Star Wars: The Dead Republic

How did we get to the point that an online multiplayer game feels less alive than a single-player sandbox world? Like many of you, the past couple of months have been spent in Skyrim and SWTOR. A decade ago, Elder Scrolls games were large, empty spaces. They had many actionable items but still - the NPCs you encountered were rather quiet and mindless. You were the only person alive. But the genre of open-world RPGs has gradually added more and more life-like elements. Fallout 3 was an eye-opener for me. And now Skyrim, with conversing people, merchants on a budget, reputations. I've spent much time in that game just living there, poking around, taking a nap, getting up, seeing what's in that cave, knowing it was all there for someone to find and hey - why not me? That world feels much more alive than those games did 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, MMORPGs have made a turn for the hearse. SWTOR somehow feels dead. Rather than explore everything,  you get specific quest lines. You're on rails. You're instanced away from others. They still haven't solved the ancient problem with MMOGs - quests that don't actually change the world. SWTOR adds cutscenes and narrative for each quest, but eventually you pattern-match to it and realize that you're doing the same thing every time: Running out, killing 8 rats, interacting with four boxes, and bringing back the jewel. Over and over and over.

You can't just run where you want in SWTOR. They actually have a region map clearly showing that area A is over here and area B is over there; they exist on the same planet; they are within running distance of one another; yet when you try to hoof it from A to B, you hit an 'exhaustion zone' that will kill you. You're forced to get on the rails and ride there.

SWTOR has managed to do something very weird to its markets. Players don't do crafting, rather, you have a crew to do it. Sending the crew on crafting missions involves a simple click. Player labor input is minimal. Naturally, as a result, the net monetary proceeds from doing crafting are near zero (labor theory of value works here - zero labor input implies zero profit on sales of things labor produces). So the market feels dead.

Grouping and social activities are no better than other games, and perhaps worse. Warhammer and Rift made advances in terms of allowing legitimate peripheral participation; you saw some people beating down an instance, you auto-joined it. Not in SWTOR - you have to do the LFG holler, and I noticed that as I advanced in levels, there were fewer and fewer of those calls going out.

So, once again, there are parts of the experience that you can only get if you either bring friends into the world or work hard to make friends there. This makes for unpleasant surprises, like WoW's questline capstones, where you would solo 95% of the storyline only to find that you had to team up for the last part. Does that make sense? Either make it a solo game, where solo players can do everything. Or, make it a multiplayer game from the start, so there are social norms under which everyone feels completely normal meeting strangers and playing with them. With systems like WoW's and SWTOR's, you solo along as the path of least resistance until, YOU have to be the one who breaks silence and asks for help. Remember EQ? You'd wander into a zone and immediately shout "34 Cleric lfg." That's how everybody played. In today's MMOGs, somehow it's become like the junior high dance - everyone standing around against the wall, nobody dancing.

On top of this there was some serious design weirdness in my particular class (Scoundrel). Why they made the stealth class a healer, I'll never know. It seemed that difficulty was poorly balanced - you'd destroy everything easily and then suddenly would come a quest that was impossible. Talent tree for Scoundrel was odd - you got all these punching skills (Punching? Really? In a world with lasers?) and yet, I found my DPS was better when I ignored all my talent tree talents, sat back in cover, and shot.

SWTOR's big innovation was the addition of thousands of filmed cutscenes to the game. As in Mass Effect, you're watching a movie and playing some game during the breaks. If you love Star Wars, this does let you immerse yourself in the Star Wars universe. And this is an important, critical goal; I remember Raph saying this was his main goal in designing SWG: Let people live in the Star Wars Universe. Thing is, I don't love Star Wars all that much, and I don't really like watching movies. As I wander the latest version of that galaxy, I don't feel the world responding to my touch. It's got a hard-plastic feel. And somehow, Skyrim does not.

 

 


Comments on Star Wars: The Dead Republic:

Toychristopher says:

Guild Wars 2 don't fail us!

Posted Jan 16, 2012 2:40:31 PM | link

Chris says:

To be fair, I'm level 35 in SWtOR, on the Republic Side, and have found precisely one planet where "exhaustion zones" prevented me from spending several minutes running from one quest hub to another. That was Tatooine, which is, to be fair, a desert planet with lots of pre-established lore regarding just how deadly it is to go gallivanting around in the Dune Sea.

