, enjoying different paths of the simulation. So the ratio is not really 1 to 10, but 1 to 2 which may sound much more acceptable.

Another approach is to think that in some degree we're creating 10 stories that will appeal to different audiences, the same way different books appeal to different people. We're increasing the audience and therefore the return. As long as the return is greater than the investment, it is viable business.

Finally, being the active protagonist of a story and getting an exciting alternative life for a while, is a powerful (and somewhat unique) proposition therefore more people will be willing to pay more for it.

We're expecting to recover many times the production cost of every web story (simulation). So, if the return exceeds the investment, this is worth it. We believe this cost-benefit relationship can be maintained as well on most delivery platforms.

You have to approach this issue from a business perspective.

 
Designers can't keep making games this way or we will end up with a scenario where you press one button and the game effectively does everything for you in a few seconds.

www.progressquest.com : That game already exists. And people do *pay* other people to WoW for them, as you can see by the offers of various powerleveling services.
 

Immersing into one deep and well thought out story thread at a time, with voice acting and dialogues, is one thing. Going through the process every time you need to perform some trivial task however, isn't really that spectacular.


That's exactly the point. I stress it, because some people seem to think that WoW quests aren't good enough from a story PoV. That may be true, but what's at least as important is what REM said.
 
Nils commented that PST and NWN-Mask of the betrayer were really good. I agree with PST, but Mask of the betrayer had a mechanic which changed your character in a fundamental way. Therefore it became an object for much debate. I think that's a game where you either love or hate it, rarely in between. I really think that they should avoid falling into such traps when developing games. :)

I agree 100%. But the story (the one for reral evil charcters) was very good.
 
If SWTOR tells you the quest text with voice acting, will you be able to hit the ESC key and skip it? And if that functionality isn't in the game, will players demand it?

Based on past experience, I suspect they will (especially Achiever types). In MMOs the pressure to level quickly seems to be very high, and some people get upset about anything that gets in the way of light-speed leveling. It also sounds like the game will have a PvP-focused endgame, so the PvP types will probably try to speed their way to that.

As a point of reference, Guild Wars gave players the option of skipping cutscenes, and the vast majority of people (at least the ones I grouped with) did skip them.

Ridiculous idea, combat is one of the pillars of MMORPG gameplay, skipping combat makes no sense at all.

Unbelievably, there are MMOs that have automated combat. I know Legends of Zork does, and I think there are others too. Progress Quest looks less and less like a parody every day.
 
About the 6 abilities part, are you saying a combat system is better when you have 5 different hotbars of skills (of which you still mash 2-3 95% of the time) like in WoW, versus the 1-2 hotbars in WAR or other games? It just came off like more=better, which I don't agree with and I'm just wondering if I read that wrong.

The story pillar thing I'll only buy into once I've played it myself. Not only do players love to skip dialog and story, but how many hours can you keep someone playing while giving them deep and interesting story the whole time? Even the longest RPGs cap out around 100 hours, and for an MMO that's very short. We (rightfully so) complain that Blizzard is slow to updated WoW, is Bioware going to be able to keep pace with the average MMO gamer and continually add more and more story? Even LotRO, which had a fantastic update schedule early in its life, was not able to give people ENOUGH every month.
 
are you saying a combat system is better when you have 5 different hotbars of skills (of which you still mash 2-3 95% of the time) like in WoW

No wonder you hate WoW: You were playing it wrong! Just kidding. But how many keys you use depends very much on the class you play, and whether you play in a group or solo. While some classes especially in solo play can get away with mashing just 2-3 buttons 95% of the time, that is definitely the most boring type of combat.

I do not want any sort of combat where how fast you can press a button becomes more important than choosing the right button to press. I don't think 6 buttons is enough for that. Nor do I think 100 buttons would be good either. The optimum lies somewhere in the middle, where players have meaningful tactical choices, without being overwhelmed.
 
Yeah, if it actually causes a different reaction, people will be less likely to try to skip past it the 2nd time around, but also, they will try it a 4th , 5th, many more times. If the game has subscriptions or some way to keep getting revenue from you for how long you stay in making alts, that's good for them. Amazing, profit driven subscriptions would actually have caused them to make something interesting we like! instead of grind, well at least up front.

