Star Wars: There Are Four Pillars!

robot-chicken-star-warsSometimes I come across a great article or interview that I flag for future dissection when I have the time, and this four-page interview with The Old Republic’s devs is worth some serious crunching, chewing and digestion.  If you haven’t read it, make some time — this would be one of the first places I’d send folks who are skeptical about BioWare’s drumbeat over “story as the fourth pillar of gaming” (the four pillars, according to them, are exploration, progression, combat and storytelling).

So let’s look at the article and pull a few quotes about this famed “fourth pillar” that TOR is going to try to revitalize:

I walked into the demo expecting something along the lines of WoW with lightsabers. I walked out picking my jaw up off the floor, and scrambling towards the nearest PR guy to find out if there was someone, anyone, available to talk to about what I had just seen.

I like this quote because it is quite telling of what our expectations are for any mass-market, mainstream MMO: WoW with a slight twist.  For all those who say that BioWare is overhyping TOR right now, I disagree; I think they’re marketing it at a steady pace, but if anything understating how the game will be so that expectations will be overshot and then some.

Daniel Erickson: When we said, hey, we’re going to do our first MMO, the obvious [pillar] to talk about first, even though none of the pillars can stand without the rest of them, and none of them are more important than the rest of them, we’re talking about story first because story is the delta. It’s the thing we’re doing that other people have not done.

We’re approaching it the same way we’ve always approached storytelling in games, which is that you need to have a heroic, unique experience, with choice that affects what you do.

As an aside, why are people so very cynical when it comes to upcoming MMOs placing a marketing emphasis on features that make them stand out from the pack?  It’s as though any new promised feature is instantly hit with a backlast of tsunami proportions without giving the company the benefit of the doubt until they see it in action.  What do you want, a game company to come out and say, “Hey, we’re developing a MMO that’s 90% like all the other titles out there, so let’s talk about that 90%!”  That’s when you get games like Aion, whose main distinguishing feature is “players that can fly and fight in the air” from what marketing I’ve seen.

BioWare is quite right to highlight story as their big selling point.  The Star Wars IP is a biggie, of course, but hardly unique for a game company to have that brand — or even a MMO company.  MMO players have whined about how trivial stories and quests have become in this genre (weakening the games through and through), while at the same time BioWare has a proven track record of excellent storytelling, realized characters and nail-biting decisions in their RPGs.  This is exactly what they should capitalize upon, and not worry about the folks who couldn’t care less about storytelling in MMOs — BioWare shouldn’t be grabbing after their business anyway.

Because we did all class-specific stories for The Old Republic, we’ve allowed ourselves to basically make, “Knights of the Old Republic: The Smuggler,” its own game. Everything in there, when you’re playing a Smuggler, you feel like a Smuggler.

With only eight classes, four per side, it might seem like TOR is limiting itself in variety, but here is the reason for this decision: each class gets a full-fledged storyline.  This is not just big; it’s huge.  It means that if you really want to experience everything out of TOR, you’ll want to play the game through eight times — and they’ll give you a great reason to do so.

We can’t go into how it all works, but we didn’t want to separate the player base. We definitely are not a… there have been some MMOs that are basically instanced games with common areas. We didn’t want to go there.  What we wanted to do was be able to separate out people just long enough for the parts that were important for it. If you’re going to go have a discussion with your dad Darth Vader, you probably want to go do that by yourself.

This brushes against a concern of mine and others’: that TOR’s focus on single-player stories and unique experiences will mean a dramatic reduction in grouping and shared experiences.  I want to see more on this.

One of the things we do that makes it much easier, which you saw in the game, when you go into conversation everything else drops out of the world.  When you start up a conversation, everyone is on their stages and they’re able to play all of their animations, say all their lines, it’s very cinematic.

Kind of in-game interactive cutscenes.  Very nice.

And the biggest one for me, and it’s one that people stop and think about it and then the realization hits them: No save button.  We have choices that affect your entire game, and your storyline, and what’s going to happen and how people see you, like the choice you saw earlier today.

In terms of their storytelling system, here’s where I’m going to point as their biggest potential problem with the players.  It’s a great idea, I love the thought of decisions having consequences, especially delayed or continuous ones.  Single player RPGs deal with this, such as The Witcher, and it makes your journey through the game far more immersive and substantial.

