Let us agree on one thing: fuck yellow exclamation points.
You’ve seen them – they lurk above the heads of countless NPCs in countless MMORPGs, signposting quests. I remember the first time I encountered them, in Lord of the Rings Online. Fresh off of a years-long Final Fantasy XI binge, they ignited a love affair. It was so easy! They showed you exactly where to go for your next dosage of experience points – that kind of thing didn’t exist in the mind-numbingly opaque FFXI.
But over the years, across multitudes of virtual geographies, my love affair has soured. So too has my once fervent passion for the MMORPG. Stale mechanics, boring stories, and tired routines. Things are changing, though, slowly and piecemeal. If you put them together, I believe, you can form a picture of the MMORPG Of The Future. Don’t worry, there’s no yellow punctuation marks to be found.
In December, I skeptically approached BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. After playing it for a good evening or two, I could have wept. With rampant use of cut scenes, branching quests, and their trademark conversation system, BioWare had done the unthinkable. They brought character to the MMORPG.
You probably noticed that I said ‘character,’ not story. MMORPGs have had stories for a long time – the plot in FFXI is really good. It twists and turns and surprises with the best of its like. Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft, too, boast stories that players care about. But what those games lacked was a true player-driven protagonist.
If you’ve played an MMORPG before, you know this is basically how they start: there is a cut-scene with a narrator, who explains some stuff about, I dunno, an ancient, eternal conflict – in these games, war is always brewing, dark forces are always returning.The camera pans around whatever city you’re starting in as either an airship lands or a ship spreads its sail. The narrator says, “and you have come to join the conflict!” or, “only you can uncover the darkness that lurks!” And then you assume control of your character, left to head towards the first glowing punctuation mark you can see, and begin the grind. You’ll get a few cutscenes as you go through the game, and perhaps a story will unfold, but your character will never feel central. Your character will never feel like a human. Your character will never feel important, no matter how many god forsaken experience points he gets.
SWTOR corrects this. Each class has it’s own story. Using my Trooper as an example, this is how SWTOR begins: you see the iconic opening scrawl of the Star Wars series. It’s customized to your story. From there, you are thrown into things. You see your Trooper arrive on Ord Mantell and make his way across a battlefield, riding in a carrier. Another soldier sits next to you – he’s your first conversation partner. It’s here that you get to set the first framework of who your character is. You and the soldier talk for a while, and you learn about what’s happening on this planet – and you have the chance to see and choose how your character reacts. He has feelings and opinions! Later in the game, he will actually have relationships with other characters! Next, suddenly, the carrier is attacked, and you’re thrust into action.
What SWTOR does, through sequences such as what I just described, is give you a character who has a history, a place in the world, a voice, and a personality. That game gives you a motherfucker you can get behind. And crucially, the experience is tailor-made to the character – the role – that you are playing in the game. The Jedi Knight introduction and storyline is entirely different from the Trooper one. Measures like that deliver SWTOR’s greatest success: making you feel like the star of the game, not an extra.
Innovation does not permeate the entire experience. BioWare made massive strides for storytelling in MMORPGs with SWTOR, but otherwise, the game is cookie cutter. They succeeded in giving the world more meaning, and the player a stronger bond with their avatar, and the avatar a stronger bond with the world around him – but they failed spectacularly at the combat mechanics.
What’s so glorious about the cut-scenes and conversation system is they – as I said – make the game more personalized and meaningful. This, in turn, creates an evocative experience. That Trooper is your character, and every choice you make in a conversation is your choice. You feel more ownership – more attachment – to your character. Especially impressive is that you care about your character because of who they are as a person, not as a digital representation of the hours you dedicate to the game.
That adds up to this: you feel things playing SWTOR that you don’t feel in MMORPGs, or at least, that you don’t feel as a result of the directed narrative in other MMORPGs.
Sadly, this ability to punch you in your gut or tug at your heartstrings gets lost when it comes time to go stomp some dudes. It becomes the same boring, hotkey-punctuated dance. If the cut-scenes get you to the top of the roller coaster, the combat should send you roaring down at 100 miles per hour – but it doesn’t. Instead, you coast down; the ride is slow and sludgy.
The best combat systems resonate in your soul, their mechanics allowing you to feel what your character does, much like what cutscenes in SWTOR do. Dark Souls, for example, has hellish, demanding combat. It will leave you feeling drained, and it hands out death at every opportunity. And that’s a good thing! That combat is what it feels like to be in the world of Dark Souls. Take any Mario game, even. How do they play? Light, floaty, joyous. Likewise, the world of Mario games is sunny, fun and cartoonish.
Star Wars is famous for, among many things, its fun, heart-pounding action sequences. Take the Death Star shootout in A New Hope – that’s fucking rollicking! Romping through space stations, lightsabers and blasters drawn, music blasting, frenetics abound – that’s what Star Wars combat should feel like.
Yet, when we fight in SWTOR, there’s none of this pulse-quickening, thrilled-smile-inducing combat. You stand in a circle around one enemy at time, kill it, move on. There’s no romping. No rollicking. It’s boring. For all the emotion that BioWare wrings out of cutscenes, voice acting, and branching conversations, the combat mechanics remain stoic, refusing to coax the meekest grin from the player.
Still, SWTOR has shown us what to expect from our characters in the MMORPG Of The Future – more engagement, more personality, stronger bonds with the player and the game world. “Still,” we might ask ourselves, “how are we going make MMORPG combat not suck?”
I spent the previous weekend playing the open beta for TERA – a new MMORPG from En Masse Entertainment. Full disclosure: everything about the game – crafting, gathering, interface, art direction – ranges from “acceptable” to “really good,” but none of it goes up to the “revolutionary” stratosphere – except the combat.
The combat takes the action game elements that titles like Vindictus explored and gives them a wonderful set of weight and friction, demanding just enough skill to challenge the player and make it feel damn good when you pull off something awesome. It is so good that I pre-ordered the game just because I like it so much.
Here’s how it works: you have a reticule in the middle of screen, with which you target. Left click to attack. This introduces some intrinsic challenge because shit moves around – you have to follow it with your mouse. Following enemies isn’t easy, and leads to plenty of wide-eyed fervor and tensed up hands. You have to engage with the game more, you have to pay attention. It feels good. You also have abilities – bound to a hotbar – that you can trigger. Each ability has a different animation, a different range you need to be at, a different set of circumstances it should be used under. This isn’t that much different from a typical MMORPG, but combined with the targeting mechanics, it makes you look at the play space – and understand it – on a different level. You can’t just aimlessly click the hotkeys.
Each class also has a defensive move – blocking or dodging, generally. Using these is a matter of timing, and can mean life or death. Playing as the tank-like Lancer class, I fell into a rhythm of blocking, attacking, blocking, attacking, and then gambling to squeeze in an ability and return to blocking before the enemy hit me – that was infectious. I felt the terror of the battlefield. The chaos, the intensity of the fervor – and it made me feel like a being that inhabited space and moved around in it. Forced to engage at such a microlevel – actually swinging my lance – the combat let me know what it felt like to be a hulking Lancer.
That’s what SWTOR lacks. Meaningful, evocative combat. But at the same time, TERA lacks what SWTOR has – I have almost no clue what TERA is about. Beyond the fact that my character is a total badass in combat, I know nothing about him.
If we could combine TERA and SWTOR, it would be a great game. That’s not to say that SWTOR with TERA combat would be great. We’d need to fine tune the action to feel like Star Wars. To feel rollicking and romping. These games have a lot to learn from each other: if my TERA character had a personality that affected the gameworld, it’d be wonderful. If I could swing my Jedi’s lightsaber or shoot my smuggler’s blaster, the combat would feel more like the adventure that game wants me to believe I’m on. But you know what they both still have? Quest markers. Yellow. Fucking. Exclamation points. Or at least something very similar to them.
There is one game that claims to portend the Death of the Quest Marker. Or, at least, a serious alternative to the quest marker. This game is Guild Wars 2.
If the developers are to be believed, quests in Guild Wars 2 will come organically, as you go about your business in the world. You might see a dragon come swooping over a hill, or a town under assault: that’s how you’ll know what your hero-business is, not some sort of glowing rune above a man’s head. It’s said to be an active, dynamic system, with real consequences if players don’t respond: that town could get reduced to rubble. That dragon could wreak havoc.
And that’s what MMORPGs need. Less rigidity, more fluidity. Consequences.The feeling of adventure is hard to come by when, as Patricia wrote on Kotaku recently, you’re essentially just checking items off a meaningless to do list. If we can break out of the strict questgiver/reward giver model, the play possibilities become more organic, more natural, and more engaging.
If Guild Wars 2 lives up to its hype, it will be the third and final piece in the puzzle of the MMORPG Of The Future. Really, GW2 is said to combine some aspects from TERA and SWTOR – it has cut scenes and player stories, and the combat is said to be crispy and delicious. Could it be that GW2 is The MMORPG Of The Future? Or just another piece of the puzzle?
I have no idea. The good news is that I’m downloading the beta test as I write this- and come Friday, I’ll be playing it all weekend, free of any non-disclosure clauses. So I’ll be reporting back as soon as I can. Until then, all we can do is hope.