Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Epic can't be repeated

If you were tasked to represent the gameplay of a MMORPG as some sort of flow diagram, you would probably find it useful to think of it as having basic repeating units, like combat. These can be stacked inside of each other, so that you have repeating daily quests or dungeons which each have repeating combats. These repeating units are held together by the unique parts, the non-repeating stuff: Unique zones, quests, and stories. While two zones or quests might resemble each other, they aren't identical, and often you can do a quest only once, or stay in a zone only for a limited level range.

Now if you look at a decade of MMORPG development, you will find that the focus of MMORPGs evolved slowly from the repeating part to the unique part: In Everquest a player would spend the whole play session "camping" the same spawn point. In WoW he would do many different quests. And in SWTOR he will have far more evolved stories, cinematic sequences, and voice acting to tell the quests and the stories.

This evolution to more unique content has both technical and financial reasons. Technical because things are possible in 2011 which weren't possible in 2001. Financial because SWTOR's "40 novels worth of voice acting" are rumored to have driven up the cost of the game to 300 million dollars, an investment which would have been unthinkable in 2001. But with World of Warcraft making a billion dollars of revenue each year, investing 300 million in a possible successor doesn't sound completely crazy any more.

But the evolution to more unique content also reveals a focus on a broader audience. If you play just one character in SWTOR, you will never be able to experience those 40 novels worth of unique content, because much of it is in class quests for the other 7 classes. And you'd better not be in a hurry to level up as quickly as possible, because accepting a simple "kill 10 womp rats" quest in SWTOR can take minutes. You can skip all the dialogue with the space bar (don't use ESC, because that resets the dialogue and you'd have to start over to continue). But if you do that, you are basically back to WoW, having lost most of the selling point of SWTOR.

With beta testing for most people having been limited to one or several weekends, there can't have been many people who reached the level cap in the beta. So while there has been very little talk about the endgame of SWTOR, nothing I read suggests that Bioware has made any great breakthrough in that area. The endgame is the point where the unique content stops, and everybody finds himself in some sort of loop of repeating content, ranging from daily quests to raids.

I do like the way SWTOR tells its stories, both in quests and in dungeons. But even the most epic story in the most epic quest or dungeon is epic only once. When playing the second class through the same newbie zone, I found myself skipping dialogue I already knew, because the second time around it simply isn't all that entertaining any more. Thus while I do consider SWTOR a "better" game than World of Warcraft, a "WoW 2.0", during the leveling phase, I doubt that SWTOR has any advantage over WoW in the endgame. The famous "forth pillar" simply isn't suited for the endgame.

My wife still plays World of Warcraft, but she basically never does the WoW endgame. She levels up characters to the cap, plays a few daily quests, and then starts the next character. Also she doesn't play a huge amount of hours per week. For me it seems evident that Star Wars: The Old Republic is designed for people like my wife. I am pretty sure she will love that game, and due to her pace of playing and preference for alts she won't run out of content anytime soon. If Bioware is somewhat faster than Blizzard in adding expansions, she might actually NEVER run out of unique content. How awesome is that? There is a good chance that Bioware can not only attract millions of players like that, but then also hold onto them for quite a long time.

The kind of players who write or read blogs about MMORPGs often tend to play these games more intensely. There is a good chance that they will be more concentrated on a single main character, will still have that "the game begins at the endgame" mindset, and will play significantly more hours per week. And there is a good chance that SWTOR isn't all that new and great for that style of gaming. Certainly the promise of endless unique content goes out of the window if you play SWTOR like that. 300 million dollars buys a LOT of content, but not enough that somebody sufficiently dedicated can not outplay it. And then it isn't obvious what the advantage of playing SWTOR would be, compared to playing WoW or Rift or LotRO or whatever.

Thus my prediction for 2012 is that SWTOR will grow rapidly and keep players better than games like Age of Conan or Warhammer Online did. But among bloggers and game sites, the positive attitude towards the game will end much earlier. We will get a lot of "hardcore" players telling us what a sucky game SWTOR is, while Bioware is making hundreds of millions of dollars. And I'm pretty sure that Bioware prefers it that way, rather than the other way around.
Most players reach endgame rather fast and if it is fun they like to level new toons. If endgame is not fun they quit.