If it's like KOTOR where there are basically 2 choices only per class, that won't be so good. If it's restricted that much to save time/money, that won't be so great.

For instance, did they anticipate a Sith who wants light points, or do they have to go dark side? And is the dark side intelligent or just stupid bullying half the time like in KOTOR?

I hope it's not simpllstic good and evil like KOTOR was, (I wanted to try to play one like the old woman - who rejected both the Jedi and Sith, she beleived not in hurting others but just being practical, but you were punished for trying to play that way) But since it seems Lucas himself has input I don't have high hopes.
 
The first time everyone plays through SW:TOR they will watch all the cut scenes, assuming they don't get repetitive.

The second time everyone will want to ESC through them.

Story is good for playing a game once, but it wont hold replay customers. Do you really think EVERY class is going to have different story lines and quests? Or do we take the logical assumption that they just repeat the basic quests for every class.

The Final Fantasy series has one of the best story lines in a RPG. I typically play one through 3 to 4 times at 90 hours a play through. It's not the story line that drives me to do this, it's perfecting my characters. That's also only 15 days played which is fairly small by MMO standards.

While a story can be the pillar of a MMO, it can't be the foundation.
 
Okay, but are there healer ans tank archetypes and raiding? :)
 
Actually, people do skip combat. It's called botting or macroing.

Even if some of the dialogue choices are irrelevant, the point is to keep the player engaged and actually doing something. Probably the main reason players skip quest text is not that they're not interested, but that it's a completely passive activity and they want to be doing something!

In combat, the choice between using a sword attack that does +20 damage or one that does +5 damage with a bleed is unlikely to change the final outcome of a fight, but having the choice keeps the player engaged. Most fights in many MMOs can be won by just pressing the same button over and over, essentially 'skipping' the combat, but people rarely do that unless that's actually the optimal way to do it (frostbolt spam, hoo!).

In the same way, making 'quest text' more interactive will keep the player involved, and thus less likely to skip it. There will, of course, always be people who want to skip it no matter what, just as there are people who macro or bot combat.
 
Back in Ultima 4 your choices actually did influence the game outcome. In fact, I think that negative player behavior in 3 (killing the guards and looting the town coffers for gold) influenced the design of 4. I think that a design that player decisions impact NPC relationships was a good thing (what you do, and for whom you are ‘working’). When I first played WoW it took a while to realize that quests and quest-givers don't really impact anything very much other than to hand you a few coins and an occasional magic item. WoW only slightly implemented a 'cause-effect' idea with "reputation", which is pretty much directly linked to combat and quests -- though the only 'choice' in quests is whether or not to do them.

I think that the core issue was that the WoW design team were unwilling to take on the design and support of what amounted to religions and philosophies behind NPC cultures. And it never really developed in the player interactions in WoW, since you can’t really impact another player very much: There are virtually zero non-consensual interactions within a faction, and the primary cross-faction interaction is ‘to kill, or not to kill’ (on a PvP server).
 
I won't skip the scenes if I'm rewarded for watching them. Watch the whole cutscene give me "x" amount of xp. If not I just want to move on to the next marker.

Combat is a pillar to a combat game as story telling was to Myst.
 
Control schemes are fairly limited by the i/o devices players possess. Whatever we do, it's going to involve either pushing buttons or mouse gestures (a far worse idea).

Is it more a gripe about the method in which hotkeys are used? Fighting game combat is hotkeys with sequential combos. Action game combat is hotkeys with more movement; both it and shooter-style combat strongly favour physical reflexes (Mount & Blade is a fair example of what this would look like in a fantasy MMO; I wouldn't be opposed to its extension.). The only compromise between fighting-games and tactical combat that I know of is a MUD called God Wars II which has fairly slow combat that requires players to enter commands for each hand, their feet, and their head, which in combination and sequence create more complicated techniques, but its complexity drives most new players away.

I just don't currently see an alternative while the games remain real-time.

Tobold, could you elaborate on what you're looking for, or point me to an existing post that does so?
 
I think "every quest" dialogue is too much. I thought I'd like it, but watching the walkthrough game play videos on the Star Wars MMO last week I was a bit put off. A little more voiced dialogue in Wow would be great. There are a number of times in Wow where epic quests and major plot shifts would have been much more immersive if they'd been more cinematic. Two other concerns of mine are:
1. the game size. All that dialogue takes up space unless it's TTS (it didn't sound TTS).
2. I often wander away from my PC while playing (I have a young son). I'd miss quite a few bits of quests if its all speech.
 
