Monday, April 04, 2011

"Wipe them out. All of them!"

Some friends have been talking about getting into BioWare’s MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic (henceforth SWTOR) so I’ve been giving the game a more serious look-see. I found this walk-through of a “Flashpoint” (which is apparently a showcase multiplayer mission) with commentary from Dallas Dickinson, Director of Production. There’s some very interesting stuff to note here, if you’re wearing your designer/tweaker/house-ruler cap.

First off, let me just point out that I have no inside access or anything like that to BioWare Austin, so just about everything I’m telling you comes from this little video, plus a few others I’ve seen scattered around the web. They haven't finished making the game yet, and I certainly haven't had a chance to play any of it yet. A lot of what follows is guesswork, and I'm using this more as a jumping-off point to discuss design matters more than SWTOR.

Second, it may sound like I'm beating up on the game. That's not the point either; it is what it is, and some of what I'm going to be talking about here specifically points out what SWTOR isn't. There's some stuff here that confuses me, and some stuff that looks suboptimal based on what it appears they are doing. But, all in all, it looks like it'll be a fun game. It certainly sounds like a Star Wars game. The soundtrack, sound effects, and even the corny dialogue fit just about perfectly with the original trilogy. As Oddysey pointed out to me recently, Star Wars has an audible signature that is unique and immediately recognizable. BioWare has certainly captured that. In addition, I'm not seeing much in the way of disassociative mechanics. (Rifles pull your target closer: seriously, Guild Wars 2?)

The first point of interest comes shortly after 6:45, when Mr. Dallas points out that just sitting back and watching the Imperial troopers fight the river lurker means missing out on experience points. This is one of those ideas that's counterintuitive to anybody who is not steeped in game culture. The smart thing would appear to be to lay low and let the river lurker and the imperials wear each other out. This is actually a bad idea, because it means passing up on valuable experience; the smart gamer knows that the proper response is to wipe them out, all of them!

This won't shock most gamers in the audience, but it sure doesn't look like Star Wars. Even when going after the shield generator on Endor, it was never Han’s plan to slaughter all the storm troopers in order to duke it out with their big-boss commander. If the plan had gone like it was supposed to, there hardly would have been any fighting at all.

But in most MMOs, combat serves as the primary activity because it is an infinitely flexible puzzle that comes preloaded with lots of drama. Pick a fight with a PC, and the players know exactly what the stakes are and what the rules are without really having to be told anything. SWTOR has clearly embraced this design philosophy. Therefore, while it might be very like the movies for PCs to avoid combat, it would be counterproductive to the game. You'll notice, also, that there doesn't seem to be much exploration involved in this mission. Other than the occasional option to engage in additional combats, like blowing up the science console, it looks very much like a linear string of fights. Since the game is built around fighting, this makes sense, and allows the designers to concentrate on varying the combat experience and how the different fights lead into one another.

You can see the same sort of dynamic in 4e D&D: as the focus of the fun is in the actual combat, simple, linear adventures with very detailed encounters make sense. In contrast, in TSR-era D&D it can be argued that a straight-up fight is the least interesting part of the game. Greater complexity in the adventures and environments allow players to pick their fights and engage with obstacles in non-mechanical ways.

I do like the way they've used Star Wars trappings to justify typical MMO abilities, like freezing or moving opponents and healing. I'm really not sure why they've kept death in the game. Near as I can tell, the only real consequence from death is having to fight through the mission all over again (Mr. Dallas mentions this specifically during the Big Boss fight). This seems counterintuitive, as it makes death both a non-issue in terms of story, but very annoying in gameplay. It's even worse if, as I suspect, you must complete certain, if not all, missions in a particular order. Story wise, it's boring. For the player, it means gameplay that will almost certainly turn both repetitive and frustrating at some point. Include too many of these, and your game will hemorrhage players. Conversely, without enough challenge, players will zip through your content and get bored. Squaring this circle will almost certainly require more development time and resources, as well as potentially creating content that some players will never see. However, I’m firmly of the opinion that the first MMO to successfully tackle this issue will set the standard for the industry.

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