But.  And this is a big but (and I cannot lie, you other brothers might deny) — some players are going to HATE this.  Nobody wants to make a “wrong” choice, which is why SPRPGs have all those save slots and why folks (like yours truly) will pour over a walkthrough to make sure they do everything exactly right to achieve the desired outcome and most positive benefit.  Here BioWare is saying that we’ll be making choices like this all the time, without any saves, and we might not know until much later what reprocussions they’ll have.

Ideally, players will just go with the flow, make whatever choice they like or whatever they think their character would do, and see how it plays out.  That’s the best possible scenario.  The worst are players who will be crippled with indecision until they have a full-fledged walkthrough or quest helper to make their decisions for them.  How BioWare is going to sell this game to the latter crowd, I have no idea.  But it’ll be great if they can.

If you’re going to help the Smuggler, and you’re a Jedi-I can’t talk about the specific Jedi class, but there will be Jedi-there’ll be activities for that Jedi to do while the Smuggler is doing his quest, that will help him out…Daniel Erickson: Yeah, they can actually help him out and accomplish his goals.

Another, I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it, but I like this approach to including other classes into a specific class’ quest.  And, hey, Jedi.  Bet you didn’t see that coming!

With the end-game we can’t get into too much detail. We can say that the title of this IP is Star Wars. There’s lots of opportunity for conflict, conflict that doesn’t end.

This screams “PvP” to me.  What do you think?

13 thoughts on “Star Wars: There Are Four Pillars!

  1. We Fly Spitfires June 19, 2009 / 7:39 am

    All sounds very promising. Focusing on story could be excellent as it would improve immersion and really make people feel like they’re playing something special within the SW world. Of course the worry is that you just end up playing a SRPG with some other people floating around.

    PvP… yep, that would be nice, thank you! 🙂 Sounds like they’re still a long way away from demonstrating anything concrete though.

  2. tarisai June 19, 2009 / 8:16 am

    /squeals

    im excited. the instancing of story moments where you are interacting with a character is a great idea. when the king of wherever is telling you to do whatever to save the whatever that will be the most heroic whatever ever achieved, you don’t want a legion of naked dancing gnomes killing your buzz.

    the inclusion of other classes into a class specific quest is a good idea and i’d like to hear more about that. it could effectively increase the amount of quests first thought you had by a huge amount and by the sounds of it, you’ll actually be included somewhat in their story.
    so a smuggler isn’t just going to play through their plot in a vacuum, they’ll have glancing insights into the stories of other classes.
    this will give me serious alt syndrome: “ooooo no way no way no way! what that guy just say to you!? no dont tell me! i’ll just go roll a jedi…”

    the sad fact is, and you pointed us toward your own concerns on the matter, that many MMO players dont want to make decisions, especially if they are going to have a permanent effect on their characters’ progression.
    this could lead to a “purist” and “streamline” divide in players, and being branded a noob for making a decision that doesn’t yield the maximum stat/loot/what have you.
    it’s a sad thought but i can see it happening.

    the best decision i could put forward for those who really want to experience this game the way it was designed to be played, would be to roll on a RP server.
    i’m not one for RP usually, but my knowledge of the star wars universe matched with the fact there will be considerably less MMO tourists and number crunchers playing alongside me will make it a much more in depth and rewarding experience

    oh my, am i becoming a fan boy for a game i’ve purposely avoided the development of…?

    /squeals again

  3. ashleyray June 19, 2009 / 8:17 am

    Nice write up once again Syp.

    I can’t wait to see how Bio is able to incorporate all this and I am totally rooting for them.

    What concerns me is that I saw another game hyped up like this with big HUGE promises….eh hem….WAR, and I never had the feeling like they had completely delivered on all the hype.

    Break the mold Bioware, Please.

    P.S. I’m thinking BioWare ought to grant you an exclusive just based on the name of your blog….

  4. Haven June 19, 2009 / 8:36 am

    Wow!

    I told myself I wasn’t going to be excited about this game but with what is coming out i’m having a terrible time with it. It sounds like a blast.

    Haven

  5. Merckx June 19, 2009 / 9:00 am

    “But. And this is a big but (and I cannot lie, you other brothers might deny) — some players are going to HATE this. Nobody wants to make a “wrong” choice,”

    I’m one of these players. First time I played KOTOR I found my self researching every choice. I had to stop myself when I realized I was ruining the experience and started just making the decision when they came.

    It will be hard to do that in a MMO. I’ll be nervous and paranoid that I might have gimped my player in end game.

