Sunday, June 17, 2012

On Star Wars: The Old Republic

Only a master of evil, Darth.
Hoth: a planet in need of conquering, solely for its iconic look.

Long time readers, by which I mean I write long posts, will remember I wrote a considerably insightful post about The Old Republic when it was first announced. Some of the elements I divined were actually in the game, so allow me to gloat, if just for a few seconds. You same long time readers, by which I mean you're probably the same person, will remember I had a hard time avoiding writing about Star Wars. I eventually did, but I'm glad to break my streak by talking about Star Wars: The Old Republic. I have been playing since January, or more aptly put and regrettably too: since I stopped writing more blog posts. Prior to signing up for ToR I finally finished up on the original Knights Of The Old Republic, and despite it being a very old game I enjoyed it a whole lot. Needless to say, I was pretty psyched for Old Republic. After much thinking and deliberating I settled on making an Imperial (of course) Sith Pureblood Warrior who I'd want to make into a Juggernaut, the Darth Vader archetype.
I knew in advance that this wasn't the typical MMO due to the voice acting and storytelling. I curbed my expectations but wasn't disappointed at all. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the voice acting, the animation and the, subtle, cartoon-like art style. This was much more of a cross between Mass Effect and the Star Wars animated series then I'd originally thought. The action was snappy and responsive, all nicely animated, the frame rate kept up. The effects and combat: very satisfying.

The story, twisting and turning in great Sith fashion, took me across the galaxy. I built my team of companions, upgraded my ship and my gear. About a month of intense gaming later, the story finally closed up in an open ended galactic stalemate. This isn't much of a spoiler as the game requires two factions, neither of which can win the War of Stars lest the game end.
Since then I have made 3 more characters. A Jedi Knight Sentinel, an Imperial Agent Sniper and a Sith Inquisitor Sorcerer. Yes, It has been a busy few months. I am currently in one of the most prominent PVP guilds where i'm joined by generally great, smart people. I have some renown as a PVP player so I'm pretty happy to be where I'm at in this game.

These last few months months though, despite added features with the Legacy System the game has been in somewhat of a decline. The server seems to hold less and less players. Given the nature of an MMO, less people is bad. Especially since there are a lot of servers with the same low population. There are a few more problems affecting the game, making it seem like a less desirable choice compared to other games. Like World Of Warcraft. As I said, one of them is the population. Only so many games can vie for the time of hardcore MMO players, which is a limited group of players. Solve this by making playtime more valuable or get more (new) players into the game. The latest big Idea is to change the monetizing of the game. Such as Free To Play. This doesn't improve the quality of the time spent with the game but at least you won't have to pay for filler content. So you can feel a little better for not having to pay for time-wasting fetch quests. To be fair in this case, ToR makes a little more effort to make the filler more interesting by tying quests to the overall story line. The level design also helps. In most cases players pick up all relevant quests for an area at the starting point, go into the zone and finish up all quests in one run. The run usually isn't really short, but at least you don't get the nagging feeling you're wasting time by running from A to B.
Considering that the game is very much designed with efficiency in mind, it still takes about a month of full time playing (about 4 hours every day) to get a character to maximum level. It's no understatement to say that the game is huge.
Yet, maximum level is generally the desired place to be because it opens up high level PVP, operations, gear... All of which demand a lot of time if a player is to really become powerful. All of this is where the game has a bit of a problem.

A couple of days ago, I shotgun blasted a couple of thoughts on twitter in a fit of righteous rage. It seems only fair that I elaborate a bit, right here.

Make the game free to play and boost the population. Stop wasting all those costly servers.

At launch, EA and Bioware opened up a bazillion servers to cope with the immense demand of new players jumping into the game. This avoided frustration from long waiting queues. And it worked, I never, ever had to wait to get onto a server. As time went along players finished the content, got bored and left. If the game content doesn't grow at the rate players are consuming it and the endgame isn't there, or isn't interesting enough to keep them busy. They will leave. This is what happened and now many servers are ghost towns, where everyone else knows you by your first name. Which is no exaggeration, at times when I see a new character on the fleet, I see traces of the naming convention a player has made for himself, identifying the character as an Alt. In fact, we all do this.
Being stranded describes it tragically well, because there are no server transfers and no cross server matches or grouping options. If you want to play on one of the populated servers, you need to create a new character and spend another month to get it to a competitive level.

