Thursday 23 February 2012

SWTOR: parting thoughts

I tried to log into SWTOR earlier and discovered, with relative indifference, that my sub has expired.

SWTOR is in many ways a good game and I hope it does well and entertains a lot of people. I think it will, perhaps not quite living up to its hype, but stable enough to keep a lot of people having fun for a long time. It appeals to a new generation of MMO players and those of us who cut our teeth on pre-Wrath WoW or older MMOs have on the whole not enjoyed SWTOR. I don't think this is a mistake or a cockup by Bioware, it's just the fracturing of the MMO market into games that suit different tastes.

So first, why isn't it my kind of game?

Part of it is the economy. I was actually considering starting a SWTOR gold site, an advice site like Just My Two Copper or Marcko's new Diablo 3 blog. But when I played it I found that the best advice was Just Do Slicing. It failed to make an interesting economy. (To be fair, there is a little more to it than that - there are arbitrage opportunities in certain missions like Underworld Trading missions for instance - but not much more). I also really dislike short duration auction houses. After playing Eve where I can place my auctions for 3 months a 2 day upper limit feels like a tedious micromanagement chore.

Part of it is the socialisation. Meeting people, making friends, arises from sharing experiences. I spent the weekend with a friend and his family with several young children and thought analytically about how relationships are formed with kids. So much of it is simply doing things together - any old thing. "Have you brushed your teeth?", "Hurry up, it's time to go" all of these lead in the end to love. It's the time spent together, solving problems, living lives, that establishes our social bonds, something that's been hardwired into us since we were primates. And it's also true of primates - grooming, searching each other's fur for insects, is a crucial part of forming social bonds in animals like chimpanzees.

And there's just not enough incentive to socialise for people who are borderline social. Very social outgoing people can spam for groups, find group quests and instance groups but unless you are willing to be outgoing it's hard to find the group you need after about level 12. And it's also very easy to skip socialising because the solo game is utterly easy and highly rewarding. People did use to form bonds making groups the old fashioned way in vanilla WoW and EQ and games like that but they did so because the path of least resistance was to form a group. In WoW for instance you got much better loot from dungeons and it would last you a long time because you leveled slowly. It was worth getting the cloth hat from Scarlet Monastery because you'd still be wearing it at 50 which would be 3-4 weeks. In SWTOR if you get an upgrade at level 40 you'll probably outgrow it within 2 days.

However those elements only really matter to veteran MMO players. For someone coming to SWTOR from single player games just the fact that there's an auction house is great. The fact that you can group with others for bonus more rewarding content is awesome. And the things I've complained about would, if designed for my taste, be less attractive for newbies. A cutthroat auctionhouse that allowed me to manipulate large amounts of money off newbies? A brutal efficiency oriented cross server LFD tool where people get shouted at if they're sub-optimal? Sophisticated macro and addon options that allow veterans to differentiate themselves from newbies? SWTOR probably made the correct choices for the market it's aimed at.

So let's finish with some positives. I like many of the touches in SWTOR. I like it that they took a leaf from Rift's book with aoe looting and wholesale selling of grey junk items. I thought the time-based crew skill crafting system was clever and innovative. I think the cut-scenes were superb and the stories well-written. It's hugely innovative to base a mmo so much on solo story and was a brave decision to take. SWTOR is probably the best game for people new to the genre and I think it will bridge the gap between people who find MMOs a bit too involved and us veterans, attracting new audiences to other MMO games. I also like it that it's another game voting against the notion of hybrid tax - the idea that it's unfair for hybrids to hit as hard as pure dps.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Being part of something bigger

One of the most interesting design choices in Star Wars: The Old Republic is the incorporation of a Game Over factor. It's actually one of the first MMOs to do this, a point which makes me smile at the people who occasionally claim the game isn't innovative. SWTOR is a highly innovative game on the basic framework of WoW-style UI. No one has set up a character's progression in terms of story before and ended it but in this game you can progress through, say, the Sith quests and become a Darth. You even (apparently) get some kind of game over for now screen.

However, and this is perhaps something for the people who have been asking for innovation in MMOs to consider, this is not the innovation we were looking for (to paraphrase Alec Guinness).

SWTOR is a game that will do very well and be a pivotal game experience in many people's lives. It's clear that there are a lot of people in the community who never played WoW or any other MMO game before.

So SWTOR represents a new branch on the MMO tree, a different direction, a parting of ways with old notions of game design. What this game is, crucially, is a finite consumable experience. You can play it for a while, then you win. There's stuff to be going on with if you want to continue in the game world after winning like Huttball and Operations (aka Raids). But really you finish once you've done your class storyline and that's something completely new.

And it's not just the casual newbie gamer who can enjoy this. There's veteran gamers who this suits perfectly.
Tesh said today:
As much as I like Star Trek Online, I’m looking forward to finishing it and moving on.  I suspect it’s similar to how I’d approach Star Wars The Old Republic, inasmuch as I want to play the story and then move on to another one.  
Spinks too is highly immersed in her Sith Warrior's story:
The levelling game in SWTOR has been one of the best CRPG experiences I’ve had in any game since Planescape.

For me it's been different.

MMOs spoiled me for other games. I used to play games like Planescape, Baldur's Gate, Master of Orion in the 90s. After I moved on to online games, first Homm 3 and Diablo 2 then Star Wars Galaxies and WoW I found these offline experiences too shallow. It felt hollow making a trade in a space trader game when there's no one else playing the market, it felt silly to master a craft in a universe with no customers, it felt empty to slay a dragon in the privacy of my own private world.

I need to be part of something bigger.

Raph Koster once pointed out that the much-admired harvester mechanic in Star Wars Galaxies was basically the same as the (then) much-derided farming mechanic in Farmville. The point though, is that in SWG we were collecting materials to make something which would cause someone to win a fight which would effect the world in some way. Just as a clock is something more than a handful of cogs an online world can be something more than a single game mechanism.

SWTOR's story-telling is the most polished, most expensive and almost certainly the best game mechanism ever seen as part of a MMO. However its flaw is that it's not really just part, it's the whole MMO. I find myself not logging in because the game just doesn't grab me. This is particularly sharp when I (in my story) cause massive galaxy-changing events.

This feels pretty healthy to me because I see SWTOR as the launching pad for what I truly want - a genuinely diverse MMO market where it becomes standard practice to make games for a part of the market rather than the whole, for, say, military stategist grognards rather than just "every MMO player ever".

What I'm saying is SWTOR will be a success but it will also clearly alienate a significant market sector and leave us uncatered for, wanting to spend money but unable to find a suitable MMO to spend it on.

Because we need to be part of something bigger.