Tag Archives: SWTOR

TOR: Good to Go

Collector's Edition

Turns out all the rumors and hype were true. Pre-orders for Star Wars: The Old Republic opened up this morning (for me at least) around 3:20 AM; here’s hoping everyone who wants one is able to pre-order (having read the official forum threads tonight, I feel kinda bad reading people’s posts around 3 AM who said they were off to bed…only 15 or 20 minutes more and they would have been rewarded).

I can personally confirm that Amazon has a limit of 1 copy per account, and I’ve seen statements that Origin is the same. Anyway, got my pre-order in and feeling pretty good! Very excited that there is actually a light at the end of this tunnel. I’m still trying to temper my expectations, and as this is by far the most I’ve ever spent on a Collector’s Edition, I really hope it’s worth it!

Good luck everyone!

Double-Edged Sword

The thing about game trailers is that while they can really sell a game, if your trailers shoot so much farther than your game ever will, you’re probably setting your fans up for some major disappointment. A good trailer can truly make a game, but even an amazing trailer can do more damage if it shows the wrong things.

After the first day of E3, a couple of things have really stood out (Microsoft blew it, Sony on the rebound), but more than anything two trailers caught my attention.

So cool, and yet...

Naturally, the new CG trailer from The Old Republic looks amazing and, as a device for storytelling, is beyond compare. Like Brian, I liked it more than the prequel movies and I sincerely hope that they include HD versions of these trailers in one form or another when they actually get around to selling the game. But I have developed a serious problem with the trailers, especially as more details and video of the actual game are released. As nice as they are, they’re just too much smoke and mirrors (I know, shocker!). The combat will NEVER be like what we see in those trailers. Which is what we all really want, and which BioWare is selling us, and which they will never be able to deliver. Massive disenchantment ensues.

And after seeing the new information on the Advanced Classes page, it’s becoming clear that while BioWare may be forging new ground in terms of a story-driven experience, they aren’t exactly pushing any envelopes when it comes to combat. Which feels like another wasted opportunity, especially considering that games such as Vindictus have already proven that the “tried-and-true” mechanics of MMO combat don’t need to be assumed. And, honestly, if I’m standing in front of an enemy and it takes more than a single hit with a lightsaber to take them down, you’re not really providing me with the “Jedi Experience”, are you?

So, while I loved it as a Star Wars short film and as an “artifact” of lore for BioWare’s efforts, I’m really disappointed in what I’m seeing (or more accurately, not seeing) about the game.

Just plain cool.

On the other end of the spectrum was the released trailer for Kingdoms of Amalur: the Reckoning. I realize that the game on display in the video is not an MMO, but it is the precursor to 38 Studio’s upcoming MMO project, codenamed Copernicus. I think it’s safe to say that Reckoning is basically a testbed for the MMO version – build the engine, refine the gameplay, and set the stage for the world and story of Copernicus. So while the actual combat of Copernicus may not look exactly like Reckoning, I think it provides us with a safe, educated guess.

The difference between my reactions to the two trailers couldn’t be much different. While I shrugged with a “Meh.” at the TOR trailer (I don’t care how nice your CG trailer looks…SHOW ME THE GAME!), the trailer for Reckoning got me crazy-excited to get my hands on it. I’m sure that not all of what was shown was actual gameplay footage (some of it was clearly cutscenes), but enough of it was obviously showing how the actual game will play. It showed the engine at work (beautiful!) and a handful of powers/skills/manuevers from a sample of classes (the “Rogue” backstab-palm-strike at 0:55 was insane!). That is the combat I want to be playing – active and dynamic, where position, timing and choices make a difference. Something where I’m not standing still, trading two dozen blows back and forth in a race to see who falls over first. Where fighting a giant involves getting thrown around and doesn’t involve stabbing it in the toes until it dies.

Okay, so I made that last part up – so far we haven’t seen any giant fights from Reckoning. But it certainly can’t get any worse than what we’ve already been subject to from the likes of EverQuest 2, LotRO, and RIFT when it comes to battling the gigantism-inclined.

The point being, the Reckoning trailer did everything right that the TOR trailer didn’t. Don’t show me what you know I wish the game would be like, show me how it will be when I start playing! Sadly, what we’re seeing is not what we’ll get when it comes to The Old Republic. In their defense, BioWare isn’t exactly known for blazing a trail when it comes to gameplay mechanics. But you’re playing with a very dangerous crowd when you start working with the Star Wars franchise; I don’t think there is a more rabid fanbase out there. CG trailers are nice, and they might help you sell a game, but they will cut you badly when it’s apparent that you can’t deliver on the experience you set up in people’s heads!

Kingdoms of Amalur? Absolutely YES! The Old Republic? Meh.

