Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 09, 2011
A new hope

Samuel Johnson said: "A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.". So is a second MMORPG. Or a seventeenth. Actually I lost count. Nevertheless I do feel some hope towards Star Wars: The Old Republic being a fun enough game, which is why I pre-ordered it, in spite of my experience already now being able to point out some major flaws in the game. Like far more people wanting to play a "Jedi Knight" than a "Trooper". Or how you can invite a full group of jedi (which are all tank or healing classes) and still don't find anybody willing to tank or heal. Not to mention how there will be horrible queues and lag on launch day.

While the cynicism is based on experience and awareness of fundamental problems of the genre that SWTOR is unlikely to have solved, the hope is based on what is new in the game. Specifically the hope is that the improved story-telling will make us care about the story. Which is a tall order. World of Warcraft shipped with slow-scrolling quest text so that people would read the story, and one of the first addons widely used was the one that made the quest text appear immediately, so that you could just click accept without reading the story. I don't know if in SWTOR you will always have to hear the full voice-over or whether there is a way to cut it short. But I don't think that the voice-over alone is enough to engage the player more in the story.

Rowan thinks that our neocortex might be too small to care about all these NPCs. I'm not sure Dunbar's number theory really applies to that situation (I know more than 150 characters from books, films, and TV). But what is certainly true is that players tend to care mostly about themselves, and very little about NPC Farmer Brown's problem with the womp rats. Thus the part of the quest text they are interested in is what the reward for them is, and what they'll have to do to get it. Then they'll happily run off to kill those 10 womp rats, and come back for that reward. Why exactly Farmer Brown wanted those womp rats dead isn't of any importance for the player. Thus to succeed the stories of SWTOR have to be more about the player's character than about the NPC's various problems.

So my hope is that the "200 hours of story per class" that Bioware promises will be really about my character, and engaging enough to keep me interested. I hope that the stories are more than window-dressing for repetitive quests. I hope that "developing my character" means developing my avatar's *character*, and not just his stats. Because if it is 200 hours of running errands for Farmer Brown and killing womp rats for him, I know I'll quickly get bored with Star Wars: The Old Republic.

But even if SWTOR really has 200 hours of good story for each of the 8 character classes, the general fate of the game will be determined by the kind of people playing the game. If Bioware manages to attract a lot of new players, people who haven't played a lot of previous MMORPGs, or only ever played casually, they could succeed in a major way. 200 hours is a lot of content if you play casually, and by multiplying it with 8 alts you end up with something like 2 years worth of content for a casual player. On the other hand there will be people concentrating on just one character, believing the old "the game starts at the level cap" fallacy, and playing in a hurry. I bet you'll read about the first people having finished their 200-hour story arc before their free month is over. Soon after we'll hear the first complaints that the game shipped with not enough raid content, and that the raids are too easy anyway. You can never please the bitter veterans, and I'm not sure Bioware already has the wisdom already to not even try. I hope they realize that the unique selling point of Star Wars: The Old Republic is the story-telling, and that this isn't a feature hardcore players are likely to care about. The last thing the MMORPG market needs right now is yet another game in which people rush to the endgame only to find that this endgame doesn't offer enough entertainment for a large enough percentage of the player base to keep the game successful in the long term.

Well, if SWTOR fails there is always hope for Guild Wars 2.
To be honest, the flaws you mention are less a case of "fundamental problems of the genre that SWTOR is unlikely to have solved" as "fundamental problems of the genre that SWTOR very deliberately does not even attempt to solve."
Well, I could see how they would deliberately decide not to solve the class balance problem. A game could be just as viable if half the players play jedi knights as one in which every class is played by one eighth of the players.

Given that Guild Wars 2 *does* solve the healer/tank shortage problem, I don't see why SWTOR wouldn't even try to.

And in the age of cloud computing I really don't understand why game companies don't solve the launch day lag problems by temporarily renting additional capacity. Other companies do when they expect more traffic than usual. And the line "oh, we didn't expect so many people at launch" is really getting very old. Limiting pre-orders is more about shooting yourself in the foot than solving that rush.
I am so not in the mood for mmoprgs these days that neither GW2 nor SWTOR have featured on my radar. I want games that I can play on my own in my own time.