  6. Ferrel June 19, 2009 / 9:15 am

    I think they might pull off something that feels completely new in the MMO genre. A more single player focus, so to speak. I am both leery and excited by that idea.

    I do hope that the end game is more than just, “Ok, story over, now go fight the other side in repetitive ways.”

  7. Beej June 19, 2009 / 9:33 am

    I am really looking forward to this game in a very fanboy way. That said, I am also wondering how realistic the plan is regarding meshing the quests together. There must be a tangible reward for the Jedi who “helps out” the Smuggler. If it’s not equivalent to doing their own story’s quest, there is going to be a problem–more so than in WoW–of people ignoring group invites and refusing to help a stranger on the road, effectively making the game a SPRPG instead of an MMO.

    I agree with Gordon…PvP is going to be the hinge that makes or breaks this game for me. I will definitely play through the Jedi campaign. I might even play through some of the others, depending on how well the classes play, but if there is going to be an end-game that keeps me interested for as long as other MMOs have, it is going to be PvP. I hope they seriously sit down and truly make it part of the game instead of a side-game like many MMOs. If they handle it like UO Factions or WAR or even SWG’s Empire/Rebellion, I’ll be fine. If I’m rewarded for playing the game how I want to equally to those who raid, I’ll be dandy. But if PvP is just another mini-game in SW:TOR, I will get my story and move on to a game that can better fulfill what I look forward to in an MMO.

  8. Maladorn June 19, 2009 / 10:02 am

    2 Points:

    First, I think full immersion will actually require 16 characters. Each class with their starting faction, and then each with the crossover.

    Second, I’m hoping that the decisions for the players are more about implementation than about results. The example in the article indicates that not killing the captain means that he’s around to help with the battle. But they didn’t say if that actually changed the results for the quest. Do you still get the reward? Does the captain give some extra bonus reward, such as a bit of cash? Does the captain die in the battle? If the quests are offering choice that gives different results, than I agree that many players will want a guide to get the “best” result. But the choice could instead be about giving you a way of expressing who your character is and what he’s made of. If that’s the case, then choices in quests aren’t about your impact on the world, by building your power or wealth based on the choices. Choice is about the world’s effect on your character, effecting your light-dark and the set of quests available later on.

    Interesting stuff.

  9. Buhallin June 19, 2009 / 11:28 am

    I’m really excited about this, but also very scared. I think I’ve said it here before, but I doubt the players truly want much of what Bioware’s selling here. Permanent choices? Quests that require more involvement than scrolling to the bottom to check the rewards? An overall gameplay that’s actually about the journey, with the story being the point of the game rather than just blasting through endgame raiding?

    I honestly have a hard time seeing this go over well with the MMO community, and I don’t have a lot of respect for that community’s ability to step outside the box and try something new.

  10. Green Armadillo June 19, 2009 / 11:53 am

    “As an aside, why are people so very cynical when it comes to upcoming MMOs placing a marketing emphasis on features that make them stand out from the pack?”

    Because it is the job of the PR person to get players to purchase the game, even if that means stretching the truth slightly on whether a new feature will be ready and working at launch, and/or exaggerating the role that a minor new feature will play in the game (e.g. Warhammer’s much-hyped kill collectors).

    We cannot count on anyone who is receiving something of value from the studio – including the major gaming media, who receive exclusive access and coverage that brings traffic to the site – to protect our time and money. The only courses we have are to risk being burned, or to develop a thick, cynical skin.

  11. Tesh June 22, 2009 / 3:50 pm

    I’m absolutely not cynical about PR wonks spinning to their game’s “delta” in an effort to garner attention. What bothers me about SWTOR is that I think MMO play and storytelling are antithetical. Gordon/Spitfire’s notion that PvP will be the hinge points out that it’s the interaction with other people that an MMO should be playing up to. MMOs really can’t be about a strong story any more than a single player game can be about awesome multiplayer. Each might have a side order of the other for spice, but the very nature of these games means that story is a single player pursuit.

    Even Bioware has noted that they are effectively making KOTOR 3-9. To me, it’s wasted effort that they aren’t *actually* making more fantastic single player games in the Old Republic setting. If they market SWTOR like Guild Wars, that’s exactly how I’ll play SWTOR, as a series of KOTOR sequels. If they set it up as yet another DIKU sub game, I’ll be deeply annoyed that they didn’t actually make those KOTOR sequels standalone games, and I will not be buying in.

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