It was announced recently that Eric Brown, EA’s CFO, finds that blogs about the cost of Star Wars: The Old Republic “bring a chuckle” to his day. Glad to bring a smile to your face, Eric – here’s hoping the following brings some belly laughs.
Back when I started this series, I said there were five reasons why SWOR (or SWTOR, as Google-bait) was a high risk MMO. They were:
- EA is developing SWOR for the wrong reasons
- The development costs are too high
- The subscription-based revenue model is on the decline
- SWOR is trying to sell its self on adding story to MMOs, but story isn’t enough to get players to finish single-player games, let alone those they have to pay $15 to access
and today is the fifth reason: BioWare doesn’t do particularly good or balanced game mechanics. (NB: I’m using the term ‘mechanics’ in its broadest sense here to encapsulate the final intended execution of all game systems; I’m not including bugs in the discussion as they are a bit different since they are accidental / unintended flaws.)
Stop. Take A Deep Breath.
I’ve played through Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Jade Empire several times. Neverwinter Nights was too buggy at the time I played it to keep at it and at some point I’ll pick up Dragon Age and its sequel. I’m not saying that BioWare makes bad games – they don’t. But they don’t do things like power balance, mini-games or other non-combat systems particularly well either.
- Jade Empire: the 1942-inspired shoot’em up mini-game was ridiculously out of place and stupidly easy.
- Jade Empire: the combat system saw the fastest fighting / weapon styles heavily favoured and there was at least one two-hit repeatable kill combo that minimised combat even further.
- Mass Effect: the 3D moon buggy driving experience was a long way from fun, with the vehicle bouncing around like it was made of rubber when it wasn’t climbing sheer angles. Plus it was an obvious time sink.
- Mass Effect: the metric tonnes of weapons and armour dumped on the character in a play through was ridiculous, especially when weapon and armour attributes were often completely out of whack to when you find them in game (i.e. there was no consistent progression to better items).
- Mass Effect 2: the planet scanning resource system combined all the fun of systematically examining a sphere with the thrill of watching lines go up and down.
- Mass Effect 2: player class balance is lacking, with a large gap between the most powerful player classes – Soldier, Sentinel – and the weakest – Vanguard. There’s also a wide gap in how good individual powers are, with certain biotics able to level large groups while something like Incendiary Grenade being nothing more than a love tap.
None of these issues inherently break those games, given that BioWare players are up for a character-driven experience. You endure these weaknesses to get to (and through) the good stuff. But MMOs don’t work the same way as single player titles. Unbalanced class systems can drive huge amounts of player dissatisfaction, especially as any problems are amplified in group-based and player-versus-player-based play.
In a single player title, it doesn’t matter if the Space Ranger can’t do as much damage as the Space Accountant – you either start again with that other class or challenge yourself with a harder experience on a weaker class. MMOs add in the twist of other people who may possibly reject and / or insult you based on your choice of character class, plus along with the promise of subscription fees paying for additional content comes the expectation that additional content is going to buff out any imbalances.
It could just be me, but I haven’t experienced any real “fun” mini-game in a BioWare title. Passable, sure, but fun? Not really, and not after the 150th time of hitting the right buttons in the right order to unlock yet another weapons cabinet. It is unfair to expect a mini-game to remain fun due in situations where it is constantly repeated, but that’s exactly the situation that MMOs face. (It actually sounds that SWOR’s crafting system - tell your squad to make up a bunch of fake Rolexes for sale at the markets, then log off / go on a mission – completely skirts the issue of trying to make crafting fun by off-loading it to the background. Given BioWare’s past development of their mini-games, that’s probably a safe option.)
Even BioWare’s most famous mechanic – the dialogue system – has some deep seated flaws.
Say What You Mean (For Bonus Points)
I could use travel the familiar path of complaining that BioWare’s dialogue option wheel doesn’t actually give players choice, only the illusion of choice. Most dialogue choices might see a slightly different NPC response returned, bit then the conversation moves in exactly the same path no matter what the player has said. But that’s a minor thing comparatively.
For me, the bigger issue with the dialogue system is how the Paragon / Renegade (or Light Side / Dark Side, or Open Palm / Closed Fist, etc) end up distorting player choice because they are always the best options. If you pick either the Good / Helpful choice or the Mean / Selfish choice, you have just won that conversation.
There’s no point trying to work through a tricky set of dialogue options to successfully navigate a diplomatic situation – just make sure the Blue or Red bars are as maximised as possible (by choosing the Red or Blue dialogue options) so that you can pick the Red or Blue dialogue options when they come up.
As it stands, BioWare’s dialogue system promotes meta-gaming. I can’t recall a situation where choosing either Red or Blue options disadvantages the player (although Jade Empire did limit some NPC dialogue options if you were the ‘wrong’ side) so you can’t go wrong if you can choose them. If SWOR follows down the same path, it will be a matter of making sure your character is as extreme one way or the other as possible, then choose the related dialogue options so that they can choose the best dialogue options later on in the game. Forget nuance for your character – that way lies gimpdom.
Mechanics Do More Than Fix Cars
As a function of their design, most MMOs see players repeat the same basic actions over and over and over again. Sometimes they break it up with mini-games / alternate options, but even these side options end up being played through numerous times if players hang around (and subscription-based MMOs want players to hang around). Any flaws are keenly exposed under this repetition.
This is where BioWare not being particularly good at game mechanics comes into play. Having thousands of people playing simultaneously and also expected to cooperate / compete puts everyone in a situation of comparing their experience with that of others. In a single player game, you generally aren’t competing with anyone but yourself. A MMO sees your character compared against both other characters of your class and against other classes. No doubt a lot of SWOR will be soloable, but story will have to compete against the issue of overpowered and underpowered classes, where players are discriminated against (positively or negatively) and may not be able to do all the content because of it.
It is unfair to expect BioWare to deliver a perfectly balanced title because that is an impossible goal. But it should be expected that BioWare would deliver a fun and engaging title that includes suitable and fun combat and non-combat systems that is balanced within certain equitable parameters. To date, BioWare has generally let story and characters do a lot of the heavy lifting while game mechanics are good enough to get pass mark in the short term (i.e. 30 hours or so worth). That’s going to be a hard path for a MMO to also take, with BioWare wanting to keep subscribing to the game potentially long after they’ve finished the narrative content.
Who Does Great Game Mechanics?
The simple answer is Activision Blizzard. No, they aren’t perfect in every area, but they manage to hit that sweet spot of performance and progression (while generally ignoring story, characters and narrative) that keep players hooked. It’s fashionable every year to bash World of Warcraft – and I don’t even really find the title fun – but it is one of the few MMOs to see constant growth pretty much from launch. Part of that stickiness is giving players a variety of mechanics to play with, be it different classes, different sides, crafting, auction house speculation, raiding, soloing, etc. Most of these various mechanics have been balanced to within certain parameters and work well for their designed function. There are certainly stronger classes / specs and weaker classes / specs (etc.), but there isn’t the gap that is seen in BioWare titles.
(I await the arrival of dozens of people to tell me that WoW’s game mechanics are awful, that Hunters have now and always sucked and that they barely managed to play WoW for five years before quitting due to these issues.)
Of course, BioWare can revise things during the beta (assuming adequate time for lots and lots of public testing) or post-launch. WoW certainly did. But SWOR is driving up some big development bills and players aren’t as forgiving as they once were about flawed MMOs, so the impact of flawed mechanics on retention rates could be severe, while EA isn’t looking for SWOR to be borderline successful (or worse).
Hope I gave you a few laughs, Mr Brown.
UPDATE: Just realised I hadn’t tagged or categorised this. Fixed now.