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Posts Tagged ‘story’

In news which should come as a shock to absolutely nobody, apparently Star Wars The Old Republic, the new Bioware MMO, is pretty much World of Warcraft with a different coat of paint and voiceovers.  Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a great article up thisaway:

Hands On The Old Republic, Part One

The part that sticks out to me is the notion that SWTOR’s “kill ten rats” quests are different because we somehow care about what is happening.  (Have you ever noticed that the argument is almost always “it’s different this time”, and how uncomfortably close that is to the rationale for going back to an abusive relationship?)  To which my natural question is:

When did you stop caring about what happened in your old MMO?

Y’see, there are quests in WoW that have emotional resonance.  It’s just that the second time through, the effect is diminished.  …and when you get tired of the same old mechanical aspects of the kill and fetch quests.  Then there’s the whole gear-loot scheme that pretty much short-circuits the motivation for questing.  “Yeah, yeah, sure, old man, I’ll go fetch the remains of your lost family by slaughtering owlbears and digging through their remains for a while, but what’s in it for me?

Long story short, I suspect that the quests in SWTOR feel different pretty much only because they are new.  Let’s see how they feel on your third Jedi alt, or after 200 hours of play.  Let’s see how emotionally involving it is to down that raid boss for the fifteenth time because he just won’t drop your wristguards.  At some point, the honeymoon wears off and you realize you’re mechanically doing the same thing you’ve always done.  The emotional resonance wears off because you see behind the curtain.

Window dressing really can go a long ways to selling something, it’s true.  It’s just that there has to be more to a game than the trappings.

I should note that this doesn’t mean that SWTOR won’t be fun, rather, I’m just noting that there’s not a lot there to be terribly excited about, at least mechanically.  It’s more of the same.  That’s not bad either, if that’s what you’re looking for.

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Rogue Tauren

I am a Sunwalker.

The Light of the Sun guides my path, and I will be a beacon of protection and guidance to those I am sworn to protect.  The strength of the Sun burns in my veins, and I will stand against all injustice and evil!

The Undead are an abomination on this world, and I am sworn to eradicate them.  Their very existence offends not only my sworn duty but also the lore of my people.  The world mourns their aberration, and their desecration of life wounds the Earth Mother.  I will cleanse the world of their unclean…sed kind.

Except for the Forsaken.  They have this sweet racial mount that I can buy if they like me enough.  Who needs a blinged out Kodo when I can pretend to be a Death Knight?  Rrarr!  Here comes the steel plated cow on a spindle-legged dead horse!  Oh, and Sylvanas is totally hot.  No rot on that girl, just sweet, sweet leather armor in all the right places.

Er, not that I’d know.  Tauren, remember.  Right, Tauren.  Big, furry cowdudes.

Right.

You’re sure I’m not a Tuskarr or something?  Y’know, a neutral sort of guy who can hang with the Human and Dwarf Paladins?  I mean, those twiggy prancing Blood Elves stink of weird arcane magics and didn’t exactly come by the Paladinny ways by, y’know, honorable means.  I could probably break one of ’em in half anyway.

Can I at least go rogue and join the Argent Crusade?  Go hang with my Paladin brethren and wipe out the Scourge that always seem to come back?  Oh, it’s just an NPC club, right.  I can be Exalted in their eyes, but never a member.  “Exalted” must not mean what I think it means.  It’s probably like “graduating” from the third grade.

Right.

OK, right!  Buck up cowboy!  I’m a champion of justice and tempered responses to evil!  Cairne was a wise leader we should all revere, the Grimtotems are jerks, and the Horde needs our leadership in these times of trial and confusion.  My people are dwindling and staring a racial twilight in the face, do I go out quietly or try to leave the world a better place?

Er, but who’s this Garish Hellscream guy again?  The one who killed Cairne? (Sorta… axes don’t kill people, angry orcs with Grimtotem-poisoned axes kill people… and was the stupid Spirit Healer on a smoke break or something when he went down?  What the heck, etherial angel thing?)  Son of a demon-tainted warmonger?  Fel-flavored sunburned fashion victim?  Racist, er, speciesist?  I mean, he doesn’t let Trolls into Orgrimmer-than-before anymore, and they have always been faithful Hordies, right?  I mean, the ones that aren’t cannibals and psychotic voodoo wonks that attack anyone on sight, anyway.

