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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Myths of The Old Republic

I've had virtually no game time this week due to a colic-y 7 week old baby with the loudest cry on planet earth! So I thought instead I'd spend my spare intermittent minutes writing a giant blog post instead. Here it is :)

Star Wars: The Old Republic still has no release date, and yet it doesn't stop it being one of the most discussed and argued-over games on MMO community forums right now. There's a lot of great discussion to be had (I've written before that the anticipation and following of a new MMO can sometimes be more fun than finally getting to play the thing! *cough* Rift *cough*). Like many I'm avidly following the progress of the game, and as a big Bioware fan (but not very much of a Star Wars fan) I'm hoping it will deliver. So far, from what I've seen the signs look good.

The problem is that whatever community I visit (TOR specific forums, guild forums, MMO forums, in-game chat channels, other blogs, etc) the same blanket statements are being repeated ad infinitum about the game. So, it's time to discuss those myths (and where appropriate even confirm them as fact). All the points I'm going to argue are based off officially released information, either developer interviews or officially released media (where that isn't the case I'll say so). Of course you can choose to believe that the developers are just lying, but in that case nothing I write will convince you anyway ;)

Right, so these aren't really myths as such, it's just a nice phrase to hang a discussion on. With that said, on with the myth-busting! This is going to be a big one...

1. "SWTOR is not an MMO"
see also, "SWTOR is a single-player RPG you can play with friends" (whatever that means!).

Themeparks are still MMOs!

I'm still amazed at how often this crops up. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that TOR is a fully-featured  MMO. It has raids, dungeons, group content, an economy, an auction house, pvp (both battleground and open world), inter-dependant crafting, standard MMO controls, class roles, an open world with very little instancing, housing, and guilds. So how did this myth begin and why does it keep cropping up?

I think there are a few reasons. First of all, it is definitely a theme-park game, and in some gamers' eyes unless there are strong sandbox elements then a game is not a true MMO. I would take issue with this. If World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Rift, City of Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online and many others are MMOs then so is TOR. It has all the major features of those games and more.

I think possibly the biggest reason for this idea is the fact that the game is so heavily based on story, to a level we have not seen before in an MMO. The marriage of a Bioware-style story game with an MMO is a hard one to envisage, and until we get our hands on the finished game we won't really know how well that blend succeeds. However, just because the character story is about one character does not mean the game is only about one character.

The developers have stated that whilst the quests on starter worlds (which you play on until around level 10) are around 90% story quests, once you leave the starter worlds the game becomes more and more about traditional world quests, with the ratio of story quests dropping to around 10%. Most of the exposure people have had to the game (through trade shows and demonstrations) has been focused on early level gameplay, so this may give the impression that the vast majority of the game is based on single player story questlines. Bioware have obviously been pushing the story aspect hard in their marketing too, and they have a reputation for strong story-driven single-player games. That doesn't mean TOR is not an MMO however.

The facts are (if you believe what the developers have said and shown) that once you are off the starter worlds the game is just as much an MMO as any other theme park game. In fact they have some systems deliberately designed to encourage social play, such as the use of social points (awarded for group content) that can be used to buy social items such as clothing and pets.

Like all the other MMOs mentioned above, you can still play the game solo, but if you do you won't be playing any of the flashpoints, operations, pvp or heroic content. You won't be doing an awful lot of the content the game has to offer. The only difference is that the solo stuff you are doing will be story driven and play much like a normal Bioware RPG.

SWTOR is not a single player RPG that you can play with a few friends. It is a fully fledged MMO, and one that Bioware are designing so that the journey to endgame is not something to be rushed through, but an enjoyable game in its own right. The story is in addition to all the usual MMO elements, not in place of them.

2. "SWTOR is just WoW in space"
see also, "SWTOR is just a WoW clone" or "SWTOR lacks innovation".

This is also an argument that appears absolutely everywhere. This time however it is one I have (a little) sympathy for, because it does depend to some extent on how you define what a clone is and what makes WoW what it is.