The curiously significant dialogue options in the walkthrough videos seem to reflect more the constraints of an effective demo than they are representative of the game in total. Bioware chose to focus on one encounter that had a story beat with binary choices and obvious consequences. Contrast that to demos for Alpha Protocol where the developers run through disparate story moments, each told from different perspectives or choosing different dialogue options. Given their pedigree, I'm willing to take Bioware's word at this point that dialogue options will be significant even if every situation does not find you the protagonist deciding the fate of others. In any case I don't think anyone can infer much about the game as a whole from one demo that they've been showing press since before E3.

Granting, though, that a lot of the dialogue options will not alter how the conversation or scene unfolds, the mere fact that you can interact during these moments will help engage the player. PvE combat in most modern MMOs operates in a similar fashion. You might choose option one, fireball, or option two, lightning bolt, but the end (for run of the mill enemies) is the same. A large part of these encounters seems to be the player's choice in what ability to bring about an all but assured end. For "elite" monsters, one's choices have more weight: ice bolt then firebolt might mean success whereas lightning bolt then fire will spell failure (or at least a much harder time of it). Likewise, potentially, with story SW:TOR. Most of it might be mundane interspersed with moments where the illusion of effecting the story meets some measure of reality.
 
One of my concerns is the part where he is grouped and said that either can continue conversations, with their choices affecting the story. What happens when i have a friend who is dark side and i'm light side? Can we party? What happens if he kills the guy? Does that affect me or him? This is the thing that makes me think this is going to be more single player than others, even if grouping is encouraged, because people will want to go their story route.
 
Hmm, I guess I want something a lot closer to one button combat. There is an element of laziness in it I'm sure, but I submit it is whether you want a tactical or strategic game. And whether you want prehistorical heroes or post-modern war. And I am sure that a lot of it is driven that I don't want to play a twitch game, and the more tactical the game, the more it tends to be a reaction / reflex game.

I.e., in chess, there is no fuss over how the pawn kills the queen, the skill is in getting the right piece at the right place at the right time. Similarly, there are challenges where getting the right team with the right equipment could be the skill. The combat could just be some noise and RNG. And there are two extremes -odds and ratios did not figure into the Achilles and Hercules stories. The other extreme is to say that wars are essentially decided before they are begun; If you have 10,000 factories and field an army of 2 million ex-accountants and the opposition has 5000 factories and 1 million ...

If you have increasingly homogenized classes, skills, and gear, then the only thing you can rely on is putting some running around in during the RNG.
 
@Graktar:
"Actually, people do skip combat. It's called botting or macroing."

Consider football manager games. An entire, remarkably popular, genre of games, dedicated to setting up for botted combat, and skipping directly to the result.

Or, back to MMOs, crafters/industrialists/traders. They can have zero interest in combat/harvesting, only in the raw materials.
 
I do not get the obsession with innovation. It's an MMORPG. Therefore it's going to adhere to certain genre conventions, particularly with respect to classes and combat. Why does everyone dismiss each new MMORPG as a clone? It's like saying the new t-shirt you bought today is worthless because OMG it's the same color as the t-shirt you bought last year. Not that that fact in any way diminishes its value or the fact that it covers your torso.

It's like complaining that your MP3 player requires you to use earbuds or headphones to listen, and that all future MP3 players are destined to be useless iPod clones (which was a clone itself) until such time as someone invents the kind where the earbuds crawl in like earwigs, implant themselves, and you'll never have to worry about the wires again.

New MMORPGs are not WoW clones. WoW itself is a clone of Everquest, dumbed down for the masses. EverQuest was a clone of Ultima Online, minus the eternal gankfest. Everything - in MMORPGs, as in fiction - is derivative.

Please, save us all from yet more posts about how MMORPGs coming up are like and play like, well... MMORPGs. If I didn't want to play an MMORPG, I wouldn't. But because I do, there are a certain set of rules that I more or less expect said MMORPG to observe. Same as when I pull a high fantasy book off the shelf, or a mystery, or a whatever- it is a genre and as such, will follow certain rules.
 
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