Otherwise Blizzard would have been stupid making the first two expansions all about endgame.
I think I'm turning into your wife.

Not literaly, but in terms of gaming habits.

I'm far more likely to level an alt these days than read up on raid strats and min-max talents and stats and spam daily quests for the latest gear rewards and obsess over upcoming patch notes and plan and plan and plan...

I'm just not that type of player anymore. Might be again in the future but don't really believe any game will 'get' me to that extent again.

So in that sense SW:TOR sounds like just the ticket for me and those like me. Call us the 'Lapsed Hardcore' if you will. Serious about the quality of the games we play, but not 'serious' in the manner we play them.

I don't really want to repeat Epic over and over again, just the once will be fine thanks, as long as it really IS Epic.
I basically agree. I just hope that Bio does not believe their own hype. I.e., story is nice; better than I expected. And "compelling story" is a much better marketing campaign than "a better WoW" (cough Rift cough). However, being a long-term success is about endgame content, which we don't know much about. (It seems reasonable to bet Bio does not have a revolutionary endgame. But a lot depends on whether they get one or six content patches out over the next 18 months.

Re Nils: if Cata was 25 hours to level 80-85 and TOR is 200 hours and more unique content (i.e., leveling a Jedi Consular vs a Bounty Hunter provides so much more unique content than leveling another WoW class.E.g., Bio points out there is no overlap amongst class quests.) If a TOR customer stays twice or triple as long as a WoW customer, that will help their subscription numbers.
I agree with sonny.

Lately I just think I have reached a point in my life where I don't have the time, or when I do have the time I don't possess the inclination to use it all, in the pursuit of raiding. If I can casually experience some of it later on with a guild I may, but when it comes down to it that part of my gaming career is behind me.

I certainly won't manage to lapse into a perfectly casual mindset where I am at ease in groups and don't care about my gear, etc. I think that would be pretty much impossible for me, I will still be as tense and focused and wanting to perfect what I do do. I will just spend time in smaller chunks, not rush anything, and enjoy the trip rather than sweat the destination.
One and only one rpg fits the title: Ultima VII. Epic can't be repeated. Indeed.
The problem you end having with "unique content" is that it can be hard to form groups for it, since you need people who are in the same "state" as you.
Given the approach which you describe for SWTOR, I'm not sure I understand why they kept levels, which will just work in a way as to prevent people from grouping.
Hi Tobold, I was wondering if you could walk us through what a typical play session would be like in SWTOR, by say a typical MMORPG group that likes to play together. As there are fundamental differences between SWTOR and a typical MMO such as EQ2, where everyone can take the same quests and complete them. In TOR, each character has thier own story arc, and can only participate with their buddies quests if they are of the same class. Can everyone take or share everyone elses quests and quest in the traditional MMO sense? Or are friends going to be restricted somehow from grouping due to the class quests? Thanks!
I'm with Sonny and your wife. Raiding just wore me out. Or I eventually felt like a hamster on a wheel just doing the same thing over and over and over again. And maybe that is why I have enjoyed the time I've got to spend in SWTOR. It's not just "click npc- hit accept - look at map to finish quest". So it has taken me off the wheel to some degree.
Hagu, I really don't agree that long term success has much to do with the end game.

On my old WoW server, realistically at any given time there were MAYBE 200 hardcore raiders on the whole server. We had maybe four guilds that actually came anywhere close to being really successful raiders.

My server was probably below average, but still. The people who would quit if you got rid of raiding are probably outnumbered by the people who would resubscribe because they didn't have to worry about getting pressured into raiding.

If WoW had 10 million subscribers, I would be rather shocked if there was really more than 100,000 people really enjoy raiding all that much. I suspect the majority of people would be just as happy if there was just a lot of fun pvp and fun dungeons to run.
I think you hit the nail on the head with this article. Especially the while Bioware is making hundreds of millions of dollars part.

Hardcore gamers forget that the companies are in business to make profits. And more profits are usually found catering to the masses and not the hardcore.
In TOR, each character has thier own story arc, and can only participate with their buddies quests if they are of the same class. Can everyone take or share everyone elses quests and quest in the traditional MMO sense? Or are friends going to be restricted somehow from grouping due to the class quests?