The fact is that World of Warcraft did very little original with the MMO genre. It did however take what was already established by games like Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron's Call and polish the mechanics and systems until they gleamed like diamonds. It offered those mechanics to a new audience and made them as intuitive and as easy-to-use as possible, and in doing so really set the benchmark by which most modern MMOs are (rightly or wrongly) judged. There is no doubt that WoW is the benchmark the vast majority of people use when comparing MMOs, so the fact that the comparison is drawn so often should not be a surprise.

SWTOR is a part of a genre that has become defined by WoW. It is a WoW clone in the same way that Gears of War is a Call of Duty clone, in the same way that Starcraft is a Commander and Conquer clone. They are closely related games in the same genre. That is not a bad thing, but unfortunately the argument is normally used in a disparaging way ("it's just a wow-clone"). I think that when people use this argument they are trying to say either a) the game is a theme-park game when they would rather it be a sandbox game, or b) it does nothing innovative.

I would take some issue with the second argument at least. First of all, WoW did nothing innovative other than what I already wrote. It is very rare for games to truly innovate; they normally build on previous games, taking features from elsewhere and refining them and tweaking them. That's what WoW did and that is what TOR is doing. Using the mechanics and features defined by the genre does not mean that the game will feel the same to play however.

TOR is doing a lot to push the genre forwards, in both presentation and mechanics. Obviously the full voice-over and cinematic story are the most obvious, but we won't really know how much impact these have until the game is released. Small improvements in crafting, the companion system, multiplayer conversations, branching storylines, reactive combat animations and more all have the potential to impact how the game feels.

I do find the "it's just a wow-clone" argument quite amusing due to it's cyclical nature. Check out this thread from 2004, discussing a new upcoming MMO called World of Warcraft. Apparently, it's just an EQ clone...

3. "The graphics and animations are awful"

Well I guess I can't claim this is a myth as it is so much down to personal taste and opinion. It's still an opinion I would take issue with however.

First of all we need to look at the graphical approach that Bioware have taken with the game. In a similar manner to Blizzard they seem to have decided on a stylized rather than photo-realistic approach. This has the major advantage that the graphics will not age too quickly and also that lower end machines will be able to run it well. The disadvantage of this approach is that the graphics rely much more on art direction and texture art, and consequently an individual's personal taste will have a bigger impact on acceptance of the art style.

Part of the problem has been that we have now been looking at screens and videos of the game for nearly three years, and in that time the graphics have undergone a large change. Watching a recent video compared to an old one does highlight the improvements made throughout the development process. However, if you just happened to see the old one then I can understand you getting the wrong impression. The screenshots below illustrate this (click them for the large versions):

Old character modelNew character model

Old environmentNew environment
There are a few areas where I believe TOR will stand out from the crowd. The game does a couple of things that other MMOs don't do, and the graphics engine has to be capable of handling these systems. The main one is that you will be spending a lot of time looking at close ups of your character's face, as well as many hundreds of NPCs. Due to the Bioware cinematic storytelling style (anyone who has played Mass Effect will know what this is) the graphics engine has to be capable of delivering characters that look alive - that comes in through skin textures and eyes, as well as a wide range of facial and emotional animations - things that other MMOs just don't need to do.

The other thing that TOR brings to the table is reactive choreographed combat animations. What this means is that for the PvE game the characters' combat animations will react to the other combatants. There is no need to see some flying text saying "parried" because you'll actually see the character parry the blow. We have already seen in videos the characters react to where bolts hit them, parry correctly, reflect bolts with their lightsabers, and have saber duels where the weapons clash and swing in a choreographed manner. I'll let Georg Zoeller, lead combat designer explain properly.
Georg Zoeller said:
Raesha said:
Excellent, thank you for bringing this up (I totally forgot about it).
Is the impale move actually an ability, or an elaborate death animation?
Ability. These kinds of abilities have multiple segments, each of which can hit or miss (which may give the target a window to escape...). That said, some of these abilities can be upgraded to root or stun, or the player can use other abilities before hand to set up the kill and make sure the target is not going anywhere.