Equal Treatment

We’ve reached a point in our family life where we’re beginning to discipline our younger son (we have two boys – one 5 years old and one nearly 2). It’s not at the same level as our older, but we have begun to set limits and actively say, “No.” to certain things while also explaining why. This is an important distinction for us as parents because where before it was a matter of safety for the yes/no threshold, our younger son is starting to really get “into things” where my wife and I feel the need to draw a few lines and enforce acceptable/not acceptable. Setting expectations vs. corralling them and all that. Once kids get an attention span longer than a few seconds, it doesn’t suffice to turn them away or distract them; they’ll just go back at it unless its made clear.

This is just a really long lead-in to a question that came up between my wife and I last night, which I naturally and immediately turned into a thought about MMOs. The question was, “Shouldn’t we be disciplining [the younger] the same as we did [the older]?”. But what did we discipline our first child over? Because in a lot of ways we just can’t remember (memory loss due to long-term sleep deprivation).We remember that at the same age, we were already disciplining our older son through timeouts and similar consequences. But over what issues?

There is an aspect of first-child-second-child at play here; in all honesty we probably were much more strict with our older son because it was our first time, and we didn’t want to “screw him up” by letting him run wild. Hence the personality differences that seem to be common between older and younger siblings. And even at this age, there is a personality difference, and that influences discipline. Our older son was just more curious and strong-willed, so we had to say “No” a lot more.

We want our kids to be brought in a home that promotes fairness and equality. But do developers need to guarantee the same treatment for their players?

Stick with me as a think through it; obviously, the game needs to promote “fair play” in that exploits and cheating between groups of players (or players and the environment) is minimized. But what I’m thinking about is the concept that themepark MMOs need to provide access to the exact same content to all players. Unless it’s a microtransaction model, players pay their entry fee and can ride all the rides (given enough time and/or effort). The experience is the same every time you visit; you might skip a ride or two every once in a while, or ride them in different order, and the park occasionally opens a new ride, or closes down an unpopular one. But the experience is essentially the same for everyone.

Isn’t having access to the same quantity of content enough? Sure, there might be rides that everyone rides (e.g. the Epic storyline in LotRO), but does the progression through content have to be identical no matter what race/class/faction/etc. is chosen?

And I’m not thinking of something like the “storyline for each class” that The Old Republic, either. Despite the wealth of content that represents, the experience would be the same every time one played an Imperial Agent, or a Smuggler, or a Trooper. What I’m talking about is the opportunity for real choice, and real cnosequences in a player’s experience. At least, as far as the story any given player will receive; once again, I think developer’s confuse the concept of player choice with global impact. We (players) don’t need our choices to be reflected in the world for everyone to see. It would be enough to have our choices reflected in the world we see.

I know this represents a lot of extra work for a developer. But I’m not convinced the 1500-or-more-hours-of-content design philosophy is really necessary anymore. If a developer were to come right out and say, “Look, you could pour 20+ hours a week into the game. But your going to burn through it in a handful of months. We’re designing for the player who can commit 4 to 5 hours per week, and we want those players to be successful and viable.” That would be a game for Real People, with Real Families and Real Jobs in the Real World.

Then a developer could design the content with choice and consequence in mind. The experience changes for every character created, and you can deliver an experience that offers a few hundred hours from start to endgame. Sure, you’d have players with tons of alts, but developers already have that in spades. And for those of you thinking, “A few hundred hours of content isn’t conducive to retaining player subscriptions for the long term”, I’d say that’s a good point – given the current design philosophy. But at 4 to 5 hours per week, you’re looking at one to two years of playing to work through a few hundred hours of content. And I’d be willing to subscribe to a game that lets me experience all of its content without feeling like I have a second job just so I can participate in the endgame.

Onwards to 2011

“Vacation” is now over, though this year’s holiday break didn’t look much like those previous; working for a university means I get the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, but with two young kids at home it was more of a “working” vacation and didn’t provide much time for gaming. It was still highly enjoyable, however, as spending a week with the kids is a rare thing; between chipping away at some massive LEGO sets and TRON: Legacy with my older son and naps and “stair ball” (in which I throw a ball with blinking LED lights down our stairs hundreds of times to immense hilarity) with my younger son, we had a great time.

2010 was a tough year for our family; my wife and I were discussing this over New Year’s Eve dinner at our favorite restaurant and both agreed that we were definitely ready for the new year. We should have seen it coming when we started with a horrendous stomach bug that hit everyone in the house – it was going to be a difficult year, including, but not limited to, work trouble for both of us, major car troubles, and several large and unforeseen expenses. Some good parts as well, to be sure, but overall a year we’re glad to put behind us. Life goes on, both Real and Pixeled.

