Every so often, time permitting, I check in on the evolving state of MMORPGs. I even blog about it here from time to time.
I don’t keep up with the topic as much as I could. I feel like, sooner or later, all of them end up the same, mostly because all of them want to make as much profit as possible (i.e. be like World of Warcraft), and all of them rely on a player base of filthy, filthy human beings. I don’t much hope that even a proven miracle-worker company like Bioware can change the paradigm. First off, as soon as you make the decision to have character levels, you’re not being revolutionary. Evolutionary, at best. I’m not saying this makes The Old Republic a worthless exercise, but I’m not exactly champing at the bit for its release.
An MMO without levels isn’t a revolutionary concept — it already happened, years ago, and in a possible irony, the best example I can give was the original version of TOR’s all but forgotten predecessor in the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: Galaxies.
One of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done in my life was proposing to Dawn by walking out of Best Buy, getting down on one knee and offering up a copy of SWG. I knew she frowned on engagement rings, but really, really loved Star Wars and the idea of roleplaying games, and wanted SWG desperately. Lest you think this was selfish, I actually had no interest or intention of getting into graphical MMOs at the time, after over a decade of trials and tribulations with their text-only predecessors. Paying for that? Oh ho ho, I think not!
Also, lest you think she was only pretending to like her gift, I present pictorial evidence of our first wedding anniversary, which was mostly her idea. Not that she had to twist my arm much.
Anyhow, it was watching her play SWG that eventually sucked me in to giving graphical MMOs a try. I think part of that was the system, which was very different than the venerable D&D/Everquest model. As you progressed, you earned a set number of skill points to distribute between different profession trees like ‘Marskman’, ‘Medic’, ‘Entertainer’, etc. If you reached certain points in the trees you could also qualify for elite profession tracks like ‘Doctor’ and ‘Bounty Hunter’. But you could mix and match all of these to fit your character conception, for instance being an explorer and surveyor of rare minerals that also could tame wild animal companions to help defend their expeditions from hostiles.
Every character had a ‘Combat Rating’ based on the amount of combat-oriented skill slots they had earned. The highest, I vaguely recall, was 80, representing a real focus on fightin’… but, in an option that seems rare to non-existent in today’s climate, you could have a character who had filled out the maximum number of development slots allowed and still have a Combat Rating of 1, because you focused completely on non-violent professions.
This had a unique waterfall effect on the entire game world (galaxy). Anyone who has played MMORPG’s knows the weirdness that comes into play through the fact characters have levels, and the ‘zones’ they adventure in thus also have levels. A rat in the starter area is a challenge to a new player. The same rat in a more advanced area, with the same model, same size, and same teeth, will kill you in one hit. Meanwhile, the towering fire giant in the Valley of Flaming Ashes (I did say ashes) is something that, because it’s level 35 and you’re level 60, you now blow on and it falls over dead. In some games he completely ignores you even if you’re jumping up and down on his toes, no doubt hoping fervently you won’t kick his ass and embarrass him in front of the n00bs again.
Because old school SWG didn’t have the standard level and zone progressions, the mobs (non-player animals and characters) actually were able to make a lot more logical sense. A full-grown Bantha was not something a mineral miner fucked around with, regardless of where on Tatooine you encountered it. A Krayt Dragon? Even a hardened mercenary would have to think about tackling it alone. A Rancor was a Rancor was a Rancor, whereas a womp rat was more of a nuisance if you had at least the gun expertise of your average redneck moisture farmer. An elite Imperial Guardsman was much more deadly than your average Mos Eisley thug, but that thug could still give a lot of trouble to a mild-mannered spaceship parts salesman.
