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Friday, January 06, 2012

SWTOR - Do single-player RPG features work in an MMO?

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Christmas is over, the turkey is eaten and I've been back at work for almost a week. So, to banish the January blues I thought for a change of pace I'd write an opinion piece, seeing as my last few blog entries have pretty much all been about the progress of Merec the Smuggler in The Old Republic.

One of the more commonly seen criticisms of TOR, especially from people who have not played the game, is that it is not actually a proper MMO, but rather a single-player game that you can play with friends. This is patently incorrect (it is a fully fledged MMO), and whilst the game can be played solo from level 1 to 50, you will be missing out on the many heroic quests on each planet, PvP, Flashpoints (some of the game's best content) and Operations.

In that respect it is the same as all themepark MMOs on the market right now. The choice is down to the player as to how to approach the game, and in fact I have spent more time grouping in my first 20 levels than I have in any MMO since Dark Age of Camelot, both with PUGs (pick-up groups), friends, and guildmembers.

However, I can see why people may get the impression it is primarily a single-player game. There are several reasons for this. First of all Bioware are known as the creators of some of the very best single-player RPGs ever made, and they have brought all their characteristic features into the MMO space with The Old Republic.

Features that they have developed over the years in games like Baldurs Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age and Mass Effect include the cinematic choice-and-consequence driven storytelling style, high quality voice acting, customisable companion characters that have varying affection levels for the player character, the dark/light alignment system, and a base of operations (in this case the character's starship).

Additionally, whilst Bioware bring some good reasons for grouping to the table (world bosses, social points, etc) it is perfectly feasible to play the game and treat it like another Bioware single-player RPG if you wish. My wife has decided to do this as she loves the Bioware RPGs but has become disenchanted with MMO games, and is having a lot of fun playing the game in that way.

In The Old Republic Bioware have melded together gameplay features from two distinct genres - single player roleplaying games and MMORPGs. After playing the game for quite a considerable amount of time now, both in beta and since release I thought it would be interesting to look at how successfully some of the features from these two genres work together. Do they blend seamlessly to give us a new kind of MMO, or do they rub up against each other in an awkward and ungainly fashion like young lovers dancing in the Dealer's Den cantina?

Story

The game's biggest change to the MMO status quo is the inclusion of the unique class storylines and story-driven gameplay, a feature that Bioware have become renowned for in their single-player games. For the most part this works very well in a massively-multiplayer setting, and almost universally seems to have players much more invested in the game world, their character and the reasons for questing. The system is remarkably good at hiding the quest grind and tells a story just as well as in Bioware's other games, and makes the player feel more involved. The impact of the story system is hard to explain and easy to underestimate, but for me it truly makes the game stand out and makes it hard to go back to the more traditional click-and-accept questing of other MMOs.

There are some potential pitfalls with the system however. Whilst it is possible to skip through the dialogue by pressing the space bar, some players will simply just not get on with the focus on story. They may only be interested in reaching endgame and pvp-ing or raiding. Additionally, after questing through the same area several times with different characters the world quests may start to get old, and you may not want to listen to all the dialogue all over again. However, the story-pillar is so fundamental to the game's design that it impacts on almost every aspect of the game.

Bioware have done some things to minimise these potential problems. First of all there is a huge amount of content in the game. If you play a Republic character you will not see a single piece of repeated quest content when you go on to play an Empire character (even the shared Flashpoints have different story backgrounds). Each class also has a huge unique story of their own, told in a prologue and three chapters, though classes of the same faction will share world quests.

Additionally, picking different dialogue choices during quests can lead to a different experience, opening up new routes through Flashpoints or even changing the appearance of your character. The Legacy system (a system which tracks experience across all characters on your account, having its own experience bar that will unlock, as yet unrevealed, bonus content) encourages rolling alts. There are so many world quests that if you do them all you will start to over-level some of the content. All these things add to the replayability factor, but there is no denying that eventually everyone will reach their limit as to how much they can play the same story content over again. That limit will depend on the individual player.

Sod the story, look at the view!

