Saturday, December 3, 2011

Six Early Observations for SWTOR

Let me just say I am so frigging excited for release day. And I mean December 20, not early release. Yeah, I’m not going to be playing early. I’ve just got too much going on in my life. Actually, I might not even get to play until the 21st since I’ll have to load everything. Dammit, I’m bringing myself down… No. No. No. I’m excited! And here’s why.

I’m going to get to play a game from launch (hell, before launch if you count beta testing). And not just any game. Starwars: the Old Friggin’ Republic. It’s just going to be really cool to witness the growth of an MMO from launch. What will it be in a year? Two years? We’ll actually get to find out because we’ll be there. And, hopefully, our discussions on our blogs and Bioware’s boards will help shape what the game becomes. So, without further ado…

Wishful Crystal Ball Gazing (or Things I’d do differently):

1. You are the Chosen One: Remember when you were little and your parents told you that you could be anything you want to be when you grow up? Even President (if you’re from the U.S. If you’re from somewhere else, just insert your equivalent). Yeah, well, that’s not true. It’s a great thing for kids to hear though. But eventually, you realize that not everyone can be President because there’s only one job opening. Well, the same thing goes for being the Chosen One.

In Star Wars mythology, I can really only think of one big Chosen One/Child of Prophecy, and that, of course, is Anakin Skywalker. And there can only be one of him (which is probably good for Jedi everywhere). In SWTOR, however, it seems that every single player is the one we’ve all been waiting for. Yes, I didn’t get the impression at any point that players are supposed to all be on the level of Anakin, but REALLY. The Jedi counsel seems to see this massive potential in EVERYONE. (Either that, or they have really low standards.)

Here’s what I’m getting at: In real life, we’re all important. Each one of us is doing something in our lives that matters one way or another. Some of us do big, history changing things, but not the majority of us. Not even a small percentage of us. Really, it’s an infinitesimal percentage. What Bioware has put out with this “chosen one” storyline works great in single player games. I mean, you’re the only player so really, you’re the only one that can really have an effect on the world. In an MMO, everyone’s got an equal shot. Not everyone can be “the one”. But everyone can be great. It’s an age of war. We can be great warriors, great leaders. But we don’t have to be the guy that our faction has been waiting for in order to do that. It just seems too cheesy. I think you can draw players into a story without making them the center of EVERYONE’S attention.

2. Linear Questing: Each class follows their own storyline. But that’s just it. Everyone from the same class follows that same storyline. I see two problems here.

First, that means that everyone who is the same level from the same class will be attempting to do the same quests at pretty much the same time. This can kind of clog things up in an area if people have to gather the same items or kill the same mobs. Now, I understand that, at first, the game is a lot smaller. I’ll make the reasoned assumption that Bioware intends to add more planets in the future. I can only hope that some of these planets will give alternative places to quest at lower levels.

Second, who didn’t love choose your own adventure books? Different choices take you to different places. The linear questing model, more or less, forces you to follow a very specific path. You do the same quests, in the same order, going to the same planets, in the same order. While the story is very immersive, you have such limited choices. It doesn’t allow you to feel like you… well… have any choices. Sure, you can choose to be light or dark side, but you path is pretty much set. You have to do the storyline quest chain that leads you from one place to the next. There’s no skipping a portion you don’t like or coming back to it later.

I say the available areas on the planets need to be expanded (both geographically and by level) to include slightly lower level and higher level content with quests. This will let people have more options of where to go. And with the way instanced areas are set up, those portions could be tuned for the player’s level when they do them. So you could do the same portion of the storyline quests at level 20 or at level 30 and the relative difficulty could be the same. It would allow people to do the storyline portions of the quest in different order, if they so choose, which add a bit of diversity to the game.

3. Small Instances: I like the small instances… mostly. What I don’t like is that if you’re not at that point in your questing, the entrance to the area is red and you can’t enter. This just makes no sense, especially if the world is supposed to be immersive. Sometimes, you can’t even enter a one-room instance. You can see it, but you just can’t walk in it. Weird, right? Unfortunately, it seems like Bioware tried to implement what WoW has with phasing, but they failed. And I’m not saying that Blizzard always has the right of it, because they don’t, but phasing was a great upgrade with their last expansion. I’m all for trying new solutions to old problems, but this was kind of a stinker. Sorry, guys. Maybe the simple answer is getting rid of the red. Why block someone from being able to enter an area?

4. Companion Customization: This is just something that is sorely lacking. Sure, there’s the customization slot. OOOOOOOOOOh. I just change my companion’s hair or skin color or whatever. That’s not customization, that’s a cop out. One of the earliest things I remember Bioware saying was how every character was unique… but at the same time, every character got the same companions based upon their class. (Every smuggler gets a wookie? C’mon! What if you’re allergic?) That’s not very unique. Not only that, every companion is named the same and looks the same. Even less unique.

Solution – real customization. I know the voice acting is a little dependent upon companions having a set name. And I love the voice acting. Who doesn’t? But I would rather have a companion that felt like mine rather than hear their name spoken by a voice actor. Random name generation might be a way to go. Also, randomizing a few things like size, face, skin color, species, whatever.

Now, the ship may have sailed on the current companion choices, but adding one or two new companions might work. Make them as random in appearance and customizable as possible. And make it a requirement of a quest chain. If you really want to get bold, make it so that your decisions throughout the chain influence how you companion behaves (heal, dps, tank). Or make a highly customizable droid companion that has a random designation and one of a set number of initial appearances, but you can spend money to modify and each mod changes the appearance. And make the mods cost some serious credits.

5. Ship Customization:  Add some upgrades to ships (and not the ones you get from space combat), that adjust the look inside and out. Make them cost a lot of money too. (or only able to get from a quest chain) Now, many people won’t pay for purely cosmetic upgrades. Well, how about cosmetic upgrades, that when combined together, produce unique results. Let’s say there’s 5 spots on the outside of the ship and 3 spots on the inside. Add 2 upgrades to the outside and 1 to the inside, you get upgrade 1. Another 2 out and 1 in gives upgrade 2. And one more outside, one more inside, upgrade 3. And depending upon what you put in each slot, you get a different upgrade based upon the combination. Speed boost. Extra guns. Stronger shields. Repair droid. Faster targeting computer. And different combinations increase the effectiveness of the upgrades.

6. Four Classes: But there are 8 classes? Right? Eh, not really. It's what is not-so-affectionately called "Mirrored Classes". And yes, they're not EXACTLY the same, but the differences are so minor they're not worth thinking about. This works great when you're trying to balance factions for PvP, but it can get kind of boring when you want to do a cross-faction alt.

So far, there only way anyone has discussed fixing this is by expanding the number of classes. Great! I can't wait. And this probably will happen. But then instead of having 4 mirrored classes, we'll have 5, 6, 7, etc. How about making minor additions to classes? Add a skill here or there that makes that class unique. And not something minor or superficial. A real skill that players will actually use. Of course this will be difficult to balance. Well, that's the name of the game and why game designers make the big bucks, right? No one said this would be easy.

I’m not suggesting that SWTOR be a WoW clone. There’s a long list of reasons I don’t play WoW anymore (just look at my old posts). I’m not saying my ideas are the best or Bioware’s are the worst or anything in between. I just think that these are topics worth discussion. And I’m sure there’s plenty more. And Bioware has been responsive to player criticism in the past (see Jedi Wizard). So, if any of you have ideas, be sure to share them. And don’t just complain about things you don’t like, offer suggestions. Anyone can throw rocks. Try building a house.