I’ve never been much for looking back, and if you had asked me at the start of last year about developments in the MMO industry during 2010, I would have been dead wrong on many counts. So instead of making general predictions for MMOs in 2011, I’m going to keep it personal and mention the games about which I’m most excited; I’m only predicting what I will end up playing or doing this year. Besides, if you want predictions for the coming year, there are some very good ones on Bio Break, Keen and Graev, and Kill Ten Rats (most of which I agree). And anyway, any predictions, be they about personal choices or industry developments, are going to be reflections on the genre as a whole.

2011 looks to be a banner year for our genre, so there’s a lot to discuss. Here goes.

RIFT: Planes of Telara: A lot of positive buzz is coming out of the recent RIFT betas, and though I haven’t done a ton of reading up on it, I’m definitely interested. Interested enough to pre-order. From what I have seen, the game is absolutely gorgeous, and polishes the genre staples to a high gloss. The lack of new or “revolutionary” features doesn’t bother me; like Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires, I’ve realized that I like themepark games and I don’t need revolutionary mechanics or gameplay as long as I’m having fun. I’m a tourist in MMOs – not in the sense that I jump from title to title without commitment, but that I play them mostly for the sights and the stories.

RIFT looks like the perfect game for a tourist such as myself. I’ll play it on and off for long enough to see the sights, then retire the account.

Guild Wars 2: If this game even launches in 2011, I have a feeling that my relationship with Guild Wars 2 is going to be much like my relationship to its older sibling – I’ll want to love it and play through its content, but something about it just won’t click. Everything I’m seeing and hearing about the game has me excited, and the visuals are stunning (as always), but the current incarnation can only seem to hold my attention for a week or so at a time, and I have a suspicion that GW2 will be the same.

However, if ArenaNet can cut back on the heavy instancing and really do the dynamic content the way I’m hoping, this could surprise me and take up a good chunk of my time. No matter what, this is near the top of my “Must Buy” list and I have no doubt that I’ll be there on launch day.

The Old Republic: As a serious fan of the franchise (more BioWare’s Old Republic, less so Star Wars these days) this is The Big One on my list for 2011. I stopped reading almost everything about the game several months ago, as I was tired of the hype cycle and the inevitable noise, from both the über-fans and the hardcore skeptics, that accompanies every announcement. Not that my excitement or anticipation is any less, but more that I want to go into the game as fresh as possible.

TOR is Number One on my list of new games for 2011 (as I’m sure it is for many), and I already know it will be a serious contender for my attention. Based on their past performance I have faith that BioWare will create a fun experience, and their supposed focus on story definitely sits well with me. It almost doesn’t matter what they charge – the Collector’s Edition shall be mine!

Lord of the Rings Online: As weird as it seems, this one is the hardest for me to predict for 2011. Despite recent evidence to the contrary in my many “opinionated” (negative) comments, I’ve been having a lot of fun in LotRO recently. The lore and my kin keep things interesting as always, I’m still enjoying the Yule Festival, and I’ve yet to seriously look into Enedwaith, so there’s no lack of content for me. Moreso, the announcement of Isengard has me excited and hopeful for the future of LotRO; if Turbine can do this expansion “right” and give us something new, it would go a long way to keeping us engaged.

But, if I had to make a prediction for 2011, I’d have to say that I’m going to stop playing LotRO. I absolutely love my Burglar, and I love the game, but it seems like the things I love about LotRO are things I loved about the game that have since changed, been lost over the past year, or have been crowded out by the “business side” of Turbine running their MMO.

I hate to think about leaving, but between a series of small but bad decisions regarding the Store and the looming threat of newer MMOs, I think it will become harder and harder for me to log in. I’ve been with LotRO since the beginning, which is three times longer than any other MMO I’ve played, and I have some great friends there, but Turbine’s treatment of its players and the incessant, unmitigated “upsell” of the Cash Shop is becoming a tougher and tougher pill to swallow.

I get the distinct feeling that Turbine cares only for converting Free Players into Paying Players and how many nickels and dimes they can wring out of every customer; either they no longer regard their long-term customers and fans as viable income (perhaps we spend less in the Store per person?) or it’s simply not an option to try to keep us happy. Either way, its looking like its only about Money now, not Fun or Enjoyment or creating an Experience, and that hurts. Hell, I imagine the only reason they haven’t pushed harder against Tolkien’s canon is because of contractual obligation, not a desire to stay true to the material or please Tolkien fans.

Of all my predictions, this is the one about which I hope I’m the most wrong. I hope that next year I’m still hopping around Middle Earth, fighting alongside Dunedain, Hobbits, and Ents(!) and standing toe-to-toe against Orcs, Trolls, and Nazgûl. Isengard could be a killer expansion that keeps me coming back for more and more. I hope.

