You Give Yourself Enough Rope, BioWare

Sometimes you expect someone to know better, but then they go and make the mistake anyway. In this case, it was  Daniel Erickson, BioWare’s writing director, saying how MMOs had been “no fun” to date, a lot of which relates to there being “no point” to play them because they don’t have a decent story behind them. I get that he’s a writer, so that’s what he’d focus on, but blowing your own trumpet before you’ve got the product on the shelf has a nasty history of backfiring.

His comments raise to me the biggest issue facing Star Wars: The Old Republic, given how much weight it is putting on the forth pillar of story: stories end.

Rule Does Not Apply If You Watch Soaps or Read Comics

The basic structure of a story is fairly simple: they have a beginning, middle and an end. You can fool around with the structure a bit, but that’s the generally accepted way things go. With BioWare putting a lot of emphasis on the major class arc stories (one per class), it is the ‘end’ part that should be a major concern for the most expensive title EA has ever developed.

True Crime pulp novels

50 novels' worth of dialogue... but what kind of novels?

Certainly, SWOR is a massive endeavour. It is a superficially impressive statistic to say that it has over 50 novels’ worth of voice over content, but that content is split over at least eight classes and that kind of figure can be blown out if they are including every remotely similar voice-over option in that count, including different gender voice-overs for player characters. It is the same kind of claim made that a character customisation system offers millions of variations – technically it might, but few players are going to distinguish between Baby Blue and Baby Blue Eyes as completely different. There’s technical size and then there is practical size.

Erickson shows his belief of how an RPG should work: there needs to be a story and players should be kept from just wandering around. For some, the act of ‘wandering around’ is part of the charm of MMOs – you can explore, you can create your own story. Titles like EvE create emergent gameplay experiences, using just the tools the developers give them. SWOR looks to be a lot more rigid in forcing players down a fixed set of paths towards a common end point, driven by the class story. Players will have the choice of what paths they take, but like other BioWare games, they are still going to end up in the same end place regardless of the route they go. It is an acceptable constraint, but it is swapping the freedom of potential emergent gameplay (and potential wandering boredom) for a much more fixed experience.

Lance Henriksen

Lance Henriksen does have a great voice, after all.

Of course, by being fixed, SWOR will be limited to the amount of content they can produce… just the same as any other MMO. Again: stories end. Fully voiced content takes time to develop and is expensive. This could leave those BioWare fans hanging for the next update, with a fair chance that if the next (say) bounty hunter update is 6 months away, they’ll stop subscribing in the meanwhile.

The Issue Isn’t Story, It’s Content

I’m not sure if CVG got Erickson drunk before they got some of those quotes, but saying things like “MMOs had no point” before BioWare entered the arena really means that SWOR has to stand up and perform. It’s also fine to say that if you play it 5 – 10 hours a week, you’ll never run out of content, but that’s a fairly big assumption. I’m not even considering the catasses when saying that, given that you can never create enough content to satisfy them.

Looking at that statement makes me think he’s talking about playing through all classes and variations, which is a big assumption. Some people will only want to play one class. Some will only play one side – either Jedi or Sith. Some may only play the game through once. None of this matters on a single player game, but when it is a MMO that costs money each month, content becomes more important.

This is particularly true if players have to wait for an extended period of time for their preferred character story to be progressed. If story is the major focus for players (and BioWare keeps emphasising this aspect, so there are a lot of expectations around the story aspect), releasing PvP or raid content isn’t going to cut it for them.

The Best Predictor of Future Behaviour Is Historical Behaviour, Except When It Isn’t

One defence thrown up by people about SWOR is that BioWare hasn’t made a bad game yet. The two points I’ll make on that are:

  1. Does that mean they’ll never made a ‘bad’ game, or are they about due one? and
  2. BioWare has made good single player games, where they can be sloppier with some of their in-game systems like balanced abilities and economy. Multiplayer titles are much less forgiving (or much more vulnerable to that kind of abuse).

By ‘sloppy’ systems, I’m thinking of things like Jade Empire’s constant one-hit-kill combo, Mass Effect’s awful inventory system and complete lack of economy (if you are Rich at 1m credits, what are you when get to a shade off 1b credits?) or Dragon Age’s XP exploits or abusable story loops. It is completely unfair to expect BioWare to make flawless titles, but it should be recognised that the very complex titles they make are going to be hammered even harder in multi-player.

Planet Hype

Situated somewhere between Hoth and Tatooine, I believe.

Shooting From The Lip

Right now, BioWare seems to be promising everything about SWOR – player housing, space combat, full voice acting for characters, all the fun a MMO should have and a pony for all. Comments that BioWare have also built large-scale and small scale MMOs that they never released again sound great, but what’s a MMO that doesn’t release? How ‘massive’ can it be? Right now, the biggest issue that faces SWOR is actually delivering on all the promises it has made to the market.

The reality is that it has to deliver on those promises too. At the estimated development budget of US$250m – $300m, SWOR will have to fire on all counts to attract and keep players so that money rolls in. There is no doubt that BioWare can sell units at launch (Mass Effect 2 sold over 2 million copies on PC and Xbox 360 in the first week), but the estimated budget from something like Mass Effect 2 is US$40m – SWOR is several multiples above that. Plus then there is also the subscription fee, which changes what players expect from a title, as well as being PC only.

SWOR may be the best MMO ever released, or at least the new hope for the next few years. However, if BioWare keep making the kind of announcements they have been, they are really going to have to deliver something exceptional just to meet with expectations (and sales targets). At the kind of money EA is putting into SWOR, only doing okay isn’t going to be good enough.

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