Not that I disagree with anything you say. The game is a magnificent edifice but is far from polished.

Posted Jan 16, 2012 4:37:21 PM | link

Chris says:

Can't believe I wrote "to be fair" twice in that very short reply. Holy thesaurus, Batman!

Posted Jan 16, 2012 4:37:57 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Skyrim is like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" with 17 trillion pages, each of which is beautifully illustrated and comes with neat music and voice acting. With some pages also having button-mashy action sequences for the fighting. All good.

Posted Jan 16, 2012 6:15:31 PM | link

Stabs says:

I think this is the most extreme post I've seen on Terra Nova, and thus interesting for that quality as well as any intrinsic merit. That SWTOR should provoke such passion from you Ted while Raph Koster is lamenting the death of the immersion fad is very significant.
http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/13/is-immersion-a-core-game-virtue/

The dream of massively multiplayer virtual worlds as places where games happen has very noticeably faded and it's hurting those of us who want that.

Posted Jan 17, 2012 5:07:30 AM | link

Ryan Thames says:

Interesting review here, with many points that I would agree with: the market/crafting system definitely feels dead, the tasks can be seen as repetitive once you see through the ornamentation (though no moreso than any other MMO I've played). That said, I'm going to step in to defend The Old Republic (or at least qualify its criticism).

A couple of caveats:
1) I love Star Wars. Although there are few fantasy universes I don't love, so Star Wars isn't my one thing.

2) I am playing SWTOR with my cousin and my brother-in-law, three people in three different states with otherwise no common interaction besides the odd family gathering. I have a Mumble server hooked up so we chat like we're in the same room while playing, and it's given us a reason to come together in a universe we all love.

I could try to play objective scholar, but the truth is the above caveats probably color my perception of the game a great deal, so I'll just embrace them. You might say that any MMO could offer #2, but all three of us are primarily single-player RPGers and SWTOR's strange attempt at making a single-player oriented MMO, despite it's many failings, succeeds enough to get us out of our shells.

About the interactive cutscenes: I absolutely agree that movies aren't the most interesting element of games and that an industry-wide trend to more movies in games is not ideal. That said, movies have a place. Particularly in the longer flashpoints, some of the most enjoyable aspects of the game are the interactive cutscenes. There's just something wonderful about seeing a cinematic representation of my character interacting with a cinematic representation of a friend's character, like if someone was animating a D&D game I was in on the spot and playing it back for us. I don't want to place cutscenes before gameplay, but I also don't want to ignore this creation of a cinematic character with his own voice, expressions, ticks, etc. and being able to see my character interact with other characters in ways that non-cutscene interaction can't quite match. And even though I know that anyone else who makes the same race/class/dialogue choices as me will come up with the same thing, my character (at least) still feels alive to me, as do those of my friends.

Another thing I think SWTOR does well is the use of instances, well placed such that they give me the illusion of affecting the world more than many other MMOs without the emptiness of the totally instanced Guild Wars. Yes, other MMOs have been more advanced in terms of actually changing the game world for all players, but in terms of making me feel like it is my story, that my character is important (instead of puny me in a sea of others with more power to shape the world) SWTOR does it better than any other MMO I've played (which makes sense given its large single-player audience).

So, SWTOR aims at an MMO for the single-player crowd, but does it fail at both? Certainly this odd hybrid is less successful as an MMO than other MMOs, and less successful as a single-player story game than other RPGs. Still, and maybe it's just my personal context of play, I'm not ready to declare this strange creature completely without merit. I may be wrong. For those who don't have playing buddies, maybe the game does feel dead, although I've found the population of my servers to be quite friendly and helpful (at least when it comes to flashpoints). Apologies for the lengthy response. It's a challenge to reign myself in when talking about games from a personal perspective.

Posted Jan 17, 2012 2:20:32 PM | link

Andres Guadamuz says:

While I agree that SWTOR can feel dead, I happen to like many of its choices. I don't mind the directed experience that much, being mostly a solo player even in MMOs, I feel that the storyline consisting of quests and instances allows you to feel part of a story, which is precisely what many of us want from a Star Wars experience.