MMO “X”: I don’t yet know what this game will be (hence the “X”), but I’m convinced that this year I will start to play more games with my older son (5 years old). He’s shown an increasing interest in playing something that goes beyond simple Flash games and I see no reason not to have him join me in a hobby I love (if I can just convince his mother!). Maybe it will be LEGO Universe, maybe Wizard 101, or maybe something else. Whatever it ends up being, 2011 will likely see my son’s first steps into a virtual world.

It makes a father so proud!

Earthrise: I’ve been following this game on and off since it was first announced, and I will likely give it a try. I’ve been looking for both a good sandbox-style game and a good Sci Fi MMO, and Earthrise looks like it could be both! I have a few reservations and concerns, but I think I will enjoy this one. It launches early this year so there’s not much competition in terms of time.

I don’t think Earthrise will gather a huge following, but I think it will do well enough and, given time, grow into a strong community.

“Free-To-Play”/“Free-To-Try” Gaming: Two types of predictions for this category. One, which games will make the switch to the Free To Try/F2P Hybrid that grew in popularity throughout 2010 and, two, some thoughts on upcoming F2P titles I’ll likely jump into and play.

First, if I had to guess, I’d say that Star Trek Online, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan will all move to the Cash Shop/Hybrid model this year. Others will as well, but as this is a list of personal predictions, I’m only going to comment on these three because, if they do, I will likely play them. Age of Conan more than the other two, but all three are games in which I’m interested and would love to explore, but don’t feel they are worth the price of admission.

On the side of new games launching in 2011, I can safely say that I will try Black Prophesy and Jumpgate: Evolution. Both remind me of what is probably one of my top three games of all time – Tie Fighter. I’ve been dying for a good space combat flight-sim that makes me break out my joystick again, and both could fit that bill. I think both will launch in 2011.

Also launching this year, and which I will at least check out, are APB: Reloaded and The Agency. I will likely drop DDO and Vindictus from my regular cycle of games, but because the barrier to entry and exit is so low, I will check in from time to time.

So that’s it. My thoughts on the coming year.  As I said, 2011 doesn’t hold much of interest for me in the single-player games, but looks to be a hallmark year for MMOs. And, yes, some of the above is undoubtedly self-fulfilling, but there’s always a chance for a surprise hit (or bomb) and, as always, a chance that any of these games could be pushed back to 2012.

Finally, no discussion of the new year would be complete without a resolution or two. Mine is simple: more attention to writing. I haven’t been able to write here as often as I’d like, and I’m going to make a concerted effort to post regularly. I also have an MMO-related project or two in mind that I’d like to move forward.

It’s going be a busy year, but undoubtedly fun!

My Ignorance is Purely Selective

A few weeks ago, Zubon posted some thoughts on the difference between fans of Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s been a lifetime in blogger-time since that post, but it’s been running circles in my head ever since. (For one, what about those of us who are fans of both?)

I agree with a lot of what the post says, particularly when it comes to the greater tolerance of Star Trek fans for material that is of lower quality, and with the reasons Zubon gives. When you have a multitude of offerings within a franchise, it’s far easier to put aside the bad and focus more on the good.When you only have one or two offerings in a given format (e.g. movies) per decade, the requirements for quality are much more critical. I think this is the reason the Star Wars books rarely get heavy criticism for their varying quality – there are just so many more of them from which to choose that it makes it easier to pick the ones we like and put aside those we don’t.

We were discussing this last night, and oddly enough both my wife and I agreed that, as far as Star Trek goes, the first two versions (the original series and Next Generation) were by far the best and, where “family” television is concerned, the only realistic options from the range of shows that are available. Everything else is either far too violent (Deep Space 9, some of Voyager), too intellectual for kids (Enterprise, Voyager, and some of Deep Space 9), or of no interest to those who actually care about it (Enterprise and Voyager, mostly). Namely, me.

But all that is beside the point.

What really got me thinking was the perception of a “unified faith” in Star Wars fandom. Zubon is right; as a whole, Star Wars fans take the sanctity of the entire universe far more seriously, and demand far more consistency and consideration from every decision made by LucasArts/LucasFilms/whoever-is-really-responsible-for-this-stuff. When our concept of the Star Wars universe is betrayed, it truly is a defilement; it hurts in ways that Star Trek fans may not be able to conceive.

“Maybe that comes from The Vision. There seems to be an expectation that there will be one central Star Wars story line. If you mess that up, you have ruined the entire universe. One bad decision about who falls to the Dark Side and now everyone is stuck with that as canon.”