Before I go further, the complaint amongst people who want to actually roleplay in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games is that doing so feels like they’re beating their heads against a wall. They’re not wrong. Everything in the modern MMO environment seems geared to marginalize and subvert such bizarre notions as “character interaction” and “world immersion”. First of all being the levels, and that it’s hard to immerse yourself in a world where a tiny rat on one side of the border is bothersome and a tiny rat on the other side eats you alive. Secondly that there’s never any game reason to interact with others beyond throwing together groups for loot grabs you can’t manage on your own. Thirdly, player owned and operated housing is usually limited at best… in WoW’s case, they’ve never had it at all and people who want something end up having to pretend that such and such empty place in the city is their residence, which gets mighty awkward when someone else decides the same, or a new patch unexpectedly puts a barbershop in your former living room (something that actually happened to a friend, poor dear).
You can also just look at the number of ‘RP’ servers an MMO sets aside versus ‘PVP’ or (lovely term) ‘Normal’. You’ll always find the RP servers in the least number, if they exist officially at all, and even when they’re official, the enforcement of such things as disallowing characters named ‘GimmeXP’ is… lax.
In an environment like this it really doesn’t matter how much effort the designers put into the lore of a world. The system is against you. And even if you try to RP in spite of the system, there’s still all those filthy, filthy fellow humans to deal with, many of whom log onto RP servers to ask “wat is rp???”.
Galaxies was fascinating to me because it had systems worked into the game itself that made you slow down and smell the roses, forcing your character to live an existence beyond a continual cycle of questing, loot, and brief visits to the bank/auction house. For example, let’s go back to the whole combat rating issue again… for the longest time, Galaxies did not have the standard quest chains, or quest rewards, or Diablo-style rare item drops, or any of those things we take for granted as the only ways an MMO can function. Modern MMOs make your advancement (and to a lesser degree, financial success) largely contingent on fighting and exploring, and while that certainly seems to work fine for lots of people, consider these elements from the classic Galaxies model:
– Your non-combatant never had to leave the safety of various starports in order to master their crafting profession and make serious profits.
– On the other hand, the raw materials you could buy were not all the same levels of quality, and if you wanted to get them yourself instead of buying them, you had to spend time surveying and extracting. Out in the wilderness.
– Your master combatant could take down a Rancor, but it wasn’t stuffed with money like so many MMO beasts seem to be. So you’ve got all this skill with a gun, but where do you put it to use?
Can you see where this is going? Galaxies encouraged the formation of expeditions where scientist and craftsman players literally hired other players to protect them from raiders and hostile wildlife. You know, just the way people would hire guides and mercenaries in the real world. In fact, you could buy a certain model of landspeeder that sat up to six players inside of it. Safari!
But it didn’t end there. People who fought a lot would eventually not only receive wounds reducing their maximum health, but a certain amount of mental fatigue which also reduced their efficiency. These effects did not go away over time, at least not naturally.
To treat your wounds, you had to get back to civilization and find a medical clinic. You could idle there and slowly recover, but it was much faster if another player was present with medical skill who could patch you up. This still was not an instant process, though, and since you had nothing better to do you could, y’know, have a conversation with your doctor. I know, I was that doctor and I had a great time coaxing stories out of the bruised and battered folks coming through the door, while not incidentally getting some medical XP out of my good works.
The mental fatigue was even more brilliant, since to get rid of that you had to hit the Cantina, where those players who invested in Entertainer skills would dance and play music for your R&R purposes while you kicked back with a glass of Blue Milk. The more highly skilled entertainers and medical personnel could also provide temporary buffs for your next jaunt into the wilds, in exchange for your generous tip.
The depth of the housing and crafting options in SWG are something I’ve never seen again before or since. Players could build entire towns of their own, not instanced away but as an actual part of the landscape of the planet. The only limits were not getting too close to game mandated places like Mos Eisley, but if you were early and lucky you could easily stake your claim in sight of the city. Not only could you have buildings that functioned as homes, a skilled Architect could eventually make buildings that functioned the same as the cantinas and clinics, which were of course much in demand for any proper settlement. You could have a mayor and a council, with actual power within the borders in the form of permissions granted and denied.
