Has Bioware Got It All Wrong?
By Joshua Temblett (Dontkillmydreams), OnRPG Journalist
Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioware’s up and coming Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), aims to change the formula that the genre lives by. This was made immediately clear in the company’s press statement announcing this new Star Wars game, whereby Co-Founder and General Manager/CEO of the studio, Dr. Ray Muzyka, made the statement:
“Traditionally, massively multiplayer online games have been about three basic gameplay pillars – combat, exploration and character progression. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, we’re fusing BioWare’s heritage of critically-acclaimed storytelling with the amazing pedigree of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, and adding a brand-new fourth pillar to the equation – story.”
Since this press release, from the 10th October 2008, Bioware has talked constantly about this new focus on the “fourth pillar”, and its importance in MMORPGs. The company has used the design decision of focusing more on the story element of its new game as a key marketing strategy, by trying to appeal to the gamers who might be sick of the generic, genre formula. In fact the Lead Storyteller for the game, Daniel Erickson, recently commented,
“If the idea of story and context really turns you off, if what you want is [just the] complete Disneyland experience, where you run on the rides and repeat the stuff, this probably isn’t your favorite MMO” (source)
Yet, there is a question that has been sitting in the back of my mind, has Bioware gotten it all wrong?
What I’m asking is whether or not Bioware is approaching the idea of the “fourth pillar” correctly, and perhaps whether their perception of what an MMORPG is, at its core, fundamentally flawed. The objective of this article is not to insist that I am right or wrong, but to get you thinking about the points I put forward. I would also like to note, that I do fully understand that the game developers have worked on the other “three pillars” that make up games in the genre in addition to this “fourth”. As previously said, this article is about their idea of the “fourth pillar” and how the developers view the genre from a design perspective.
Let’s start with a quote
“And then MMO [games] showed up, and it wasn’t that. It was the ruleset to an RPG: There was combat, and there were areas, but that was all. Someone had left out the module. There was no story, there was no point. You just kind of wandered around. And that hasn’t really changed all that much over the years.” – Daniel Erickson, Principal Lead Writer for Star Wars: The Old Republic. (source)
I want to begin by talking about Bioware’s idea of the “fourth pillar”. I feel that the above quote allows us to get into the frame of mind of the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and their perceptions of MMORPGs. In this quote, Daniel is saying that Online RPGs are missing an essential element that single-player RPGs provide. This element is the storyline. Daniel also argues that without a story, or even a context for the world you’re in, there is no point to MMORPGs. I both agree and disagree with this.
I agree with Daniel when he argues that without any sort of context, be it background information about the world or the placement of NPCs, there is no point for your character to exist in the world. Neither is there a point in you playing the game. If, for example, I created a game whereby there was nothing in the world, no environment, just an endless echo of whiteness, and I were to put you and one thousand other players in this game world, butyour character were just black dots, then what would be the point in playing? Not only that, but you would be limited to two actions, moving and chatting to other players. Would there be any point to this game? Would you play it for very long? No, I didn’t think so, especially considering how many other things there are to take up your time. In short, there is no point to a game with nothing in it.
Now, what would happen if I created a green field that had big leafy trees, and a beautiful blue sky hovering over it? Not only that but your character, instead of being a black dot, was male or female and had a t-shirt and trousers on. This would make the game a little bit more interestingNow, what if I said you could create anything you wanted in this world? What would happen if I gave you the ability to build a house wherever you wanted to? Or raise an army to conquer the world? If I gave you the ability to construct and destroy objects inside the game world, what would happen to you and the thousand other playersthen? I’m certain that you’d hear about other player’s exploits, and you’d no doubt be told stories of their success or failures. Your own personal story would reveal itself as you make choices about whose side to join, and you decide what to fight for. I have not designed this story, however by providing the community with the correct utilities, I have created a world in which you go forth and create your own personal tale.
This long example leads me to my main point about Bioware’s “fourth pillar”. Daniel argues that MMORPGs are missing the core element of RPGs, which is the story. He is correct, however not in the way he thinks he is.
Story Elements in Star Wars: The Old Republic
Let’s look at how Star Wars: The Old Republic creates its story elements. First off, there are conversations trees. When you talk to a Non Player Character (NPC) you can decide from a series of pre-set choices about how to respond to what the NPC character is saying. What response you choose decides the outcome. For example, if I choose a rude response to what a character is saying, then that character may attack me. This is the same system that moves the story along, and allows the player to effect the outcome, as seen in some of Bioware’s other games such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
It’s a very smart system, for you see whilst Bioware argues that (http://www.strategyinformer.com/news/8006/bioware-you-can-put-a-j-in-front-of-it-but-final-fantasy-13-isnt-an-rpg) JRPGs are not RPGs, this conversation system just covers up the game’s linear nature. For you see whilst Mass Effect may have a variety of different endings and different outcomes based on your response, at the end of the day you still move forward in a linear fashion towards the end of the game. But I think I might be going a bit off course and taking a slightly controversial route.
Back to the issue at hand about whether or not Bioware is missing the point of MMORPGs. I believe that the purpose of the genre is not to tell linear stories, but instead to create an environment that allows players to come together and ultimately create their own stories, and decide their own path in a community of other players, not to decide whether or not they’re going to side with a particular NPC faction.
I understand that Star Wars: The Old Republic provides the utilities, such as clans, to let players experience the game world and come together however I feel that company should be focusing more on building the tools to let the player truly experience the world and make a name for him/herself among the community. For example have factions pit against each other to compete for supply points. Make it so that these supply points have nothing to do with the NPCs or the story elements, however if the faction loses it severely effects the player’s faction. This drive to succeed will then make players fight much harder and co-ordinate with their team mates more, and then you’ll hear stories about how the “Alpha” Clan swooped in and saved the day.
I think that this type of experience is what MMORPGs are all about. They’re not just online, single player RPGs. MMOs are all about your story, the player’s story. The genre is all about writing your own tale, and making it echo throughout the game’s world.
In this respect, I think Bioware has got it all wrong; however I guess we’ll just have to wait until 2011 to find out.