Star Wars: The Old Republic
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been encouraged lately by the thought that even though the world of game design has, on the whole, proven stubbornly resistant to learning from its mistake (mainly due to a collective memory that makes an ADHD ant appear to be a fount of oracular wisdom) some improvement is nevertheless possible.  I’ve been quite impressed with the Bioware’s preparations to try and ensure that the launch of the massively hyped Star Wars: The Old Republic will not be an unmitigated disaster.

“You Have Failed Me for the Last Time.”
Here is how the launch of an MMO used to be handled in the bad old days.  There would be a beta test.  Some would be invited.  Some would not.  Approaching launch all characters were wiped.  Everyone would need to download a new client or load the boxed one they had purchased.  The game would go live.  After 5 minutes and 22 seconds the login server would crash.  The login server would come back up.  The patch server would crash.  Most players would face interminable waits to log in.  Some would never be able to log in.  Some would catch a brief glimpse of nirvana as the various servers spent the first day going up and down like a tart’s knickers.  Some would painstakingly create their characters only to have the game crash on them.  And the next time.  Locked deep in their fortress of solitude, the entire development team would go without sleep for a week.

Now, while there’s a certain lunatic glamour in insisting upon this kind of Charlie Foxtrot as an inevitable rite of passage for the MMO gamer (“In my day we had to create our characters with 15 minute lag times both ways!”) sane people realize that first impressions matter.  So Bioware has been attacking this issue on several fronts.

Although the official launch date of the game is December 20, there is in fact no actual game launch but rather a staged roll-out.  Bioware aggressively pushed their pre-order program (and the cynic in me is suspicious that given the amount of money reputed to have been spent on this game to date publisher Electronic Arts would have been pretty damn keen to get some form of revenue flowing in to counteract somewhat the waterfall of cash flowing out) by promising all pre-orders early access to the game.  The earlier you redeemed your pre-order coupon, the earlier you would have access.  The original plan was to give you access starting on the 15th but recent announcements from Bioware have indicated that some players could be getting their Jedi on as early as the 13th.  Bioware has also allowed all players who have pre-ordered to download the game in advance even of the early access period.

Bioware have also integrated guild development into the launch plans.  Guilds were offered a set of pretty robust guild recruiting tools that allowed them to gather players and identify other guilds that they wanted to treat as allies and potential opponents.  Provided the guilds then met certain requirements (a minimum number of players who had pre-ordered) the guild would be imported into the game wholesale and ready to go at launch.  Bioware has said they will do their best to accommodate server preferences (e.g. roleplaying, PvP-centric, etc.) and to import a guild’s designated allies and enemies.

I like the thinking here, and if it all goes well it could solve a couple of problems that plague the opening phase of MMOs.  Most obviously, it spreads out the load.  Rather than everyone hammering the servers with a fury that would be the envy of a Russian hacker DDOS attack, players can launch, patch and create characters and start playing at predictable load levels.  Furthermore, a substantial portion of the possible player population will be in-game before the official launch date.  Loading in players according to guild affiliation also allows Bioware to balance populations across shards and to ensure that each server has a relatively healthy population when the masses start playing on December 20th.  But tying in the guild structure is also a smart move in several ways.  First of all, it is a tacit recognition that one of the major things that keeps people playing MMOs is their guild friendships.  Just talk to all of the current WoW players who are no longer enamored of the game but nevertheless keep playing because all their friends do.  Keeping players playing will be vitally important for SWTOR which may well be the last of the really huge AAA subscription-based MMOs since the genre as a whole seems to be moving much more in the direction of micro-transactions and various combinations of pay-to-play and free-to-play.  Building the launch around a substantial guild component may also reduce the load on infrastructure elements such as customer support; if players run into difficulties they will have guildmates there to ask questions, and even players coming in on the 20th will have a lot of players who are already highly leveled and can respond to questions (well, those that are disposed to answer questions with more than a “fuck off, noob”).

All in all, I’m hopeful that this will make for a relatively smooth launch.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Make no mistake, as a Star Wars geek, and moreover one who has never forgiven Lucas for failing to realize the potential of his vision (and making, in fact, every effort to undermine it) I am looking forward to the game.  However, expectations for this game are so insanely high in many quarters that if the game Raptured all Tea Party members and left the rest of us (thankfully) behind, people would still be disappointed.  Personally, I find that keeping some perspective is helped by remembering a few salient facts:

  • There will be bugs.  Lots of bugs.  This is pretty much inevitable, even with a product from developers who have a pretty good quality control record.  While players have every right to expect that a single-player game to be relatively bug free, there are just too many variables when you are dealing with the unpredictabilities of human behavior in a complex interactive environment.  Actually, part of the problem is that some of the behavior is all too predictable.  Somewhere, out in the back of beyond, on one of the planets, there will be a tiny, overlooked, crevice in a rock where it is possible for a player to get stuck.  Inevitably, some thirteen-year old will pass by this place and think “Hmm.  There’s a crack in a rock.  I wonder if I can wedge my body into it.”  The player will become stuck.  He will instantly start spamming the support network until a GM takes time out from helping people with real issues to unstick him.  The player will instantly jump onto the game forums and whine incessantly about how the game is broken and the devs don’t care about players.  Nothing makes you wish for the immediate demise of humanity like spending time on the forums of a major MMORPG.
  • There will be other players.  This title is going to attract a lot of dickheads, of that I’m sure.  It is important to remember that  when those of us who are older think Star Wars we’re not thinking about the lame prequels.  Incredible as it may seem, however, there are people out there who actually liked those movies.  The mentality necessary to do that doesn’t betoken a very high level of maturity or intelligence.  Many of those people will also be playing this game.  There will be an avalanche of Bounty Hunters running around with names like Seymour Butts and Sith Inquisitors called Darth Phallus.
  • The game will likely be fun but not terribly innovative.  The way for this game to do something genuinely innovative was not to try and be the next WoW.  But everything I’ve heard so far (from people who apparently have no idea what a Non-Disclosure Agreement actually means) suggests that the game is a lot of fun and very well done but very similar to WoW in many of its major dynamics.  Of course, a lot of this is ignoring the story element and much will depend on how much you care about the stories that are being told.  I hope I am proven wrong, but I’ve always felt that the Achilles heel of this game was that Bioware thinks that MMO players in general care more about story than has been the case in my experience.  I’m betting that genuine MMO innovation is probably going to have to await Guild Wars 2.  Assuming it ever sees the light of day.

None of these things may of course turn out to be true.  (Yeah, and Rick Perry is a Mensa member).  But remembering these things helps to keep my own enthusiasm dialed down to a reasonable level.  I’m pre-ordered, preloaded, guilded and good to go.