…Tauren are Hordies still, right?

Why, again?

And why am I playing Horde, again?

Oh, right.  Varian‘s a monumental jerk.  And yet, Garish is pretty thick, too.  Bleh.  Forget these nicompoop leaders.  I wanna be a Tuskarr Paladin.

For the North!

…yeah, that’s got a nice ring to it.  There’s still plenty of Scourge up there, too.

____

Ed:  Yes, this is tongue in cheek.  Sylvanas totally isn’t my type.

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I’ve written before that I’d buy an offline WoW and have fun with it.  It would be the ultimate solo WoW experience, maybe even something roughly approximating one of those weird Role Playing Game things.  I do think the world of Warcraft has some interesting things to offer, and it can serve as a stage for some good gaming that need not be of the MMO variety.

But then… what is an RPG?

Such a question has been bandied about for some time now, so I’m not going to rehash much of it, but rather ask:  What would a WoW RPG (offline, solo) look like?

Ignore for the moment, the tabletop version, another interesting iteration of the IP in itself, and yet another flavor of RPG, but not quite what I’m looking for here.  This is, of course, all whimsy and conjecture, and is completely incomplete.  Addendums are welcome, bearing in mind this is more about curiosity than anything I’d expect Blizzard to actually do.  A few thoughts, then:

  • First and foremost, it strikes me that a translation of the existing game would almost certainly be a Western RPG rather than a Japanese RPG (WoWWRPG?).  As in, more Neverwinter Nights (make your own character, make your way in the world), less Final Fantasy (assume a role the devs crafted and go through a story they tell).  The difference between the two styles is significant, and the existing game leans heavily in the Western direction.
  • But why translate more or less directly?  Why not make an entirely new RPG, perhaps even a JRPG-styled tale of a key character or band of characters within the WoW IP?  That would open the floor to big, sweeping changes, which may indeed be the healthiest route overall, but since it could take a LOT of different forms, here I’m mostly wondering about a game that is more of a mild translation of the existing game design rather than a new game.  There’s certainly room to imagine a completely new game within the world, but I’ll save that for another experiment.
  • With the increased focus on player agency and a largely seamless world of a Western-flavored WoWRPG, the balance between authorial direction and player agency is almost diametrically opposed to the tightly controlled Final Fantasy XIII or even tighter Heavy Rain.  (Tangential:  Is Heavy Rain even one of those RPG things?  You assume roles of characters who already exist and pilot them through a story with a few branching options and different endings, clearly heavily Playing Roles in a Game… but there isn’t much in the way of levels, loot and assorted “character progress” mechanics that some associate with RPGs.  How many thorns and petals can you remove from a rose before it’s just a stick?  How many games could easily be RPGs if it’s just about playing a role?  But I digress…)  On the one hand, that’s great for people just looking to noodle around in a cool world, but on the other hand, a good story under a strong directorial hand is more preferable.  The WoW IP could do both, but not so much at the same time.
  • WoWMMO is designed (perhaps obviously) for many players, from the group content to PvP to the player economy.  A single player offline version would either need to drop group content or provide henchmen, like Guild Wars or Dragon Age.  Solo-control party-based RPGing isn’t anything new, but neither is it something that exists in the WoWMMO.  Curiously, this might make it easier to teach players how to play with a group and teach the holy combat trinity, since the game could have tutorials that show the finer points of group dynamics without the unpredictability of real people monkeying around.  You could even make combat pauseable (even if only in tutorials) to make teaching easier.  It seems to me that educating people is a better long-term idea than making games so dumb and easy anyone can sleepwalk through them.  If we wanted that, we should make movies.
  • …and yet, why bother with the trinity when you only have one player?  The trinity assumes that multiple parties are in combat, so WoWRPG would really need to either make henchmen or dump the trinity.  (OK, snarky aside about Paladins and Druids being able to do everything goes here.)  It’s hard to say which would be harder to actually implement, but henchmen fit into the current design structure, while the trinity would be much harder to excise.  It’s the foundation of WoW combat, combined with aggro management and crowd control.  Lose the trinity, and all sorts of content would be suddenly skewed, and you’d have to lose most dungeons and instances.  Add henchmen, and the WoWRPG could offer offline players almost all WoW content.
  • Ultimately, that’s what this is about, by the way; content and the world of Warcraft’s lore, not the play experience itself, since that would necessarily change significantly.  MMOs offer a play experience that offline games just can’t do.  Offering a WoWRPG would be a way of getting the WoW content and lore to more players, thereby building the brand.  …if that matters.  It may not, which is why this is more of a thought experiment than anything else.
  • What of Altitis?  Some RPGs have toyed with multiple protagonists, like the Saga Frontier series, but those haven’t really been the movers and shakers of the RPG genre.  There are some interesting things that you can do with storytelling when you can bounce between viewpoints (especially between factions) and have different characters illustrate varied angles of an in-game event.  (Say, have low level Alliance players actually take part in the smallish Alliance invasion of Durotar, rather than just having that little outpost south of Orgrimmar be a mob spawn point for Alliance mooks for low level Hordies to attack repeatedly.)  That starts poking into JRPG territory and significant changes to the game… but it could be interesting.
