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2.0 or May the Force™ Be With You

April 15, 2013 Comments off

Yes, they actually use the trademark character, as exemplified by Damion Schubert’s valediction in the 2.0 developer blog post. Yes, it bothers the hell out of me infringes upon the serene Soresu mindset. Yes, I know: what? Star Wars? commercial?

However, it is time to accentuate the positive. I was going to write up a bitter little prune of a post tracking the further WoW-ification of TOR, with direct comparisons to past WoW-patches, but I think I have submitted my MMO of choice to enough tough love already. The truth is, I am enjoying Makeb. The expansion landed flawlessly in the technical sense, it looks great visually, and it is a pleasure to quest in.

The storyline is not bad at all, and the writing and dialogue options manage to skate the boundary between spirited and corny. Even the voice acting – on my Knight, at least – sounds a little more peppy than before. I am not much of an achievement hound – in the sense of ticking arbitrary boxes supplied by the devs – but the system is a handy tracker for the parts of exploration I actually care about, and it’s more or less industry-standard by this point. Come to think of it, I wonder whether they fixed Taris completion?

Having been one of those dumb sods who missed their pre-order EA cutoff, I am not yet in position to check out the new instances. However, mini-tanking opportunities in heroic quests are fun, and the class feels much improved. Better mobility, better cleave, better overall focus generation. People have criticised Saber Reflect for its poor synergy with avoidance stats (an avoidance streak can nullify its use entirely) but given my defensive preoccupations, the reflect component is not all that important to me. I still get a few seconds of extra safety and, through Daunting Presence, an AoE threat cooldown which is never unwelcome for a Guardian.

None of this makes me a fan of the F2P thing, and I find myself wondering how things would be if the team had managed to hold on to the sub model for a little longer. However, it is safe to conclude at the very least that the weeks of gnashing one’s teeth and looking the other way as the tacky nickel-and-diming kicked into high gear are rewarded with a quality addition to the game presumably made possible by that revenue. The question does linger as to how long this content will last, and whether it will bolster TOR’s critical mass of regular concurrent users, given that the questing itself is going rather quickly. I will always have the inexhaustible stimulation of warzones, but the game needs to hold on to its rai… uh, operators this time around.

And now, back to actually playing it.

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Perfect Dead Calm or How SW:TOR Lost Its Locusts

May 11, 2012 3 comments

As most observers know, SW:TOR received a few body blows last week in the arena of public perception. Chief among them, the reported loss of nearly a quarter of its subscriptions over approximately three months – or two weeks, if one is playful enough to fit a line to the XFire graph, according to which the game will be in the negative (subscribing to players, presumably) by August. However, even dispensing with such statistical silliness, it is clear that the best case scenario is beyond our grasp.

What could such a scenario have looked like? A perfect storm of WoW fatigue, an alluring mainstream-culture IP, the use of immersive storylines (Bioware is still best in business at this, after all) to charm people into staying for a compelling endgame, siphoning off a chunk of devotees from the industry leader and bringing in significant numbers of MMO first-timers.

Common wisdom holds that SW:TOR capitalised on WoW fatigue insufficiently, simply because its core gameplay is insufficiently distinct from WoW. I am not so sure. While even I would not argue that it is anything but similar, the differences – higher skillcap, greater challenge in questing and in flashpoints, a purer, less gimmicky approach reminiscent of TBC, which many people missed fondly – were not brought adequately to the attention of the average WoW migrant. Meanwhile, TOR’s small but grating technical missteps – dodgy ability feedback and keystroke queueing, early UI inflexibility and annoying bugs, a byzantine Galactic Market interface, Ilum and PvP entry thresholds, guild bank support, difficulty of forming flashpoint groups outside of fleet stations – wore away at the migrant’s game sessions. It pains me to concede this next point, but perhaps a few of the small quality of life conveniences, which I scoff at as coddling, may have been a good idea from the get-go: things like earlier sprint and permission to drive through orbital stations. Perhaps some form of automatic public groups for heroic areas. Tempora mutantur; the theme-park player is spoiled.

