There’s a lot of presumption out there that MMORPGs can’t or don’t tell stories like their single-player counterparts. Me, I think it’s nonsense. Maybe that was true in the past. It isn’t now.
In fact, I’ve been amazed at how much they’ve evolved from oldschool monster-clubbing. Somehow, some way, MMOs started telling stories. Final Fantasy XI has character-focused missions bound together into a grand narrative, Age of Conan has its early-game switches between single-player and multiplayer, and Guild Wars has its hub-and-instance structure. Dungeons and Dragons Online actually has a narrator. Storytelling’s gotten big, and storytelling choices has become key to differentiation within the genre.
Even World of Warcraft (WoW) has evolved into a story-focused game. Sure, “vanilla” WoW wasn’t story-heavy, but The Burning Crusade added an overarching plotline to the game’s raids, and Wrath of the Lich King streamlined leveling into a series of continuing hub-based stories that built up into a grand story about Northrend, the Lich King, and his rivals. WoW’s current Cataclysm expansion—while perhaps overambitious—took those insights and applied them to the rest of the game, while incorporating more standard game storytelling techniques like in-game cutscenes and situational camera movement.
At the same time, Blizzard’s added in various tricks and mechanics to turn the quests into narrative-specific experiences instead of just the same-old same-old bunny-killing. One of the best things about playing modern World of Warcraft is that the questing experience shifts depending on what you’re doing: certain quests (like when you’re using vehicles) will change your toolkit of abilities to suit specific tasks, while quest-specific inventory items and interactive environmental elements help contextualize activities and tie them into the overarching area storyline. It’s all impressive.
Cataclysm was a gamble, and judging by WoW’s falling subscriber numbers, not as financially successful as Blizzard expected. I do feel, though, that the “old world” revamp worked quite well. Not only are the early areas fun and interesting, but the first ten levels of post-Cataclysm World of Warcraft are now some of the best content that Blizzard has to offer. Since that’s Blizzard we’re talking about, I’m happy to note that it’s some of the best MMORPG content anywhere; and all of it is surprisingly narrative-driven.
Now, as I write, the new expansion, Mists of Pandaria (MoP), has moved into open beta. It features a new race of anthropomorphized pandas (“Pandaren”), a new Monk class, brand-spanking new entry-level and top-level content, loads of story-specific activities and interactions, and a whole lot of that characteristic Blizzard polish. This is the up-to-the-second bleeding edge work made by the company that conquered the genre. I’m glad that I’m getting to test it. It’s fun stuff.
Enter Bioware. Bioware’s as celebrated as Blizzard these days, and they’ve jumped into the MMORPG arena, too. Their offering, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), has developed into a solid challenger to World of Warcraft. Since Bioware’s prowess at making character-driven and story-driven RPGs is absolutely revered, everybody was waiting to see how they’d match Blizzard’s newfound post-Cataclysm focus on storytelling.
I’d been skeptical about SWTOR, but when I tried one of those weeklong “free trials” that let me play through the opening planets I found myself immediately sucked in. I was shocked to discover that I’d played through pretty much every early class plotline in SWTOR! Sith Inquisitor, Jedi Knight, Republic Trooper, I’d finished that first storyline for almost all of them. I’d been skeptical before—but there was clearly something there.
What I’d discovered in these early areas was a very different approach to early-game storytelling than what Blizzard offers. These parts are critical. They lay the foundation for the story to come, and they’re how Bioware and Blizzard hook new players. These early levels are where they put their best foot forward. They also demonstrate more than you’d think: about how the early game shows Blizzard’s approach to in-game storytelling, about how Bioware approaches it, about how they compare as works of game design—and possibly something about modern gaming.
Player-as-Catalyst on the Wandering Isle
The Pandaren are the big new thing in World of Warcraft, but they don’t change a key WoW fact: class is almost always irrelevant to the story. Sure, it affects the gameplay, but the context for that gameplay stays the same no matter which class you are. Your character also says almost nothing, and doesn’t have that much personal development. What determines the story is the zone you’re in, and the zone you’re in depends on your race. Goblins starts in the goblin zone, humans start in the human zone, orcs start in the orc zone, and so on. The stories are told about the environment and its inhabitants. Class barely enters into it.
In modern WoW, your avatar’s a catalyst: constantly affecting things without being affected yourself. Player-characters don’t change. Sure, they might get a bit of experience or gear, but that’s just standard RPG folderol, and it’s not tied to the narrative in any meaningful way. No, PCs are silent ciphers collecting disposable magic gear by almost absent-mindedly reshaping the world around them. It’s everything and everybody else that changes.
I saw this in action when exploring The Wandering Isle, the level 1-10 area in Mists of Panderia. I watched as Master Shang Xi (the initial trainer and a key NPC) demonstrated both an engaging personality and an un-MMORPG-like willingness to come to me when I was ready to turn in a quest. When he sent me to meet Aysa Cloudsinger and Ji Firepaw, two of the key new NPCs in MoP, I was also surprised to see how WoW—a game that used to have little characterization whatsoever—quickly and firmly established Aysa’s patience, Ji’s hotheadedness, and Shang’s good-humored wisdom. Even the elementals were winsome.
Its not exactly high literature—more along the lines of one of your better Saturday morning adventure cartoons— but there is character development going on. It’s just not the player-character. The PC makes it happen, but it’s Aysa et. al. that grow and change.
As I passed through the environment, I picked up on the story of the Wandering Isle. I found out what the Isle really is, what the problems really are, and learn the means by which they can be fixed. Aysa and Ji and the other Pandaren NPCs continue changing and developing over the course of the zone: they travel, they argue, they react, and in one memorable case they die. (Death! Permanent death! In World of Warcraft!)
Most importantly, thanks to Blizzard’s newfound mastery at area phasing, the Wandering Isle itself continually and permanently changes. I saw it all it all over the place. The various NPCs moved around, areas became accessible or inaccessible, battles began and ended, structures were erected and destroyed, along with a lot of other things that I don’t want to spoil. Wrath and Cataclysm started off this sort of thing, but it’s with Mists of Pandaria that Blizzard’s finally nailed it down.
The final epic setpiece—which I don’t want to spoil too much—shows off everything that Blizzard brings to the table. It has armies of NPCs fighting each other, relationships and characterization of key NPCs coming to a head, and the introduction of a few setpiece-specific gameplay elements. It’s also got some huge phase changes: some involving rearranging NPCs, but many of involving enormous and permanent changes in the landscape and environment around you. The Wandering Isle’s story is truly resolved, for better or worse, and you are the catalyst making it happen.
It’s pretty striking for a game whose core was originally made in 2004, I’ll tell you that much.
By the end of the Wandering Isle, my character had reshaped the world around them. The problem is resolved, but the effects remain. The landscape is permanently reshaped. I saw the changes, and it felt like I’d made a difference in the world, illusory or no—but my silent avatar remained stubbornly unchanged, simply moving on to the next challenge. That’s what Blizzard has built: static characters reshaping a changing environment.
Class and The Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic has been often labeled as a World of Warcraft clone. It isn’t. Not quite.
Yes, much of the game play follows the old DikuMUD script: get mission, target monster, use various hotkeyed abilities using various resources, kill enough monsters to finish the mission—then move on to the next, collecting gear and experience along the way. The quests are going to be familiar to MMORPG players, too, as it’s the near-ancient, wearying trio of “kill [x] monsters”, “collect [y] tokens” and “deliver this to NPC [z]” quests. The variety of experiences in the Wandering Isle, or any of the rest of post-”Cataclysm” WoW, are nowhere to be found in SWTOR.
But since SWTOR is very much a Bioware game, each of the eight classes comes complete with one of those famous Bioware stories. I knew what sort of game I was playing as I was reading that famous Star Wars text scroll introducing the class story, and it really rammed home when I saw Bioware’s standard decision wheel. Fans of Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic and Bioware’s other famous games will have no doubt felt the same way when they started playing their Inquisitor or Trooper or Smuggler. Every time a conversation begins, it looks, sounds, and feels “Bioware”. Heady stuff in an MMO.
Classes are everything in SWTOR. Your choice of class doesn’t just affect gameplay: it dictates where your character starts, what they do, how they talk, what their challenges are, and practically all aspects of the narrative being delivered through those engrossing voiced conversations. In WoW, classes are toolsets. In SWTOR they’re central to the experience, so much that I ended up rolling one of each just so I could see everything Bioware had to offer.
Once I left those cutscenes and headed out to “kill ten wuzzles”, though, I also discovered that these SWTOR zones are completely static. They have no plot, or at least not much of one. There’s usually some sort of background conflict, and a series of non-class-specific quests related to that background conflict. It isn’t much more than that. Nothing is resolved and nothing changes. The planets looked the same when I left as they did when I arrived.
