19 January 2012

IS SW:TOR Innovative?

A lot of the discussion about Star Wars: The Old Republic since its launch has revolved around questions of its level of innovation.  Does SW:TOR actually bring anything new to the table?  Or is it just another themepark rehash in the same mold as World of Warcraft and Everquest before it?  Two pieces of commentary on this topic emerged yesterday that grabbed my attention and so I thought I would add my own opinion as to whether or not SW:TOR actually charts new ground.

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore... 

Credit to Rohan at Blessing of Kings for the analogy.  Being a Trekkie I couldn't help but smile at the use of a Trek meme to illustrate a SW:TOR issue.  Rohan comments on the use of two planets in the SW:TOR universe; Taris and Balmorra.  He does oversimplify the storyline though.  Suffice to say, if you play as a Republic character, you visit Taris early in your "career" and assist the Republic in reclaiming the planet.  If you are an Imperial character, you visit much later after the Republic's cleanup effort is mostly successful and it is your job to boot them off the planet.  In contrast, Imperial characters visit Balmorra very early and assist the Empire in putting down a resistance movement.  Republic characters arrive after the Imperial crackdown and help resurrect the resistance movement against the Empire. 

From a gameplay perspective however, this is "phasing" on a planetwide scale.  While the planets themselves remain the same for both faction in terms of terrain and geography, they are entirely different zones for each.  When a Republic character travels here, they see the Republic version of the planet, which is a high teens level zone.  No matter when they return, this is always what they will find.  An Imperial character will always find their version of the planet, a mid-30's level zone.  They are completely different and you will never encounter a player of the opposing faction on the planet.  Rohan concludes that this feature offers interesting possibilities as both factions can potentially visit the "same" planet and yet have the story play out differently for each.

Does this qualify as innovation?  Well, as I already mentioned, this is essentially just "phasing" on a much broader scale.  Rather than an area changing, an entire planet changes.  But it differs from phasing in that those changes are dictated purely by faction, not the advancement of a particular quest or event.  For example even when you complete Taris as a Republic player, it will remain the same planet when you return later.  It will not "phase" to the higher level Imperial version later.  For a story driven game like SW:TOR I think this feature may be incorporated into future content and allow for more complex stories to remain intact in the broader game world.

But there is another thing I'd like to comment on at this point.  Rohan calls SW:TOR "two parallel universes that only occasionally overlap," and to a large extent I agree with him.  I have my Bounty Hunter up to level 47 now and it was not until Hoth (a high 30's/low 40's zone) that I actually saw significant numbers of Republic players questing in the same areas I was.  Prior to that I rarely ever saw a Republic character at all, one or two perhaps on Tatooine or Alderaan.  Now granted I play exclusively on PvE ruleset servers, and I avoid consensual PvP like Tim Tebow avoids houses of ill-repute, but I still feel like there is little opportunity for interaction between the factions.  In WoW or RIFT you saw the opposite faction everywhere.  Often you were doing the same quests, in the same places, at the same time.  I'm not sure if SW:TOR's approach is better or worse, but it is certainly different.

The "Mad Doctor of MMO's" weighs in...

The other commentary that got my attention came via Tobold's blog as he linked to this post by Dr. Richard Bartle.  For those of you that aren't familiar with him, Dr. Bartle is the one who came up with the famous "test" that measures MMO players and their motivations, and he has been an observer of the industry practically since the beginning.  The main point he makes that I want to elaborate on has to do with "winning" an MMO.  He makes the point that MMO developers go out of their way to prevent you from ever feeling like you "won," because if you did you'd leave the game.  While this obviously sounds valid on the surface, he argues that this is not necessarily true.  He points to examples of MUD's that ran for years and even decades after they were "over" because people simply liked being there.  And so Dr. Bartle wonders that if an MMO ever actually gave you a "You Won" screen, would people just leave or would they keep returning for other reasons?

While SW:TOR does not present you with a "You Won" screen per say, it does come closer than any other MMO to date.  Once you complete your class story, the content unique to you and that character is completed.  All that remains at that point is the typical "reusable" content that every themepark MMO uses; daily quests, raids, PvP scenarios, etc.  So in this sense we can again ask the question; is SW:TOR innovative?  Bioware is certainly betting that the emphasis on story will interest people.  And certainly SW:TOR tells a better story in the MMO genre than any other game to date.  But will people keep coming back once that story is exhausted?  If after being told how important story is players are now faced with the same old reusable content, will that keep them coming back?  Tobold doesn't think so

I agree with him, but for very different reasons.  I think we are reaching a "tipping point" in MMO's where you no longer need to remain exclusively subscribed to a single game.  Gone are the days where you simply pay your $15 a month every month for your game of choice.  I think what you will start to see is more and more players simply "hopping" from one game to the next.  Right now, people are playing SW:TOR and enjoying it.  But when Mists of Pandaria launches, many will go and check that out.  Then when they are done with that new content, they'll jump back to SW:TOR to see what the latest patch brought.  Or they'll take a peek at The Secret World or they'll hop back on their Guild Wars 2 character for a while.  You see my point?  Soon there will be a "saturation" of high-end AAA games that being exclusive to only one is not only limiting, but somewhat foolish if you truly love MMO's.  Why exclude yourself from SW:TOR content to be "loyal" to WoW?  Why skip out on TERA just because you love TSW? 

This also may herald the end of the subscription model as we know it.  If MMO players really do become this "transient," then developers are going to have no choice but to try and optimize their profits while players are actually IN their game.  If they can make more than $15 a month off a player by removing the subscription and charging for other things during that time, then they certainly will.  This could also offer more varied opportunities for things like "loyalty rewards" to try and stop players from bouncing around quite so much.  All of this saddens me to a degree because as I have mentioned before, I like the concept of staying subbed to a single game that I love.  It is just much simpler for me.  But the reality is that those days may soon be a thing of the past.

Now that's innovation for you.

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