The whole system is rather complex and we've spend significant amounts of resources and time to balance visuals and gameplay - we don't want to lock the player in place or stop them from moving, but we do want the choreographed combat / blaster bolt deflection / over the top abilities. Naturally, there are situations where we have to trade off the visuals for the player's ability to act smoothly and freely - but most of the time, there's ways to make both work that play well - at least our testers are pretty positive about it so far.

No other MMO has done something like this, so I can understand it's confusing / hard to understand.
Further examples of this reactive combat animation can be seen in this (now slightly out-of-date) video. Note that the creator of the video has slowed things down so that you can make out the animations.

So, the use of stylized art direction does mean that personal taste will effect what you think of the graphics. However, it is hard to doubt the technical and artistic skill on display. Personally I love the art style, but I can see how some people may take issue with it.

4. "This game will fail"
see also, "It cost £300 million to make" or "Bioware have no MMO experience"

Well look, this could be true. We just don't know. However it is worth taking a moment to discuss some of the arguments that are given for the game being destined to fail. First of all I'm still seeing the claim that the game cost over $300 million to make. This claim originates from an angry blog post made by an ex-Bioware Mythic employee who called himself EALouse. The original blog has been taken down, but you can get the gist of it from this report. Since that initial post EALouse has been completely discredited - he was only an artist on Warhammer Online, had no inside knowledge of TOR and admitted to making much of his rant up. His claims continue to crop up however.

For a real insight into the financial state of the game and whether it will fail financially I'd prefer to rely on EA's own investor statements and budgets. They have stated that the game will be substantially profitable with 500,000 subscribers, and that with "anything north of a million subscribers it's a very profitable business". As the game has already broken all previous EA pre-order records and has so far sold over 413,000 pre-order copies in US retail alone (i.e. not including European pre-orders or digital pre-orders) I think the game looks to be in good shape for launch. What happens after that will depend on how well the launch goes, word of mouth, and how Bioware react with regards to patches and new content.

As for the argument that Bioware have no MMO experience, I can think of another developer that had no MMO experience before releasing their hit - Blizzard. Whilst the producer and guy in charge of the direction of the game, James Ohlen (who developed Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age: Origins and more), has no MMO experience, the team itself is chock full of experienced MMO developers.

5. "Each character class has 200 hours worth of story"

I think there may be some confusion when I read this. As far as I am aware the 200 hours figure relates to how long it will take the average player to reach level 50. For a new MMO this is actually not a bad amount of content (there has been a trend in recent MMOs for shorter and shorter times to reach max level). But what exactly does this 200 hours include?

Time to let one of the developers explain.
Daniel Erikson wrote:

Hey Folks,

Glad to clarify. Please bear with me, though, as it can be hard when we're talking about story and story length. So let's start with a few rules for how we tend to talk about it at Bioware:

First: the whole critical path of the game is the length. The walking, the combat, the travel on your ship, world quests, everything you'd have to do to come out the other end the right level. When we say the story of Chapter 1 is X long we do not mean if you somehow took all the conversations and ran them together. Sneaking through the Death Star and shooting stormtroopers was just as much of Luke's story as talking about going and saving the princess. So all the content you're expected to do goes in there. What doesn't go in? Warzones, crafting, socializing, auction house, space game, etc (yes, you could skip world quests and do Warzone or space game quests or Heroics for XP instead but swaps like that tend to more or less even out). Anything not required to level up is outside the estimate.

Second: Your mileage may vary. When we talk about the length of the game at all, we keep it vague for the important reason that people burn through content at different rates. The numbers we're using today are based on best case estimates from hundreds of people playing through Chapter 1. Some people were faster, some people were much, much, much slower as they apparently not just stopped to smell the flowers but had their CCs pick some, studied them, made adrenals out of them and then decided to sit by the roadside and consider what they'd done.