I agree that the market feels dead, but this is more to do with the clunky Galactic Trade Network interface than with the lack of personal crafting. I love that I have a droid to do all the grinding for me while I engage in more PvP.

Oh, and how I love the PVP, even if until yesterday I was nothing but lvl 50 fodder. Sub-50 PVP is fun!

So far I'm loving SWTOR, but I am guessing that it lacks WoW's endgame appeal.

Posted Jan 19, 2012 8:11:37 AM | link

Nobody says:

How does skyrim feel after you've cleared all the dungeons?

Posted Jan 19, 2012 9:04:58 AM | link

Rachel says:

I find that this review is fundamentally flawed in one particularly major way, that is comparing Apples to Oranges (ie SWTOR to Skyrim). These games are entirely different and are predicated on entirely different things. To ask that SWTOR effects the whole world as a whole is darn near impossible when you have thousands of people playing at any given time. We have not gotten to the point technologically that we can have a massive multiplayer world adapt as we change it, there would be too much change constantly (and especially in political situations where some bored player doing something stupid could ruin everything for everyone).

While you may not be able to make overarching change to the world, they make you at least FEEL like your making change, moreso than any other MMO has ever done. The instances they do have are put in places that work, and do not interfere in gameplay, and if you are in a group they can participate in conversations as well as helping with the quest.

As for your issue of quests becoming too difficult as you got higher level, difficulty and challenge are a good thing. Not to mention I ended up in the later levels with myself being at least 2 levels behind where I should be the whole time and was easily able to solo most of the quests that weren't Heroic. I was only behind as well because of the fact that I skipped a bunch of quests early on, and if all you do is your story and a few quests nearby, of course your going to get behind.

As for issues finding groups, the only time I have had issues with this would be when finding a group would be difficult anyway, ie when it was late at night and nobody was on. If I asked for a group out in the playerbase, or I saw someone out and about doing quests, I would just invite them, I have actually made a few friends and invites to my guild this way. I will say I have trouble finding flashpoint groups due to the "SUCH AND SUCH LFG" thing they have going right now. I will agree with you that was a bad move on Bioware's fault, no doubts of that.

Overall though it seems you are comparing a massive multiplayer game to a single player sandbox game, and that is where your review loses most of its merit. Sure SWTOR has its flaws, but it is FAR more immersive and FAR more story driven than any MMO to date, the others don't even come close. When you compare SWTOR to something that would be reasonable to compare it to, it blows everything else out of the water. It is far more engaging story wise, the PVP is far more workable and fun despite its flaws, and flashpoints and instances work far better and are a lot more fun and inclusive.

TL:DR the point of my post is comparing SWTOR to Skyrim is like comparing apples to oranges, they aren't even in the same boat. To do so it setting unrealistic expectations, and that isn't the fault of the games and doesn't make them any worse, thats the reviewers fault for comparing two distinctly unalike things.

Posted Jan 19, 2012 1:03:36 PM | link

Klatzy says:

I personally like the crafting system because I can quest and not have to stand in one place making items.

Posted Jan 19, 2012 3:00:22 PM | link

Deathripper says:

If you don't like starwars simply don't play it ;-)

Just because it is an MMO it doesn't need to suit everybodys taste.

If someone is not a fantasy fan he doesn't complain that WoW should change there setting.

You complain that you can't solo the game and that the game doesn't support to much social features like auto grouping etc like in Rift. That is a valid point however, in the times of Everquest etc. it was the same.
Games now change that because of one simple reason "Money" they want to have more and more casual players thats why WoW threw out all group quests in the game it is not casual. But nobody ever said SWToR is going for a casual approach so either be core and search for a guild or friends or simply leave an play casual games :-)

Posted Jan 20, 2012 6:51:41 AM | link

ObiQuixote says:

Something I find interesting when comparing the two games is, Skyrims mini dungeons. They are just as linear as SWTOR's, but they don't feel that way.

So I think it's fair to compare the two games, because it's a design question that being an MMO doesn't make mutually exclusive. Why do SWTOR's mini dungeons feel like a house cleaning chore down a single hallway while Skyrims don't? Especially considering the amount of Instancing SWTOR did which takes almost all MMO design requirements out of the equations when designing a mini dungeon.

