I just wanted to point out a few excellent articles and make a pithy comment or three about this SWTOR game that is much-ballyhooed of late.
First, Raph Koster’s excellent article on Narrative:
EDITED TO ADD Koster’s followup post, Narrative Isn’t Usually Content Either
Then there’s Richard Bartle’s take on SWTOR:
aaaand then there’s this little snippet from the WoW guys, who apparently concede that linear, heavily scripted and directed gaming might not be the best approach.
I’ve written about these things before.
and then there’s this oldie about the business model:
and my old huge article on MMOs with endings:
Y’see, I consider the narrative-heavy “fourth pillar” to be a Bad Idea for MMO play. To quote myself from Klepsacovic’s place:
Yeah, I should clarify. There’s no problem with devs telling a story, but the structure of MMOs is about playing off of other people in a persistent world (whether through direct or indirect interaction). The most interesting parts of that (the parts that drive interest and retention) are going to be the stories that players are enabled to tell because it’s a unique part of the genre. Those ephemeral moments of Awesome or Weirdness are what sell these MMO gamespaces as somewhere worth visiting.
Sure, you can get your watercooler/blog discussions about how your Smuggler handled that one moral choice in SWTOR, or how your guild downed the Lich King, but you could get much the same thing talking about an offline game. MMOs simply have the potential to *function* differently from other games, so it’s baffling to me that devs seem to want to put the experience on rails. It bothered me in WoW, it bothers me in the core design ethos of SWTOR.
It doesn’t bother me because the dev stories are bad, either (though they may be), it bothers me because they aren’t letting players *play* in these great potential playgrounds. They are just pushing them through the motions.
So when I say that MMOs *should* be about player stories, it’s because I think that’s the unique selling point and strength of the genre. That doesn’t mean devs should be forbidden to tell stories, just that they might be missing the point if they can’t let go of the reins.
Then again, this is a problem I have with game design on a larger scale; way too many devs seem to be frustrated filmmakers, not really *game* makers. It’s a different sort of entertainment, this “game” animal, and it can’t really be expected to function the same way. It’s a spectrum, though, not a binary “sandbox/theme park” dichotomy. *shrug*
There’s a place for barely interactive movies. There’s a place for story in MMOs. I just think that MMOs work best with greater freedom and a more malleable world, largely because it’s those crazy moments out in the game’s world that really make them unique. That’s the legacy of tabletop RPGs that I think MMOs could be poised to inherit. You can get great scripted narratives in something like Uncharted 3, and that works fine… but it’s not really the point of MMOs. As Koster notes, there’s a difference between an experience and a game.
There’s a place for great narrative, grand epics and stories with endings. I just don’t think that place is in MMOs, especially not subscription MMOs that almost of necessity need to be built around grinding and the sense of neverending play. There’s a strong case to be made that such isn’t really what is best for games in general, but that’s how sub MMOs work, for better or worse.
I don’t want SWTOR to fail (though Scarybooster is right, some have that mean attitude), but dagnabbit, the stresses inherent in shoehorning strong narrative into the MMO mold shouldn’t have been hard to see. It should be no surprise that players are “finishing” the game and moving on, or that the focus on the storytelling might mean a weaker effort on the “retention” schemes that makes the subscription system work (good comments over at Yeebo’s place). This is what BioWare does, it makes single player games. Even if SWTOR as it is might make for a stupidly grindy single player game (hattip to Chris at GameByNight)… I enjoyed Disgaea and several Final Fantasy games, so a long game doesn’t scare me.
…and yes, if they sold SWTOR as an offline game or even series of games, I’d still probably buy in, as I noted in that SWTOR Cost article from months ago. The game might be grand as a single player game, it’s just… trying to be something it isn’t.
Oh, and incidentally, MMO Melting Pot has a good roundup of some of the commentary, too, found thisaway: