a review of Star Wars: The Old Republic
a videogame developed by Bioware
and published by Electronic Arts and LucasArts
(Windows PC) http://www.swtor.com/
text by Samuel Kite
The Bartle test evaluates, more or less, the proclivities of a typical gamer. It’s based on a paper by Bartle, who believed he identified 4 areas of motivation for a player; Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers. As an anthropological phenomenon, the archetypes of killers, seems maladaptive. Certainly, it is disproportionately represented in those who take the test, and could be perceived to be at odds with the socializer. Meanwhile Achiever and Explorer are nearly undifferentiable without arbitrary lingo to determine what is within the purview of being assigned an award of some kind by a game, and what qualifies as a unique experience for the player (given that one is the other and visa versa in many cases). In the hallowed beginning of all gaming, these alleged archetypes were inseparable. To pull them apart at all requires a stipulative definition–which was given by Bartle in his initial paper and is based on one man’s urge to protrude an erect phallus into a digital world.
I don’t mean he worked on them, I mean he worked to create them as a going concern. A MUD is, at a basic level, despite whatever you’ve heard, a plain text logging tool for the behavior of simple AI in a Turing test that takes place inside a fantasy world. When a ‘mobile’ (where we get the term ‘mob’) is encountered by a user, it is logging its presence in a virtual landscape as well as its desire to interact with a player’s statistics. It simply writes lines to the event log while it performs operations on numbers according to its personal idiom, until the script is shut down or the operation on the player input is complete. The player, him or herself, is really only a particular type of mob on loan from the universe operated as a vehicle in order to manipulate the running of these other scripts. By creating this point of contact for the player, the Turing test portion of the MUD is easier to pass for the simplistic entities which inhabit it; players, themselves, are easily mistaken for such scripts without much effort. While players are typically given a single instance of a vehicle to work with the system, in some sense the AI routines for mobs are centralized–a handful of actual ‘brains’ work through 1000s of instances, and apply generic approaches to the specific situations player vehicles (or in most interesting games, other AI routines) present. They are not unique and do not adapt on their own. It is a game genre that is about finding edge case behavior for server architecture. Essentially a MUD is what tech support does for a living–only as a leisure pursuit, and with more whimsical strings. The MUD is a catalog of scripts, who’s births are not spontaneous–a genetic soup with miraculous origin (intelligent designers (so to speak)).
When Bartle wrote his paper, whether he was intending it or not, he was actually labeling functions of AI scripts within the MUD.
An achiever script attempts to grow any statistic it can affect, or to arrange itself close to the beginning of arrays. It is never finished as long as there are at least 2 instances of the script running. A socializer script attempts to occupy the largest amount of space on disk. It is never finished without being killed. A killer attempts to delete instances of other running scripts, or more simply, attempts to make the total amount of reserved memory smaller. It is never finished while its part of the system is active. An explorer is the default behavior of anything which has a presence in memory–it attempts to perform some function or complete some task, and can be ‘finished’ at a certain point, though that point may be impractical.
MMO design has been saddled with this disease; the assumption that a person’s task in a computer world is to perform the acts of which they are capable. The initial MUD relationship between user and world was one of independent variable and dependent variable with controls. It is a computerized laboratory for simplistic behavior or mechanical interactions. A ‘fighter’ attempts to deactivate all ‘killers’ in memory. The experience of the user is one of discovering methods of deactivating these scripts in the manner of a hacker undermining an operating system, not a hero navigating a story arc or a hunter tracking and killing game. More primitively, it mimics a simulation of pre-reproductive life at some basic level. The player controlled entity is faced with a variety of tasks to overcome (unusual potassium concentrations/temperature variations/aggressive unbonded proteins), and must find ways to weather them, provided they have any interest in persisting. In the event that they no longer make the effort to persist, they cease to exist in the world of the simulation.
Engineers tend to equate functional aesthetics with psychological truth. In other words, the use of various plain english terms in programming is confused with realities of existence when they are, at best, only realities of language (and even then probably best assumed to be lowest common denominator agreements by different people on a form of universal expression (Esperanto 2: Visual Drivel)). Bartle expressed the functional archetypes of human play as though they were a product of human behavior, when, in fact, they are functions to which an authenticated user has access.
MMO Design has become the provision of functions to an authenticated user, rather than the presentation of a situation (“game”) to a user (“player”) with appropriate tools to allow for personal expression or an experience which has more meaning than the state of given persistent set of variables recorded in a digital log. In other words, while other people are providing software to program fuel injection systems so that drivers can enhance performance and flatten their torque curves, MMOs have been asking you to wait in your car while they measure your emissions.
