MMORPG is a stale genre in many respects. Leveling, crafting, gathering. It’s all very familiar – electronic Dungeons & Dragons®. So when a new one appears we all hope that it’s got something new to offer, something improved, perhaps revolutionary. SWTOR promised this with the ‘fourth pillar’ of story and voice. It’s definitely made the leveling process more interesting and immersive so long as you don’t mind having your character and path heavily defined for you. But once you reach endgame this fourth pillar effectively vanishes, leaving you with the same ol’ tripod – a notoriously unstable configuration, particularly if the legs are different lengths.
Which is why two recent MMOs have got me thinking about whether BioWare really chose the right thing to pour so much time, energy and money into. I’m talking about Tera and Day Z.
Tera was launched in South Korea in January 2011 and in North America May this year. It runs on the time- tested Unreal 3 engine. Unlike SWTOR, the producers (Bluehole Studio) have made no attempt to reduce grind or draw you into a rich compelling story. What they have done is bring a third person shooter-style aiming system into an MMO, along with distinctive play styles and strategies for each class. I don’t need to tell you that this can remain fun and interesting long after the leveling process ends. Despite a total lack of innovation in most other areas, many admit it’s still damn fun and compelling. People want to try new classes because they each offer a something substantial and distinctive, not just different animations and light effects.
Day Z is completely different. A mod for ARMA II (plus its expansion Operation Arrowhead), Day Z runs on the propriatory Real Virtuality 3 engine and throws you into a zombie infested, post apocalyptic landscape (254 km.sq). You have some basic supplies, a weapon and zombies… so many zombies. Scattered about this enourmous landscape are fellow players who may help you, or just as likely kill you for the pittance in your backpack.
Every step you take, every choice you make has real consequences, it’s all about survival. But it’s not for everyone. There’s no crafting, no slick UI, no map (you WILL get lost… alot) or any of the plush velvet luxuries that many MMO players now demand. There’s no attempt at plot, but there are plenty of stories – all tales of player’s experiences – some are intense and no wonder. It’s just you, your wits and a little blind luck. This is a brutal, unforgiving place and it’s massively popular. So much so it’s pushed ARMA II sales up, even to the top of Steam’s sales chart. Not bad for a product still in alpha.
So where does that leave us? In fairness to BioWare, the world has changed a lot since SWTOR was conceived in early 2008. Back then K.Rudd had just apologised to the Stolen Generation and the Global Financial Crisis had yet to start biting. The world has changed a little since then, but not within SWTOR’s masterplan it seems, although that may change very soon. Only time will tell if the ‘fourth pillar’ was the right move or just a footnote in MMO evolution.
The real question is “where to from here?”. Maintain the ‘fourth pillar’ by continuing your personal story? Desperately add extra content for endgame? Re-examine the current market and make some hard choices? In all honesty, since it’s hard to tell what resourcing EA/Bioware have available for SWTOR, it’s hard to say – especially after the Austin studio lost somewhere around 120 fulltime staff (as best we can tell).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sick of the game, nor am I downhearted about its future, but I’m not going to gloss over existing problems. I believe that, with the world economy and reduced staff resources, BioWare need to decide who their core player base is and focus on improving the game for them. They will lose players but they’ll certainly gain many others.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to sit back and hope we see more openness and transparency in BioWare’s communication with their fans. They should remember that, like your character has a health bar, any business has a trust bar and that SOB drops fast and recharges very, very slowly.