As far as I know, it is the other way around: You can only enter another player's class quest instance if you are of a DIFFERENT class than him. If you are of the same class, one of you has to mark an option in the preferences which makes that he doesn't get quest completed in that instance. So if you want to quest with a buddy of the same class, you would have to run each class quest instance twice. Mixed groups should work better.

SWTOR might work better than WoW for grouping for quests, because as far as I have seen there is no "phasing".
Your wife's playstyle is similar to mine. Its more flexible yet I still get a feeling of progression. It also allows me, as I'm doing now, to stop playing for a while and not feel as if I'm missing out on anything because I'm not chasing that latest and greatest dungeon.
The reason end game is so important to me is that is where everyone's level meets up. During the leveling process it is harder to play with your friends becaues if they play for an hour or two more then you while you're off line you can't really group with them.
I'm fairly certain that EA/BioWare disputed the 300 million dollar number during one of their earnings calls. They didn't give an exact cost, but said it wasn't as much as had been rumored.
The first weekend I played mostly solo as a Sith Warrior, and throughly enjoyed it.

The next weekend, I played this as a Bounty Hunter with a friend who played an Agent. We took the quests that were part of the world arc together, and participated in each other class quests. It was a blast. I prefer SWTOR in a small group over solo. Plus we got a ton of social points for completing missions while grouped.
Many hardcore players are already bashing SWTOR, based on little more than the feature list and their own fumes of deluded self-importance :P
@ Sonny...

Exactly my sentiments. I was a serious hardcore raider in WoW for years (up until WotLK), and I'm not sure a game could get me to care enough about strats, min/maxing, etc., to get that heavy into an endgame again. For now, give me Skyrim or SW:TOR (which I played in beta) and I'll happily play it through with a couple different characters until it is no longer epic. I could find the time/energy to devote to something like TBC in the future, but that future looks bleak.

@ Tobold...

Is it possible to engineer a game such that each player's success means different outcomes? Traditionally, every player has substantially the same outcome. For example, every priest healer in WoW is seeking "X" set of gear with "Y" talents as an ultimate goal in the endgame. The raid group as a whole (and every raid group) try to clear the same dungeons with the same bosses, resulting in exactly the same outcome.

What if there was a way to vary outcomes so that each player had a truly unique experience with the "unique" elements of the game?
It seems contrary of Bioware to spend $millions on the storyline and then to have a raiding vacuum at the end, sucking gamers into spacing the story in order to get jump start on the endgame. If there's a defining weakness of the WoW model then this has to be it.
I'm pretty sure Nils is wrong when he says that "most players reach endgame rather fast". I don't have the time or the inclination to do the research right now, but I'm pretty sure that I've read many interviews over the years where MMO producers have stated that only a very small percentage of players ever reach the level-cap.

Of course, MMOs are much "easier" now than they used to be and leveling takes a lot less time, but my personal experience over the last decade is that almost no-one in any of the small guilds I've been in in various MMOs has reached the cap. A few have hit it in crafting professions, but I can't offhand think of a single person that hit the adventuring cap.

I consider my playstyle to be pretty laid back, but I'm a massive over-achiever compared to most of the non-blogging, non-gaming-site visiting guildies I've chatted to over many years. For most of those people the endgame that gets discussed so often on blogs just doesn't exist.

Of course, I can't speak for WoW. I never joined a guild there.
SWTOR in my experience is actually extremely group questing friendly. you are phased into the same story once you are grouped, you get to pick responses, the best part was that if you split up and one of you goes to turn in the group quest, you don't even need to be next to quest giver to do so as well. the game gives you holocommute options, so you still get to participate in quest turn in if you so wish. couple of group quests that I did had 2 out of 4 people holo commuting. and the game ACTUALY shows you as a group, different people get to answer to different questions (though you still get to pick out the answer you want to chose, especially when it comes to dark/light side points) your whole group is panned to in a cutscene, I thought it was awesome.

and this is something that I haven't actually experienced myself, but I'm told it can be done - you can replace real people in a group with companions (and since I can do heroic quests with just me and my companion, I can see that), so technically - you could level with a friend or a loved one and never have to pug a flashpoint.
@Nils & Bhagpuss

According to Warcraft Census, it is around half of the characters levels 10-85 which are level 85 (among those logged in within the last month).