The story focus does translate well to the grouped questing aspect of MMO design however. The multiplayer conversation system is a lot of fun, and reminds me a lot of my old pen and paper roleplaying days in that it encourages discussion between players on the best approach to an encounter. The first time I played through The Esseles with someone who chose to take the short route by using the engineers (I'm picking my words carefully here to avoid spoilers!) was shocking and there was a lot of fun with the banter that followed that person's decision.

There are other potential issues with the story system however. Like typical Bioware stories, your choices in the game change the path of the story and have an impact on the world. However, unlike a single-player game you cannot make massive changes to what is a shared gameworld (for example, you can't blow up a planet, because that would adversely effect everyone else playing the game).

Bioware get round this by using small instances that are unique to your character in which to tell the major parts of the unique class stories. This means you can make big changes and kill off NPCs permanently if you choose, and the game does an excellent job in minimising the transition from open world to instance (I've written about this before in my beta review - the tech used to achieve this is very impressive).

The use of these instances does lead to some issues when married to an MMO world though. Whilst the technology for seamless transition may be impressive, it can get a little frustrating for example when you journey to the bottom of a cave system and find a red forcefield blocking your way because it leads to an instanced area for a different class. I can imagine that they can also lead to the world seeming a little more disconnected and solo-oriented as well, though personally I don't have an issue with that. It's hard to see how else Bioware could have handled this, without removing the possibility of changing the storylines at all.

I wanna tell you a story

Finally, you always know in the back of your mind that whilst you may feel your Smuggler is on an epic hunt for the lost treasure of a famous galactic gangster like some space-age Indiana Jones, every other player who has a Smuggler character is going through the same experience. They may be picking different dialogue choices, killing some NPCs that you left alive for example, but they are all heroes in their own stories.

Generally the bringing of choice-driven story to the MMO arena is a massive success however, and indeed is one of the game's features that is almost universally lauded. There are a few rough edges, as I've highlighted, but the benefits far, far outweigh them, and if you can suspend your disbelief just a little those rough edges fade away.

Companions

Companions characters have been a staple of Bioware single-player RPGs from the very beginning. The systems have grown and changed as new games have been developed, but they have always been used to increase the story potential (including offering romantic storylines) and to offer new customisation options. Companions are another RPG staple that Bioware have brought to the MMO arena, and like the choice-driven storytelling, the union isn't always a comfortable one.

The major issue is one of immersion. Each class will eventually get 5 companions, of which they can choose one to adventure with. The game is balanced such that you need a companion with you in order to progress, especially at higher levels when the content does get tougher. The issue is mainly apparent at lower levels, below level 20, and that is that every other character of the same class will have the same companion as yourself. For example, whilst playing my smuggler, whose first companion is Corso Riggs, every other smuggler I see also has Corso Riggs as their companion. This will obviously change as the choice of companions grows as I level up, but it can be a little odd at first.

Bioware have tried to address this problem in several ways. First of all you can give any equipment you come across to your companion to wear (assuming it is wearable by their class). In this way the companions soon begin to look different as they will have different armour. Secondly there are customisation kits available for companions that change their appearance (their sex and race remains the same, but some kits will change their facial features entirely, as well as their colouring).

You get a choice of three kits early on, leading to some early variation, but more can be found from quests and on social and special item vendors. The variation is good, but it takes a while until all these options become available. Finally, you never see or hear other players companions referred to by name, so whilst my companion is called Corso Riggs, other smugglers' companions are just referred to as "Companion".

My Corso looks different to your Corso

So, that is the primary issue with bringing companion characters from single-player RPGs into the MMO arena. However, they do bring a lot of benefits to the game. As well as bringing some interesting story and quest options, they offer another progression system (equipping them and customising them), the ability to make up for shortfalls in groups, decent AI in combat and new combat options (with the ability to customise their AI somewhat), quality-of-life benefits (you can send them off to sell all your junk loot, saving a trip back to base) and a genius tie-in to the crafting system that all but eliminates the grind (I love being able to do my crafting by sending Corso off to craft whilst I'm travelling between planets or quest hubs).