Star Wars was an important element, obviously. I do not think that anything here was done poorly, but it might have helped if the game were released at some point when enthusiasm for that universe were at a more fevered pitch. Nor can one fairly impugn Bioware’s excellent writing and handling of the IP. Which leaves the alleged weakness of the endgame.

Here, again, I am not so sure. I have to disagree fundamentally with the idea, advanced by a luminary of no lesser stature than Dr Richard Bartle, that the game is crippled by the disconnect between story-driven questing and same old boring raids at level cap. First off, PvP notwithstanding, killing bosses is what one inevitably ends up doing in a theme-park MMO. That is not a bad thing or something to be reimagined to succeed. While window dressing can vary and interesting boss mechanics are interesting, the primary source of satisfaction is found in Ernest Renan’s lovely line about what binds a nation together: avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore. The opportunity to overcome a setpiece, authoritatively-imposed challenge alongside one’s friends, without the burden of inventing one for oneself, is the theme-park’s great strength, not a weakness. The good doctor’s prescription of ‘more story extension, less endgame’ is a symptomatic treatment at best. Instead, I would suggest more variety, branching and story in raids: leveraging TOR’s unique pleasure of making ethical choices alongside and in view of others as part of endgame content.

How many millions of subscribers – keeping in mind that in MMOs a critical mass builds upon itself – would a perfect storm have been good for? I do not know. SW:TOR recently expanded to new areas of Europe and the Middle East, which is not the sort of thing done by a game in its death throes, wherein the studio frantically tries to wrap up expenses. However, it is worth considering that the game has not yet been released (and in some cases is explicitly blocked) in large portions of East Asia, which may constitute roughly half of WoW’s 10 million subscriber base. Oscillating somewhere between a million and two does not seem fatal in this context.

Moreover, the 400k or so lost souls were mostly transients. To an extent, TOR’s public relations strategy is reaping what it had sown by overcounting trials and freebies as active subscriptions. My anecdotal experience corroborates this (and does not match Dr Bartle’s, whose guild apparently crumbled) – some people have unquestionably left, but those who were always seen on the server, getting into groups, talking in public channels, flitting about at new world events have remained, and the perception of community remains nearly unaltered.

I remain highly sympathetic to TOR and cautiously optimistic. Once the team finishes its doling out of pre-designed content while adding quality-of-life improvements, it will have the space to move to innovation again, and it will remain a strong choice for the theme-park MMO seeker for quite a while. In turn, as the makers of Elder Scrolls Online (as good a brand for a new sandbox as one could ask for) have come to realise, the theme-park MMO seeker will probably remain the consumer to get for a long time. As much as I love EVE and the idea of EVE, its solutions are no more applicable to the AAA game than the socioeconomic model of Singapore would be to anything but a city-state, even if its economy is growing fastest in the world.

Categories: Endgame, Other MMOs

Molten Front or SW:TOR Launch Q&A

December 22, 2011 Comments off

Just a quick post with a week-old link. For my own reference as much as anything else.

The most satisfying paragraph in the above is:

Can you give any kind of rough idea of when the first new content patch will be released? Also, can you say what players can expect in a typical new patch (such as a new planet or something of the sort)? 

James Ohlen: I can’t give an exact date, but we do want to be releasing it on a regular basis. I can say that the new content will be focused around high-level content such as operations, flashpoints, warzones, and often this stuff will be based on new planets, because we really want to have new environments for the player experience.

GameSpy: You’ve put an incredible amount of work into making fully voiced questlines for TOR. Will all future content be fully voiced and, if so, will that impact the rate at which new content is released? 

James Ohlen: Yes, we are going to have fully voiced content, and yes, the recording aspect does affect the rate at which we can release it, which is why we’ve been planning for it ahead of time. Creating our content is more difficult than creating content for an RPG that doesn’t have voice work because there you don’t have to go through the process of finding voice actors, recording it, bringing it back, and working in the cinematics and all that stuff. To compensate for this, we have a long lead time for everything. We’ve had the scripts for our future content done for quite a while, and we already have a lot of our future content ready to go almost immediately after launch. We have a lot of content in the pipes and some of it is in various stages of completion, but we’ve gotten used to working with content on such a large scale over the last six years. If we didn’t, we’d be screwed.

