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.