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.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Importance of Setting (With Respect to Gameplay)

Have you ever been playing an open-world title like Grand Theft Auto IV, and been amazed about how natural and reactive much of the world is?  Bump into someone the wrong way, and they might do anything from shrug it off, to yell at you, to start a fistfight... they might even pull a gun on you and start shooting if they're high-strung enough.  Yet how many times have you also performed an equally plausible action, like driving a car across Liberty Island's parks, before flinging that car into the ocean, only to see absolutely no reaction from anyone around you?  As much as some titles are able to create plausible and interesting mechanics out of natural player actions, it's just as, if not more common to see a game simply shrug its shoulders and say, "nope, got nothing, move along."

Generally speaking, when discussing settings in videogames, we tend to think of it in terms of storytelling, and, to a degree, marketing; namely, what does a given setting offer plot- and character-wise, or how cool is it, or how many people does it appeal to compared with another setting?  We rarely stop to think, however, about how setting can actively influence the game mechanics of a title, either opening up new possibilities, or covering up flaws that would otherwise cause problems in another setting.  While setting often isn't something that developers are always fully in control of, it is an exceptionally valuable tool in creating gameplay that is plausible and feels natural to players, and informs the possibilities games have to offer.

World Design

Game developers, and for that matter, just about all artists, tend to take a couple of approaches when it comes to building settings.  The first of these methods is bottom-up world-building: where the fundamentals of a given game world, or society, are understood from the lowest possible level and worked up.  Taken to extremes, building from the bottom-up includes questions like "what are the geographic conditions of this planet?", and each new "tier" of questions is an answer to the previous one.  This is common in science fiction and fantasy outside of gaming, but not so common in videogames because often the gameplay comes before the setting.

The second method of world-building, top-down, is far more common in videogames because gameplay and genre are usually the most important parts of a title and what determine everything from who a game is marketed to, to whether it even gets made or not.  Top-down world-building simply goes in the opposite direction: setting and theme are created with the gameplay goals in mind.  If a title is a first-person shooter, a wartime setting makes a lot of sense because the violence of that kind of world allows us to be comfortable with shooting other things, or people.

Duke Nukem has a surprisingly believable world because its cheesy B-movie themes match the B-movie violence on display.
Top-down world design is exemplified by the Siege series, originally developed by Gas Powered Games.  The first Dungeon Siege was set in a typical fantasy environment, while the sequel expanded the setting considerably and included a much larger and more layered world.  The third, developed by Obsidian Entertainment, took on a more steampunk flair than the previous two titles, and Space Siege, a literal "in space!" spin-off, kept many of the same gameplay themes but put them in a new context.  Despite the significant changes in setting, Dungeon Siege's gameplay has remained very constant.  The goal of the series is "hack and slash RPG fun", and not "immersing the player in the world of Ehb."

I'm running through all this mostly just to demonstrate that setting in videogames is usually, to a degree, incidental.  While settings are used to sell games and are often what players connect to when playing them - I suspect Fallout wouldn't be nearly as well-remembered if it hadn't had such a compelling post-nuclear setting - they're generally a secondary concern when creating a game, and only fleshed out once the gameplay itself is defined.  My goal isn't to advocate one approach or the other, only to provide some context for why settings can clash with gameplay.

Suspension of Disbelief

That scenario in Grand Theft Auto where you run your car over a pedestrian's body multiple times and nobody seems to care, or that moment in Skyrim where you steal a shopkeeper's entire inventory while standing right in the middle of her store, or when your character mows down hundreds upon hundreds of enemies with a machine gun but then surrenders during a cutscene - all of these situations are jarring enough for players that they often border in breaking the fourth wall.  We build up a tolerance for them, we learn to accept that games can't be wholly reactive to everything that we do, but ultimately it comes back to that simple justification: I'm playing a videogame.

Setting is one of the primary ways to reduce or eliminate these problems.  As setting is effectively the context of the gameplay that players partake in, it informs the possibilities of gameplay in a very fundamental way.  If a game is able to either create gameplay scenarios that fit its setting effectively, or alternately builds a setting that reflects the gameplay itself, the result is verisimilitude - the lack of thematic conflict produces a work that is wholly believable within its own context.  Conversely, when a game breaks its own rules, it sucks players out of the experience; when the rules are broken often enough, the logical conclusion players reach is that the world has no rules, and therefore shouldn't be taken seriously at all - thus all effort put into creating stories, characters, and so on is wasted, because the game itself has stated they are meaningless.

I certainly don't lay claim to these thoughts, as they're much older than I am, but it can be quite jarring just how often games which take their settings very seriously and demand suspension of disbelief, will nevertheless bend and break their own rules time and time again.

