Monday, August 20, 2012

The Old Republic and Ludonarrative Dissonance

By now, Star Wars: The Old Republic has become a bit of a worn-out topic.  Nearing a year after its original release, the MMO that was poised to conquer the industry has merely dwindled, joining the dozens of other big-budget titles which weren't able to overcome the industry's titan, World of Warcraft.

There are any number of reasons behind all this - marketing, changing trends in gaming, the falling viability of subscription-based play, and more - but in this article, I'd like to address some fundamental design and story points which I think put a significant damper on the game's success, and may have foretold it long before the game itself was actually on shelves.

Tell Me a Story

Star Wars: The Old Republic's main advantage over other MMOs, if you believe the marketing, is that it wasn't just bigger and better, it was different.  Most MMOs avoid dabbling too much in storytelling, especially the more complex and cinematic kind that's seen in modern RPGs.  While many players follow World of Warcraft's lore religiously, the fact is that ultimately it's a stage for new quests, scenarios, environments, and gameplay elements to act on.  The Old Republic, meanwhile, treats its story not as scenery, but as the fundamental driving force behind all gameplay.  Players aren't expected to keep with the game for its engrossing character system or excellent combat, or even MMO standards like guilds and raids - they're there to experience a Star Wars adventure on the epic scale an MMO can provide.

This was, I think, the first nail in the proverbial coffin for The Old Republic.  BioWare specifically took fan feedback into account when creating the game - the goal was to make an MMO that took all the adventure of the popular Knights of the Old Republic series, and use that to fuel a much bigger experience.  They weren't acting out of ignorance, and in fact, with the data they had, this probably seemed like a great idea, especially as much of the early buzz around the game was quite positive.  An MMO with a real story and modern, cinematic production values?  How could anyone say no?

The desire to make KotOR on an MMO's scale may have been fundamentally incompatible with the needs of MMOs in the first place.
However, MMOs don't retain users on story - they retain users month in, month out using social features (guilds, friends list, etc.), regular incentives (daily quests, item hand-outs, etc.), and content expansions to keep things fresh.  A game whose primary focus is on storytelling is generally only going to remain fun for as long as there is story to tell (and it usually needs to be good, for that matter).  Once that is exhausted, there's little reason to keep playing unless the rest of the game can keep players coming back.

Unfortunately, producing story content on The Old Republic's level is extremely expensive.  It requires writing, scripting, level art, character art, voice work, animation work, and more to come together.  Even with less detail and care paid than in BioWare's own Mass Effect series, the hours of cutscenes and dialogue sequences generally take the longest to implement of any other content.  So The Old Republic was doubly damned - it depends on content for which there is a very sharp dropoff in interest, and it is lacking in content compared to most other MMOs because the scope of creating it makes it far harder to put out frequent updates and expansions.

Welcome to Urban Sprawl

The Old Republic's issues with story were only compounded by a more gameplay-oriented problem.  Knights of the Old Republic served as the basis for The Old Republic, BioWare suggest, and therefore many fans of the modern RPG classic should be delighted to return to the gameplay that introduced many of them to RPGs.  Except, things didn't really work out that way.

Knights of the Old Republic is by no means a small game, but it still has a pretty tight focus.  It has a strong central narrative and a few major side stories going on, usually one on each hub world.  Peppered amongst it are dozens of optional quests with self-contained arcs.  Most RPG players will average around 30-50 hours of play-time depending on how much optional content they choose to engage in, following the complete story arc from beginning to end, with the end state of the game vastly different from the start of it.

This is facilitated by level design which is also fairly compact.  Although the game attempts to provide the illusion of size, a new quest objective is rarely more than five minutes away, and backtracking is kept to a minimum.  The environments aren't tiny by any means, but they are precisely the right size to facilitate the amount of content in them and maintain decent pacing throughout the game.  Knights of the Old Republic doesn't really have a great story, in other words, but what it does have is a well-paced one, fueled by new gameplay objectives on at maximum an hourly basis, and they are structured in such a way that you'll frequently be traveling to new locations with minimal backtracking or time wasted between them all.

Running down hallways.  You'll be doing a lot of this in SWTOR.  Probably this exact same hallway, and probably about 20 times every day.  The life of a bounty hunter isn't always exciting.
 The Old Republic, in an attempt to cater to MMO-sized player counts, as well as to, I suspect, pad out play-time, hosts far larger game levels.  Most planets in the game have a very typical setup in which quest givers are placed at one end of the map, often accessible only through awkward and convoluted transport routes, nestled in over-sized buildings, and their objectives are placed gradually farther and farther away - often with few truly convenient fast travel points in between.  Almost all of these areas have dozens upon dozens of enemies which aren't difficult to defeat, but which require frequent resting (for health recovery) to get past.  And curiously, every city and large building seems to have a gigantic pillar in the way for culling purposes, but which also takes abour 30 seconds to get around each time.

What this means is that the majority of time in The Old Republic is not spent engaging in adventure and thrilling narrative - it is spent running back and forth, from A to B, typically doing nothing of interest.  When you're playing The Old Republic, you're rarely actually questing about, doing Jedi or Sith business, you're either holding down the W key, mashing the same two hotkeys over and over in a combat encounter, or sitting there waiting while hit points regenerate.  The the biggest sin of any game is to pad itself out with needless time-wasting tasks, and The Old Republic features this from the beginning and never, ever lets up.