~Zubon, Kill Ten Rats

Except that for many of us, the long-time fans of the IP, so much damage has been done that it’s hard to cling to the belief there there is such a thing as The Vision. How can we considering the haphazard, ignore-everything-except-pure-profit treatment of Star Wars? For many of us, George Lucas has trampled over so much of the original magic and allowed so many bad decisions to be made that we’ve developed selective ignorance purely as a coping mechanism. For whatever his reasons, there is just so much about the current state of Star Wars that old school fans have to ignore if they are to maintain their love of the franchise.

We were (in many ways) betrayed by the Prequel Trilogy, and have been constantly battered by the current generation’s strip mining of our beloved stories. For me, it has become a literal “acceptability” matrix of sorts:

Original Trilogy(*) Prequel Trilogy Television (“Clone Wars”) Video Games
Story Sacred Canon Blasphemous Garbage (Midichlorians? Really?) Unknown. Slightly Interesting? Varies. Pretty good to Bad.
Slightly Damaged Canon
Characters Relatable, Endearing, Growing. Perfect. Shallow, Whiny, Utterly Unlikable. Several should Die In A Fire. Unknown. Mostly Uninteresting? Mostly Positive (outside Prequel-based games).
Stupid changes. Han shot first.
Setting Enthralling. The Gold Standard. At Best: Coruscant.
At Worst: Blandly Undamaging.
Standard Fare (best guess). Standard Fare (overall).
No change.
Visuals Revolutionary. Created Techniques. Real Creativity. Deep, detailed, but soulless digital. Interesting and appealing (but mostly to younger fans). Varies. Mostly good.
Minor (Unnecessary) Improvements.
“Action” Classic. Simple elegance. Duels were pretty good. Few dogfights. Unknown. Varies. Mostly good, with some excellent examples.
No change.
Audience Appeal Anyone Lucas’ children (Podracing) and marketing focus groups Children (and die hard fans) Fans of the IP
Anyone
(*) The Original Trilogy has here been separated into the original release (top) and the “Special Edition” (bottom) released for the 20th anniversary.

I left out books because, one, they are of wildly divergent quality and, two, because almost everything about them is completely personal; visuals, setting, characters, “action” – the quality of all is more subjective than any other form of media. (And yes, I’m aware that the entire matrix is subjective, but I hold books to a different standard than other media.) Also, the library of books covers the complete range of entries in the canon, as opposed to a specific time period as do the two trilogies and the television series. They just seem to be impossible to evaluate as a single category.

Call me biased (clearly I am), but that’s how I approach the Star Wars material. And I get the feeling I’m not the only one. One thing became abundantly clear to me while putting the above table together – about the only thing that LucasFilms consistently get right is the setting and the visuals. This is the one aspect where there is even a hint of consistency; and sadly, while this may be the easiest thing to “sell” to people, it is also the aspect with which people connect the least. As much as we love the flashy combat and pretty spaceships, it’s the characters with whom we connect, and their stories that stick with us. Lightsabers and the Force are cool, but it’s the redemption of Anakin Skywalker that we love.

So why does any of this matter? Well, it matters for a few reasons.

First, as a long-time fan of Star Wars, and now as a father of two children, the state of the Star Wars IP matters to me. For better or for worse, I am heavily invested, emotionally invested, in Star Wars. Art does that to people, and in the modern era of franchises, art with which we feel a connection is not a static thing. It’s not as straightforward as a painting or a book anymore; it changes and grows over time. And I want to share that art, and that love, with my children. So, naturally, I care about the quality of Star Wars. I want my children to experience the fun and wonder I did and, if they choose, find something to love as I did. To me, that is the original Star Wars, not the marketing-blitz-merchandising-tsunami that modern Star Wars has become. Sure, there are positive aspects of the IP even now (some of the games and toys, and even the television series) but the motivation behind the IP has shifted drastically; the heart of Star Wars has become twisted and the soul has withered.

Two, it matters because there are still offerings in the Star Wars universe that I eagerly anticipate. Namely, The Old Republic. As much as I dislike the direction franchise has been headed these many years, I look forward to this addition to the Star Wars material. Both because of it’s format (an MMO) and because of its setting (the Old Republic). TOR is an expansion of the Star Wars universe, and every expansion is another opportunity to get things right and do something truly exceptional. In many ways, BioWare is adding to Star Wars in the only way that has a real chance at success – by adopting a segment of the timeline that is almost completely unexplored (and untainted). They have more creative freedom, and aren’t operating under the shadow of Luke, Leia, Han, and everything we fell in love with over 25 years ago.

