Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Epic can't be repeated

If you were tasked to represent the gameplay of a MMORPG as some sort of flow diagram, you would probably find it useful to think of it as having basic repeating units, like combat. These can be stacked inside of each other, so that you have repeating daily quests or dungeons which each have repeating combats. These repeating units are held together by the unique parts, the non-repeating stuff: Unique zones, quests, and stories. While two zones or quests might resemble each other, they aren't identical, and often you can do a quest only once, or stay in a zone only for a limited level range.

Now if you look at a decade of MMORPG development, you will find that the focus of MMORPGs evolved slowly from the repeating part to the unique part: In Everquest a player would spend the whole play session "camping" the same spawn point. In WoW he would do many different quests. And in SWTOR he will have far more evolved stories, cinematic sequences, and voice acting to tell the quests and the stories.

This evolution to more unique content has both technical and financial reasons. Technical because things are possible in 2011 which weren't possible in 2001. Financial because SWTOR's "40 novels worth of voice acting" are rumored to have driven up the cost of the game to 300 million dollars, an investment which would have been unthinkable in 2001. But with World of Warcraft making a billion dollars of revenue each year, investing 300 million in a possible successor doesn't sound completely crazy any more.

But the evolution to more unique content also reveals a focus on a broader audience. If you play just one character in SWTOR, you will never be able to experience those 40 novels worth of unique content, because much of it is in class quests for the other 7 classes. And you'd better not be in a hurry to level up as quickly as possible, because accepting a simple "kill 10 womp rats" quest in SWTOR can take minutes. You can skip all the dialogue with the space bar (don't use ESC, because that resets the dialogue and you'd have to start over to continue). But if you do that, you are basically back to WoW, having lost most of the selling point of SWTOR.

With beta testing for most people having been limited to one or several weekends, there can't have been many people who reached the level cap in the beta. So while there has been very little talk about the endgame of SWTOR, nothing I read suggests that Bioware has made any great breakthrough in that area. The endgame is the point where the unique content stops, and everybody finds himself in some sort of loop of repeating content, ranging from daily quests to raids.

I do like the way SWTOR tells its stories, both in quests and in dungeons. But even the most epic story in the most epic quest or dungeon is epic only once. When playing the second class through the same newbie zone, I found myself skipping dialogue I already knew, because the second time around it simply isn't all that entertaining any more. Thus while I do consider SWTOR a "better" game than World of Warcraft, a "WoW 2.0", during the leveling phase, I doubt that SWTOR has any advantage over WoW in the endgame. The famous "forth pillar" simply isn't suited for the endgame.

My wife still plays World of Warcraft, but she basically never does the WoW endgame. She levels up characters to the cap, plays a few daily quests, and then starts the next character. Also she doesn't play a huge amount of hours per week. For me it seems evident that Star Wars: The Old Republic is designed for people like my wife. I am pretty sure she will love that game, and due to her pace of playing and preference for alts she won't run out of content anytime soon. If Bioware is somewhat faster than Blizzard in adding expansions, she might actually NEVER run out of unique content. How awesome is that? There is a good chance that Bioware can not only attract millions of players like that, but then also hold onto them for quite a long time.

The kind of players who write or read blogs about MMORPGs often tend to play these games more intensely. There is a good chance that they will be more concentrated on a single main character, will still have that "the game begins at the endgame" mindset, and will play significantly more hours per week. And there is a good chance that SWTOR isn't all that new and great for that style of gaming. Certainly the promise of endless unique content goes out of the window if you play SWTOR like that. 300 million dollars buys a LOT of content, but not enough that somebody sufficiently dedicated can not outplay it. And then it isn't obvious what the advantage of playing SWTOR would be, compared to playing WoW or Rift or LotRO or whatever.

Thus my prediction for 2012 is that SWTOR will grow rapidly and keep players better than games like Age of Conan or Warhammer Online did. But among bloggers and game sites, the positive attitude towards the game will end much earlier. We will get a lot of "hardcore" players telling us what a sucky game SWTOR is, while Bioware is making hundreds of millions of dollars. And I'm pretty sure that Bioware prefers it that way, rather than the other way around.

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