Looking back over some of the posts on the blog I see that I wrote several anticipating the releases of The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, including one called “Everything we know about MMORPGs is about to change. . .or is it?” which looked at the way both games were claiming to bring revolutionary innovations to the genre. Given that both games have now been out for a while and I’ve played both of them it seems only appropriate to ask: how well are we coping with the Revolution?
When I wrote the previous piece I don’t think I was anticipating that the expectations surrounding both of these games would be met in their entirety or even in their moiety. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the “Massively” in MMORPG often refers to the absurd quantity of longing and desperation that players heap upon games in advance, way beyond the already over-the-top promises made by publishers and their PR departments. But I was expecting that given that these two games were emerging from well-funded development houses with a strong track record in producing innovative games that there would be either some sort of showdown between them or between the two of them and the reigning monarch, World of Warcraft. That’s part of the problem with analyzing the game industry; even when you are trying to stand apart from the hype and the stories the industry loves to tell about itself it is easy to get caught up.
Upon the launch of the two games it is safe to say that nothing really changed. And yet in another sense everything has.
My overall assessment about the likelihood of radical innovation in the two games was, however, basically correct. TOR has proven to be a solid, highly traditional MMORPG. The story element was, as expected, extremely well-implemented featuring some of the best voice acting I’ve encountered in a game and some strong storylines for all character classes. Bioware also did a fantastic job of world-building not just in the many planetary environments (some of which are spectacular; I had high expectations for Tatooine and it massively exceeded even those) but in the narratives. Bioware’s creativity really shines in those areas which required the introduction of an entirely new element. In varying degrees even the casual Star Wars fan is familiar with Jedi, Sith, Bounty Hunters and Smugglers. For that reason the class story that delighted me the most was the Imperial Agent. Bioware had to imagine and then convincingly populate an entire element—the Imperial Intelligence arm—and then build a compelling story around it. This they did, an involving tale filled with twists and turns, betrayals and challenged loyalties. I remember finishing the final few story missions all in a rush, late into the night and then sitting back with a profound feeling of satisfaction and—the sign of a great game as of any other great endeavour—a desire to start the story over.
The game suffered a dramatic fall-off in subscribers after the first couple of months, an occurrence that many critics greeted with schadenfreude-laced pronouncements of doom. This in fact should have surprised almost no one, because rare is the MMORPG that doesn’t suffer this boom/bust/stabilize phenomenon. Unlike other developers, however, there was no obvious sign of panic from Bioware. Instead, they have continued to broaden and deepen the content of the game, releasing feature and content updates at regular intervals. The purpose of some of them wasn’t immediately apparent when they were first announced and a good example of this is the Legacy system that ties all your characters together in a system of shared bonuses. In practice however this works very well and encourages playing other character classes (or their sub-variants) because the more characters you create and the stronger they become, the easier and faster it is to level new characters, taking out much of the dreaded grind. I have seen many players touting it as a model for other games to follow. A robust achievement system accompanied the release of the first major expansion which introduced an imaginative new world and new storylines as rich as the originals.
Yet for all Bioware’s huge success in imaginative world-building, the game, ironically, doesn’t feel like a world. It feels like a game on rails, with every place on every map already laid out to serve one or another missions or to provide mobs to farm (the space component of the game is therefore a lamentable synechdoche, it’s arcade clownishness deeply disappointing to anyone who remembers the detailed and immersive space combat in Star Wars Galaxies). Once you get beyond the story elements there isn’t much here that isn’t in evidence in other MMORPGs. Crafting is a relentless grind for high end materials to create the desirable gear which is the only kind that really allows you to make a living. It is the familiar wage slavery and makes me pine for the entrepreneurial system of Pirates of the Burning Sea. Everything else is simply dungeons and raids, whose only purpose is to be ground out repeatedly to collect all the pieces of gear you need to undertake the next higher level of dungeon or raid. It is Everquest with blasters, World of Warcraft with droids. This undoubtedly is a major reason for the fact that the game seems now to have established enough of a player base to enable it to inhabit a respectable niche in the MMO world.
Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, incorporates a much more engaging and realistic world. . .which is an odd thing to say about a high fantasy game. The worlds you traverse often don’t look like our reality; there have been many occasions where I’ve encountered cities or vistas, or phenomena (the Shatterstorm, for example) that have just made my draw drop. That sense of awe and wonder and surprise helps to define a realistic relationship to the environment. Furthermore, while the game provides no shortage of structured content it actively encourages you to be curious about the environment and explore it. In part this is built into the reward and achievements system, but it is also the product of clever environment design. Outcrops jutting from the side of tall mountains make you wonder what is round the bend, hills with a tumble of foliage at their base make you wonder whether a cave is hidden there. This natural inducement to explore even extends to the underwater realm, which is one of the most immersive (ha ha) renderings of underwater environments that I’ve ever encountered. The reward of stumbling across a new dungeon or one of the game’s many hidden jumping puzzles is measured in more than pure XP.
In so many other respect GW2 is a major step forward in mitigating what have been some of the most annoying features of many MMORPGs. To say that its experience system is generous is a radical understatement. The game showers you with XP if you step out your front door and hock a virtual loogie. Furthermore, there’s little distinction between XP for different kinds of activities. You could level your character by engaging solely in the realm vs. realm component, for example, and XP for crafting is similarly generous. The combination of dynamically generated events and the generous experience rewards has elegantly solved one of the most vexing problems MMO designers have faced: how to get players in a multiplayer universe to, you know, do the radical thing and actually play together. There’s no need for organizing elaborate groups except for dungeon content; otherwise, it feels perfectly natural to be wandering around the world, come across a lone stranger or a small group in the middle of a desperate fight, jump in and help them out. The game even showers you with yet more gratuitous XP for reviving fallen players, another inducement to play the good Samaritan. This has happened to me in TOR approximately never. You get the full XP for all kills and all the loot in shared combat. Helping is a no-brainer. So you level quickly, almost effortlessly, rapidly outstripping the level requirement of any particular province in which you are located and your story arc if you are not careful. Fortunately, the game’s intelligent scaling system, that pegs your level to that a notch above the current zone requirement ensures that combat is, for the most part, always manageable and rewarding. There is never a shortage of things to do, and the game makes it easy for you to try out different styles of play or different activities if you want a break from your usual routine.