Even the little instances that you go into to see class-specific plot events are essentially static too. Sure, they can change a bit, but the lion’s share of the time they remain as static as everything else. Which instances you can access varies depending on the character’s progress along the class story, sure—but they’re still visible no matter what. You’ll see areas you’ve finished, areas you can’t access yet, and areas belonging to other classes. You often don’t even visit them more than once, and they don’t change much when you do. They’re no exception.
Yet unlike these static settings—and unlike WoW’s unchanging catalyst-characters—SWTOR player characters end up feeling reasonably dynamic. The heart of Star Wars, after all, is the “light side” vs. “dark side” balance: a class and character’s particularly personal attribute. This is reinforced by SWTOR’s implementation of Bioware’s famous system of lasting and permanent choice. Conversational decisions you make early on will affect your class quest later, just as in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, as well as affecting relationships with the character’s class-specific companions. The character’s moral alignment, situation and relationships are always changing, even while the environment isn’t—the exact opposite of what I saw on the Wandering Isle.
Take the Jedi Knights and Jedi Consulars, who both start on the planet Tython. Tython is an environment with both background and conflicts, and you see both this background and these conflicts everywhere you go: an ongoing struggle between Twi’lek colonists and native “flesh raiders”, some killer Jedi-hunting robots from the distant past, and the various familiar conflicts within the Jedi order. Players are given a variety of non-class-specific quests that relate to these conflicts, but the resolution of the quests doesn’t change anything. There are still the same raging flesh hunters, scared Twi’leks, angsty Jedi, and killer robots at the end as there were at the beginning. Tython is immutable.
Thanks to the character-centric class stories, however, those first ten levels didn’t lack for change and storytelling. The various “class instances” are stable, static, and unchanging chunks of space; but within them, you have grand conflicts and battles, (somewhat) deep character drama, heroes, villains and monsters. The Jedi Knight confronts both a crushing betrayal and knotty questions about ends vs. means. The Jedi Consular has a more cerebral experience, investigating the beginnings of the Jedi order and determining the fate of a rogue Twi’Lek force-user. Both end up with companions, and the companions’ attitude and relationship with the Jedi are affected by your choices. Again: not Dostoevsky… but still pretty engrossing.
I never forgot about the static environments. My Jedi Knight would pass by a variety of locked-up Consular areas on his way to his own little instanced plot enclaves. It just didn’t feel like a problem. The focus was on the class story: the planet was just a backdrop. Tython wasn’t “finished”, but I found myself finished with Tython. The same was true with all the other planets I saw during my tour of early SWTOR. They’ll still be there, unchanging and static—but the class’s story had moved on.
Different, But Somehow the Same
I do have to grant that the World of Warcraft approach does lead to more dynamic gameplay. The old school RPG questing in SWTOR did get somewhat old, and for a game that I’d barely started, that wasn’t a good thing. Even beyond the Wandering Isle, Blizzard’s excelled at incorporating varied gameplay tools like vehicles and usable items into their 1-10 experiences. In terms of being drawn into the story and the characters, though, it’s pretty much as I said earlier: not so much “better” or “worse” as “different”.
Yet I ended up more attached to my SWTOR characters. I was interested in finding out what was going on with them, what had happened to them, and what was coming around the corner. Each class had developed an actual personality, and I found myself seriously considering those decisions. “Would this choice be appropriate for this character?” is the heart of honest-to-goodness role-playing. I found myself doing it in SWTOR more often than I’d ever expected to, and the persistence of the MMO structure enhanced it a lot.
That’s why the common critique of SWTOR as some failed “WoW clone” misses the mark. These early levels, at least, really do feel like a Bioware game. Those moments of choice are what make Bioware games interesting, and early SWTOR had them in spades. In fact, thanks to the length of the game and the persistence of the characters, the choices were even more fraught than usual, because there was no way to “reload the save” after my choice. Once it’s made, it’s made. Sure, the bits where the Jedi and Sith are running around hitting monsters with lightsabers aren’t always compelling, and the planets are fairly static: but they’re there to support the class plots, not the other way around. I was expecting to be bothered by it all, and was surprised to find that I wasn’t.
(Though one can begin to see why there have been so many complaints about the endgame.)
Blizzard, meanwhile, is mostly sticking to what they’ve been doing for years now: telling stories about NPCs and places, rather than about the player’s character. Sure, they’ve made a wide variety of gameplay refinements since 2004, and they do help: quest-specific abilities like vehicles and usable quest items are routinely used to add story-based spice and savour to the experience that WoW’s competitors often lack. There’s still little in the Wandering Isle that won’t be familiar to anybody who’s played Wrath of the Lich King. Wrath told the story of Northrend and its inhabitants; Mists tells the story of the Pandarians. Same deal.