And we are talking about a 7 year old game, a full year after the last expansion. The population is about as heavily shifted toward "hardcore" as it can be, especially in comparison to a freshly launched, and more casual friendly game like SWTOR will be.

When you first played WoW, how many months was it before the endgame mattered to you? It was at least 4 months for me, and I leveled faster than most.

I think it is actually safe to say that the "endgame" will not make any difference to the majority of SWTOR for at least many months, if ever.

I can tell you from first hand experience it works.

Sunday night, my buddy and I ran Black Talon(first instance on the Sith side). It was me (BH), him (Agent), a Juggernaut and another agent.

My friend dropped out when his internet died, so I pulled out Mako (my companion). When the second agent dropped, the Juggernaut pulled out Vette (his companion) and we succesfully completed the instance.

The group size limit is 4. Any combination of players plus companions can be used as long as you don't go over 4.
It's funny, I was thinking that with SWTOR I might actually reach level cap with a character or two, for once.

I almost never, ever do. Games get slower and same-y and I lose any motivation because I sit back and ask myself what purpose I'm leveling up for again. Then I realize I could be having more fun doing something else and the character gets dropped into the bin.

BUT, I have finished every Bioware game since Baldur's gate. I like their stories and characters, it keeps me hooked even when the gameplay is only so-so. I guess we'll see which force is stronger in a few months.
I think with TOR we've got a game where levelling up and experiencing the character's story is actually something you want to do for its own sake, instead of a means to an end. And the 'endgame' could well be more about continuing the adventures of that character and their companions than competing with other players over who has the most purple pixels in their inventory. SWTOR struck me, based on the last weekend, as being a game aimed squarely at the Socialiser and Explorer Bartle types rather than the Achievers and Killers catered to by WoW and EVE respectively.
I think one of the biggest challenges BioWare faces is MMO burnout. There are a lot of players, myself included, that simply don't want to play for months and months.

The way I play WoW is to play for a month or two and then cancel for 3-4 months, and then play for another month or two and cancel again. I'm quite happy playing like this.

I could see doing that for Old Republic too, but I don't think I'll play it enough to get that attached. I'm more likely to play, get bored after a few months, and then cancel forever.
Ah Yes end/beginning of year predictions.

I have a few:

-SWTOR will be AWESOMELY successful... in no small part to a niffty marketing campaign.

-SWTOR will be EVEN MORE popular by the end of 2012 than the beginning.
[in round figures like 6+ million users in Europe/NA, and I may be conservative there]

-by the end of 2013 SWTOR will be a cultural phenomenon [so much so that mainstream media in US will be running SWTOR addiction stories... SWTOR taking over my life interviews etc blah blah blah]

Essentially, SWTOR will be the game that takes MMORPGs into mainstream culture. The tie-ins with the Star Wars branding and fan base will be overwhelming.

let me put it this way

# of Tobold Wife players > # of Tobold players

Think I'm kidding about the Star Wars tie ins being overwhelming???

Yeah, and Blizz didn't just create an EXPANSION and CLASS to get tie ins with the Kung Fu Panda franchise either...
"But among bloggers and game sites, the positive attitude towards the game will end much earlier. We will get a lot of "hardcore" players telling us what a sucky game SWTOR is, while Bioware is making hundreds of millions of dollars. And I'm pretty sure that Bioware prefers it that way, rather than the other way around."

And you know what? I prefer it that way, too. I would love TOR to really stick it to the kinds of authors who take the attitude that it is brutally unfair that the 99% noob population should get access to content or gear that allows the raider-elite to feel like Big Men compared to everyone else.

I am LONGING desperately to see a dev quote some haughty forum-whining 'pro':
"OMG, if just any old scrub can get the same epics as me, what was the point behind me putting in all those hours in raids?!"

It would make my YEAR to see a dev response:
"The point was to have fun playing with your friends, you enormous tool. If the sole source of your self-worth stems from being 'better' at a video game than other people, you have serious psychological and emotional problems and we do not want to be enablers for your douchebag ego-malfunction."
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