Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Fourth Pillar

Yesterdays lengthy post was clarifying that the social aspect of MMORPGs, like WoW, is not as important as usually assumed. Instead, during leveling, the traditional MMORPG is the successor of open-ended offline RPGs. And later, at endgame, the traditional MMORPG transforms into a collection of minigames, like battlegrounds, raids, anonymous dungeon runs, gold farming, auction house gold-making and collecting achievements, with the sole intent to keep players p(l)aying.

The reason MMORPGs during leveling were better open-ended RPGs than their offline counterparts was the pure size of the world and the persistence that came naturally with the online character. The large size was possible, because the costs of running servers was a convincing, albeit preposterous, argument for players to pay an additional $15 a month.

Thus, I argued SW:TOR will be successful, because it does to story-focused RPGs, what traditional MMORPGs did to open-ended RPGs. During leveling, it will be a huge story and it will profit from the persistence that the online character enforces.
At endgame, SW:TOR will become a WoW clone. Just as WoW at endgame is not about the world anymore, so SW:TOR at endgame will not be about the story anymore. Just as WoW, it will be about minigames once you finished the story.

In their now famous press release Bioware said
"We believe that there are four pillars of the roleplaying experience: progression, exploration, combat, and story. "

The statement immediately drew a lot of criticism. The reason was that most people still considered a MMORPG a world. And the promise of these MMORPG worlds was that they would one day not need to end at max level, but would rather use players to passively generate content for each other. Like many players, I am still a believer in this dream, by the way. Not only from a player point of view, but especially from a developer point of view. Eve Online proves that it is possible.

However, one must accept that World of Warcraft got 12 million players once, without ever even trying to do this. Instead, during the entire growth period, they left the leveling game mostly untouched! So, WoW cannot have grown due to an improving leveling game. Instead, it probably grew because the 'innovations' at end game made players stick around longer or return more often.

The only time Blizzard touched the leveling game (Cataclysm) and tried to transform it into an open-end / story-driven hybrid, subscriber numbers plunged. The reason is that you can either make a story-driven RPG (Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Witcher) or an open-ended one (The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3). A story-driven RPG without voice acting and a completely linear story is not competitive nowadays - no matter how much content is offered. And an open-ended RPG with a story line and an insane leveling speed that effectively prevents exploration isn't really open ended anymore.

The point is that Bioware was wrong: There are four pillars, but you can choose only three of them: exploration and an engaging story just don't go well together. I hope for their sake that they don't try to copy/paste the classic WoW leveling game and add voice acting - but they really can't be that stupid.


  1. "exploration and an engaging story just don't go well together."

    I still believe they can go together. The truth is that current game "stories" in general are the odd part of games. The stories in most games counter the feel of the experience and the nature of being a game.

    The story can be given to the world and the inhabitants of the world, and the character can associate with it without having to be the scripted star of the show.

  2. What about if you would have all 4 pillars but not at the same time? Like exploring the world while getting to level 10, then when you reach level 10 a story arc starts and the game focuses more on the story. After you've finished the arc you're level 13 and have to level up with other means to level 20 where a story arc continues?

    IIRC that's how X or Freelancer did it. You could choose to explore the space and do small tasks, or follow the story. And you could switch between them at any time. But the story might have required a sufficient powerful space ship to survive which might have forced you to grind some tasks for upgrades.

  3. Kring, I think this would be possible, but not easy. The story would need to allow for exploration. To just add some side quests that the player is expected to do, although the main quest says that time is of the essence, is sub-optimal; to say the least.

    I can't remember any good game that did mix exploration and an engaging story, by the way.

    Fallout 3 had a terrible main story, but great exploration. Bioware games or the Witcher have good main stories (great in case of the Witcher), but terrible exploration.

  4. I think you can have a good story and exploration at the same time, but maybe not in a multi-player game.

    It seems like open world single player RPGs have more interactive and in depth worlds than MMORPGs. This happens because they can let you totally change the whole world with your actions and it doesn't make anyone else angry. I'll state without elaboration or argument: I think that letting the players change the world is the key for combining story and exploration.

    The idea of an MMO with user generated content and a real ability to change the world still seems like a pipe dream. And if it ever materializes then while you can be sure some people will experience really awesome stories and really awesome exploration, many people will find neither.