Yet, it is because the game represents a major step forward in MMO design in so many respects that its flaws are so jarring. The crafting system is complex and includes a welcome “discovery” feature where you aren’t simply given all the necessary recipes but are encouraged to try new combinations of your materials in order to discover new items. But whereas any leveling based on combat or exploration in GW2 is immediately rewarding, crafting is generally a punishing grind that puts that of most previous MMOs to shame. Some professions also require you to have so many materials (Chef in particular) that your life becomes one tedious exercise in constantly running out of space in even the most generous inventory. Because it is so easy to level you end up not really needing any other weapons, armor or consumables other than those with which the game provides you for free. So there’s no need to actually buy anything from other players. Hell, there’s really no need even to make anything for yourself. Hence there is no economy to speak of (the only thing I’ve purchased has been materials to help me level the crafting line; then I discovered that there was no way to make a living selling anything). Sure, there are things like “legendary” weapons and high level end-game gear, but this is where the game reverts to the standard MMORPG nonsense, requiring you to collect three of this, and two of that, and one of the exceptionally rare Jewel of Sniggelthorpe; you then take these to patently obvious item sinks like the “Mystic Forge” where you insert your finger up your rectum, try to imitate the twist of Colin Firth’s eyebrows and then you’ll have a 20% chance of creating something useful or else the game destroys all your stuff and laughs in your face.
The larger problem I find with GW2 is something that, to be fair, it shares with a lot of fantasy games. Sooner or later, the inherent childishness of the entire set up gets to you. It isn’t just the fact that some of the races like the Sylvari are designed to be Hello Kitty on Acid cute. It is rather that there is nothing particularly adult about the story setup. I expected a much greater diversity of story content, but so far all I’m seeing is that all the stories direct you toward an inevitable showdown with the forces of evil, differing only (and sometimes not all that much) in the paths they take to get there. Everything positions you as the savior of Tyria so there isn’t a lot of range that is possible. Nor are they particularly emotionally challenging; sure, at one point (in every story it seems) a familiar character dies, but that character has always been more of a cut-scene acquaintance than a real companion so it isn’t particularly heartbreaking. Moreover, you have no choice but to be good. In TOR you can be genuinely bad; I got to do some pretty horrific things playing a Sith Lord (blasting with force lightning people who were convinced I was their savior, gutting with a lightsaber someone whose friendship I had carefully cultivated, and the like). Better still I can even be evil as a supposedly noble Jedi. Moreover TOR stories often position you not at the center of events because it turns out that at the center there really isn’t much room for a story to move; rather, the class stories tend to occupy peripheral niches in the story of a galaxy torn by strife. GW2’s Tyria is supposed to be a world on the verge of being overrun by darkness but somehow it just never feels that way. Lord of the Rings Online does a much better job of convincingly portraying a world where bad shit is happening and it is doing bad things to good people. TOR also is a world that is inherently dark; there is slavery, there is racism (or rather speciesism; if you play as a non-human race you are constantly subjected to insults and harassment from the Imperials, even when you are on their side). All the races and classes in TOR are excellent, but in GW2 some are definitely better than others. The self-centeredness of the Asura often borders on complete amorality and they would be a fun race to play if the voicing wasn’t universally annoying. The world of the Charr (the former bad guys in the first Guild Wars) is well-conceived and well-written for the most part, but then there are the nordic Norn. If my Norn declares one more time that “it is time for me to begin my legend” I am going to delete her (hint: it is generally not a good thing when your character is already pissing you off at level 5).
If you could combine the more adult themes and creative and accomplished storytelling of TOR with the more innovative gameplay of GW2 then you would have the perfect game. Except. Except there would still be something missing. Both of these games give players plenty to do but there is no way for players to leave a mark on the worlds of which they are a part. This is a problem on the face of it, but this is also a problem since both games deluged us in PR prior to launch about how previous games hadn’t allowed players to make a difference but this game would and players could affect the outcome of great events and blah blah blah. Players start making a game their own when its settings and environments stimulate new ideas but also when they feel they have sufficient imaginative space to begin to develop their own stories and ways of playing. One way I can tell how much imaginative space a game is really making available to players is to look for how many people are role-playing; the answer in both games as far as I can tell is sweet FA (although, ironically given its very tightly scripted linear progression, I’ve actually seen more RP in TOR). But there are other indicators that help to explain why players aren’t developing their own events and gameplay activities. Neither game provides you anything in the way of housing, for example. TOR does provide you with a ship but you can’t really customize it, you can’t even name it (for fuck’s sake!) and even though you have a crew, after you complete all their individual character stories, they no longer want to talk to you and just stand around playing “pull my finger.” Even though it is therefore more of a waypoint than a place to call home, this is a substantial improvement over GW2 where you don’t have any kind of abode. GW2 is an example of what I described in an earlier essay as “fictionally incoherent homelessness” and it works against cultivating a sense of long-term allegiance in players. Neither game has an economy in any meaningful sense (another classic route by which players can at least make a minimal impact) and no game seems even to contemplate a more radical model such as player-built and run cities or neighbourhoods.
So if neither of these games proved to be as revolutionary as claimed (or hoped) what lessons can we learn from the current state of the MMO market? Stay tuned. . .