Finally, it matters because I say it matters. Star Wars fans have invested an incredible amount of time, energy, and money into what is essentially a hobby. If Lucas had left things as the original trilogy and it’s accompanying merchandise, I would say the he’s done his part and doesn’t owe us squat. But the moment he opened the Expanded Universe and turned it into a multimedia empire, he became beholden to us, the fans. His empire is built from our love, and he has a responsibility to us. It falls to him to maintain and protect the quality of the franchise; not to let it be raped in the interest of market saturation and quick profits.

It’s a mandate that George has failed. Abysmally, at times. That’s why we have the state of rabid love/hate that characterizes Star Wars fandom. That’s why fans like me have developed coping mechanisms just to remain fans and stomach each new piece of Star Wars that’s released. BioWare is in a precarious position with TOR, and I certainly don’t envy them.

Set Phasing to Maximum

Last night I had one of those rare conversations about MMOs that pop up so infrequently for me (I don’t have many Real Life people with whom I share this hobby, and my wife is patient and tolerant but unaware of the nuances that fascinate me). It’s not often that I have a chance to discuss gaming at length, and this conversation in particular got me thinking about the possibilities for the near future. Heavy stuff, I know.

Specifically, my friend and I got to talking about the phasing technology that seems to be an important part of The Old Republic. For those who may not be familiar with phasing, here’s how I understand it: like instances, phasing create private pockets inside the game for the player (or group of players) where they can explore or interact with an area without interruption by other, free roaming players. The best example of phasing I’ve read so far are the story-driven conversations players will have in TOR, where phasing will allow them to approach and engage an NPC in a public area, but prevent others from randomly wandering in and ruining their moment. Basically, no jerks barging into the middle of your conversation to ruin it by running and jumping around, spamming emotes, and generally breaking immersion. The player is phased out of the public area, or others are phased out of your area (I’m still not sure which), seamlessly dropping out and entering into the general game world. Or maybe it’s something bigger. Either way.

I love this idea. Capital-L “Love”.

Sure, some purists will say this is contrary to the nature of a massive, open game world; these are the same people who generally disagree with instancing. However, I think this could be a powerful new tool for MMOs, changing the way content is delivered and experienced. Much like the changes that instancing introduced, as long as its done in moderation it can be extremely effective. And it’s not like BioWare is leaning anywhere near a sandbox-style game world; I think they’ve made it clear that TOR is not that type of MMO.

But I’m enthralled with the idea not so much because of how BioWare appears to use it, but because of the ways it could work, or be made to work. Yes, the example above is a great use, and certainly enhances BioWare’s ability to deliver story in a personal, powerful way. But let’s extrapolate a little here, and consider a few of the potential uses (or, at least, how I’d like to see it used).

First and foremost is this:

“The basic idea is that there is NO servers, just the game world. Your decisions directly affect what you see in the game world. Players that have made similar decisions are in the same ‘phase’ of an area as you.

Yes, this breaks down logically very quickly. Will players just go poof? Will friends be able to play together if they make different choices? What happens when I’ve made decisions that are different than everyone else and I get phased into my own space?”

~ Response by heartless at Keen and Graev’s

The idea of separating the game world into existential phases has endless possibilities. Quite literally – endless – as every choice could spawn a different phase. And, granted, the concept has other potential issues, as heartless even states. Would it be possible to phase oneself out of the general game, to the point where you are playing alone? How would you continue to play with your friends/guildmates after making your own personal decisions? It’s a bit like trying to think about time travel – too many loopholes and logic-breaking possibilities.

Archet is Burning!

But consider phasing applied to a game world, instead of temporarily applying it to a player in order to preserve the delivery of story. World of Warcraft does this a bit in Northrend (so I’m told). LotRO should do this, as the game has some problems with timelines; for example, the movement, placement, and progress of the Fellowship. How do you represent the location of the Fellowship for all players at all times? They tend to move around as the story progresses (that’s the point, isn’t it?). But you can’t remove them from the world for players just starting out simply because your elder players have progressed the story past Rivendell. Turbine dealt with this in it’s own way, but it’s not entirely logical and requires a huge suspension of disbelief. The members of the Fellowship exist in multiple places at the same time, but we are supposed to believe that when we encounter them in Rivendell and then in Lothlorien, that time has passed in the game even though it is barely reflected in the world (if at all). Turbine has achieved its own version of “phasing” in small ways, by using instanced rooms where major characters appear (or don’t, based on what you’re doing) for spans of time; Aragorn in The Prancing Pony and the various members of the Fellowship in Rivendell are two prime examples. It’s somewhat tough to swallow, but we do it anyway.