Which means that Bioware aren’t daft, realise that they need a big buffer given their slow content generation, and probably have the next content patch already sitting on ice. I wonder if it was included in the original development costs.

Tobold argues that TOR, at endgame, will suffer from the Tortage Effect, which is MMO-geek jargon for a content bait-and-switch. In a shocking and unxpected move, I disagree. First, while I’m not a fishing man, I have trouble envisioning the eight-course feast that Bioware served up  dangling at the end of a hook. Second, I think there will be decent endgame in TOR, though it certainly won’t be some kind of Revolutionary Endgame that would wet the dessicated palates of jaded bloggers. Yes, it’ll be quite recognisable to anyone who played WoW. Possibly more recognisable to someone who left WoW after TBC, if my tea leaf reading and attunement to the vibe suggested by early flashpoints are worth anything. Third, I predict if there’s any effect TOR endgame will suffer from, it will be the Quel’Danas/Argent Tournament/Molten Front effect: new planets with hours of quest gameplay likely related to whatever new Operation is part of that patch. Those storylines (the parallel with WoW ends here) will be voiced, engaging and well-written. The quest lines will eventually culminate in gear rewards which will be attractive enough for all of the galaxy to head over and do it to keep up with the Joneses and better prep for the Operation.

And that will be okay.

Categories: Endgame, Uncategorized

Endgame Hopes

November 30, 2011 1 comment

Tobold wonders about the fundamental replayability of  SW:TOR  once the storylines become well-known, predicting unremarkable endgame and the wrath of bloggers at the carebearishness of it all.

One is tempted to play devil’s advocate here, considering that a sizeable handful of bloggers believe fervently that WoW subscription numbers had the potential to rise forever if not for the calamities of Wrath and Cataclysm. We don’t really know what the endgame (the complete endgame) will look like in TOR, but if I had to pick the vintage of WoW that it feels most like, culturally, it would be the Burning Crusade: tougher questing, tougher mobs, server-community grouping without the benefit of Looking For Tools, extensive use of actual character abilities as opposed to the much-derided dancing and vehicular combat – and to think how strong the temptation of the latter must have been in a Star Wars IP! If this relationship continues into endgame, we might see a challenging, robust, unapologetically multi-tiered Operations system, and at the very least the usual suspects will have to struggle for something else in the game to dislike.

Things Bioware could do to extend the longevity of its endgame:

Branch raid content in interesting ways. The capability for player-choice branching is already quite intrinsic to the game engine. A few decision trees, perhaps a few random events along the way, and no raid run need ever look the same. Some of these ought to be for flavour and some ought to increase raid difficulty and rewards. A fledgling raid group might choose a path that allows it, say, to trade the end boss for three medium difficulty bosses and still have a sense of ‘completing’ the raid. And it would go some ways to answer Tobold’s skepticism about the conversational choices being relevant beyond questing. Think Sarth3D, Yogg+0 and their ilk except with flexibility, subtlety and soul. And lightsabers.

Go easy on gear resets and allow long-term ambition to blossom. This is especially true in the initial honeymoon period. Provide a variety of raids, scale them in difficulty, make gear matter and therefore bring pleasure when acquired, offer a ladder to the top and don’t be afraid to give people time to scale it. The content-gobbling 5% are important opinion, aspirational and organisational leaders and they cannot be ignored, but to cater to them too much is folly.

On that note, I agree with Tobold that bloggers (and pundits in all walks of life) are a specific, even peculiar bunch with very mannerist tastes. I remain stoutly unconvinced that the broad MMO market is really looking to be astounded with never-seen-before gameplay elements. I don’t think the persistence of trinity games that, shall we say, aren’t completely unlike each other except for one major  feature (great storytelling or uh, rifts) is due to corporate risk-aversion and the money at stake. I think it’s simply correct market research, though Guild Wars 2 is welcome to prove me wrong. And with World of Pandas, Rift and SW:TOR vying for that mainstream, my wager’s on the new kid.

Categories: Endgame, Mentality