Third: This may change somewhat before ship. Difficulty has been going up in the mid and late leveling game to create real, RPG-style combat challenges. This makes the game longer. Death penalties have been going down. This makes the game shorter. But we have a general idea where we want it to end up and I think it's safe now to make some broad statements.

Okay, with all that out of the way, let me clarify. I was speaking of the a single average first time playthrough of a single class's Chapter 1 being more than twice the length of a single average first time playthrough of the entirety of the original Knights of the Old Republic. Chapter 2 and 3 are each somewhat shorter than Chapter 1 (which are extended by the Origin and Capitol worlds experience) but still pretty darn big.

If we are talking about playthroughs of all the classes we're well into four digit hours but even one class is in the plural hundreds. Anything more specific is going to get me into trouble and honestly will just make me look silly when one guild makes it their all encompassing mission to beat the leveling game in a single marathon session then Photoshop their completion time onto a shocked looking picture of my face and spread it all over the interwebs.

Hope that helps!
Daniel Erickson

So, the 200 hours figure does sound feasible, but if you try to get to 50 more quickly I imagine it will be possible with ease. My personal opinion is that as the game is being designed to make the journey to max level as fun as possible through the use of story, why rush it?

6. "It's completely on rails"
see also, "The worlds are small and boxed in"

Until we play the game this cannot be proven either way, but the evidence we have seen so far suggests that this is not the case at all. I think part of the reason for this being stated is similar to the "not an MMO" argument - most of the media and demonstrations we have seen have been for the early levels and starter worlds, which we know are much smaller than the other planets (reportedly less than 25% of the size) and drive the player through their class quest.

However, the developers have stated that the planets will be "very wide open" and that "90% of the game is open world" with instancing being used only sparingly. This video of Tatooine and this one of Hoth shown at PAX East earlier this year also suggest the later planets are large and open, and encourage exploration. Additionally there are some systems in place that actually reward going off the beaten track and exploring, such as the Datacrons (hidden items that can be found only through exploration and discovering hidden paths. They can be then be collected to give permanent stat increases and give even more rewards if you find all of them in any given set).

Like all themepark MMOs there will be some on-rails aspect to the gameplay. You can apparently go to the planet Hoth at level 10, but you won't last long!

7. "There is no endgame"

All I have to say is Operations (raids), Flashpoints, daily quests, an entire planet dedicated to solo end-game, pvp warzones, open world pvp, crafting, space mini-game and the much-teased but still not disclosed legacy system. Add all that to each class having their own story (and Republic and Empire classes not sharing a single quest throughout all 50 levels) and levelling an alt suddenly starts to look much more enticing as well.

8. "It is (or is not) a WOW-killer!"

This is just silly but I'm always seeing variations on this. First of all, as long as the game is successful enough to support the community with new content at a regular basis then what does it matter? Secondly there is no way it will kill World of Warcraft. That game has over 10 million subscribers worldwide, and it did not reach 1 million subscribers until it was over a year old. TOR is only launching in the US and the EU to begin with, and whilst it may extend its market region at a later date it cannot compete with WoW on a global basis until it does so.

The only people who have a chance of killing WoW are Blizzard themselves.

So... after all that where are we? I'm not sure to be honest. I feel a little better after getting all my frustration over the silly stuff that is spouted about TOR off my chest. Perhaps it will make a few people think before they throw out the same old argument points.

The only way to be sure on any of these points is to play the game. Only then will we know, and I for one cannot wait to find out!

Now, I need to get some sleep before my darling daughter wakes up... again!


  1. Long but well researched and interesting post. It really is frustrating to hear folks talk a lot about a subject they have not researched to find the real explanation or answer.

    Much better setting the wrongs to rights here though...arguing with folks like that just ends up in a mobius strip.

  2. Hehe, yep, writing blog posts is a great way to blow off some steam!


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