Innovation in the Old Republic
Over the years, one of the constant mantras of MMO gamers has become “We want something new!” – and I’ll be the first to agree that in many ways the MMO field has been rather stagnant of late. The problem is that it’s not easy to invent something entirely new; and more to the point, it’s usually risky, which in industry terms means that a whole lot of money might be sunk into a project for nothing. People who provide funding don’t usually like that sort of proposition, with good reason, and gamers have an unfortunate tendency to forget that game development takes money – these days, a great deal of money.
However, while it may not be easy or even possible to invent a new wheel for every MMO, it is possible to innovate, and I pin a lot more hope on small, incremental innovations than I do on big flashy inventions, if only because innovation actually has a chance of being approved by those who hold the purse-strings. Since we gamers also have a tendency to confuse invention with innovation, here’s a brief home-grown definition: innovation is the process of using existing things or ideas in new and/or different ways. Sometimes all it takes is a small twist, but I’m hopeful that a bunch of small twists (even if it takes years) will change our MMOs and how we play them.
If only for that reason I’m glad SWTOR was developed the way it was, and I’m eating a nice big slice of humble pie in saying this because I didn’t think their new twists would work. But they do. Here’s a few reasons why.
There’s nothing terribly innovative about SWTOR’s combat, but the removal of an auto-attack ability for all classes (and companions) is innovative in its own way because it’s been so long since an MMO actually did that. The early games I played had no auto-attack, which I’d actually forgotten over the years – and I’ll admit, it confused me a little when I started playing SWTOR. Here I was, thinking I’d let my auto-attack do some damage for me while I waited for my smuggler’s energy bar to replenish… and here I was, standing around like a lemon while the bad guys kicked my ass.
So my first thought on that was WTF? But then I got used to it, and now I relish it. It means that every class has some sort of energy-management to effect (whether it’s energy, ammo or force), and it’s interesting without being a pain in the backside. So… a small thing, but it’s changed how I approach combat. Combined with the fact that it really helps to know all your skills, how to use them and when, and combat is actually rather fun even if it is in most ways very similar to what we already know from other big MMOs.
Another element of combat that I really like, though I’m sure it has the hardcore howling, is that everyone can rez anyone. Yep, you heard me: anyone can rez anyone else. The only limitation is that it can only be done when out of combat. For a theme park game, which is explicitly and unabashedly what SWTOR is, it actually makes a lot of sense. It keeps things moving. You can even rez yourself right where you died (after a short wait interval), which is really handy for some of the hairier solo fights and means you don’t have to run all the way back through a long-ass dungeon just so you can finish your epic fight with the storyline villain. In my case, it’s bad enough to know I was beaten the first time – but I can concentrate on figuring how not to get beaten again without having to wade through a bunch of trash mobs to do it.
This is probably SWTOR’s most obvious innovation when it comes to MMO design, even though it’s not the first MMO to use henchmen of some kind. Yes, it’s lifted straight out of Dragon Age and other BioWare single-player games, but that’s just smart design: when you have something that works well in one setting, there’s absolutely no harm (and comparatively little risk) in trying it out in another setting. And you know what? It works! (Why yes, please, I’ll have another helping of humble pie: I was wrong.)
SWTOR’s companions aren’t just faceless henchmen. They talk to you, they have their own back-stories and personalities, they’ll run errands (or missions) for you or play various different roles in combat, and they can approve or disapprove of the choices you make in game. I’ll freely admit I didn’t like the concept to begin with, for various reasons, but I’ve been won over. Companions add a new dimension to MMOs and they’re more than just two-legged (or –wheeled) versions of other games’ hunter pets.
My companions now form an integral part of my characters, a sort of gestalt-avatar if you like, and they add depth to my game without giving me any undue advantage, or without obviating the need to actually play and interact with other players. The basic content assumes you have a companion with you, while the more difficult content remains extremely hard to tackle alone (even with a companion). I can solo heroics, sure, but not at level, or not most of them, and the fact remains that a live player will in almost every case be better in a group situation than an AI-companion. By the time I can solo the harder content with my companion, the rewards probably won’t be worth the trouble, so for a theme-park game it mostly balances out.
Crafting in SWTOR is standard… and it’s not. As with most other MMOs out there, raising one’s single crafting skill remains a case of resources + time = grind, but some resources (often the most useful) can’t be obtained through world nodes: to get them, you have to send your companions out on missions. The list of available missions is random and doesn’t always offer the type of resources you want, and most of all, the better-yield missions aren’t cheap.
It’s an obvious money sink, not only to do those missions but also because the resources they yield currently trade for a ton of money on the auction house – and while we may rail at money sinks, they’re an essential tool for games in which thousands of players are constantly creating tons of money out of nothing. Google “mudflation” if you need more information on the concept. There’s also the fact that the really good, high-yield missions can only be discovered through other missions (if you have the right crew skill), and those trade for a lot of money too.
Trust me, I’ve bitched and moaned at the fact that I never have enough money in this game… but that’s because I choose to craft, and because I’m an altoholic. On the flip-side, I’m also much better-geared than many of the other players I’ve inspected. We’ll see how all this works out in the long term in terms of the game’s player economy, but for the time being I’m content that the rewards (cool stuff, good gear, fun to be had while crafting) are worth the price (no money). Again, this is theme-park crafting, and it works in that context. No, it’s not SWG’s crafting from the early days, and I really do miss those days – but you need a very specific type of game for that kind of system to work and the plain fact is, most gamers don’t like games with very little loot, which is what’s required in order to support a full and complex player crafting system. Maybe someday we’ll see a sandbox game that offers that kind of thing, but don’t hold your breath: I think we’re in a minority. But that’s probably a subject for another day.
There are a few other things I’d like to have mentioned in terms of small-but-important innovations, like complex class quest-lines and somewhat-interactive voiceovers, but I’m running out of space and they’ve been pretty well-covered elsewhere. The point is: innovations don’t have to be huge. Get enough of them and sooner or later the general design paradigm of MMOs might actually change. And while SWTOR reminds me of nothing so much as WoW in many ways, it’s also different enough and may prove popular enough to nudge things in a slightly different direction.
This may, after all, be a good year for MMOs (even though SWTOR came out in 2011 – you know what I mean). I’m still eagerly awaiting The Secret World and Guild Wars 2, because I’m hopeful both those games will introduce a few more innovations, each in their own way. Small, incremental steps: it works for development, and it works for MMO design too.