Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Will SWTOR be the best MMO Evah?

Out of a desire to preserve my sanity I do not often get involved in MMO communities until after the beta process has been concluded, as I think they are counter-productive until the developmental process is more mature. Such is not the case with SWTOR, however in my defense I usually visit and participate on the boards only a couple times each week. The reason for my general rule is simple--early in the development process there is usually nothing but vague information about the game, and any of that is subject to change. It's simply not a part of the process that I enjoy overly much, because beyond stating your own personal desires about the game, or perhaps discussing with others the give and take of theirs, there really isn't a great deal to talk about, unless the development staff is very active in soliciting feedback and interacting with the community on a personal level on the issues. Not unheard of, but certainly not the norm. That and the type of people that are often attracted to the community at this point in the process are often of the "fanbois" variety. Not all, of course. But many. It's perhaps a product of my own unreasonable expectations, but I much prefer a community where meaningful dialogue is the norm, instead of the exception. And so this post is dedicated to a thread that was started by a fan yesterday on the SWTOR forum requesting people indicate whether they thought SWTOR would be the best MMO ever made.

At this point in development we've actually seen quite little in the way of real detail. But that didn't stop dozens of replies in the affirmative yesterday, because apparently anything with the words "Stars" and "Wars" in its title would obviously be the best game "evah". I won't bore you with the details of those types of responses, but out of my own desire to help people think a little more critically, let me describe why no one should be at a mental point, yet, where they are decided upon purchasing, let alone playing SWTOR.

First and foremost we really have no idea what the overall design of the game will be, and how players will interact on a large scale. All we know is that Bioware has marketed this game as being the first to embrace the "fourth leg" of the MMO triangle-in their words-"Story-driven". Story-driven is just a euphemism for "questing". It's PVE and is a staple of almost every MMO out there. Even deeply entrenched "sand-box" MMOs have some level of it, but games like WoW or WAR that are more PVE oriented implement it to a much greater degree and with greater complexity. By appearances, it looks like Bioware is going to make the "story-driven" aspect of SWTOR the core element of the game. So expect the central activity to be completion of quests and participation in story-lines. In true Bioware style we've seen they've added a couple of twists to this equation, such as the full voice-overs (I am still not sold on this, and need to see more of how it will work on the larger scale before I decide if it's more an annoyance than anything else), and an ability for party members to interact in the dialogue process-even on quests that are yours alone. Outside of that, we know very little. This far that sounds remarkably KOTOR/KOTOR2ish? What sets SWTOR apart from KOTOR/KOTOR2? What makes SWTOR a real MMO?

Along the core PVE element, Bioware has said there will be raids. That hints at what their philosophy will be in implementing a typical "end-game". After all, players will eventually get to the level cap and then what? You can infer from questions like (gear thread v.2), posted by Bioware soliciting responses, that this is something that are still thinking through, and I think it most likely that a progression end-game will ultimately be implemented. A time-sink needs to be present in order to gate players, other wise many people will rush through all available content and grow restless. Restless players are often vocal in their frustration and that type of publicity isn't necessarily the best to attract new players. There will be raiding of some sort, though details as to what that raiding will ultimately mean to players, and whether rewards will even be a part of that or whether there will be an alternative form of progression are still open topics. So far I'm not hearing anything out of the norm for most MMOs here. Quest to level cap, then participate in a form of gated progression ladder as an "end-game". Have players on the SWTOR forum thought this through? Because I've seen hundreds of posts over the past many weeks regarding those players desires for Bioware to "think outside the WoW box". First of all, the typical MMO formula wasn't designed by WoW, so this isn't a "WoW box", but either way I can see many players realizing what we're probably looking at and saying this is a "WoW clone". Some people will probably like that, and others won't. How you thinking along the lines of this being the best MMO evah so far?

Elements such as the economy, crafting, and gathering have not even been mentioned by Bioware as far as I can tell. How these game elements are implemented differ from MMO to MMO, and as one can imagine how they are implemented has an impact on the overall PVE implementation. It goes back to the question Bioware is currently looking at regarding progression. Games such as WoW have a strong, gated-progression focus and crafting is a second tier mechanic in the game, meaning you can happily participate in WoW without ever purchasing craftable gear. It supplements, rather than replaces, gear obtained through questing and instances/raids. On the opposite side of things, I still look to SWG as the premiere crafting system-at least pre-CU when I was heavily involved in it. And in that type of implementation crafting is the central element of the economy and is a core mechanic of the game. Players created all consumables, gear, and accessories and it relied absolutely on an in-depth gathering system to supply it with the raw materials to produce. Until Bioware determines how they will handle progression they can't make final determinations on how crafting and gathering will be implemented, and by extension what level of economy SWTOR will have. Many of the players I am seeing on the SWTOR forum either currently play SWG, or did in the past. Which would probably mean that expectations of what they want to see in SWTOR will be colored by their previous experiences in SWG.

But the question is really one that leads deeper. It opens up questions as to how players will earn currency; what they will typically need to spend that currency on (money sinks); how important consumables will be, and what type of consumables there will be. There are other tangents one can wander along from here like missioning systems. Will there be any? And that begs the larger question of sand-box issues, as to will a greater in-game community be created through player created content, or will the core game element be the only element? Mini-games can probably flourish in either case, but I would more typically expect to see mini-games in a more open sand-box implementation than in a strictly linear PVE implementation. Any way of telling how SWTOR will differ from KOTOR/KOTOR2 yet? Nope.

Then we get to the issue of PVP. Bioware has said there will be PVP, and that's about it. On the face of it the fact there will be PVP would tend to indicate some type of sand-box element to SWTOR, but that really depends on a great many of the details. Open world PVP would lend itself to a much greater sand-box implementation as it would probably indicate world objectives and large scale engagements between factions. Details like how that would affect over-all game play are completely in the open and aren't likely to be answered for some time. If Bioware opts for a much smaller, more closeted PVP implementation that focuses on battlegrounds, instances, and to a lesser degree flagging and no world objectives, how would that effect player opinion? Beyond PVP we know very little about combat in general thus far, outside of short glimpses of combat between single players and NPCs. We've seen the Sith Warrior and the Smuggler using various abilities, but as they relate to the larger PVP question, how those classes are balanced-not only against each other, but all the other classes as well remain to be seen. The balance issue will have a very decided impact on PVP, and how Bioware expects to implement PVP will be telling against that backdrop. Even if Bioware opts for larger scale PVP, how would combat mechanics such as cover affect it? I'm not convinced yet that what I've seen thus far would be overly clunky in a PVP setting. I know one thing, I am in no way interested in a PVP setting where combat mechanics are reminiscent of those implanted in SWG CU. That was precisely why I left SWG and would be a red card toward me playing SWTOR as well. I love PVP, but abilities need to make sense, and what works against NPCs don't always make sense and work well against other breathing, thinking, players. If combat is too cumbersome, I personally think it destroys a cornerstone of a good MMO.

There are a litany of additional questions pertaining to a host of other issues I could run through, but what i've covered already is enough to illustrate what so many on the official SWTOR forum have evidently missed.

It is my most fervent desire that Bioware and Lucas Arts create a fantastically entertaining game, and that a year from now I find myself playing it. But the devil is always in the details and until I know much more than we know now it's impossible for me to say whether will pay the likely price of $49.99 to purchase SWTOR, and the $14.99 month recurring to play it.