The Epic Cog
Since the news broke on July 31st of Star Wars: The Old Republic's free-to-play transition and the Unleashed content update for The Secret World, I've been quietly reading through blog entries of folks who have expressed opinions for either game. I've also been visiting a site called Amplicate which aggregates Twitter and Facebook posts for keywords and tries to sort them with a Love or Hate descriptor.
Originally, I was looking for key words and phrases that framed the reasons why people left behind SWTOR or stayed with TSW. As I manually started sifting through all the terms and read the explanations though, I noticed one term in particular that was mentioned quite a bit for both games in varying contexts. The word bandied about was “epic.”
Today, I'm going to attempt to explain the context behind what it means to be epic. I'm also going to quickly dive into how SWTOR managed to lose the epic feeling it tried to establish in its advertising. More importantly, I will expound on how TSW creates an epic feeling for players, despite explicitly mentioning in the opening minutes of your tale that you aren't an epic hero, but a cog in the machine.
The Grand Scale
What does it mean when something is epic? Back in ancient times, the word “epic” was used to refer to lengthy narrative poems and other works that detail deeds of heroism or important cultural goings-on for a civilization. For the most part, this meant “epic” tended to be associated with heroism a lot.
Various permutations behind what happens to be epic exist now. Epic can refer to the stories of grand battles or long, drawn-out wars. They can also refer to the tales of people undergoing extraordinary trials in myth or history. To get an epic feeling by current definitions, therefore, something extraordinary must be happening, either due to the situation or the historical context, or because someone has gone beyond normal human expectations.
As such, there's a buzzword for one's travels in games, where you go on an adventure of “epic scale.” This is the thing that concerns us now when it comes to online games, and SWTOR and TSW represent different aspects of the epic scale.
To put it simply, the problem with SWTOR's epic adventure is that it ends. There is a disconnect between this chosen hero you have raised to cap and the person he becomes upon reaching the cap.
Here you are, going on this grand journey as a heroic or dastardly sort of fellow with amazing storyline quests to take you to 50. Upon hitting the cap, however, the story hits its high point and then gradually reaches its inevitable end. The only way you progress further with your newly minted level 50 epic hero is through the completion of the same high-level dungeons repeatedly for better gear or by engaging in PVP.
This is aggravated by the limited number of available quests to do among all possible characters you can make, such that some stories get forcibly rehashed way too easily and thus water down other class playthroughs. Even worse, the content patches provided so far focused on aspects of the game that aren't really story-based, and that's not what people wanted to experience in a game with such a rich lore component.
The Secret Dissonance
By comparison, The Secret World uses a modified approach to creating fulfilling content due to decisions done by the folks at Funcom.
The first three points of this approach are relatively simple: you understate the nature of the epic adventure, you allow folks to have a seemingly limitless progression path, and you allow content to be repeatable. These things are significant because of their far-reaching effects.
By focusing on the supernatural modern-world mystery aspect, you allow people to create their own value judgment about the adventures they have within the game. This is also aided by allowing people to take side-trips in terms of skills and abilities without feeling penalized for it and willingly redo content they've completed after waiting a set period of time.
Now, this would seem disastrous in most marketing contexts: you're downplaying a tried-and-tested strength of gaming, alluding to a niche leveling mechanic attributed to sandbox games, and giving the impression that there's not as much content to go around because most of it is repeatable. The succeeding points, however, are what turn this around.
The Secret World's factional storylines all emphasize that despite your supernatural powers you aren't special, and that you are merely an agent of chaos or a cog in the machine, so to speak. It then plunges you headlong into the modern setting, but where everything is suitably epic as all three factions are struggling against dark forces who want to threaten all of modern civilization.
You, of course, have your orders. At the same time, these same orders lie within your general self-interest (I'm assuming you're a decent human being) to help those in need. You want to become a hero, even though the game tells you that you're simply a humble soldier. This is the compelling, unsettling point.
Without diving too deep into the waters of social psychology, there is a concept called cognitive dissonance which states that people feel uncomfortable in the face of conflicting cognitions, such as beliefs or ideas, and will thus tend to work towards resolving the dissonance until the discomfort subsides. For our purposes, there's also a paradigm called the Effort-Justification paradigm that says dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of a goal. This is what might drive you to repeat a mission you've done five times before: because you know that you can be a better hero (you're not supposed to be one) if you get stronger.
The above might be, as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises put it, “theatricality and deception, powerful agents to the uninitiated.” But we are initiated, aren't we, dear reader? Cognitive dissonance can only go so far in the face of boring content. The kicker is that the content you're given is also deeply compelling and can also require engagement (lore entries and puzzles), teamwork (group instances, PVP, and Very Hard content), or research (in the case of investigation missions) to complete.
The one thing that would worry me about The Secret World's future is if Funcom fails to maintain momentum. The momentum they have coming from good press from enthusiast sites like MMORPG.com as well as from direct customer interaction can be lost if a content update that was promised doesn't fall into place or if they don't explain why something didn't go as planned.
We've already established two weeks ago that the themes and lore are a strong draw for those looking for a change from the usual way that MMORPG developers go about providing for consumers. The tale of the player as a disposable agent for a faction seems to fit well with what's been established in the game's setting.
Still, that doesn't mean experiencing being a cog in the machine can't be an epic sort of experience. It's up to the player to create value in his experience, and it's up to Funcom to create the experiences that provide player with the epic adventure he's been seeking, even if does happen to be the most epic cog in the machine of the supernatural.