Sunday, March 17, 2013

Does The Old Republic have a story to tell?

Here's the TOR problem in a nutshell:  The Old Republic lacks a grand and epic story that moves it.  Without motion, the story and the game stagnate.

Currently, the designers are trying to provide motion through mechanical means.  They feel that if they throw enough events, enough new stuff at the players, that all this "new" will simulate motion and the players will stick around to enjoy the frenzy.  I think that lasts as long as the "new" lasts.  Eventually, either the designers will run out of new stuff to throw at them, or the new stuff will be so similar to the old stuff that it won't have the same appeal.  Either way, the frenzy will only last a finite amount of time.

So what is the motion that I'm talking about.  Motion is the perception of development and change, the undercurrent of energy that provides life to a world.  The motion is provided through the elements of storytelling: through setting and plot.  The setting provides tension, between the Empire and the Republic, for example.  The setting provides a backdrop of crisis, like the invasion of the Burning Legion.  The setting provides a contrast between peace and conflict, like that presented in the Noble Houses of Aldaraan, or the Jade Valley in Pandaria.

More obviously, motion is provided by the changing developments of the plot.  We land on Belsavis when the war is in disarray, but by the time we leave the planet we have won the day for our side.  When we first enter the southern edge of Icecrown, we have to punch our way through a mountain side, but we slowly work our way across the killing fields and up to the the very gates of the Citidel, finally bringing the fight to the door of the Lich King himself.

Now, I claim that the problem with The Old Republic is that it lacks motion, despite having given examples from the game to define what motion is.  The game briefly hints at greatness, but the overall effect is flat and lifeless.

1.  There is no single grand story that is told collectively by all of the class quest lines.  There are, instead, several totally unrelated stories that may be occupying the same space.  I don't feel like the Jedi Consular and the Trooper stories are in any way related.  I don't feel like they are participating in the same epic struggle, nor sharing the same dangers.  They are two classes who happen to occupy the same galaxy but have little to nothing in common.  They are stories that advance in parallel, with very few intersections.

2.  The planets themselves seem completely self-contained with very little to tie them together in any kind of sequential way.  What the Jedi Knight does on Tatooine has no relation to what she does on Quesh  The class stories seem to be more of a saga or oddessy, a string of disconnected events, rather than a single narrative.  In fact, each planet more closely represents a short story on its own rather than part of some larger Chapter, as the game claims.

3.  The conflict between the Empire and the Republic seems static.  This is often the difficulty with faction based games.  It is impossible to have either side claim a lasting victory without creating bad feelings among the players of the opposite faction.  The deeper problem with TOR is that the conflict between the two sides is so ill defined.  The Republic hates the Empire for being selfish and manipulative, while the Empire hates the Republic for being generally meddlesome.  These don't easily develop into heroic struggles, however.  And without heroic struggles, it's hard to engender the kind of deep and unresolved tension that provides motion to a game.

4.  The game, in contrast to the first three movies that launched the franchise, has adopted a post-moral stance.  There is nothing particularly valuable about being good, nor anything deeply objectionable about being evil.  They are simply different styles of play.

While this is attractive to players who enjoy being sith, it robs the game of some of the basic narrative principles that guided the original trilogy of movies.  We fought the Empire and sided with the Rebels because we instinctively sided with the cause of freedom and justice over the cause of tyranny and oppression.  SWTOR has rejected the value of these ideals and in doing so has robbed the players of their motivation for fighting.  Are the sith really fighting for the right to oppress the weak? Is that what motivates the audience (in this case the players) to identify with them and hope they succeed?

The overall effect of these four missed opportunities is that it becomes very difficult for the players to feel as though they are part of a story larger than themselves.  Continually focused on the here and now, there's nothing that draws their vision "to the future, to the horizons."  And eventually, this group of sandpeople on Tatooine begins to feel very like that group of Ulgo soldiers on Alderaan.  This planet begins to feel very like every other.  And then the game reaches stagnation.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Looking for a win

I've been thinking about my reaction to the announcement of the Gree event, and wondering why I felt so strongly about it that I started foaming about wolves and sheep.

The truth is that SWTOR needs a win.  Things haven't been going so well for the game lately.  The initial launch as a monthly subscription failed, despite years of preparation, a hundred thousand committed fans, and box sales pushing two million.

A month before the first anniversary, the developers pulled it back together and re-launched with a free-to-play option, and all reports indicated that this re-launch was as successful as the this initial one.  This tells us that the intellectual property of the Star Wars franchise is still huge (not that we had any doubt), and that many people still want to play a Star Wars MMO.  The right game, with the right mix of story, social features, challenge and complexity, will be overwhelmingly successful.