This isn't to say that all games are devoid of pointless travel time.  Let's face it, many, if not most games do have environments and enemies created specifically to slow the player down... and many titles, especially traditional RPGs, have a degree of backtracking.  And it's a well-known secret that MMOs are often built specifically to make certain tasks take longer than they really should in the hope that it will keep players there longer, thus increasing the probability they will spend more money on subscriptions and premium items.  However, in The Old Republic, the size of the environments becomes a major hindrance as simply getting where you need to be is pointlessly frustrating even in early levels.  This is a direct and fundamental contradiction to the fast-paced action and adventure that is a Star Wars hallmark, and as a result the thrill of playing as a Jedi Knight or bounty hunter falls off significantly even just a few hours after stating the game.

Plight of the Ineffectual

MMOs are status quo incarnate.  They are big, big games that exist not to provide reactivity and nuance, but to provide endless expanses of terrain to cross, monsters to fight, and quests to solve.  As far to the horizon as you can see, the odd irony of all that content is that MMOs rarley if ever let players have an impact on it.  It's consistency that rules the day - players should be able to log in anywhere, at any time, and have a familiar experience whether they're choosing to play for 20 minutes or 20 hours.

Moreover, the fact that the game world is inhabited by hundreds of players simultaneously means that it's pretty much impossible to make lasting changes to things, even to non-player characters in the game world, because they always need to be at a given location to hand out quests or sell gear.  Players need that familiarity and predictability to ensure an optimal play experience, and this necessarily leads to a static game world.

There are exceptions to this.  Player-versus-player content typically has quite a degree of variance - factions and guilds can win or lose ground, and in some games can come to dominate entire battlefields.  Positions of leadership change over time and there's always an urge for players to do better to overcome each other.  This is all pretty much entirely run by players, for players - all developers need to do most of the time is provide the rules necessary for interesting competitive play, and players will bring all the politics and nuance themselves.  If there is any dynamic element in The Old Republic, theoretically it would be found here.

Heroic battles might take place, but no matter how many Sith Lords you defeat, there will always be more.  In fact, they'll probably appear in the exact same room you're standing in not 20 seconds after you've fought the last.
However, none of this bodes well for a game with a heavy focus on single-player-style storytelling.  Consistency and status quo is almost antithetical to an interesting story, because it's impossible for characters to develop, for locations to evolve, or be built up or destroyed, and, most importantly, for the player to ever make an impact on anything at all.  The need to service thousands of other Chosen Ones all at once means that, even in a game with heavy amounts of instancing, the public spaces in the world are pretty much stuck exactly as they are.  It's possible to instance just about anything plot-related, but then you end up with a very empty, anti-social MMO very quickly.

The narrative of PvP play is rarely much more substantial.  Most PvP narrative comes entirely from the players themselves navigating the structures of tournaments and warzones, and while many games try to glue on a veneer of importance, ultimately the story of PvP comes down to those participating, winning and losing.  Players interested in a more traditional style of storytelling get little from it, and it's hard to feel like you're champion of the galaxy when there are a hundred other Jedi Knights just like you taking part in a not-so-friendly game of Huttball for valor points.

It is beyond jarring to say "go kill these five dangerous thus!" only to realize they're just respawning trash mobs who are going to reappear in 30 seconds anyway, or to collect valuable research data from an enemy fortress, only to discover you need just four disks of the 20 in the area.  The Old Republic goes to great lengths to tell epic stories of intergalactic politics, war and heroism, but it simply can't because it's impossible to ever feel like you've accomplished anything at all - thus, even those players who might be interested in the story, and who perhaps even purchased the game as their first MMO expecting the same sort of experience Knights of the Old Republic provided, will likely find themselves underwhelmed by the content available.

Closing Thoughts

Personally, I haven't scratched the surface of The Old Republic.  There are hundreds of hours of gameplay and it would probably take me a solid year or two to fully explore them.  But after playing the game and coming to terms with the issues explained above, I no longer have any desire to keep playing the game.  Mechanically, it does very little to differentiate it from other games out there - its character system is rigid, the combat is tedious rather than exciting, and treadmill's end point isn't compelling enough to keep me playing.

But the story, that all-important, hyped-up story, its single-player focus, and all its big-budget presentation, is the biggest hindrance of all, because it stands in direct contrast to the needs of an MMO - frequent new content and compelling social features - and in fact, only invites negative comparisons to other story-driven single-player games.  I don't think The Old Republic is successful enough at the whole MMO thing to really stand out from any of the other dozens of competitors who failed to topple Warcraft, but it's that desire to do something different, to live up to fans' expectations, that condemned it in the first place.

2 comments:

  1. Could they take the ruins of the MMO and make a single-player KOTOR 3 out of it?

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    1. Probably... but to be honest, I'm not sure I want one. The first game was one of my first Western RPGs, and I loved it at the time, but my tastes have changed dramatically since then, and now I look upon the game as more quaint and cute than any sort of landmark franchise. The Sith Lords, I feel, was a far, far better game, even though its improvements were fairly minor (crafting etc.) and the main difference comes down to tone and theme.

      I don't know if I could stand another BioWare-developed KotOR game, because it'd be yet another return to the nostalgia-stroking that defined the original. Personally, after The Sith Lords, I feel nothing about Star Wars can be interesting anymore unless someone decides to expand upon what was proposed in that game - and given that The Sith Lords served as a fundamental deconstruction of the holiest of Star Wars canon, I'm not sure that's even possible.

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