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TOR and Immersion

April 16, 2013 4 comments

Syl’s recent, skeptical post on storytelling in MMOs struck a little close to home for me. The ability to induce immersion and tell stories is a tremendous strength of SW:TOR, and I am not convinced we should give up on expecting this from future games in the genre. This post contains a few spoilers.

I would define immersion as the act of transporting oneself successfully into the mind of another being in another world, adopting the values, concerns and body of experience (knowledge of lore, etc.) of that being. The being in question may be quite similar to oneself, and for some people it may, in fact, be ‘myself, if I were a…’ but that is just a special case of the general principle. The other world should have enough of an impact even on a deliberate alter ego to render them for all purposes a different, if similar, person.

I am going to define narrative, a little riskily, as the specific storyline constructed from a character’s idiosyncratic experiences. In a single-player game with few choices, this converges quite closely with the game’s storyline. In an more open-ended setting, it is a combination of the game’s storyline and player-generated experiences (“…for the rest of the afternoon, the patient Jedi played a game of cat and mouse with the outpost’s garrison…”, “…we decided to explore Glarus Valley on Alderaan in search of rare biochemical compounds…”, etc.)

I have a bit of a roleplaying streak. It rarely translates to actually being a roleplayer, though I have done that in MMOs before, and it was fun. However, I am conscious of a character’s ongoing narrative at all times and I dip in and out of intervals of immersion frequently. In order to do this in a coherent and rewarding way, the game should assist me in finding out and shaping who exactly that character is, and then offer me opportunities to reinforce and express that.

As an aside, game writers have a dim inkling of the character-centricity of immersion, but they frequently mistranslate it into the need to make the character an exalted hero completely central to everything that goes on in the universe. It is impossible to immerse in something like that because it is completely outside of our experience. No one alive knows what that would be like, or even close. So we trundle along in the haze of cognitive dissonance and, at the gates of hell, count the coins we need to pay for armour repairs before our battle with the devil himself. Even though it is my main class, I have to admit that, of the TOR storylines, the Jedi Knight one suffers the most from this malady.

The game’s storyline, like lore, is important. It is the static part of the game that would best translate to a book or film, but it is also much-needed context. A character living in the game’s world must form an attitude to the events of the day. This is something we do in real life, and the absence of opportunity to do it in the immersed existence would be jarring. The events of the storyline make the character angry, inspire or depress patriotism, confer a general sense of urgency or a sense of stagnation that needs to be stirred away. Ideally, they set the mood, but they should not form all or even most of the narrative.

Syl is absolutely correct when she writes that these overarching storylines end, and WoW’s Arthas story is the perfect example of something that had begun all the way in the RTS coming to a grand finale. However, the fact that they do end simply means that new ones have to begin. Deathwing’s story was feeble and boring, and failed at filling the space left by the Arthas one. It was a failure of execution, not proof that MMO storylines are not desirable or important. Immersion requires the context they provide.

For what it is worth, Bioware faces a similar test now after the death of the Emperor, although the Hutt crisis is a decent stopgap measure, in my judgement.

Syl further advises that “…instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.” And this is where TOR does not merely shine, it blazes.

An example, familiar to any Republic player:

On Coruscant, a Nautolan refugee (Nik) asks you to rescue his wife (Ria), who had apparently been kidnapped by a local gang in retribution for his failing to make a protection payment and pressed into service as an exotic dancer. He is worried sick. After finding her, it turns out she is rather disgusted with her husband, and in fact joined the gang’s dancer troupe of her own free will. You may then compel Ria to return to her husband or let her be. You may also choose to let Nik down easily or tell him what Ria thinks of him. You may lie to Ria about keeping her secret, but actually inform Nik about what she’d done. The choices are further altered by whether or not you care about the reward, etc.

Questions to consider: Who is my character to interfere with this woman’s free choice? Do people always know what is best for them, and is dancing for the mob really the best idea? Is Ria an unbiased narrator of Nik’s flaws? Is Nik’s sob story true? Is she under duress from the gang and simply afraid to try to escape? Would this even have taken place without hardship inflicted on them by the Imperial attack on Coruscant? We are improving Coruscant and things are looking up – perhaps a second chance is what they both need? What of Force morality? What does the current companion think of it? (and they do have an opinion, expressed by changes in affection levels) Does Nik have a right to know the truth or should feelings be spared? How comfortable is my character with deception?

Because of these choices made in the little stories, playing TOR can be described as a never-ending series of questions about the character. The outcome of many of the side quests is largely inconsequential to the main storyline, so they can, and do, end very differently based on the choices made. And it is TOR’s charming habit to have the NPCs (often much later) send you mail containing some follow-up indication of where your logic led.

