Where’s the Party?

I think this Sith Inquisitor has a buddy...

I’m about to blog about something that’s “so two weeks ago,” but car wrecks and general “Nintensanity” have kept me a little busy. Nevertheless, I’m so excited about Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s companions, I feel something needs to be written about them on Channel Massive, particularly on an angle I’ve not seen from either fans or detractors of the concept. If you’re all out of antacid from the last round of WordPress fury, you can move on, but if you’re still emotionally engaged with the topic, do continue.

We're late! For a very important date!If you’ve been listening to Channel Massive since Ye Olde Days, you may remember me and Mark trying a F2P, eastern-developed MMO called Sword of the New World. We didn’t last long in it, but two things initially drew us in– great graphics and, more importantly, three-character parties. You weren’t playing as an unusually (and yet, ironically, identically) super-powered hero in an MMO world as you do in WoW, LotRO or WAR. You played a trio of heroes, all at once. On the surface: how great! The potential for gameplay, story and interaction multiplies three-fold with persistent characters who aren’t just summonable pets who exist to brainlessly blow things up. In execution: not so great; our imaginations got a little carried away. Yet SWTOR (I just want to pronounce that “swatta” sometimes) has the potential to deliver on those previously wished-for elements because, after all, Bioware knows how to tell stories and design gameplay for single-player-controlled parties.

But oh, hellfire and brimstone! How dare a developer not follow the well-trod, over-duplicated foosteps of WoW! How dare Bioware not give us the opportunity to bitch about them being copycats! We’ll therefore bitch about them having the nerve to throw their weight behind something genre-bending! All MMOs of the world will simultaneously implode when the unheard of concept of lone wolf-friendly gameplay is spilled like a vile toxin across the lands! Oh, trials and tribulations, my concept of MMOs and fragile ego will be shattered forever!

Gimme a break. I think there’s plenty of people who would say that Blizzard not only polished the best of MMO tropes, but, in so doing, revolutionized the genre. Key to that million player record-breaking strategy? Single player-friendly gameplay. I think I hear WoW described, and sometimes praised, more than any other MMO for being incredibly single player friendly up to the level cap. PUGs and teaming up with folks isn’t unavoidable as your character becomes more specialized, but that’s hardly a mandatory 1 – 80 requirement. And why have the WordPressers of the world been jumping to conclusions that make SWTOR‘s companion concept sound like a whole troupe of on-screen buddies? We don’t know tons about SWTOR yet, but the Giant Bomb interviewee spelled out that you can only have one companion active on-screen at once, with any others waiting in the wings. How does having one extra henchman, obviously specialized in a specific skill set, make SWTOR completely solo-able from beginning to end? Common sense would dictate that even if you pair your melee warrior with your tank companion, inevitably objectives will arise that require you to have, oh, let’s say a healer there as well. And depending on how easy or cumbersome swapping your companion out is (my guess: you’ll have to return to a hub to do so), frantically shuffling through them to accommodate the absence of other real world players wouldn’t make for a fun or efficient game experience. Let’s give Bioware some credit.

And implying that Bioware has some sort of obligation to color within the tired lines of existing MMO gameplay design just because Bioware has clout is absolutely ridiculous. I can understand the disaster scenario: if your favorite MMO of choice has a tendency to rip off any decently successful feature that arises in a competing MMO, and this companion thing is a hot fire success in SWTOR… yeah, WoW (or hey, Blizzard’s new MMO) may be tweaked to have them, too. I know people are scared of change, but if this is a genuine fear in your mind, it should be put to bed. Great gameplay concepts become popular because they’re fun and well executed. Blizzard– or your favorite developer of choice– won’t bandwagon on to this concept the day SWTOR launches. The concept has to play out, as it already has in older titles with minimal ripples, and it will play out in other upcoming titles like Star Trek Online. If we witness a brilliant execution of “companions” that excites a large number of players, traditionalists and newbies alike, we’ll see it elsewhere: a worthwhile innovation that should be given a try. Just because you may not have liked it in an older game doesn’t mean there won’t be a great execution that will change your mind, and you’ll actually want it in your MMO. Otherwise, I’m fairly certain those of us who want our MMO hero to be a complete loner will have many titles to choose from for a long time yet.

Back off! No fake friends for me!

Yet, take another antacid, none of those are the reasons why SWTOR‘s companions have excited me– primarily I needed to get some venting out of the way first. The reason I’m excited about companions is because they’re another significant step Bioware’s taking in making me actually care about the lore, something MMOs are so direly in need of. The more I play a given MMO, and the more MMOs I go through, the more likely I am to skip the quest text. Oh, I’ll make a genuine effort to read a new game’s quest text at first, but the number of quests I’ll do that for decreases with each level, game and year that goes by. Blame the lack of genuine impact in the world, blame post-college-textbook-reading burnout, blame the three people in front of me receiving the exact same quest seconds before I do. It’s just a waste of time.

Yet add in decisions that not only impact my character’s moral standing and abilities but people willing to travel and fight alongside me? Expand my quests to come from more than a stranger in a town, but from my fellow adventurer who’s stood by me for 10 levels? Commit to an objective that rewards me not with some sweet weapon but a new character who may follow me to my level cap or try to betray me five levels down the line? Suddenly, the lore seems more important. Superficially, Bioware’s commitment to end-to-end voice acting and more emotive character models was already addressing lore apathy. I know how much the same tactic fleshed out the first 20 levels of Age of Conan– but even then I would sometimes skip those spoken quest descriptions because they sometimes felt minimally impactful to my character. Yet when I’m responsible for, at least, “me plus one,” I care that much more about my motivations, my companions’ motivations, and the overall world in general. I know I and my companions won’t be able to tackle the world alone given the one-character-onscreen-maximum– I’ll have to team up with real world people at some point– but the world will seem so much richer regardless. I’ve long wanted a lore-enriching party in my MMO, and here’s hoping that Bioware can pull it off.

2 Comments to Where’s the Party?

  1. Dihard's Gravatar Dihard
    December 16, 2009 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I for one am eagerly awaiting to experience NPC-companion play. Will my sidekick turn on me if I do lots of shady things, or will he stand and die for me in a pinch? THAT is going to be fun to find out. And yeah, having a companion will make you think before choosing a course of action more than you normally would. Good write up Noah.

    Shameless plug: If you are interested in playing SWTOR, then please do yourself a favor and check out http://www.legionofmyth.com‘s “Zero 3″ guild. These guys are PVP roleplayers anxiously awaiting SWTOR. Character stories, and latest SWTOR news discussions can be found and participated in.

  2. Saylah's Gravatar Saylah
    December 20, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Hi guys. While I’ve enjoyed the movies, I’m not a big enough fan that I was waiting to play the game. I’m a fantasy lover so I’m not expecting the environments to excite me. However, this companion thing makes me more interested. Not just because I tend to solo but because it means that the game play and combat are at the level where it’s needed. That’s what makes me interested.

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