Monday, December 19, 2011

Star Wars - The Old Republic: A New Hope

By now, if you're reading this, it's quite likely that you've already played more of Star Wars - The Old Repubic, than I have.  But having played now for a few days, and having taken two characters to level 13, and a third to level 7, I've at least gathered up enough play time to have an impression.  And so I wanted to share some of my own impressions of the game thus far, while recognizing that the challenge here is to try to share something that hasn't already been said in far greater quantity and with far more eloquance in dozens of MMO blogs elsewhere.

Let me start by cutting right to the chase and say that I am quite enjoying my time in SWTOR.  But I'm enjoying my time because I love the gameplay of traditional MMOs.  And the things that I love in MMOs are things that, from reading many of my peers blogs, I know that many of you do not like, or at least are sick to death of.  That is, I like level based systems.  I like distinct classes, rather than skill based advancement.  I enjoy a directed experience, and I've never much cared for so-called sandbox MMO's for more than a few weeks, where the notion find your own fun always falls flat with me after a few weeks, in which I quickly find myself bored and looking for things to do.  And while many people yearn for user-created content, I prefer my content and my stories to be created by professionals.  And Star Wars has all of these things in spades.  So while I'm enjoying my time in Star Wars, and its clear that many of you are too, because it is so similar to the experience we have already had in MMO's, I suspect that once the charm of the player story has worn off, people will leave in the same droves that they abandoned Rift.

Because like Rift, SWTOR is essentially a big, wonderfully polished, full fledged well built and familiar MMO with a single distinguishing feature.  And that feature is the presentation of the quests -- erm, missions.  But the quests themselves, at least from my perspective thus far, aren't much different than anything you've played so far.  Peer beneath the shiny wrapping paper, and you still have to get those medical supplies for the refugees, or thin out those Separatists, do this dangerous job for the wounded soldier who can't do it for himself, or rescue someone that's gotten themselves in over their head.  Their are choices to be made, but there seems to be very little consequence to the choices, at least as I've seen so far.  And I certainly allow that their may be more repercussions further along in the story.  And while the class quests themselves are unique for each base class, the majority of the filler quests, which you have to do in order to level up enough to get through your class quests, are the same in each area.  So if you create alts you'll be hearing many of the same sad stories for the nth time, and now that you know the story, and how it turns out, you might find yourself, like me, space-barring your way through the conversation just so you can get on with taking out those scavengers without all the drama.

There was one extraordinarily refreshing mechanic that quite surprised me, and made me sit up and say okay, now that was fun, and that was new. And that was the group discussion dynamic.  I had the good fortune to do the Esselles instance (this is the first instance you do on the republic side, around level 10 to 12), with some good long time MMO friends.  Our toons each had three distinct ways of approaching discussions, so at each pause in the dialogue when there was a choice to be made, well, we rarely chose the same option.  So I found myself waiting with baited breath to see which choice won the highest roll, cheering like a madman when my toon got her chance to speak, and cursing like crazy when she was relegated to the back.  Winning the dialog choice granted you social points, which you can use to purchase perks from vendors, just as you could for any other kind of currency in  an MMO.  After the instance I was completely taken aback by how much fun that dynamic was, and it was the first dynamic in a long time that made me want to group more - at least for instances. I suspect though your own enjoyment of that mechanic might be tempered by how well you're willing to handle the case where things don't go your way.

Overall, as I said at the beginning, I'm actually quite enjoying myself in SWTOR, and its clear many of you are as well.  But I worry greatly for  the long-term appeal of the game, over other, well established franchises.  I hear an extraordinarily large number of people proclaiming proudly that they have, at last, found their new MMO home.  And I would perhaps not be so skeptical had  I not heard, just a few short months ago, those exact same proclamations from legions of players entering the world of Rift when it launched.  And Rift too had its own unique and distinguishing mechanics, but in the end it wasn't enough to keep people in their world.  It will certainly be interesting to measure SWTOR's pulse a month from now, to say the least.

And until then, you can find me feverishly slicing up ten womp rats with dual lightsabers on a world in a distant galaxy, in a time long ago.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Is my skepticism well founded, or way off mark?  Please post up your thoughts and your own experiences!


  1. Hehe... won't be playing SW:TOR. I just picked up Mass Effect 2 the other day, and if the amount of time I've spent on that game is any indication, I am incapable of handling a Bioware MMO.

    Still, got me thinking on a few things, though. First of all, my ideas on quests, because questing is (Or ought to be) a large part of MMOs.

    How many ways are there to make a quest? When you strip away everything else, you just have a few basic mechanics that can be mixed and matched.
    -Kill X amount of Y.
    -Collect X amount of Z and bring it back so I can complete this potion.
    -Get me item A by talking to person N, who will want you to get item B by talking to person O, who will want you to get job C done by Person P, who will want you to beat the developers to death with golf club... Though, I may just be projecting on that last task.