Companions also have affection ratings for your main character. Decisions you make whilst adventuring can make them like you more (to the point of romantic involvement in some cases) or less (to the point where they refuse to craft or work for you). You can buy or craft gifts for them that will raise their affection if you upset them too much as well. The affection system gives another unique progression system to the game.

As I've written before, companions are much more than simply pets. I have hunted and adventured with Corso for some time now. I know his background, what happened to his parents, why he stands up for the downtrodden and weak against more powerful forces, and I care what he thinks about my character. Bioware do an excellent job of hiding the fact he is a bunch of pixels and AI routines. In my opinion companion characters have fully rounded characters and bring a lot of new progression and gameplay systems to the game, and are therefore more than worth the few jarring immersion moments that inevitably occur, mainly at lower levels.

Alignment

Most Bioware single-player games have had some kind of alignment system in place. Bringing this kind of system to the MMO genre also brings consequence for player actions, or at least the illusion of consequence. The system is zero sum based, in that lightside and darkside points cancel each other out. So, if you have 200 lightside points, and 150 darkside points, your character effectively has 50 lightside points. What does bringing such a system into the MMO space bring to the game?

Other than the impact on story, changing your lightside or darkside level allows access to equipment and to titles. For example, some equipment is only usable by characters who are rank 4 lightside. It therefore encourages a progression system of trying to achieve higher darkside or lightside points. The system also changes the appearance of your character if you gain darkside ranks - they become more pallid, with red, dark rimmed eyes and visible blood veins under the skin (this cosmetic change can be disabled in the options), which is a nice touch.

It would be nice if there were some rewards for those who choose to travel a neutral path, counteracting darkside and lightside decisions to remain "grey". Bioware have indicated that they will be adding unique equipment for those who choose to play this way, but as of now it is not in the game.

The alignment system does not really bring any disadvantages to the MMO game as far as I can see, but I believe it could be expanded if Bioware chose to, so that for example, certain quests would open up as you progressed in dark or lightside ranks. There is more potential in the system than is currently realised, but having said that it is a good match for the MMO genre.

Starships

Ever since the first Baldurs Gate game, a base of operations has been a constant in Bioware single-player MMOs, whether it be the Thieves Guild in Baldurs Gate, the camp in Dragon Age, or the Normandy in Mass Effect. These bases are used as a place to tell parts of the story, and a place to relax and chat to companion characters.

The use of the player's starship as their base of operations in TOR works well. It offers all the above as well as a place to hang out with friends, gives a means of transport between planets, and opens up the space combat mini-game. Again, this is a system that works well in the MMO setting, but has much more potential than is currently realised.


First of all Bioware have already said that the technology exists in the game engine to use starships as a housing system, such as that found in EQ2 or LoTRO. This would allow players to customise their ships internally, decorating them with new textures and colours, and with trophies won during their adventures. It's a system not in game as yet, but I would expect to see it at some time down the track.

The starships also offer up the possibility of a more open space game, that could allow free roaming space travel and even pvp space battles. We'll have to wait to see if that happens, but I expect it may be a way off (possibly material for an expansion pack).

Like the alignment system, the base-of-operations works well in an MMO setting, but has much potential that has yet to be realised.

Codex

Finally, we come to the Codex. Some kind of Codex or lorebook has again been part of Bioware single-player RPGs for some time. Other MMOs have used a similar system (for example, the Tome of Knowledge in Warhammer Online). It brings a huge amount of background information to the game for those who are interested (apparently over 120,000 words of entry, equivalent to a large novel), as well as a way of tracking achievements and quests.

It's a simple system that works very well in an MMO.

Summary

So, how have Bioware's efforts to bring systems from their single-player RPGs into an MMO game worked? Well, it cannot be denied that there are some issues, and the fit is a little uncomfortable in some cases. However, for me the benefits massively outweigh any issues. Systems such as the choice-driven storytelling and companion characters really bring some new things to the MMO genre and are used to hide the grind very well.

There are plenty of areas where there remains much more potential, but overall the marriage of Bioware's single-player systems to a massively multiplayer game work remarkably well.

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