However it sounds like SWTOR may be playable as a single player campaign with a chat room attached that just happens to have other player characters running around. I might be able to get into that. Probably only for a month though and I don't feel like paying €60 for it.
I've had the same questions. Won't everyone play a Jedi? And of course noone will want to tank or heal.

Knowing myself I'll probably play way too much in the first two months and stop playing after three to six months.

200 hours sounds like a lot. But if you play 20 hours a week you'll hit the max level in 10 weeks. And that's not an abnormal amount for a mmorpg player.
I still can't decide if I want to be hipster by deliberately not playing a jedi or if I should just recognize it as the urge to be contrarian for its own sake and go with what I want and be one of the trillion jedi anyway.
The reason we don't care about the NPCs is because we don't have any kind of long term relationship with them.

An interesting MMO would have us developing relationships with NPCs, with this being an important part of character advancement. It would also bring another dimension to evil opponents: they could harm or kill NPCs that we had grown connected to.
Cloud computing imposes additional restrictions to system design that you don't have with your own (or leased) datacenter. CPU-bound servers like instance/realm servers are probably the easiest part, but scaling up I/O-bound servers like the item database server is easier said than done.
I kinda second Neo. You could have NPCs that you "cared" about in a sense--- if they demonstrated personality, if it was more than a guy standing there with three errands for you to do. Maybe NPCs should come with you and try to help. You kill the womp rats, so he asks you to help plant the crops now that the womp rats won't eat it. So you get on a plow and help him. Then you defend the crops from sand people. Then you harvest it and take it to market.

All of a sudden Farmer Brown couldn't just as easily be replaced by a vending machine that poops jobs.
I have to take issue with the text scrolling. I hated it and I read darned near every quest. The slow scroll, as I recal, was not only slower than I read some bits but entirely distracting to boot.
MMORPG as a genre has some issues when it comes to telling stories. All great stories have some key components, irrespective of the medium. Some of these are powerful motivation, deep characterisation and the ability to suspend disbelieve. Now it may be possible for an MMORPG to create the back stories and characters that will drive a plot, but I struggle to see how they will be able to achieve the most important – suspend disbelieve.

When I was the Nameless One, I had a sidekick called Morte and he was a floating skull. We did some pretty fantastical things in some really nonsensical settings, yet I immersed myself fully in the story - because the writers and developers were able to suspend my disbelieve. The moment I see three other Morte’s hovering around other characters, my disbelieve will stop being suspended and the most powerful element of the story will be lost. Planescape might still have been a good game without a gripping story (though I doubt it). This holds for any game that succeeded in telling a story – Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc. Now take MMORPGs - just the number of other heroes running around trying to achieve the exact very same thing as you, coupled with the fact that a massive persistent online world cannot really change, makes it extremely difficult to invest emotional energy into the story. There’s a reason your character in an MMORPG is usually pretty generic and without much personal motivation – what’s the point of putting all the effort into such a story when you can’t achieve the most important thing – make players believe the story?

Don’t get me wrong – I will play SW:TOR and I really hope that it's a good game. But I don’t think it will stand or fall by the storytelling, but rather by the same things that make other themepark online games tick – fun, repeatable content (whether it is grinding mobs, crafting, dungeons, controlled PvP or whatever).
Jedi? F that, I'm rolling a smuggler - and I WILL shoot first, have no doubt :D
Players are selfish and will only really care about NPCs who are actively and personally useful to them (or hateful towards them).

In fact, if a game seems to be pushing a player towards caring about an NPC, a lot of players will deliberately resist this and make a whole point of 'why should my character care?'
I used the fast quest text addons not to skip the quest text, but because I could read so much faster than the text scrolled at launch. I'd get frustrated trying to read the damn thing. I preferred to have the quest appear, then read it at my own speed.

It's the reason why I'm not fond of voiceovers, because they're slower than reading.
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