    Is there a way around this? I dunno. Only MMO I played seriously was RuneScape, and I've heard that it had stronger quests than other MMOs*. Seems to me that there was less killing and fetching than talking to people.

    I've heard people complaining that WoW's quests are nothing but "Kill/Fetch X of Y"**, and it's got me thinking. Could it be that we're treating the players like idiots?
    You brushed upon this in your last update, but I think that giving out the X makes it seem more like a chore.

    The way I imagine an ideal fetch/kill quest would be as follows; A landlord has purchased some property, but he needs it cleared before he can lease it out to homesteaders. The property lines are marked out west of the town, he just needs a strapping young adventurer like yourself with nothing better to do to go out there and fix it up. Clear the brush, fell the trees, and get rid of those boars before they kill somebody.

    When the person arrives at the homestead, he can see for himself how much brush needs to be cut, how many trees need to be felled, and how many boars need to be killed. He doesn't need a list.
    Of course, in the first week, everyone is going to be out there doing the work, so there might not be a lot of work to do. This is where something RuneScape did might come in handy.
    One of RuneScape's more delightful quests was where one had to get new flora and decorations for the royal garden in Varrock. Before one did the quest, walking through the garden would show it to be quite bare, and there would be a statue on a plinth somewhere outside of Falador. After the quest, the garden was quite lovely, and the plinth of the statue you stole would be quite bare (The political ramifications of a stolen Faladorian statue ending up in a Varrockian royal garden were, sadly, not touched upon). The thing is, this wasn't a dungeon, but a sort of instancing would be going on. A person who had done the quest and a person who had not could stand in the garden together and trade bear skins, but they would see two different gardens.

    If this sort of semi-instancing is applied to the homestead quest, a person could go in and see the amount of brush and trees he needs to cut, walk over, and cut it down. Afterward, whenever he passes by the homestead, he would see it cleared and maybe even see a farmer preparing to till the earth.

    The instancing of the trees and brush would let the player feel as if he has made a permanent mark on the world, while the fact that the homestead itself is not instanced preserves the social aspect of the game, two important goals for quests.

    *This is, of course, hearsay, and therefore inadmissible in a court of law.
    **Again, hearsay.

  2. Second of all (for fear of leaving comments longer than the blog post, I shall make it short!) your point about players recognizing the quests as "The same old thing" and spacing through the dialog got me thinking.

    In Mass Effect, there are these branching dialog trees that offer a wealth of information... but it's pretty static.
    I can talk with a character and start at a 'hub' where I can select several dialog options which will follow several topics. At the end of one string of dialog, I am returned to the hub and am free to pursue another one of the lines of dialog.
    Here's the problem: the first dialog string gives me a lot of information about topic A and a little about topic B. When I select the second dialog string, it starts as if I don't know anything at topic B. It has to; what if I chose the second dialog string first?

    It's awkward, but not nearly as awkward as asking Miranda about her full family history while a merc captain is deciding whether or not to gun us down. My solution would be to cut off certain dialog options when a choice has been made. This may make it harder (or easier) to write dialog, would definitely increase the amount of dialog that needs to be written, and is probably impractical for an MMO that insists on voicing all the dialog.

    But for people who create alts, this would be incentive to pay attention to the quests.

  3. "And the things that I love in MMOs are things that, from reading many of my peers blogs, I know that many of you do not like, or at least are sick to death of. That is, I like level based systems. I like distinct classes, rather than skill based advancement. I enjoy a directed experience, and I've never much cared for so-called sandbox MMO's for more than a few weeks, where the notion find your own fun always falls flat with me after a few weeks, in which I quickly find myself bored and looking for things to do. And while many people yearn for user-created content, I prefer my content and my stories to be created by professionals."

    I have to agree with this. I think that is what makes an MMO and MMO. Trying to change the model usually doesn't end well. If you don't like the model the an MMO is probably not right for you. The only thing I see as a lackluster is of course then it comes to leveling alts. I think SWTOR did a good job with having some type of running class quests to keep things interesting. I believe the way they did side quests is the only way they can. Making class only side quests or the entire leveling experience that way defeats the second M in MMO. You can't group with your friends, or even if they add a +xp bonus to your groupmates when you complete they get a little xp, but you will still be doing 2x the quests yours with them and theirs with you.

  4. What I love about SWTOR is its wonderful plot. The dialogues are well thought of and characters have their own deep backstories. Of course, being a Star Wars fan, I really waited for that particular space opera to be an interactive game. So far, my favorite story is the Knight’s and the Trooper’s. What about yours, Dusty?

    - Fredric Falconer