But players are still waiting for The Old Republic to prove to them that it is the right game.  As I said before, committed players are willing to forgive old hurts, clear the slate and give the game another try, but they definitely need to be convinced this time around.  Frankly, the first few events have shown mixed results.

HK-51 was well conceived, and the short quest series was brilliant:  great story telling, challenging puzzles, a dynamic environment that changed in response to player actions, a suitably impressive boss at the end.  Whoever designed and executed that derelict ship should be put in charge of the entire Makeb expansion. The longer task of assembling parts was less well received but well within the expectations of an MMO.

However, the Life Day items in the cartel store were a definite fumble.  I think it was an understandable fumble.  Bioware employees had been working full time on the transition to F2P and had no extra time to work up a Life Day event as well.  They were, no doubt, exhausted and ready for a break over the Christmas holiday.  But someone needed to understand that the fans were charged up by the new influx of new players and ready for something new to do with their game over the holiday break.  Instead, they got nothing.

And actually worse than nothing when the Life Day items in the game store seemed to confirm their worst fears about free-to-play - it was going to be nothing more than a blatant cash grab.  Silly, fun, social items like the wookie robes or the Orb, usually the kind of thing given as rewards for participation, were instead being sold for top dollar at the Cartel Market. The message was: fun things that other MMO's give as story content will be milked for all the cartel coins that they're worth.

Bioware needs to show them some clear successes, some unmitigated victories.  And it seems to me that they aren't going to do it with ambiguous goals and a fist out for cash.

The Gree Event: a Mystery

My feelings about the Gree Event.

First, I  felt as though the Bioware designers genuinely gave this a good effort and wanted to create a fun and memorable experience.  I could sense the effort they put into creating the new of the planet, into the amazing art assets that formed the backdrop of this area, and the creation and positioning of the world bosses and operation.   On the face of it, This wasn't some slapped-together affair.

As I actually played through it, however, my impressions changed.  I tried to get deep into this event, to experience it as a fully committed TOR fan. But after the newness of the experience wore off, it just felt like another questing area for dailies. If someone were to complain that this event was just a handful of daily quests and another handful of static world bosses, I'm not sure I would argue against them.

And I realize that I've just completely contradicted the point I made in the first paragraph.  That was the kind of mixed feeling I was left with by the end.

Here's the major issues I had with the experience:

No Story Element.  Love it or hate it, the Chevin event was less about quest completion and more about completing the story.  Personally, I enjoyed the Grand Acquisition Race and the story-telling elements behind it.  For the Gree Event, there was almost no story present in the game.  If you did some background reading you might learn more about why we were there, but I had no clue why we were killing the Gree Communications Droid, or the anonymous humanoid race.

The given explanation was that the Gree ship wanted to observe us killing each other and/or their droids so they could learn from us.  To say that the story lacked excitement is like saying the desert lacks water.  I wrote in my brief snap-review on Torwars.com:
The actual quests we had to complete were lackluster. I didn’t find any of them exciting or innovative, but neither were they oppressively difficult. The low drop rate of creature samples was frustrating.  The objectives themselves consisted of unimportant busywork that meant nothing to either faction or to the Gree themselves, ancient or otherwise.

The single major drawback of the Gree event was the overwhelming lack of any importance or significance to the event.  Nobody cared.  None of the factions had any stake in this event.  No race or people were threatened, no way of life was even mildly challenged.  Nor was it like the Mandalorian Great Hunt where honor could be gained or lost.  There was precisely nothing on the line.

Nor was there any great knowledge to acquire, no deep lore to un-earth, no tragic or heroic tale of vast civilizations long-dead (something the Gree were supposed to represent).  From the perspective of the characters, this was a flat and one-dimensional exercise in attacking target dummies.

 As a player, I wanted to care.  I wanted to feel as if I was doing something good for the Gree, to help them re-claim their lost heritage, for example. To help connect them with the ancient ship and perhaps understand their history.  Alternatively, the great Gree voyager may have returned as a malevolent force for evil, devouring everything in its path, and for the good of the galaxy we had to join with the Gree to try to blunt its destruction.  Either of these very simple storylines would have sustained me.

And, here at the end, it has to be said.  Is there no one at Bioware who can craft epic stories anymore?

Is this just something that StarWars: The Old Republic isn't designed to provide?  The difficulty here is that epic stories are about grand ideals.  Up to this point, TOR has been busy watering down the grand ideals that Star Wars once was all about.  Freedom vs Oppression,  Power vs Friendship, Loyalty vs Betrayal.  Until we can re-claim the epic scale that was present in the first three movies, TOR will continue to be what the Gree Event has been: Boring.