Inside of the homes, objects could be arranged anywhere you wished, at any angle, in any combination. Also, nearly every inventory item in the game had a 3-d model, and could be potentially used as decoration. I had a collection of random claws, spines, and brains from creature kills that I used to decorate my medical lab table with, while a suit of armor I’d outgrown was placed against a wall of my house, next to my medal for completing flight school training. While this flexibility meant that half-assing it looked terrible, with things hovering in mid-air, etc., if someone took care they could create very fancy, very customized set-ups. This was important because not all selling was done through global auctions… the fees to do so were so exorbitant it encouraged people to set up their own free-standing stores, and encouraged people to visit those stores to buy products, even if that meant a long journey through dangerous territories (Safari!).
Not everyone could make everything, and not everything was equally good in quality. Outfitting your starship properly for the least amount of cost meant a lot of traveling as you heard about promising stores through word of mouth or in-game advertisements in starports. Meanwhile you also had extractors and factories dotting the landscape as enterprising surveyors and suppliers made the most of high-quality raw material finds. They had to be maintained and checked on by the owners, not to mention harvested, and all that cost a certain amount of time and money to be passed on to your customers. This was a far cry from the simple worldwide auction house setups of your standard MMO ‘economy’, this was something that approached a true division of labor simulation. A Boston College sociology major even wrote his senior thesis based on the phenomenon.
But now of course, we come to the million dollar question: who the fuck wants to play out an economics and society simulation in a space opera property like Star Wars? Isn’t that, in fact, about the worst possible genre fit?
Yeah, you have a point, and that’s probably why all this uniqueness lasted for about two years before Sony looked jealously at the subscriber numbers Everquest Evolved… err, sorry, World of Warcraft, was boasting and decided they needed to fall in step with the herd and get them a slice of that. Make everything more (and I quote the head designer of the time) “Star-Warsy”.
They did. They also gutted everything that made SWG stand out from its competition. Where the skill tree once was, they introduced generic, single-class leveling. Where you once had to depend on other players for goods, now you had the standard “bind on equip” and “bind on pickup” item drops and quest rewards, many of which were much better than any crafter could hope to equal. But no matter there because crafters, entertainers, and medics were now obsolete, except of course for medics being shunted into the standard ‘party cleric’ healing role. And Jedi became a starting class choice.
Let me explain my rage at this. First off, it’s probably well-known amongst my friends that I feel Star Wars would be much better without all the fucking Jedi around (or worse, the Sith). Bioware softened my stance on this somewhat with the excellent KOTOR games where they actually had the Jedi and Sith making a certain amount of political and philosophical sense, an effort which Lucas promptly ignored in favor of his own retarded ideas. Also, KOTOR (and to be fair, the upcoming TOR) was set in an age where Jedi were actually commonplace. Star Wars: Galaxies was set in the period between Episode IV and Episode V, where the only Force-sensitive folks left were supposed to be Luke, Yoda, Vader and Palpatine, with any others at least so deep in hiding no one heard a peep from them. I guess there’s also Leia but she didn’t know it yet so kept using a blaster, bless her heart.
In the original SWG, it was not impossible for a player character to become a Jedi, but you had some serious hoops to jump through to get there. Once you did achieve it, you had a target painted on your back and were in permanent PVP status, and had to constantly watch out for Imperials and Bounty Hunters. You were quite powerful and could fend off a lot of attempts, but you also got to die exactly three times before your Force-using character was permanently deleted.
Harsh? Yes, and a great complaint of all the people who just couldn’t possibly imagine themselves being part of the Star Wars universe without an electric laser cock in their hand. But given the setting, at least it kept a logical lid on the Jedi population. I also liked that the original SWG didn’t make you out as anything particularly special, which I always find horribly disingenuous in an MMO. When Sony started changing that, I will always remember one of the most laughably sad memories of my entire MMO experience, where I witnessed a line of new players waiting their turn to interact with the mysterious old woman who announced (out loud!) they were the Chosen One of the Prophecy.
Fuck. Look, I understand the whole “I want escapism” motif of entertainment. You feel your life is nothing special so you want to log on and be the hero and crush your enemies and be a winner.
But every last adventure MMO these days ends up catering to that, and not to the segment of the population that perhaps wants a bit more out of their fantasies than power fulfillment. Galaxies used to be the game that could do that. Galaxies was a game that got even hardcore PVPers to “play house”, and be part of the community in a sense, because there were actual Bounty Hunting missions where one PVP player could “play Jabba” and put a price on the head of another. In a way I guess you could say Galaxies was a game about the rest of Star Wars beyond the Jedi and the Death Star and all of that business, and whether you find that idea intriguing or awful, it was actually working.
I believe SWG would have had enough of a cult following to continue to support itself. But alas, when compared to World of Warcraft, the numbers just weren’t good enough for corporate eyes. In the name of making the game more mainstream, Sony in late 2005 destroyed it, to the point where my wife’s main profession was DELETED and she woke up one morning needing to re-roll from scratch with a class she never wanted. But even though that was outrageous, the saddest thing was what an obvious misstep they made in the name of success. They took away everything unique that made us put up with the bugs, comparative lack of content and poor customer service, and made the game into something fundamentally indistinguishable from World of Warcraft with Wookiees and lightsabers. At that point, my wife and I joined many others in deciding that we might as well fuck off to WoW, since it at least worked better and had quests available for people over “level 30”.
Even so it’s taken SWG six years since that event horizon to roll over and die, although it had been steadily “consolidating” servers. It might still have continued except that The Old Republic today announced its release date of Dec. 20th, so SWG is shutting down for good on Dec. 15th. Total coincidence, of course.
I’m not saying Galaxies was a perfect game. Or a good “Star Wars Game”. But it was certainly a different kind of MMO, and one that seemed to work well enough for the roleplayer/world immersion niche it appealed to, a niche that just can’t seem to get any love in a market where the EQ/WoW model is still the benchmark everyone clones, and is seemingly terrified to deviate from.
Something different was once there. Did it fail? I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer, since Sony didn’t give it a proper chance, and no one seems keen to try again. Maybe with WoW finally on a downward spiral of subscriber numbers, there might be experimentation again, but I’m just not seeing anything radically different in The Old Republic aside from some branching dialogue choices and phasing technology based on them. Evolution, not revolution. The Revolutions were in the past, and sadly all but forgotten.
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Oh how I miss my wookie roomate and our guild city… My custom living room and my little cottage industry of being a scout/medic/rifleman and taking noobs out on hunting trips for cash and prizes… what a great game.
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Fantastic recap of SWG and the evolution from “old school” – where it was truly the most unique MMO out there – down through the collapse of the Combat Upgrade – where they totally ruined the things and ripped the heart out of the game: the crafting, the grouping, and inter-dependent classes that really NEEDED each other to function in-game.
The ‘Star Wars’ motif got us hooked – but the inter-related gameplay made lasting friendships where players worked together towards common goals, all while creating their own experiences and fulfilling their own desires. Far, far away from the level-induced MOB looting and non-crafted UBER-weapons that ruined the game.
My memories are somewhat hazy, but I remember toughing through the Combat Upgrade, even though I think that’s when they took out the need to visit med centers and cantinas.
Then Rage of the Wookiees came out and introduced the ‘bio-linked’ equipment drops and quest rewards which crafters couldn’t compete with.
But it was the New Game Engine that deleted entire classes and finally put everyone on the WoW model of single professions and experience levels. The NGE really ought to be part of formal studies for game designers on how *not* to revamp your MMO, especially with how woefully broken and incomplete all the content past level 30 was. It punished all the still lingering veterans in favor of new people, but the new people didn’t stay and the vets left, stung again for the last time.
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