Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Crowd control

I didn't go to Gamescom this weekend. I easily could have, it's less than 2 hours away by train, and neither train tickets nor entry tickets were prohibitively priced. But based on my experience with conventions and videos I saw from previous Gamescoms, I decided that it would probably be too crowded to be enjoyable for me. That turned out to be an accurate prediction, with people reporting dangerously crowded conditions at the entrance, and queues of up to 4 hours wait for the privilege of trying out a new game for 10 minutes on Sunday. I probably got more info staying at home and watching videos on various websites about the games presented in Cologne than what I would have seen if I had been there.

Now one of the videos I saw was Total Biscuit's 25 minutes of SWTOR commented gameplay. And one thing that struck me was that obviously there were problems in the starter zone shown with mobs not spawning fast enough for the handful of people trying to kill them for their quests. I got flashbacks to the best screenshot of World of Warcraft that I failed to take: 10 players in Elwynn Forest on launch days camping a level 1 kobold spawn spot.

Now the video also showed the main story line quest locations being instanced, and I'm not sure if you could simply skip all the side quests and play without being bothered too much by the inevitable crowding on the first days. But the whole thing makes me wonder whether there isn't a better way to start a new MMORPG.

The problem in this sort of game for the moment is that your location is linked to your level. There simply aren't all that many places where a level 1 character can go in these quest-based, level-based games. By choosing your faction and class, you automatically already chose the list of chores and errands disguised as "quests" that your character is going to do early on in his career. And on launch day, everybody is level 1, and thus has the same laundry list of stuff to do as those of the same class. "Kill 10 womp rats" type of quests are already by themselves not very interesting. But if the 10 womp rat spawn points are camped by 50 players, those quests are getting downright annoying. And even if the main story is instanced, you can't help but constantly run across other players which are obviously on the same story, which makes it hard to feel special.

Now ideally in an open world setting there would be a huge wilderness populated by low-level monsters, in which starting players would be randomly distributed. So players would be alone, would get quests not from NPCs but by some sort of long-distance communication, and would spend their early days learning how to fight mobs in the wilderness and getting towards a city somewhere in the center of it. But even that approach is probably not going to work if you consider SWTOR already having sold 350,000 pre-orders in the US alone.

So I question the value of having the start be open world in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Wouldn't it be better if the first 10 levels would be completely instanced before releasing players into an open world? It isn't as if they were likely to want to group for the low levels anyway. Somebody starting a new character half a year after launch is likely to play through an empty starter zone anyway, so why not offer that experience to everybody right from the start?

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