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Friday, March 25, 2011

Story Line Replay

If you play an MMO then the concept of replaying content is old news to you. The problem usually starts when you have rehashed the same content countless times and the story arc starts to annoy you. This is an inevitable reality while playing any game, but with MMORPG where you log in regularly, sooner or later you will run out of new villains to bash or fuzzies to kill and must rehash old material and the “burn out” begins.

Blah Blah Blah

          If you are a WOWer how many times have you watched that damn Octopus get electrified in Thrown of Tides? The fact that they installed an abort button for that one is proof enough that watching the same cut-scene, now matter how entertaining or purposeful, can get annoying and downright tedious. Often in raids or other dungeons that have heavy scripting, I would busy myself with other things until the <Insert baddy Name> stopped his rant and began the battle.
            Take questing for example, if you enjoy a good story in your game you will read the text that is associated with that quest, but what about the second time, or the third time around. How much of that story do you still read? When does reading quest content become required preamble and not entertainment anymore?
            When replaying a portion of a game it is inevitable that the engaging and entertaining story will eventually become nothing more than the stuff in the way you can do without.

World of Warcrafts Negative Influence

            Blizzard did not invent story telling in games nor are they the best at doing it. However when your game is the most widely played MMO of all time, they are often looked at as the trend setters. Game makers have been trying to capture the magic of WOW for some time now and often look to that games model when creating new games.
            World of Warcraft has heavily scripted content and is impacted with good story telling. One only needs to look at the expansions to see this. The stories of Arthas, Deathwing and other notable lead characters are prevalent in the design of the games structure and are integral to completely finishing the provided content. This only becomes an issue when you take the rest of the games design into focus. Repetitive raiding and dungeon running are the norm of max level play time, thus repetitive story telling must also happen.
            There is no denying the over all successes of Blizzards approach, but is it the best way to implement story driven material into a game that requires repeat play?

Say it isn’t so BioWare

          BioWares recent Community Q & A Session about Flashpoint design points to WOWs influence on the upcoming SWTOR. I have always been concerned about BioWares approach to story driven content in their MMO before, but after reading this I am really concerned with this games replay ability. Think back to the Octopus example and now interject SWTORs group conversation mechanic. The abort button is no longer an option because selecting responses to dialog prompts is an integral part of the game.
            So let’s say you have now run X flashpoint 15 times. How annoying will it be to not be able to skip that particular talking scene or the fact that you can not control the pace of the run as you need to stop here and there for the mandatory story injection? The following two Questions from the mentioned Q&A sum up my concerns:

 Q: How do you intend to make replaying Flashpoints interesting (other than using diverse loot tables) in order to encourage group play and to not have Flashpoints deteriorate into "farm areas" typical of other games in the genre? – TheOrigin

A: From a gameplay perspective, we try to keep the combat mechanics dynamic and the pacing strong. We’ve discussed adding elements that differ from one session to the next, but our top priority is offering a diverse array of Flashpoints at launch. As a BioWare fan, I find the stories alone engaging enough to repeat – especially with the multiplayer conversation system.

This one answer alone says a lot about what raiding and end game content will be like in SWTOR. BioWare stories are engaging and entertaining, but I highly doubt they will be the 15th time around.

Q: Do mobs respawn in a Flashpoint after a certain time, or do they "stay" dead? – MilOuZ

A: Enemies do not respawn in Flashpoints. The story is too tightly focused for respawning enemies to make sense, and it would have undesirable gameplay consequences.

The important part here to me boils down to “The story is too tightly focused”. This alone indicates to me that players will be “led” along a desired path, thus the story is the key to flashpoints more than the gameplay. I might be over stating this point here, but it does leave some concern.

Q: Are Flashpoints linear or can you go multiple routes without ruining the storytelling part? – Flopi

A: Your main objectives in a Flashpoint follow a clear path, except in cases where your story choices modify that path. We use bonus objectives to introduce elements of non-linearity, and we try to place surprises off the beaten path.

This shows a glimmer of hope here when they refer to elements of non-linear game play. This will help to break up the feeling of “been there, done that”. I just hope they use this feature in big swaths as it is important to replayability especially in a dialog driven game.


            Now while I do believe story is important to a games overall entertainment, I have to believe there are ways to make them less rigid and linear. I want to interact and participate in a story arc, not watch it again and again. Maybe BioWares Dialog system is the answer to this riddle and only time will tell, but I am hopeful that they will get this part right.
The dialog system can allow for a different look and feel on successive runs of the same content, but only if they allow it to. If they focus too heavily on the story and not enough on ways to augment it then I am afraid this game will be like so many others. Stick to the same old method and sooner or later people will be listening to music or eating a sandwich instead of playing along.

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