Contrary to popular belief, placing buckets on one's head is not a sacred Nord ritual to purge the body of all impure thoughts.  I know, I was surprised too.
Skyrim, for instance, offers up players a massive world of opportunity for experimentation and free-form gameplay, yet it's also liable to crash and burn over some of the smallest things.  In trying to craft a fully simulated world populated by human (or near-human) characters, suddenly every detail is open to scrutiny, and the developers can't possibly account for all this.  This is an issue which existed even in Morrowind, which had reams and reams of more text to explain its settings; however, as it didn't include, say, simulated physics, there was no way to break the game's AI by putting pots on heads.

Similarly, the classic case of bodies rotting in the streets of the Imperial City, a common sight in Oblivion for many players, could be improved through coding more and more reactive and specific AI, which shortly becomes a bottomless downward spiral... or, it can be explained as part of the setting.  Instead of a lawful city at the heart of the empire, Oblivion's limitations in gameplay could have been radically improved through a change in setting; for instance, perhaps the largely unexplored, foreign Black Marsh, populated by the decidedly non-human Argonian race, and organized in a more primitive, tribal manner, would have made many of the AI's flaws much easier to swallow.

Setting Informing Gameplay

Setting isn't just a tool for hiding the flaws in existing gameplay, of course - often, the challenges posed by a setting can create interesting new gameplay dynamics.  The Elder Scrolls series, as much as it's likely to fall apart if prodded and poked just the wrong way, also has lots of game mechanics which stem organically from the setting.  The civil war backdrop for Skyrim allowed for an interesting, if ultimately somewhat under-developed faction combat mechanic where players can conquer and lose forts across the game world, for instance - something which really wouldn't be possible if the story and setting said otherwise.  Dragon shouts are an entertaining addition that make sense in the context of the lore.  And the setting certainly inspires interesting gameplay ideas - Skyrim's harsh frozen wastes could have been the perfect place to make survival-oriented skills relevant, everything from dressing warmly to building igloos to keep the weather out. 

There are plenty of other examples one could turn to, however.  Strategy games, for instance, have long been built in the mold of Command & Conquer, where individual units move across a level fighting others, where success is usually a matter of economic efficiency rather than tactics, and where things like unit positioning are less important than sheer quantity of forces.  This lack of "realism" in C&C never really bothered anyone because the setting itself was fictitious and campy.

Command & Conquer plays almost identically in every iteration.  Even the aliens introduced in the third installment aren't that different, almost all of them having direct human analogues. 
When it came time for Relic Entertainment's Company of Heroes to adopt a more genuine depiction of warfare, simple things like being able to garrison units in buildings, or using cover to dodge enemy fire, or having morale be a central part of squad effectiveness, suddenly made a real-time strategy game unlike any other.  These innovations in gameplay, which later informed the even more tactics-oriented Dawn of War II, may never have happened if the decision to go for a more realistic setting hadn't occurred.

Of course, my favourite game of all time, Deus Ex, is also no stranger to this.  Despite being, on the surface, a pretty simple shooter with fairly straightforward goals, there is a huge impact to it being set 45 years in the future from when it was released.  The near-future setting was familiar enough to allow players to believe the world and the characters, and the addition of cyberpunk staples like robotics and cybernetics were all the more plausible because we could see our own world looking like that in the future.  The game's augmentation system, though effectively just a standard power-up delivery vessel, meant that many special powers, like super strength or immunity to poison or radiation, could be justified.

Now consider how Deus Ex would look if it took place in the popular realistic World War II setting that was so common at the time thanks to Medal of Honor.  Robots wouldn't make sense, so some of the game's more iconic enemies would be out.  Augmentations could at best be explained as magic powers, or mutations, so a core theme of the game, post-humanism through technological development, would be difficult to explore, and the seriousness of the game's setting and social commentary would be called into question.  Weaponry would be more limited - no plasma guns for you.  It's not that a game couldn't be built in the Deus Ex mold, using World War II as a backdrop - but it would lack so much of the game's thematic resonance and would rule out certain gameplay elements and mechanics.

Closing Thoughts

In the future, I'd like to see developers consider more closely how setting affects their titles - not just because everyone likes a cool fictional world, but because being sensitive to the particulars of setting helps create more believable games, and in the best cases, leads to new mechanics that add layers of gameplay depth and thematic meaning to the experience.  That's not to say that every game needs to have a serious, consistent, well-considered setting, but as it's one of the key factors in the current industry's obsession with detail and quote-unquote realism, it's also something that only becomes more and more apparent with every year.