Let me start off this particular column with a story about Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve mentioned before how this was a game I deeply wanted to love and was all ready to be deeply engaged with, and to be honest, the first few hours were great even on launch. You got introduced to the story along with various side quests, and while everything was a bit linear it did a good job of setting up the basic assumptions about how to play the game. Sure, every sub-zone within a given zone was basically a pretty hallway to fight through, but that’s the tutorial.
Then I got out of the tutorial, got to the first space station, learned crafting, and… now I’m on Coruscant, and the zones are still basically pretty hallways I fight through based off of a central hub connected to the space port. All right. That’s a bit disappointing, but it’ll be fine, this planet is too big to handle any other way. There will be open areas and spaces to focus on crafting later. And then we’re onto the third planet… and suddenly it becomes clear that no, this is not a tutorial; this is the game. And that is not great.
Now, keep in mind, I genuinely did love SWTOR for quite some time. The game was not truly dire for these reasons at launch. (It was rather dire when you take into account that the developers had no idea what to do for their endgame other than slap World of Warcraft’s model in there without a care in the world, but that’s a whole other problem.) The problem is that it was crafting the most assiduously boilerplate themepark experience, giving you a very tailored run through each zone… and not a whole lot else.
The thing about themeparks as a subgenre is that the ones who embrace the best lessons are really closer to what I tend to refer to as sandparks in the first place, as we endlessly split hairs over exact subgenre lines in an existing subgenre. But the point remains that when you wind up fixating on just a single nice hallway for players to kill some things and then leave as a game mechanic, you’ve wound up making a very limited game. And no, that’s not alleviated because you have some optional dungeons.
Something I’ve talked about in previous writings are about verbs, the ways that you can interact with the game world. What a lot of designers of sub-par themeparks seem to miss out on is the fact that their game worlds are limited to basically two options: kill it or talk to it. That’s it. That’s all you can do. What do you want to be in this game? The answer to that question is just varied flavors of hired sword smacking things. Maybe you smack things with spells instead of weapons; same difference all the same.
Can that be fun? Of course it can. A good and satisfying combat system can do a lot for a game, and smacking things in battle can be a lot of fun. But if that’s the limit of your interactions with the world, you’re going to have a limited investment. All of the rewards you get need to be related to making you better at smacking things or they are, fundamentally, worthless.
It’s barely a half-step up when these games feature crafting because “crafting” is often the buzzword for “see, we added depth.” But the thing is that this is usually perfunctory and forgettable crafting that exists primarily to have something in there. You’re not going to various zones and learning what regions have the right kind of lumber for making a chair or whatever; you’re grabbing things when you pause by a tree in the pretty hallway and then you’re making things incidentally.
Heck, SWTOR made a whole minigame out of sending your companions off to do all the crafting while you just kept doing whatever you wanted. Why force you to actually sit down and craft and focus on something other than pursuing the One Main Plot?
I remember playing Elyon while it was in beta and marveling that so much of what had made the game originally look unique had been purged at the same time that the game gave you nothing to do but follow its main quest… and that main quest was boring. It was people I didn’t care about spouting lines I didn’t remember regarding developments that I wasn’t following. Combat was kind of fun, sure, but I don’t care about these people. I have no hook to get me invested. I have no agency, just a collection of abilities to hit monsters in. When do I get to head off and do something else? When does this start feeling like a world instead of a sequence of lines I walk along?
Compare that even with early City of Heroes, which had a bunch of different mission lines you could be pursuing right from the start and focused very much on the feel that you could always be doing other things. An element of the game which compounded with time until you could be hunting down thugs for crafting materials, or engaging in player-made stories, or taking on hazard zones, or even going into PvP, all to your own tune as you explored the city.
All right, so no one went into PvP. It’s the principle of the thing.
When talking about sandboxes I mentioned that the goal is to give players who need some guidance a way of getting into the game and a set of goals to pursue, even if the players will ultimately fall off somewhere along the line. This is the inverse of that. Being told that you can pursue only one specific goal works well enough in single-player games where you can devote the entire game to providing that particular experience, but it doesn’t work very well in a multiplayer game because they’re about existing in a shared space with one another.
If we’re all in a shared space but we all have the same goals, the same objectives, and so forth… what does having multiple people actually add to the experience? What about this requires other people around?
Because if the only things it adds is that the tank is capable of responding to your chat messages and has her own personality provided by the player instead of just having a few canned responses, you are kind of missing out on the potential of an online game. (Jokes about how many players you meet that seem to pretty much have canned responses anyway are accepted in the comments.)
There’s nothing wrong with having a game that’s more directed and focus, but it still needs places where you can break out from that, roam around, explore, try different things, and go off the beaten path. You should be able to meet players who want to do totally different things than you do, even if both of you are still following the same main storyline. If your reward for getting off the path is a sign saying “please return to the path,” your game isn’t done yet.