Posted Jan 22, 2012 12:31:58 PM | link

Ryan Thames says:

Interesting point ObiQuixote. However, I still don't feel the comparison is fair. To me the reason Skyrim's dungeons are different is because they are intricately immersive. As is typical for Bethesda, the detailed, object filled, and ecologically reasoned environments (Skyrim even added places where the bandits use the john for god's sake) are like nothing in any other game, much less an MMO. There is simply no way to put the kind of detail nor the sophisticated AI populations in an MMO, nor would many people want to. Barring the technical challenges of doing this in an MMO, SWTOR isn't designed for the same thing as Skyrim. It's not designed for people to pick up random bits of wiring, power generators and such to craft their own shield generator later. It's not for people playing it to explore mysterious enclosed spaces and find enchanted items. It is primarily for action and adventure (with Star Wars flair). They are fundamentally different types of games. SWTOR= apples, Skyrim=oranges. Do I prefer oranges to apples overall? Sure, but I don't blame the apples for not being oranges.

Posted Jan 23, 2012 2:16:10 AM | link

Ryan Thames says:

Sorry, suppose I should include the qualification: "under the current paradigm of MMOs with the current technology." I suppose that is changing, more or less rapidly depending on the kind of graphics you want in your game. The AI's not there, but multiplayer Minecraft certainly feels more like Skyrim in many ways.

Posted Jan 23, 2012 2:21:36 AM | link

Isilda says:

I felt like SWTOR was a single player game which Lucas Arts tried to make as much money as possible and made it a MMORPG.
The game feel really boring and repetitif. Sure, the "Story mode" is different but the rest is as boring as in WoW, War, Rift, Aion.

Same goes for PvP: The same damn boring battlegrounds with retarded players that have absolutly not clue what they are doing and pretend to be Luke Skywalkers ...

The only point that is quite funny is the space missions. But that is not worth the montly fees for sure.

Posted Jan 30, 2012 12:28:00 PM | link

Lnakamur says:

what a great post. I agree entirely. "Liveness" in artificial environments is not always something that designers know how to produce, and poor design can certainly make live co-players less lively than well designed AI's. Also, this line
(Punching? Really? In a world with lasers?)
belongs on a tshirt.

Posted Feb 1, 2012 3:03:51 PM | link

JW says:

I think the comments about TOR are fairly spot-on. The word I've used to describe it is "linear." It's like the old Eddie Izzard stand-up, given the choice between cake or death; "Umm, I'll take the cake please." To extend the "rail" feeling to actual gameplay, the interface on the game is pretty much a disaster. It is heavily in need of custom UI modifications, but that prospect is probably something that will never come to pass. For raiders, this could be a deal-breaker.

I'm still trying to find the time to level, and balancing that with the tedium of the process itself. I grew up watching Star Wars, so I love the universe, but I can't help but share your feelings on the tightrope you're forced to walk while leveling. One harkens back to seeing the huge and open Star Wars universe filled with wonder and possibility on the movie screen, and the game says, "Here's a light saber, go kill some rats. And while you're at it, pick up some boxes." You just keep waiting for the game to get fun and live up to your imagination.

Posted Feb 2, 2012 1:06:59 PM | link

Shander says:

I like the solo questing capped with the group boss kills... quite a bit actually.

Most of the time I might be playing between loads of laundry or responding to emails.. maybe doing a quest while on the phone. But I do like the social part of the games and especially like to have some group activities outside of intances that can be picked up exactly as you describe.. shouting out in local(or region or whatever you'd call it).. or better yet seeing someone killing things near you and convo ing them.

I took another spin on WoW lately and it is pretty empty everywhere I guess because of the sweep of levels increasing but the numbers of people not scaling with the addition of extra content. Maybe the only active areas were always just near the most recent content... anywy.

I look back to Nagrand in BC (last time that I played) and that area had a healthy sweep of activities for a width of areas, some in region pvp in halaa that was atually used on my server, and plenty of those boss kills at the end of quest lines that also let you help other people asking for help even after you had done them and were there farming some materials or having gottten sent there on follow up quests a couple levels later. I guess i liked the sun there too.

Just saying, I think I enjoyed that particularly because it wasn't all or none.. that I could join or leave parties quickly without guilt... see same faces sometimes for people grinding certain rep there past the time when they originally quested there..etc

Posted Feb 13, 2012 5:44:54 PM | link