But that’s what Blizzard does. They don’t reinvent the wheel. They refine, and refine, and refine again. The closest they’ve ever come to reinvention was Cataclysm, a brilliant-but-troubled enterprise whose missteps likely lost them subscribers. What I’ve seen of the storytelling in Mists of Pandaria is a return to form for Blizzard: taking what works and polishing it to a fine sheen, without any wrenching or difficult changes that are out of keeping with the game’s existing look and feel. Sure, players are ciphers and catalysts; but that’s what we know to expect from Blizzard. It’s not like Diablo’s player-characters change much, either.
I wasn’t very attached to my little Pandaren Monk and Shaman; certainly not as much as I was to, say, my Imperial Agent and my Jedi Consular. But I definitely felt some attachment to the Wandering Isle, and the moment when my Monk left the Isle forever was an oddly affecting one. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to taking my main character through the top-level content—I want to see what happens—and why my World of Warcraft alt-rolling often tends to founder.
So why the difference? Why didn’t Bioware simply clone WoW or try to improve it? Why doesn’t WoW have more protagonist development? I’ve thought about this, and the answer seems to be simple and, maybe, a bit unsatisfying: they’re different companies. Bioware and Blizzard both have strengths and weaknesses; both are leveraging their strengths, and avoiding their weaknesses.
Blizzard’s never been much for character development, and what character development they have never touches their faceless player-avatars. The development’s always happened to other characters: Kerrigan, Raynor, Arthas, Thrall, and the rest are characters you’ve had influence over, but your role as commander has always been distinct from their role as hero-unit. Role-playing, even simple dialogue trees, have never been a big part of Blizzard games. The newly released Diablo 3 didn’t change that, as Tom Auxier said. No reason why Mists of Panderia would.
Meanwhile, Bioware’s still new to the MMORPG game, and had a lot to prove. It only makes sense that they’d leverage the skills that they’ve already demonstrated. Trying to beat Blizzard at their own game is impossible; if Bioware was to even hope to compete, they needed to be distinctive, and it’s character development through those funny little decision wheels that you think of when you think of distinctive Bioware traits. They can’t do everything Blizzard’s done with dynamic environments, and they don’t really try: they do what they’re good at, just as Blizzard does, while working to put an acceptable effort in everywhere else.
Blizzard and Bioware’s Conventional Conservatism
So, fine. They’re different-but-similar. Why does it matter? Opinions may differ, but I think these approaches show how even the celebrated Blizzard and Bioware demonstrate the intense conservatism of modern “triple-A” game design. Look at the most recent E3: designers, producers, developers and publishers have showed that they’re notoriously unwilling to take risks. You can see that with both of these games. They’re massive investments with billions of dollars at stake that simply cannot fail for each of these companies, so both Blizzard and Bioware are playing it safe. They’re sticking to what they know, and what they know they’re good at, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or redefine the genre.
What I’ve seen of Mists of Pandaria isn’t a massive step forward like Wrath of the Lich King or The Burning Crusade. It isn’t a massive risk like Cataclysm’s top-to-bottom revamp of Azeroth, either. Mists of Pandaria returns to the “new continent, new levels, new race, new class” formula of previous Warcraft expansions. Blizzard’s sticking to what they know is going to work. And while Star Wars: The Old Republic’s blending of MMO gameplay and Bioware narrative is novel after a fashion, it still shows Bioware sticking to the safe choices: MMO combat and exploration with proven appeal, married to their core competency of character-based storytelling. Different situations—same basic choice.
It’s unfortunate. The games that are the big break-out industry-changing hits are the ones that take the risks. Everquest and Ultima Online were risks; so were The Sims, Madden, Super Mario Brothers, and even Modern Warfare. The MMO genre desperately does need something like that, but it may well be that only companies like Blizzard and Bioware have the deep pockets, development insight, and industry cachet to be able to deliver it. Neither game is worse, in my mind, but neither is better, either, and neither seems delivers the innovation the genre needs.
Ah, well. Maybe Guild Wars 2 will live up to the hype.
(Thanks to Matt Buckley for the SWTOR screenshots; the lead image can be found at Blizzard’s Mists of Pandaria artwork gallery, and the Asheron’s Call screenshot can be found on Turbine’s Asheron’s Call screenshot gallery.)