Why I quit SWTOR and what I want in MMO design

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Published on: October 12, 2012

The following is a wall of text I dumped on the SWTOR forums outlining why I unsubbed from the game and some wishful thinking about what I’d love to see in an MMO.

I unsubbed some time ago but still look in on the forums to see how the game is doing. I followed this game’s development for longer than I’ve followed anything pre-release; virtually from the beginning. I’m a huge Star Wars fan and had high hopes for SWTOR.

Visually the game is beautiful and well executed., the stories are, for the most part, engaging, and the voice acting was surprisingly compelling. The game executes exceedingly well on a number of points but unfortunately falls woefully short of the mark on many others.

  • Static content – This is a theme that I come back to repeatedly when thinking about why game play began to feel tedious after my first level 50. This is the bane of themepark design, in order to ensure that players experience the quest lines the same, the worlds are utterly immutable. The group of mobs was at the same location on Tatooine at launch as today. The quest line through each planet is the same on the first play through as the third and the fifth and the twentieth. There is literally no variation in mob placement and distribution over time unless someone just passed through and killed them all. The planets are essentially paintings rather then living environments.
  • Not my story but Bioware’s – The class stories are engaging but each is essentially a straight line from A to B to C. No action I take changes that path or makes any mark on my character other than alignment. Whether I play as the most corrupt Jedi in history or as a saint, the story is the same with only minor variation. The class stories were interesting but they were effectively Bioware channeling me down the path of their story rather than me building my own.
  • Rails – Everything in this game plays like it is on rails. Space combat is obviously on rails but when you look at the path you take through the game world as you progress, you traverse an obviously predefined route that is reflected not only in the quests themselves but in the very geography of the planets. If you are questing and level 15, there is literally one small area of the game that you will be in. Planet quests and class quests align with “side” quests such that you take a very well defined path through the game world. I was reminded of sitting in a boat in It’s a Small World as I was taken from region to region. No freedom, no choice. Thinking back to the pre-release dev blogs this is a function of optimizing the paths that players took so they didn’t get lost of frustrated or miss content. I used to spend hours just exploring in SWG but apart from looking for the nooks and crannies where datacrons were hidden SWTOR didn’t lend itself to that undirected exploration.
  • Immutability – I can’t make any mark on the game world. I can’t build anything, move anything, I can’t even change the paint inside my starship. There is no territory to conquer and hold. Nothing to build or work to maintain. You can’t even really change your clothes at end game and so SWTOR starts looking like the usual MMO army of clones.
  • End game treadmill – I’ve done the raiding and daily treadmill to death in WoW. Reskinning it in SWTOR doesn’t make it any more interesting.
  • Boredom – Add all these together and you end up with a game that, outside of the class story content, gets very tedious after the first level 50.

In the end, SWTOR took the themepark model of MMOs to its extreme resulting in what is essentially a single player game where people play near each other but only rarely with each other. This is exacerbated by the use of companions. You really only need to group for flashpoints, operations and heroics.

A wish list for the next MMO in case any developer happens to read this. With intelligent programming a lot of this could basically run itself.

  • Large worlds – And I mean huge. Whether they be continents, planets, planes or whatever, a player should be able to level from to max level within just about any planet. Maybe have a small number of starter planets to get you to level 20 and the rest large enough to support leveling from 20 to max level. Give people a reason to go to Tattooine at 50. Map out the geography programatically at first and then add in themepark hubs and area details.
  • Themepark leads to sandbox – Themepark content is great but as players approach max level an increasing amount of sandbox content should become available: areas to fight over, places to build and hold, entire areas to claim sovereignty over in order to gain access to resources or raid content.
  • Complex crafting and economy – I’m talking SWG at release or EVE online style crafting.
  • Dynamic mob distribution – Rather than mobs that statically stand around have them move purposefully. Herd animals migrating across a map, predators that stalk them, enemy bases that if left unattended will grow and spawn groups of raiders, patrols and defenses. Ruins that if left unattended will become populated with increasingly challenging mobs eventually resulting in being occupied by world boss level mobs and groups of minions.
  • Dynamic geography – As the dark side grows in an area modify the textures to reflect that corruption, the same with areas with a strong concentration of light side. Make some areas poles of particular alignments that wax and wane depending on player actions.
  • Mission hubs offer varying amounts of missions depending on faction reputation. Negative reputation gets you attacked by guards, high reputation gets you access to better missions, services and area perks.
  • Skill based progression – If you want players to really engage with their characters, allow them to customize what they want to do and how they want to do it.
  • Balance – Choices in character progression should carry not only positive consequences but negative ones. Want to use INT as a dump stat? Fine, that’s going to negatively effect how much experience you gain. Decide to use CHA as a dump stat? Good luck building reputation for access to missions and services. Want to wear that heavy armor? You must be this strong to put it on and be able to move. Buff STR, lose DEX, etc i.e.don’t fall into the invulnerable armor + doc buff trap.

I know it looks like a lot but a lot of the underlying mechanics can be implemented programatically resulting in a world that changes over time and a player experience that changes based on the decisions that the individual makes.

 

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