  • Speaking of which… storytelling could change significantly.  Time could actually proceed… perhaps even while the player is off doing something else.  The world could feel more like a world again (gasp!), as the game moves out of the perpetual now twilight zone that MMOs are stuck in.
  • Persistence. This one is huge.  If you don’t have to recycle the world for every Tam, Dick and Ratshag, you can actually have bad guys stay dead, rather than respawn every few minutes.  This, of course, could run at cross purposes to the notion of letting players advance an Alliance character and a Horde character in the same universe (instead of their own instanced storylines), but at the same time, if you do let players bounce back and forth, and keep persistence, suddenly you’ve made the finite state machine go into overdrive… but also given yourself a TON more knobs to tweak for making the game interesting and telling an interesting story… or letting players tell a story by changing the world.  The scope could get out of hand quickly, unfortunately.
  • Phasing could still have uses, but the changes implemented could be more permanent as the storyline actually moves on.  Still, if alts enter the same world where things have happened and stay… happened… phasing might be a tool to let them replay some content that a predecessor had already gone through, if that were ever needed, then let them rejoin the “real world”… almost like a mobile, personal Cavern of Time.
  • Questing and the Yellow Brick Road… there are many, many small storylines in WoW, often tied up in quest chains.  Even so, there aren’t many larger, overarching stories.  A WoWRPG with persistence and a properly functioning arrow of time could bring those overarching stories into greater focus, and let the grindy tangential stories slip back into the shadows.  Kill Ten Rat quests could actually tie into a bigger story, rather than be something you do to level up so you can go kill ten bigger rats ad infinitum.  That, or quests themselves could be rarer beasts, especially if the XP curve is revamped…
  • Pacing could change significantly.  Instead of needing to grind in an area to qualify for the next (or extend subscription time), the XP curve could be tweaked to allow players to naturally proceed through zones as they follow larger stories, pillaging along the way instead of grinding in a zone to prep for the next.  To be fair, this is something that many other RPGs, Western or Japanese, still have issues with.  Even offline RPGs have grind in them… but structurally, they don’t need it nearly as much as a sub-based MMO.
  • Speaking of grind and quests, perhaps a WoWRPG could omit some of the obnoxious time sink quests (FedEX quests that take you back to areas you’ve already been, kill quests that only count critters killed after the quest starts instead of the pile of corpses left on the way to the quest hub, running all over the continent, that sort of thing)  that do little but extend playtime (and paytime in a sub model).  It really is OK for a game to be short if it’s fun all the way through.
  • Saving would be new; MMOs “save” all the time as they communicate with the server.  Offline games need to be saved… though that could be automated.  Still, if you allow saves, you introduce the Save-Load system where a battle that went bad can be replayed, and players effectively become Time Lords, able to rewind and replay at a whim.  That would be a big shift in how the game would play, for better or worse.  (Perhaps a little of both.)
  • Crafting could be either maintained (almost necessitating alts if you wanted to dig into everything and be self-sufficient, or let NPC henchmen in a party-based system also craft), or characters could be allowed to learn any number of crafting skills.  I’ve always thought that the two-skill limit (barring Cooking, Fishing and First Aid) was a silly hammer to try to force player interdependence, so I’d certainly lean to opening the system up.  We don’t often see a robust crafting suite in an offline RPG, so this is one area especially that WoWRPG could shine.  That, or crafting could be cut completely as another time sink and unnecessary appendix, since a lot of crafting does wind up fueling the in-game economy.
  • The game’s economy could either be a static beastie with NPC vendors as the currency fountains and skills and gear being currency sinks… or it could be a bit more dynamic and AI driven, like the economy in something like X3.  Either would function to make the game playable, but neither would be anywhere nearly as interesting as the multiplayer economy.  This and the multiplayer dungeons would probably be the biggest losses in taking the game offline.
  • Respeccing could be interesting.  I’ve long argued that a full and complete respec (even all the way down to the class) should be easy and cheap.  WoWRPG could offer this function with a lot less fuss than the MMO would see.  Of course, if you’re able to swap classes easily, you’d want a larger bank to keep the many, many potential “offspec” treasures that you collect.  The alternative would be to make the game less gear-centric… and that’s not likely.  Final Fantasy games have wavered between strict classes and very flexible systems, so there’s precedent for both… though it’s notable that strict class-based systems tend to introduce party members to keep a bit of flexibility as an organic party, if not a very mutable single character.
  • But why a WoWRPG over something like Morrowind or Oblivion, or even Fallout 3?  What does the WoW IP offer that those games don’t?