By the endgame, you know exactly what your character is like, what their attitudes are on war, peace, justice, love, greed, ends versus means – and if you’re grouping with other people’s characters, you find yourself rather engaged by those conversation rolls, fighting your corner for your character’s values.

When you are presented with a new planet and a new conflict, as we have been recently with Makeb, you step into your character’s familiar boots. On the character’s behalf, you have thoughts about your briefing, informed by your past choices. You have a good idea of what the menagerie of companions is going to think. You have a particular attitude, and a particular mood descends. The character’s personal narrative continues. This, I submit, is immersion.

Categories: Uncategorized

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.

The Coin Shop or Mind Tricks Don’t-a Work On Me, Only Money!

January 18, 2013 5 comments

I am rather late to the party with this, but I have been playing my pureblood Marauder alt a little to get reacquainted with the environment and mechanics of the game. Haven’t been doing too much of my usual ‘why, yes, I can beat this ludicrous challenge if I keep the footwork flawless and Vette twirls her lekku at the right moment!’ headbutting of walls, either. As a result of the leisurely pace, there was plenty of time to notice and mentally dwell on the footprints of the cash shop. In summary: deep and tramply.

When SW:TOR F2P was introduced, I wrote that I am prepared to make peace with the shop unless it encroaches upon in-game achievement, by which I meant too much pay-to-win and short-circuiting of systems like valor and legacy which represent long-term player goals. At the time, I had been a little too idealistic to even anticipate the pay-to-breathe element or the impact on the economy. The strategy appears to be to target primarily people levelling through the stories and to inconvenience them enough that they give in and buy the necessities of everyday life. A dangerous game to play.

However, there is one property of the system which restrains me from pouring unalloyed scorn. All of the items one can obtain through the coin shop unbind after a certain period of time and become resellable, providing a very direct conversion from real currency to in-game currency. I had not anticipated that, either, and I am not entirely sure what to think about it yet.

On the one hand, every time I passed through the fleet, the only trade advertisements were for unbound shop items. The sums I have seen tossed about were on the order of several million credits per fashion item, which is far removed from the income of ordinary gameplay (especially given F2P inventory/storage/crafting limitations) and if it goes on like that, we’re going to need Stones of Jordan. On the other hand, certain utility unlocks and authorisations (like Quickbars and bank access) can be found on the GTN for entirely reasonable prices. I am guessing that some appear as undesirable chaff in ‘booster pack’ type packages which people are encouraged to buy for a chance at rare cosmetic items, and some are put on the market by gambling-averse fashion hounds (probably also subscribers) who prefer to convert coins to credits and buy their desirables directly.

Thus, an enterprising F2Per can make life reasonably (and permanently) comfortable for themselves using solely in-game currency, and a subscriber can help out a buddy with their spare coins. Even as a subscriber myself, I bought the new Section X content authorisation for credits, just because the price was very accessible to my main. Piecemeal PLEX in SW:TOR? Sure, why not. Shame that marketing is so quiet about this flexibility.

On a positive note, and whenever I manage to distract myself away from these meta-concerns, the game is as entertaining as always. I really ought to be sorting out Sullas and getting some warzones going on, but I have fallen victim to the TOR occupational hazard of getting hooked on a storyline. The Warrior’s second companion was a minor surprise to me, and I can get used to a little crisp competence around the place. On my Knight, I had to wait for that until Rusk came along.

Categories: Uncategorized

Floating With The Rest Of The Garbage

January 6, 2013 Comments off

I have not really been moved to write much lately, partly because I have not been playing TOR very much. I had gone back on my strict disavowals and clocked ten weeks of Mists of Pandaria before quitting permanently again. And for the past month or so, I have not been finding myself in a particularly MMO-friendly frame of mind.

The WoW thing was a spur of the moment decision when I learned that a friend was starting a new guild, and I do not regret it. I was in good company and had fun despite the game’s systems and flavour. I could write a long screed about everything that I found wanting, but instead, I’ll recommend this report by the venerable Big Bear Butt, whose blog I remember enjoying back when I was a young, hopeful beartank myself, obscene AR was king, and Swipe was a 3-target cone AoE.

That daily/weekly routine BBB describes did get old, quickly. I was probably not doing myself any favours trying to keep three characters in shape, either. Suffice it to say I am glad it is over, and I salute anyone able to maintain a positive adapt-and-overcome attitude toward the experience.

Since leaving the damned pandas behind, I have been playing a fair bit of Borderlands 2 co-op, checked out Torchlight 2, dug out Deus Ex: HR from the bought-ages-ago-on-Steam collection. I am told that F2P has revitalised the remaining collection of SW:TOR’s servers, and some time in the coming days I will probably hop back on. As a matter of principle, even though I am subbed, I am far from happy with the aggressive monetisation strategy leveraged against the preferred and free-playing customers – like drastic character limits and the infamous UI restrictions. I want to look forward to new, good things in the game, what with the expansion coming up, and all, but the tawdriness is getting to me a little.

Categories: Other MMOs, Uncategorized

The Chase and the Sausage Factory

August 19, 2012 Comments off

The Chase:

I have been taking the tortoise approach to the Acquisitions Race for reasons of limited daily playtime and esthetics. The Chavin preach self-enrichment as life philosophy, and I am relieved that Bioware included a public sector angle, so to speak. I would have felt awfully un-Jedi running around and hip-checking competitors over a few shiny trinkets alone. As it stands, I will be pleased to dump the whole sorry collection into a Republic dropbox on Monday, for the intel-wonks to pore over.

It is fortunate that Jedi do not care for material rewards, because the most interesting item at the Enrichment vendor, the bowcaster, comes in Rifle and Sniper Rifle proficiency varieties and is probably the antithesis of a civilised weapon. It would be nice if force users could get something memorable from the event, especially if Sand People cosplay isn’t quite one’s thing. I do like that clunker of a speeder, though.

The slow approach is better, moreover, because it is enjoyable to drive around places like Nar Shaddaa and take in the local sights again. The corollary of this game being so battered by vitiriol and irrational hatred is that logging back into it with sagging expectations makes for a sweeter reminder of how good it actually is. The smuggler’s moon has its internal logic of glittering facade hiding slums, shady cantinas and spice laboratories, and it’s fun to unwrap it yet again without threat from low-level NPCs.

On a cautionary note: while the event did get people to log in and got public channels buzzing on Nar Shaddaa, Coruscant and the fleet, it is still essentially a solitary exercise. I have no problem with that, but having consolidated servers and achieved a critical mass of interacting players again at great cost to morale, Bioware needs to work harder to keep them connecting and to push back against the single-player MMO misperception that will probably never quite go away entirely.


The Sausage Factory:

Perhaps it’s just me, but in the olden days when the grass was green, game developers maintained a certain distance from the audience. It might sound like heresy, but in the case of Diablo 3 and Blizzard in general, I would rather the devs be less responsive and less overt about it when they do respond.

The detailed discussion of D3 class changes with constant references to crowdsourcing and forum feedback reminds me of what has happened to media coverage of politics. We have gone from covering political events to covering the coverage of those events, to covering the popular response to the coverage of the coverage, and we do occasionally lurch into absurd iterations going even further. Political actors adjust to media realities, and so we ended up with lamentable dominance of media operations or spin-doctors over actual policymaking operations inside governments and parties. The equivalent in game industry is not good for the product, either.

On the surface of it, it looks great. ‘We heard your concerns and here they are reflected in the design! We see YOU using a skill nearly exclusively, and so we are responding by making others more interesting. This is interactive, we are working on this together, you and we!’ Transparency of the devs’ thinking process as they search for truth, however, is no substitute for having gotten things right in the first place. Increasingly, paid-for betas and ‘release now, patch later’ are becoming the norm, and this feigned chumminess with the end-user only serves to lessen the design team’s responsibility.

In the end, it ought to be their field of expertise. Try giving ongoing design feedback at the bar of a self-respecting sushi chef sometime.

Categories: Mentality, Uncategorized

Self-Expression, or The Illusion Of Freedom

August 14, 2012 Comments off

As I half-ponder, half-plan my return to SW:TOR, the usual fundamental gaming questions arise. What shall I do on my next logon? What goals remain, are they reachable by multiple alternative paths, and in what order should they be pursued?

Were I currently part of an active guild, strong suggestions would present themselves immediately, based on the needs of others. During the server transition phase, however, my gameplay will be self-directed and socially mercenary in nature. Not strictly congruous with the nature of my Jedi Guardian character, but quite acceptable to the man at the keyboard.

Things To Do, or immediately accessible content, are at the heart of an MMO’s quality. The lack of endgame content (not something I’ve observed to be the case) is frequently cited as one of the major causes of SW:TOR’s popularity falling short of expectations. Perhaps the greatest change to WoW in Mists of Pandaria is diversification of things to do at level cap. And, of course, the distinctive and rejuvenating feature of sandboxes and PvP-centric MMOs is the treatment of players and player activity as content.

I always feel a twinge of disgust whenever I see this question approached from a purely consumptive perspective, as in: the player needs to chomp through a certain quantity of content that triggers adequate dopamine release at every stage, lest he feel that his oh-so-precious money has been ill-spent. For some reason unknown to me, this attitude afflicts MMOs more than most other affiliations. Few people would consider rescinding their loyalties to the Washington Nationals, Burnley or Auxerre just because of losing streaks, relegations and small hopes of league trophies.

