For me at least, in the lead up to a new MMO the anticipation, discussion, conjecture and scouring of news sites is almost as much fun as playing the game itself.
My thoughts regarding SWTOR recently have been on the subject of spoiler sites, actually as a direct result of my recent Dragon Age 2 experiences. I'll explain.
First off, let's just backtrack to my recent return to Everquest 2. One of the things that struck me soon after starting the game again was how easy it was to spoiler things. My UI had direct links on the quest tracker to ZAM and EQ2i, two of the most popular spoiler networks. If I was stuck on a quest I could just click the link and immediately be taken directly to the relevant quest webpage on the spoiler site. I didn't even have to exit the game; the spoiler popped up in the in-game browser.
What's more with the EQ2 Maps add-on I have never had to search and explore for anything. I know exactly where to go all the time.
Now, I know none of this is particularly new to MMOs. I think World of Warcraft was one of the first to use major spoiler mods in-game, and ever since then they have been pretty much ubiquitous. Even if a modern MMO does not have in-game links they usually have maps that show you where to go, and it is an easy thing to ALT-TAB out and fire up your preferred browser to visit one of the many popular spoiler sites.
Whilst I do occasionally have a hankering for the "good old days" of the original Everquest (no maps, no quest icons, no idea where to go or who to speak to...), I generally think that this kind of spoilerisation (Wow, two made-up words in one post! I'm on a roll!) is a good thing. It is purely optional for one, and eases some of the frustrations common to MMO design.
Of course you could argue that designing the quests and game properly in the first place would remove these sources of frustration, but Damion Schubert, one of the games designers working on Star Wars: The Old Republic summed things up pretty well in a recent post on the official forums (as an aside, check out Damion Schubert's excellent blog on game design, Zen of Design - it's a great read).
Damion Schubert wrote:
When making design decisions about 'convenience features', a lot of it comes down to what do you want people to do all day while playing.The potential problem for me comes because SWTOR will bring a whole new type of spoilers to the MMO genre, which I personally think could genuinely spoil the game for some people: story spoilers.
If we didn't put a quest symbol over the head of every NPC with a quest, then the alternative - clicking on every NPC in the game to see if they have a quest - would suddenly be a gameplay activity that takes a frightening amount of time. If we didn't put a 'usable' glow on the holocron that is the quest objective, then the player will spend a lot of time playing pixel hunter with their mouse. If we didn't put a symbol on the map that is where the next quest objective is, the player will spend a lot of time wandering the map fruitlessly and killing a lot of trash they could otherwise avoid.
If these activities are fun in your game, then you shouldn't 'convenience' them out. However, they aren't in a lot of MMOs, and a lot of modern MMOs have started to rough out those edges in order to get you to the fun parts faster. In our case, we have a separate vested interest - quest turn-in dialogue is more compelling when the last bit of VO is still fresh in your mind. So we do have (and I guess I am confirming) a pretty in-depth map system designed to help you find your quest objectives relatively easily.
As for whether or not the existence of features like these means a game's quest design must be 'poor', I guess I'd disagree. Designing enough quests to fill an MMO with content is an incredibly effort-intensive process, especially when you're putting the Bioware story and VO on 'em. On top of that, different people like different kinds of quests - some people just want to kill 10 rats and couldn't care less about the story, whereas other people's favorite quests are those that can be completed without drawing your blade at all.
A good quest system is one that is flexible enough to allow worldbuilders to design a wide variety of quests, often in a worldbuilding environment that is still in flux when the quest is being designed, and ensures that players are getting to the 'good parts' of the quests as soon as possible. In our case, the 'good parts' are usually the dialogue and the combat, although we do have some more... varied quests in there that y'all will find in the long run.
Here we come back to my Dragon Age 2 experiences. It just so happens that my wife is also playing through the game at the same time as me. It's actually quite fun to see the differences in how the story plays out as she is playing a very different Hawke to me (she's all aggressive and mean - in the game, not real life!).
Anyway, she recently found herself having to visit a spoiler site because she realised that she had missed out on some stuff in an earlier act that she could not go back to, and it was affecting what she wanted to do in the game. For a game like Dragon Age 2 however, visiting spoiler sites can be a dangerous thing to do. The game is so heavily based around telling a story, one which you as the player direct, that any spoiler you may happen to glance could really spoil the game for you.
Let me give you a theoretical example. What if you discovered that your character will die if you make a certain story decision, or that one of your companions will betray you if you make a particular choice? Knowing that is likely to effect how you will play the game, and genuinely spoil potentially great twists and surprises, which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing these types of games.
For example, I was genuinely upset at the unexpected outcome of one of the decisions I had made in Dragon Age 2.
It's rare that a computer game can evoke real emotions such as regret and compassion in the player, and it's something that Bioware especially often get right with their story-driven narratives.
Which brings me back to the concern I have for SWTOR story spoilers.
Imagine (in this theoretical example) you are happily going about your business in SWTOR, which as we know will have the Bioware-style story for each class on top of the normal MMO tropes. Suddenly out of the blue a shout goes up in the general OOC channel: "FFS, I didn't realise that your companion dies if you decide not to help the villagers on Tython!".
Well that has just spoiled a major part of the story for you. Your decisions at the relevant story point will be driven not by your story choice but by your efforts to save the companion character. Decisions will be driven by the typical MMO compulsion to min/max your character - to get the best possible outcome at the expense of enjoying the story.
It becomes a problem not because of spoiler sites, which require at least a conscious decision to visit, but due to some tosspot spouting off in the public chat channels.
I may be worrying for nothing, but recent experience tells me otherwise. A disgruntled troll recently made many posts in the official Dragon Age 2 forums with titles that were major story spoilers (just browsing the forums gave away the plot points). Consequently I now know at least one major plot detail that I am positive would have been a real shock to find out by playing the game.
I'm sure Bioware are aware of this problem, and it has been raised as a concern on the SWTOR forums. I cannot see a way around the issue however, other than turning off public chat channels and not visiting public game forums, which obviously is going to be to the detriment of the community if others do the same.
As I've discussed, spoilers in MMOs can be a good thing, alleviating frustration and annoyance. For a game like SWTOR however, which is genuinely trying something new in it's strong ties to complex story narratives, they are going to throw up all sorts of new issues, for some of us at least.
Right, back to Dragon Age 2 for me. I'll be posting up more thoughts on the game once I've completed my play through.
Oh, and Bruce Willis' character is dead already. ;)