Thursday, April 4, 2013

Makeb Hopes and Expectations

The new expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, is set to be released on April 14.  Pre-orders get early access on April 9th, so we've got a mere 5 days to go before we get to see what Bioware has in store for us.

In many ways, this is a huge event.  It's more than just another expansion.  It is a content re-launch that complements the subscription re-launch last December.  It is a re-affirmation that not only is The Old Republic going to stick around, its going to move forward with new content and new chapters.  This is Bioware's chance to prove that it has learned all the lessons from the past year and has put that knowledge to use in an improved product.

 There are many things out of Bioware's control.  Many things they would like to do better, but just haven't developed the tools for yet; things like improved guild functionality, cross-realm dungeons and server transfers.  However, there are changes that they can make without any technological miracles, and Makeb is their chance to do so.

Here, I'm going to suggest three areas that they could address seriously that would significantly improve the game.  Let's go so far as to make it imperative.  Star Wars The Old Republic needs to get these three things right in this expansion in order for it to be a success for me personally.

1.  This expansion has to have a good planet story
I'm talking about the story of Makeb:  why we are there, what is at stake, what is my character's motivation for participating.  All of it has to be right.  Bioware prides itself in its ability to tell a story.  Here is where the developers needs to knock the ball out of the park.

I'm not asking for multiple class perspectives here.  Just a single, solid story line that draws me through the events  and tells me a story that I can identify when complete.

I'll even give suggestions for judging the expansion's merits.  The Makeb Story has to:
     a.  Be integral to the planet, not just a bunch of small scale errands.

     b.  Be heroic in nature.  The story should require something above and beyond our customary duties to Empire or Republic.  It should draw from the characters greater depths of determination and sacrifice.  It should require the particular skills that our advanced characters can provide.  We need to emerge as heroes of this world and masters of its fate. 

     c.   Have a satisfying ending.  When I come to the resolution of the story, I want to feel like something planet-changing and hopefully galaxy-changing occurred.   And, I want to feel like the resolution was something that I can endorse. 

     d.      Be memorable.  I want a story that I can look back on and clearly understand what happened and why, and one that makes a distinct impression on me.

2.  The expansion has to have innovative quest design.
The original game was held back by some old school thinking in term of designing quests.  Yes, we had the innovation of fully voiced quest givers, but when the actual task was being done, it turned out to be a lot of the standard stuff that WoW released with.

     a.  Rise of the Hutt Cartel needs to be something other than messenger quests and fighting through groups of mobs in order to click on blue objects or gather drops.  This ancient quest design has a place but for an all new world, questing should be on par with designs from GW2 or Mists of Pandaria.

     b.  Quests need to be structured in some way other than the standard  "begin at quest hub - visit the killing fields -  return to quest giver" model we've seen in the past.  Yes, this was the industry standard 5 years ago, but MMO design has moved on.
           GW2 and WoW have both implemented versions of dynamic quests while TOR has yet to include something as basic as quest scripting or escort quests.  The Gree event on Ilum has encouraged me that they are heading in that direction.  But for Makeb, this style of quest needs to be the rule rather than the exception.

3.  The expansion needs to have visually impressive art.  From the landscapes and cityscapes to the creature design, to the appearance of the enemies we face, I want to see a change from the current subdued and frankly boring planetscapes we're used to.

I want to step out of the Makeb spaceport and be dazzled and overwhelmed by the new adventuring landscape, so that I have to spend a few minutes just to take it all in.  I want the urban settings to be more placid, the wilderness settings more violent.  I want the environment to be one of the best things about Makeb, something that makes you want to visit just to see it again.

     a.  I want to be in a fractured landscape that invites me to look up from the mobs because it is so visually interesting.  I want to look up into the sky and see nightmarish moons, or see distant galaxies spiraling away from me.

     b.   I want to quest in landscapes that give me points of reference, with identifiable landmarks and appealing horizons.  

For example, on Taris the designers missed opportunities with the ruined Hospital and the broken hulk of the Endire Spire.  The hospital should tower over the area, visible to all as they quest beneath its shadows.  The Endire Spire should be found in the center of a giant crater, an impact point that deflects the flow of quests around it rather than fading into the scenery.  Instead, they were no bigger than the surrounding landscape clutter, blending in and diminishing in significance. 

On the western shelf of Ilum, however, it seems that lesson has been learned.  The Gray Secant is an imposing and impressive backdrop to everything that goes on, giving both a brilliant visual display and an easy reference point as to where you are on the shelf.  This is the kind of questing environment I want to see on Makeb.

     c.  I want to be able to interact with this new exciting landscape, and climb on it and fight on it, and not just have it loom over my head, turning into a drab wall as I get close.

     d.  I don't want to see another group of three dark humanoids in some kind of uniform.  I want to fight enemies that I can readily distinguish at a distance, and which do more that just stand looking in the same direction.

 e.   I want to see something more than the lizard, cat, dog and buffalo models for animals.  The flying mounts on Alderaan are a great example of artistic creature design, as are the Klor'slugs of the Korriban tombs.

So why now?
Why talk about this now, so close to the new expansion?  Isn't it time to give Bioware a break?  As we've discussed before (Looking for a Win), SWTOR needs a solid success after its re-launch to stabilize its position.  Unfortunately, although they showed some solid improvement in many areas, the Gree event wasn't the big win they needed.  Particularly in the area of story telling, it failed notably.  At best, it was a good transition to the expansion.

But now, Bioware has the chance to have the game succeed on its own merits.  No more busy work, no more transitions or biding our time until the good stuff appears.  This is the good stuff.  This should be Bioware's best work.  And I, for one, am prepared to be amazed.