It is a pity, because I do think that many people experiencing the MMO malaise we see everywhere would get more out of their games if they treated them less like bowls of content and more like toolkits for self-expression. It is perfectly legitimate to reject a particular set of tools as unsuitable, but once adopted, it is foolish to blame the tools for one’s failure to do anything rewarding with them.

One might object to this and ask: what self-expression? In most themeparks, there is a fairly short list of available activities: questing to level, questing at level cap for pertinent benefits, small group instancing, raiding, gathering-crafting and exploration. Also instanced group PvP and world PvP, the latter usually unrewarded unless happening in special cordoned-off areas. That’s about it. More or less end of story. Honourable mention goes to the economic metagame, which can be too complex in some games to pigeonhole in this way, but it does not threaten the point I am making.

From the standpoint of self-expression, it would be easy to proclaim sandboxes superior. Indeed, the absolute limits are gone and the freedom is incomparable. However, the relative limits are about the same. The vast majority of players are still steered by the game systems into a very finite set of particular activities. In UO, for every Rainz, there were thousands of people going through the same motions of skilling up, crafting, house-decorating and optimising for ganking or for survival. And so it went all the way down to EVE, whose primary activities are describable roughly in themepark terms, even by writers passionately insistent on the difference. One’s hi-sec economic activities, incursion fleet, wormhole, PvP roam, batphone rush and so forth are not particularly different from those of another player and his corporation. One fits one’s Drake or Tengu in the same long-established optimal way as everyone else. The rest is an aspirational mirage on the horizon which only a tiny percentage of players ever make their reality.

Gevlon’s recent experience, incidentally, is quite illustrative of the mirage: the green misanthrope heard of the freedom and imagined that, with his detachment and skill at social engineering, he could rock New Eden to the core. He invented creative, half-informed schemes which were repeatedly cut down to size by his commenters and field reality, until he distilled his choices to a themepark-like array of well-worn, standard EVE activities. In the end, it turns out he had been able to do a greater number of unique and interesting things in WoW, the on-rails themepark than in EVE, the sky’s-the-limit sandbox.

No, self-expression as I use it here does not mean doing something no one else has ever done. It means doing something many other people have also done, in your own way, with your friends, coloured by your own personality and principles, making your own memories. Even if it is just a Deadmines run, there are many like it, but this one’s mine. Content is a means to that end, not the end in itself. Instead of whining that the MMO offers only adventures in portraiture, paint the Mona Lisa.

Free To Play, or Train Yourself To Let Go…

August 2, 2012 Comments off

So, I was hoping to write an upbeat post for once.

I ended up biting the bullet and transferring Sullas to a destination silo on the 30th when it became clear that Bioware would do it for me by the end of summer. I was (and provisionally am) looking forward to reintegrating into the new community, returning to PvP, and making the best of the new situation.

Alas, after Harold Macmillan: events, dear boy, events.

I will readily admit that this is a disappointing development, probably for most of us who wish the game well and have developed a certain loyalty to it. It feels as though Bioware laid down its arms a bit too soon and fearfully, just as the game finally came into its own with tools like LFD, interface polish, numerous quality of life improvements that modern themepark players expect. Rated battlegrounds and the (stillborn?) story patch 1.4 never really got much of a chance to work their appeal. Surely, 900,000 subscribers amounted to some remaining fuel in the tank?

SW:TOR is the same game it was before this announcement, and it is still my opinion that it’s a very good game – with good mechanics, excellent levels of challenge available if you take a moment to find them, and the most immersive, epic storytelling in any MMO to date. However, it would be dishonest to argue on the grounds of superior taste. SW:TOR was designed for mass appeal. Its design did incorporate quite a few compromises to succeed in the Toyota way rather than the Bentley way. Succeed thus it evidently did not, although corporate mismanagement (referenced time and time again here at Soresu and elsewhere) rather than the core concept is to blame.

Cartel Coins are… so awfully tacky, though there is a certain dark humour to the conceptual link between EA and the Hutts. I do not really mind if people are allowed to buy Jawa pets, experience boosters, unique moddable outfits, coloured weapon crystals or whatever pleases them in the cash shop, i.e. if it works more or less like Lotro’s. I will begin looking askance at the system and indeed the game if it gets any more aggressive than that and encroaches upon in-game achievement. One test case will be the interaction of the cash shop with the Legacy and Valor systems, which at the moment present the player with several meaningful and worthy goals in the game.

Not a great week in TOR, but one tries to find inspiration to go forward from here. At least more people will get to experience the game, right?

Categories: Uncategorized