The World of Warcraft is an interesting, largely attractive place.  It’s a grand stage to tell stories on, and I do wonder occasionally what it would be like if it were initially developed as a single player RPG rather than an MMO.  MMOs are almost always kind of schizophrenic in their approach, a function of appealing to a large player base.  Might a more focused goal (a great story-based RPG) have changed it for the better?  Could the world still have some sort of tangential story-based RPG to offer?

The WarCraft universe did come from a pair of Real Time Strategy games, after all (possibly based on tabletop games and Tolkienish flights of whimsy), and it’s not unheard of for an IP to bounce between game genres, even the venerable Final Fantasy series (though that’s less about maintaining a consistent world-based IP as a brand name).  WarCraft even had an Adventure Game iteration once upon a time.  MMOs and RPGs are different, but not so different as to make such a tangential game impossible.  Whether or not it would fit into the WoWMMO timeline proper is perhaps a significant question, but it’s my rambling opinion that Azeroth has a lot to offer.  Even though the WoW live team tends to selectively interpret lore to various ends, there is still a LOT of lore out there to explore… and it might be satisfying to explore it in a slightly different vehicle.

…or a very different vehicle.  If the WoWRPG were more of a Japanese RPG, with strongly defined preconceived characters and a directed story, you’d lose a lot of what makes WoWMMO playable, but perhaps gain a much more focused experience that could tell a better story.  I can see a place for both approaches, actually.  All in all, I think that a translative approach that maintains much of the existing game would be more feasible… but I might be more inclined to play a well-crafted JRPG-ish WoWRPG that really digs into the world of WarCraft, finding some meat on the bones of the IP that is often only hinted at in the MMO.

Of course, in actuality, I’m more inclined to play Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey or Infinite Undiscovery than pick up a WoWRPG… but it would almost certainly make it on the list.  The world of WarCraft really could offer up a couple of games that aren’t merely WoWish subscription skinner boxes.  Blizzard has shown at least a vague interest in that sort of diversification before, and it might be good to see them branch out again.  I’m not an unabashed Blizzard fanboy, but I do see potential there.

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Games have power.  This story hits on why I want to make games in the first place, as a natural extension of my initial desire to work in movies.

Valkyria Chronicles

Interestingly, I like the Valkyrie Profile games for much the same reason; they tell interesting stories that have a way of digging into the heart and soul of the human condition through abstraction.

It’s also why I’m increasingly tired of MMOs, with their bland, lowest common denominator, static design.  They are indeed fun playgrounds, but I’m ready for something more satisfying.  I see MMOs as interesting commercial products, great places to try out some interesting design, but when it comes right down to it, it’s the single player, heavy story-driven RPG that will always be my home as a player, and as a designer.  I enjoy making a fun mental exercise like Alpha Hex, I enjoy zoning out for a bit bashing monsters in something like Fate, and I enjoy tactical games ranging from StarCraft to MechCommander to FFT.  I enjoy designing such games because people have fun with them and I like to help people smile.

But this, the power to help people learn, laugh and heal… that’s what I’d ultimately like to employ my skills in.  That‘s what games can offer, and the interactivity can make it all the more powerful.  That’s what I aspire to, wielding the medium as a force to build and heal, rather than exploring destruction in intricate detail.

