Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Expectations for Cataclysm and SWTOR

Rumor has it that some crazy European player managed to get to level 85 before Cataclysm was even released in the USA 7 hours later. But even for the average player the projected time to level 85 is measured in weeks, and unless they roll a goblin and a worgen alt and play through the 3,500 new quests of the Shattering, many players will have settled in some repetitive end game routine relatively early next year. With even the most optimistic schedules not foreseeing another World of Warcraft expansion before 18 months time, the current period of everybody being busy with Cataclysm won’t last forever, and we will have time for other games as well. And with Star Wars: The Old Republic coming out in 2011 (latest news says not before April), Guild Wars 2 in 2012, and some other games in between, there will be some choice.

But I’m afraid these other games have the cards stacked against them. Our expectations for Cataclysm were quite realistic: More of the same; and Blizzard delivered that, plus some bells and whistles. While the actual expansion isn’t revolutionary, the preceding The Shattering patch is the largest content patch in MMORPG history, and unique. When SOE had a “cataclysm” happening in Everquest that was sold as a separate game, Everquest 2, while the original EQ continued to exist as before. A complete rework of the whole level 1-60 game is quite daring. And nobody was surprised that the “new WoW” was a more streamlined version of the “old WoW”, with much of the same basic game structure of quests and levels. The other games don’t have it that easy, because we expect more of them.

I just read a print magazine in which the author described playing through the first 7 levels of playing a Jedi in a preview-version of Star Wars: The Old Republic. While acknowledging the great voice-overs, the writer was quite disappointed of his first quest being to “kill 10 flesh raiders”, and all the other quests until level 7 being variations of that theme, and having him kill other flesh raiders, with just one Jedi opponent at the end. And that disappointment derives from having expected something much different, and somehow grander and better.

There is a danger here that our expectations will doom SWTOR. If, in a quite realistic scenario, Bioware releases a solid MMORPG which has much of the same structure in terms of quests, levels, and how combat works as World of Warcraft, there will be a howl of disappointment from some quarters. If we expect the same gripping narrative in SWTOR that we are used to from Bioware’s single-player games, this disappointment might even be inevitable. Nobody has ever even penned a theoretical proof that it is possible to transpose the narrative of a single-player game into a MMO environment, much less implemented it. All our hope is based on a few hollow marketing slogans of 4th pillars and the like.

Cataclysm is a product of very high quality, minor problems with login during the first few hours in Europe notwithstanding. As this is the third expansion, and Blizzard has WoW up and running for six years now, and makes a billion dollars of revenue per year, this isn’t really surprising. It will be hard for Bioware, with less financial backing and no experience in launching MMORPGs, to just come up with a product meeting similar standards of quality. And if they manage to do that, people will still be disappointed, because they expect Bioware to deliver the impossible, the “WoW killer”, the “future of MMO gaming”.

My personal advice is to expect Star Wars: The Old Republic to be some sort of “WoW with light sabers”. If we expect the differences between SWTOR and Cataclysm to be more in the details than in the fundamentals, we have a much better chance of not ending up very disappointed. Hoping for the impossible will only destroy the enjoyment of what might still end up being a solid MMORPG.

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