If applied liberally, however, phasing of the game world could reap huge benefits for players looking for a better storytelling experience or heightened immersion. The Fellowship could be at all necessary places at all times, but only visible to me, Player A, where they should be based on my personal progress in the Epic Quests. Player B would still encounter them in Rivendell, whereas I see them in Lothlorien. Towns and outposts could be bustling, deserted, or entirely destroyed based on my actions, and I would see that area, and share that area, with the other players who made similar choices. Not every choice would spawn a different phase of the game world as described above, but major events, encapsulating large chunks of content, could be represented differently to different players.

Realistically, in a game such as LotRO, this should only be implemented in a timeline-based scenario. The town of Bree is in a given state (Normal, Damaged after a major attack, or Rebuilding after being damaged, for example) at different points in the story timeline, and appears that way for all players who have progressed to a certain point. And it would have to be done rather subtly. Bree could not be entirely destroyed, ever, because players revisit that area continuously, either for functional reasons (Auction House, Bank, Craft Hall, etc.) or to help lower-level friends with content that falls earlier in the timeline. But cosmetic changes could be made to the environment, giving the appearance of change over time. The “backdrop” of the game world, the environment with which we never interact, is a vastly underutilized tool for storytelling.

Also consider the potential when applying phasing to NPCs and monsters in the open world. In general, all system-controlled NPCs (both friendly and hostile) are pretty much static; shopkeepers and quest-givers are generally in the same place all of the time. Middle Earth is like one, huge 7-Eleven – it’s all available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Monsters come and go as players dispose of them, but population levels and the type of monster in a given area remain fairly static. Now imagine that we apply phasing to these aspects of the game.

This man is a rock.

Friendly NPCs could move around, even disappear due to death, based on a player’s progress. And to enhance immersion, an NPC in a specific location could be phased from a Named character to a Generic character; Player A may have experienced the death of Second Watcher Heathstraw at some point in the story, but doesn’t see Player B talking to thin air when receiving a quest in Bree’s Market Square. Instead, Player A sees Player B talking to a “Bree-town Citizen”and all is right with the world; two NPCs occupy the same physical location, and a player’s choices or progress determines which NPC is visible.

The possible uses are even greater for monsters within the open world. It’s always bothered me that after killing Taluntum (a named monster in Mirkwood and the target of a quest), that that very same monster – identical in name and appearance – is back in his hut a few moments later. If I’m still in the area, I can even watch him reappear. “Great work, Drannos! You’ve rid Middle Earth of that scum for a grand total of 2 minutes! Here’s your reward!”. Let me tell you how much I feel like a hero.

Glutton for Punishment

Identical to the Heathstraw example above, replace Taluntum (after I kill him) with a generic Orc. Different model, different skin, generic name, not even a Signature enemy. This way, when I’m hanging out in Burgul-stazg killing Orcs I can watch another player engage an Orc standing where Taluntum once stood. The other player sees and attacks Taluntum, but I see that player attack an “Orc Marauder”. Additionally, population levels could be shifted and Monster types could even be changed entirely. I see an entire tribe of Orcs, but maybe you see a few Orcs, or even a few Worms! Who cares that we’re fighting two different creatures when I decide to jump in uninvited? As long as we’re not in a Fellowship, it’s all about our personal story, right? When was the last time someone said, “Thanks for helping me kill that Orc Marauder“, when you swooped in and saved their bacon? At most I get a “Thanks!”. At worst, nothing. Two entirely different monsters may be a bit extreme, but it’s not unrealistic, nor does it break the game.

I repeat, in a game like LotRO changes like this would need to be implemented subtly. Otherwise, the game logic becomes more broken, immersion suffers greatly, and everyone starts having much less fun because they’re just plain confused. But a few touches here and there, and the experience would become immeasurably more enjoyable. We would be  that much closer to a “living” world, because some part of our actions would be permanently reflected in our surroundings.

I could never guess at what influences any of the numerous design decisions that result in a game like LotRO. As a whole, they were all good decisions, because they resulted in a game that I love playing. However, it would seem to me that developers of modern, “themepark” MMOs all operate under a flawed assumption; in order to be impactful and meaningful, a player’s choices must be reflected in the game world. Because implementing this would quickly break the game for 99.9% of the players, instead we are left with virtual worlds that are clearly indifferent to our presence.

Honestly, all I really want is for my choices and actions to be reflected in my character, and in the world I see. My choices only need to impact me. Not the world at large. I’m not especially concerned with what others see, as long as we’re all pretty close. After all, it’s really my story I’m living, isn’t it?

I Have a Bad Feeling About This

Sadly, my skepticism increases.

Two pieces of news in row coming from BioWare that, for me personally, are less than thrilling; first was the revelation that space combat would essentially be an instanced, tunnel-based ‘macro-game’, and then the recent (and quiet) release of details on another Companion – the droid T7-01.

Before getting into the details of my growing dread, let me say this: I’m very much in favor of the Companion System. Though I’m guessing it’s not identical to the single-player implementations of the past, companions have worked really well in other BioWare games, such as Mass Effect 1 and 2. Personal and inter-personal interactions make for great stories, and it definitely increases a sense of depth to a game. As weird as it might sound, companions do a lot for enhancing a player’s character; developing “relationships” with NPC characters does so much for our investment in a game because, just as in the Real World, many aspects of our selves are defined through our interactions with others.

However, I am not in favor of BioWare’s approach to space combat, and I want to touch on this first. Though I haven’t read the PC Gamer article yet, the concept as a whole seems extraordinarily flawed to me. Sure, I’ve enjoyed every Star Fox game I’ve played (the comparison to these games is the best analogy I’ve seen yet). But that was Star Fox, and we’re talking about STAR WARS. Death Stars and the Millenium Falcon. X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings. Tie Fighters. Dogfighting. With LASERS.

When I read about this, it was truly the first time I was disappointed by news about TOR. I would rather BioWare simply said, “Yes, we recognize space combat as a critical aspect of the Star Wars experience, but we cannot implement it in a manner and to a degree which will make our customers, and ourselves, happy”, and just left it out. I don’t expect a fully functioning flight sim of the caliber of TIE Fighter or the X-Wing games; but I sure did enjoy Freelancer a whole lot, and that is one of the strongest examples of free-form, open space flight toned down for a mouse and keyboard. Hell, I’d even be willing to pay extra for it (take note, BioWare, I’m trying to hand you money).

The space combat information was a letdown, albeit a somewhat minor one. It did, however, plant the first seeds of doubt in my mind; is BioWare missing a large piece of the puzzle with their approach to MMOs?

My enthusiasm took a serious hit when I read the following (emphasis added):

“BioWare has not revealed where your Jedi knight will meet T7-O1, just like every other companion mentioned for this game, but rest assured, he’s waiting for you somewhere in that galaxy far, far away.”

~ Massively

This got me thinking: so I’m guaranteed to meet T7-01? Just like every other Jedi Knight? And only Jedi Knights? When I gather for battle, how many T7-01’s am I going to encounter, in addition to mine? And will they all be named T7-01? Granted, the above wasn’t written by BioWare, but I think we can be secure in the overall accuracy, considering the source. So let me see if I’ve got this straight…

Me: I can get my own droid?
BioWare: Yep!
Me: Cool!
BioWare: You meet him at level 5.
Me: Oh. Okay…
BioWare: Just like every other Jedi Knight.
Me: Um…
BioWare: But only if you’re a Jedi Knight.
Me: …wait. What? Really?
BioWare: Yes.
Me: Huh. Can I rename it, at least?
BioWare:
Me: Aww… <expletive censored>!

So much for customization, and a personalized experience. I get my own droid, just like the 10,000 other Jedi Knights. Class-restricted Companions just doesn’t sit right, and based on a Companion’s role in the player’s story, I’m betting it’s going to be pretty hands-off in terms of changes players can make to those NPCs. Granted, BioWare hasn’t released the full details of how the system will work, but so far I’m not particularly optimistic.

I get it; BioWare’s focusing on the story. They’re pushing that facet of the game pretty hard. They want to be the first to inject real story into the MMO genre. They’re going to deliver a personal story to each player. Every class will have it’s own, unique story. Story story story. I’m getting the distinct impression that in their quest of the almighty story, BioWare has blinded themselves to the nature of MMOs, and why we play them; it seems they’re building an online single-player RPG, not an MMO. I like story in my MMOs, but I play them nearly as much for the emergent parts – the unscripted, impromptu, real fun that comes from adventuring in a virtual world with other human players. I want options, an open field, and the ability to choose what’s best for my character based on my own flawed logic (or the logic of a stranger who’s better at math and willing to share on the Internet). I don’t need to be a unique and beautiful snowflake (just like the thousands of other snowflakes), but I certainly don’t want to be locked into anything; customization is the name of the game. They’re called virtual worlds for a reason.

The Old Republic has definitely been knocked down a few levels in my list of anticipated games. Being set in the Star Wars universe will carry the game a long, long way. For me, being set in the Old Republic will carry it even further. But it can’t carry it past blatantly poor design decisions.

I’m still looking forward to it. I’m just beginning to feel like they shouldn’t be calling it an MMO. I have few doubts that it will be a fun game, and have no doubts that it will introduce some new ideas and mechanics to the genre. But my expectations for TOR have begun to shift; if I approach this as a single-player experience with some multiplayer elements, somewhere between your traditional MMO and Guild Wars, I think I’m going to be far less disappointed.