Of course, VC has its share of explosions and destruction.  So does real life.  The key is that the game wants to tell a story of hope and healing in the face of those inevitable hard times.  Far too often, games just focus on the mechanics of destruction, and the bleak depression that some people think is the only way to actually feel anything.

In other words, games are in their emo phase.  I’m looking forward to the day when the industry matures and understands that the ESRB definition of “Mature” is what a pubescent depressed loner thinks life is all about, and that really being mature and growing up is something entirely different.  Valkyria Chronicles is a step in the right direction, and I hope we can get more games like this made, and made well so that they aren’t dismissed by angry people who never really grew up.

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Like any good little RPG gamer, I have a notion that mana is some sort of magic power, perhaps derived from the land and channeled by mental or emotional focus.  It’s typically a consumable resource, sometimes regenerating and infinite, sometimes finite.  It’s neither creative nor destructive by nature, it is merely power, bent to the will of humans and monsters to varied ends.

Until last week, I had no idea that Mana is actually an Oceanic concept, and that the notions of mana that I’ve grown up with are somewhat mutated.

Mana

Of course, I knew that people have taken the concept of mana in different directions, whether it’s Larry Niven or SquareEnix.  I just had the mistaken idea that the concept of mana was some gaming offshoot of Shinto beliefs.  I guess that the concept of mana in the Final Fantasy games and the Mana series (of which Secret of Mana was one chapter, and is known as the Seiken Densetsu series in Japan) is somewhat influenced by Shinto beliefs, and the Oceanic concepts aren’t all that far removed conceptually, but seeing that there are Polynesian roots for the concept intrigued me.

It does make me wonder why we don’t have some games digging into the Oceanic roots of the concept.  Then again, I wonder why we don’t have a lot of other cultural storytelling in games.  Yes, Valkyrie Profile was good, but even that was filtered through Japanese notions.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I would like to see some more games built a bit closer to the source material, from many different cultures.

And yes, I’m probably missing some that are already made because they aren’t made in English.  Russia is apparently hitting the world game stage harder a bit lately, with higher profile releases like King’s Bounty.  Perhaps I’m just asking that American and Japanese devs look a little deeper into their sources, and treat them with more respect.  To a degree, there will always be filtering, and to borrow a Trek concept, “it’s impossible for a non-Klingon to understand the Klingon soul”… but I do wish devs would try a lot harder.

I do like a well-crafted fictional world, just as much as any other child who geeked out on Tolkien and Asimov, but even those two giants put in a LOT of study and a lot of thinking about ramifications and consequences.  Far too many game devs are content to employ generic fantasy tropes, using a few buxom characters and some addictive mechanics to make FantasyDIKU#157 or GenericJRPG/WRPG #08976-B.  New games need not be historic real-world riffs, but we would do well to see why real-world legends have persisted through cultures (oft times only through oral history mechanics), and how they offer stability to their populace.  Games need not be realistic, but plausibility goes a long way to suspending disbelief.  Great game storytellers understand sociology, psychology, history, theology, art, politics and all sorts of other aspects of the human condition.  There aren’t many great game storytellers, at least, if the evidence of their work is any indication.

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Turning Back Time

I have at least three Playstation memory cards filled with Final Fantasy VIII save games. They are at key points in the plot, so that I can go back and relive the story without playing through the sometimes grindy game itself.

Ditto for FFVII, FFIX, FFX, Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, Front Mission 3 and 4, Valkyrie Profile and VP: Silmeria, Star ocean 2 and 3, Arc the Lad (TotS), and probably a half dozen or so games that I’ve forgotten about. It’s one of the strengths of a console game that allows for multiple saves; I can replay the story (or show it to my wife or siblings) without making them sit through the “game” part. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like the game, or else I wouldn’t bother with it, but sometimes it’s really nice to go back and pick up the story without playing through everything again. It’s the curse of the “cutscene” storytelling in games; there are usually two parts of the title, the game and the story.  There’s no way around that if you want a strong narrative without the ability for the player to derail your story.

I love the option to “turn back the clock” and take a quick spin through the game. I love these long, involved RPGs, but I don’t have as much time as I did when I was young and didn’t need sleep. The ability to revisit parts of the game are a nice compromise between the desire to replay the game and the lack of time to do so. (more…)

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