While writing this article Bioware has started server transfers for selected servers. Players on said servers are able to get their characters to a destination server. A change for the best in the worst possible way. Players who don't transfer will be even more alone if they stay, or will be in for a rude awakening if they missed the memo. There's also a lot of caveats attached to the transfer. You will lose all your "loose ends" such as in-game mail, auctions, guild and friends list. I guess simple server merges were either too complex technically or too damaging to the company or game's image.

Boost XP gain so players don't have to slog through the filler, and let them experience the character stories. Monetize the stories.

Spending time is what generates revenue on a subscription based MMO. But to keep people playing, and not spend more budget than people will actually pay for, the creators have to fill the game with some trite content to prolong the gaming experience.
Bioware set out to differentiate the game from the competition by telling good stories. And again to be frank, the stories are interesting and really well made. Each class has it's own story line, so there's a potential of 8 separate stories. If you were a dedicated player it would take more than 8 months to get through them all. Unfortunate then that many players left the game in the first few months. Wasting the potential.
To explain it in more detail. There are two active story lines at all time, the class story (such as Sith warrior) and the faction story (Imperial of Republic). The story line is made up out of a series of quests big and small. Each planet has it's own part of the story line. Every area on the planet has a small plot point area which only the relevant class can enter, or all classes in the case of the faction story line.
All other quests are side quests and are the water to the fine wine that is the main story line. I would even say the faction story plays second fiddle to the class story line and should be lumped in with the side quests. In almost all cases it comes down to something like this. "My Lord! I know you are on an urgent personal quest for vengeance, but while you're here, could you win this war for us?". Then you do and once you finally arrive at the next planet, Imperial or Republic incompetence goads you into winning the war again, and again.
The downside is that planets have a level requirement associated with them. For instance: on Tatooine a character must be at least level 25 to survive. And you can't get to level 25 if you do not complete all main and side quests on all previous planets. At least if you don't do a lot of PVP or flashpoints besides playing the story, which takes at least as much time. This makes the side quests not quite as optional as you would think.
For me, the meat of a game like this is in its PVP content, because it's far more interesting to play against humans than the AI. The side quests get in the way. On a bad day, I wish I could just make a lvl50 character.

And yet... and yet. I was really amused when I found out that my Jedi knight character's story was about cleaning up the mess "my" Sith Warrior left behind. Only after playing a couple of characters do you realize the story lines are actually linked in more ways than one. Making it extra fun to play alts and experiencing different story lines. The more is to pity that I can't bring myself to slog through the filler content to see all the story lines. I can't just play SWtoR. Time is too valuable and it's not the only game worthy of my attention.
It's clear that story is a very strong point for SWtoR so I think it would be best if EA/Bioware allowed for players to just play the story lines and keep to the good stuff, skipping the side quest filler.
They could even get away with selling the game in chapters at a reduced price, where one chapter could be a character class, and its story line. Or even break down that story line per act for a smaller price. If SWtoR is 8 times a KotoR game, sell it as such, but at a reduced price. That way, players won't feel the frustration of paying for content they'll never get to experience unless they invest their life into the game.
I should hasten to say that the game becomes substantially faster and easier if you have a partner to play with. But lately there are very few people to play with (see my previous point) and no real life friends of mine play the game, so I am forced to play a single player MMO.

Remove expertise, stop making PVE&PVP separate games with separate gear grind. Us with a disposable income don't have time to grind.

The success of World Of Warcraft made it the blueprint for SWtoR. Bioware had no qualms in copying liberally, including the gameplay mechanic that is expertise (resilience in WoW). Expertise gives a bonus to damage and defense vs other players, and a healing bonus to friendly players. And is only present on PVP gear, where it takes the place of the bigger non-expertise stats on PVE gear. Gear, much like character level, is a requirement for high level operations of PVP - without it you won't survive for 5 seconds. So where PVE is more powerful in general, PVP gear is stronger against other players. Making both variants nearly useless in the mode they weren't intended for.
WoW had evolved this kind of system over time because players would whine about the fact that either PVE or PVP made it easier to get top level armour, effectively gimping either PVE or PVP players who'd rather play that mode. I had never gotten far enough into WoW to even know about this. But I had played Guild Wars for years, a game that had no need for such a system because the game was more fair. My mind was sufficiently boggled when I heard about the need for this dodgy gameplay mechanic.
But Bioware copied the thing anyway, further carving the game into smaller compartments of players. The only time to break out of the compartment is to spend even more time with the game and get both PVE and PVP armour sets. Woe is the player that has to get multiple armour sets to fulfil more than one combat role. I feel that Guild Wars would have been a better role model for ToR. Where PVE and PVP sets are the same, the only difference is that the PVE sets look cooler, but take a bit longer to get.

Make the Legacy bonuses free upon completing the XP requirement, don't ask 1 mil+ creds for them after unlocking.

One of the big features that would further set SWtoR apart from the competition was the Legacy system. A set of perks for a player's account, which includes all characters on a server, unlocked through playing the game. It would fit with the Star Wars philosophy that your characters are somehow related. Just like Luke and Vader. Opening up the possibilities of inheriting items, talents, etc, on all characters at once. It would stimulate the creation of more characters to the benefit of all. On paper it sounded very promising. Some of the perks were very cool indeed! XP benefits, faster travel speeds, better items. It held the promise of making playing through the game easier and quicker. As an avid player my legacy level was quite high so I was eligible for many new perks. In the back of my mind I was already creating backstories for my future alts, which would soar through the game's content, making my legacy a force to be reckoned with. Yet it was not to be. And this has pissed me off quite a bit. The alleged unlocked bonuses were merely unlocked for purchase. This wouldn't be so bad if it was for a token amount of credits. But to my horror, the costs ran from 250.000 to 2 million credits. This for a bonus of +2% XP gain? To me, this was more proof that SWtoR is an exercise in greed for EA.
It takes about 1 week of daily missions to get around 1 million credits. The daily missions themselves take from 3 to 5 hours to complete, many of which can't be played without a group of players. Want to spend multiple millions of credits on legacy bonuses? You'll be paying many monthly fees to get them! After which you'll pay for many more if you want to actually experience the bonuses. The legacy update has forced me to adjust my expectations for the game. If future updates will be this lackluster or restricted, the game's future looks grim.

It's disappointing to see that a game which was "made for the fans" is becoming a desperate grab for money, no matter what the PR says. Players won't stand for it and now the game is getting its comeuppance. Players are leaving, servers are emptying. The production costs were astronomical and needless server costs aren't really helping. The pride Bioware once displayed when showing off the game has traded places with thinly veiled apologies, hollow numbers and the promise of features that should have been present on release in order to make the game on par with the competition (by which I mean WoW).

But pay no mind to the hushed tones of the audience, and the forced tone of Dr. Ray Muzyka in the following clip from E3 2012, last week.

Enjoy indeed.

You might think I'm enjoying bashing a game, and I usually do, but not this time. It's not so funny when you see the potential of a game absolutely squandered and paying a monthly fee for it only makes matters worse. For the same amount you could get a game that has more content, more features, more players, better service, better performance, funny pandas, less bugs but worse storytelling. The competition is murderous.

Stop aping WoW, learn from Guild Wars. Better hurry, Guild Wars 2 is right around the corner. If you think the Diablo 3 release hurt...

When Diablo 3 was released there was a pretty substantial drop in SWtoR's activity, at least on my server: Hydian Way. Which goes to show that the audience for the game is limited. I too have played a lot less in favour of Diablo 3.
I can only imagine what will happen when Guild Wars 2 is finally released. I imagine EA/Bioware being absolutely petrified. My Republic Guild has already promised to reform in Guild Wars 2 and my Imperial Guild has only a small percentage of players dismissing it a priori. Chances are that they will eventually jump ship anyway, to keep the group together.

A few days ago, and to my surprise while writing this article, an Old Republic designer told the press they were looking into F2P options, but I really hope for their sake, that it isn't too little too late. The classical MMO genre is getting stale as it is, while MOBA games are on the rise, so playing catch-up alone might not be enough. The willingness to change is a good sign though. So I hope that in the future, we'll look back on the first half-year of SWtoR as the beginning of the game.

No comments: