In selling Star Wars: The Old Republic to the masses, BioWare has been hammering on about the fourth pillar they are adding to MMOs: story. They see that most MMOs have exploration, combat and progression, but they are adding story to that mix which is going to make them stand out. Fully voiced story, at that, because without story, MMORPGs have no real point. However, there are a couple of problems with that line of thinking.
BioWare’s Strength Isn’t Story; It’s Characters
BioWare (be they BioWare Edmonton or BioWare Austin) are confused if they think they they have a strength in their story capabilities. They don’t. A typical BioWare narrative is as predictable and formulaic as if they were copying it out of a book – these clichés have been noted and some at BioWare got a little tetchy about it.
However, BioWare tends to get around lack of innovative story by developing characters that players can connect with (and have sex with, but I guess that falls under ‘connecting’). Even though those characters can sometimes walk that cliché line themselves, they typically have solid voice acting behind them that can sell some of the weaker material and do a good job of anchoring your character / the player in the world.
Anyone expecting SWOR to have a fantastic storyline or eight is going to be disappointed – it’s going to fit nicely into LucasArts’ approved Star Wars formula – but there is a better chance that some of the player companions will be interesting and engaging. Some players will mistake this characterisation for story (which is fine because even BioWare falls into that trap), but the two things are quite different. Especially since the more open-ended nature of MMOs is going to erode the relationship players have both with the story and with those NPC companions (and there is a solid chance that players of the same class are going to end up with the same companions, removing a sense of being unique in the game world or reason to replay a class) – there will be a point where the story / character relationships finish and players will be left with just the MMO parts.
Or, to put it another way: after having sex with Liara and defeating the big bad, you’ve got to come back and perhaps have a chat that in comparative racial terms she’s only about 11 years old. Or, more realistically, experience looped dialogue options until BioWare releases the next class / companion DLC, leaving you to craft / raid / PvP to pass the time.
Stories End; MMOs Keep On Going
The best stories work precisely because they end. There is a conclusion that ties the narrative together and often provides a key point to that story – you defeat the evil emperor and take over, you defeat the alien menace and save the galaxy, you defeat the evil forces and save the kingdom. In video games, the narrative ending is meant to leave the player with a sense of accomplishment and some kind of resolution - weak endings can undermine the enjoyment of a game.
The point here is that stories end and are all the better for it: a story that runs forever ends up packed with filler, inconsistent characters and mind-boggling events. Look at mainstream comics. The ‘older’ characters like Spider-Man or Batman are continually forced into odd narrative permutations, resets or just plain continuity-breaking events precisely because they aren’t allowed to end. There is no narrative point to these characters; they continue because their IP is too valuable to let them lie fallow for too long (if at all).
MMOs are designed to keep going, much like the comic book examples above. To keep the revenue coming in, MMOs keep offering players a continuous experience. This is at odds with having a story with a beginning, middle and end – MMOs don’t want players to finish paying that sub fee. It’s why MMOs often add content chunks that can often be repeated: it’s good return on development investment and gives players something they can keep doing to progress their character.
I’m sure that SWOR is going to offer players more in terms of that progression pillar, but if the key attraction is the storyline, the issue becomes how fast BioWare can generate new story content for players who get to the end of the existing material. Given the fully voiced over content, the ability to keep up with demand is unlikely, leading to either players waiting on cliffhanger endings or having completed one ending with the promise of new narrative material at some point in the future. If what the player wants is story, they could certainly end up feeling short changed within the MMO structure.
The only potential way round this could be SWOR launching with a full narrative arc for each class and with further DLC expansions – costing extra dollars – being released to add more to the storyline. It’s consistent with BioWare’s current approach, but is also something that gets in the way of players paying a subscription fee, since players won’t want to pay to access servers and to be able to access new content. EverQuest’s model of having the majority of new content in paid expansions is something the market has generally moved beyond – players expect the bulk of the new content for free in a sub-based title.
Even BioWare Players Don’t Finish The Story
The funny thing is that despite BioWare having such a strong reputation for story, it still isn’t enough. Only around 50% of players who started BioWare 2 actually finished it (I expect that is on the higher side of game completion rates) and this is for a single player title with no subscription fee. So if you are playing SWOR for the story but get sidetracked into another release, the chances are you’ll drop the SWOR subscription with the idea you’ll come back to it later. And maybe you will come back, but EA would prefer that you didn’t stop paying the sub fee for any reason.
There’s Story, and Then There Is The Story
When it comes to RPGs, going back to pencil-and-paper from which MMORPGs derive so, so much, there really are two types of game story: directed and non-directed. Non-directed stories are narratives driven by the players – the ‘sandbox’ style. Players have more freedom in non-directed stories, but this also means more freedom to fail or to not have anything to do. The true stories emerge from player developments: Ultima Online is better known for what its players did than whatever story lines the devs came up with, while EvE’s most important stories arise completely from players screwing each other over – in short, it is the emergent player narratives that are seen to add the engagement to these titles.
Directed stories are more limited and, in the extreme cases, railroaded narratives where players are forced to walk a certain path during the game. The trade-off is that players always have a direction / purpose, so shouldn’t end up feeling lost. Provided they put the time in, they will come to the narrative end and see the resolution, roll the end cutscene and skip the credits. A lot of RPGs use heavily directed stories that are often tied to character progression – World of Warcraft is a good example here, since players are always given quests to move their character forward through some kind of narrative (even if the player chooses to ignore that narrative in favour of progression).
The current trend in computer RPGs is for players to be given some degree of choice (or: the illusion of choice) within an overall directed story line. Players can choose between reaction options and see an appropriate response within the micro-situation, but at the macro-narrative these choices mostly have zero impact. There will be the odd choice that is important to the narrative, but by keeping things mostly fixed the developers can limit the number of variables that exist at the conclusion. This is the space that BioWare has been very successful – games where players can have characters at opposite ends of a morality meter, but end up fighting the same boss to finish the game.
MMOs have attempted to use the directed narrative with a degree of player choice before. Asheron’s Call involved players in world-changing events (even if they had to fudge the endings a bit) and The Matrix Online had a continually updated story that players could at least get involved in, even if they couldn’t change the outcomes. But these were large, world-changing events. SWOR appears set to offer a directed narrative with choices that will only impact on individual characters. It’s much, much closer to a single player title with some cooperation allowed (although group narrative choices won’t impact on individual player choices, so that the light side Jedi can tag along with a group of Sith, content in the knowledge that the Force knows they are thinking good thoughts while taking part in a slaughter).
Must All Of These Articles Be Over 1000 Words?
To sum up: it makes sense that BioWare is playing to its strengths for SWOR, since that is exactly what EA is hiring them for. BioWare’s perceived strength is in its story-telling capabilities, but the very nature of being a MMO throws issues into exactly how well SWOR’s story can engage players. The exact strength of BioWare’s story within the MMO structure is still to be tested by the mainstream market, and if it is doesn’t work in the mid- to long-term, it won’t matter how much ego, money or initial subscriptions SWOR ends up seeing. BioWare is promising a lot with the story aspect, but its ability to hold MMO player numbers is currently untested.