These software scripts, themselves, are almost incapable of being good games, because they are incapable of being good gamers. You cannot teach a computer to enjoy Calvin Ball. Society, in some ways, is the process of attempting to overcome, remove, or limit structures and relationships like those present in MMOs.
In the past being Popular was being wealthy, as the best resource strategies were collective. Even as civilization progressed, the individuality and relatively manageable number of relationships in even larger communities meant the political personality type was largely the wealthiest. Most recently there has been a tremendous development of private wealth. While protests occur yelling about the 99% and the 1%, the truly upsetting reality is that we have no idea who the 1% really are. We assume that there is someone who runs Costco, but do you know their name? Can you identify their face? They wield far more wealth and arguably power than most politicians, yet they have no impact on public consciousness until they try to run for office (if they try, and in most cases they do not). The crowning achievement of this organization has been to allow the abstract corporation the ability to behave as a person–further shielding the wealthy from any attachment to human relationships behind the walls that already existed to guard investors from the choices of management who manned the (now) long-standing wall between management and the collective unascribable behavior of a faceless market entity (the ‘church’, the ‘kingdom’, the ‘guild’). When a commercial appears on tv claiming that ‘big oil’ is running a (allegedly disingenuous) green marketing campaign to prove their care for the environment, there is some actor pretending to be someone important (A CEO? An investor? A politician who works for oil interests?) who, himself, is pretending to be someone common and personable. After exaggeratedly behaving like a jackass, the imaginary PR people standing behind them (are they in charge? Are they management? Are they consultants?) say ‘bring in the face’, at which point Fabio walks on camera.
The message is clear, these people are evil because they are trying to get personal. The screen then cuts to a logo for an electric car which is a studied attempt at arriving somewhere between a child’s crayon scrawl and a restroom gender identification hieroglyph so as to avoid communicating anything that might be construed as a clue to the personality or intent of the entity which is responsible for it (Purchased it? Created it? Designed it?).
Fortunately, the Electric Auto Association seems to merely be the non-profit result of ex engineers who enjoy the machinery, and not the dark and ominous machinations of coal companies who provide the power grid which an electric car must use to charge, or the tech companies which produce batteries in bulk, or the mining companies which provide the raw materials to make those batteries. Certainly, even if it were, the good intention underlying the technology is to use the technology to encourage reliance on electricity as a generic commodity, which can be provided in a variety of sustainable ways–ultimately, hopefully, being merely the purchase and maintenance of solar panels (though, you could assume nuclear plants will reign supreme anywhere with strong central governments for at least the next century, since centralization creates a structure conducive to control, regulation, and price fixing–and moneyed interests will push to create structures like this, like some terrifying Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of new industries to quicken its aging economic model). But regardless, the original, somewhat reasonable assumption–that if you had any idea who was behind some message, you might be able to evaluate their statements in some way (for instance to determine if they are a jackass)–has not only been turned on its head by the distance of the entities under attack, but by the group which is attempting to subvert them, despite the fact that, really, this group has nothing whatsoever worth hiding.
I do keep in mind that my good intentions are the lever by which I’m moved to serve. Perhaps if I cleaved closer to my bible, and allowed its warm pages to enfold my mind like Jonah being swallowed by the Exceptionally Large Fish, I might be preserved until such time as the Lord vomits me forth into a new society to preach the simple truths of universal judgement to which I, alone, am privy.
So we arrive at Bioware’s new triumph. The Old Republic. This is not merely a triumph for their studio, but also a triumph for Star Wars as an IP and Modern Fantasy as a genre. In Mass Effect 2 (*1/2 stars – ABDN, and then, in case you weren’t sure if that was authoritative, **1/2 stars – ABDN (clearly, if we are to have any respect for science, the actual rating is ** stars)), a pansexual Matrix character chose-their-own-adventure through alien politics and friendships with wonderful robots. If it had any shortcomings, it was the problems inherent in any choose-your-own-adventure which also includes a video game; the very real possibility that you will see something happen which you shouldn’t have to put up with.
The Old Republic, as an MMO stands in the way of a person enjoying a video game. As a piece of interactive fiction, it solves several important problems and works with the best possible attributes at its disposal.
The first problem with any MMO is the lack of ability to play with other people. In every massively multiplayer game now existing, while it is occasionally convenient to join what these games consider to be groups, the functional meaning of that character’s presence has minimal impact on the world, and no impact whatsoever on the game. Either the experience is the presence of a set number of other things which might be part of a turing test, or could be an AI script (meaning, there is no relevant difference between having 9 npcs help you defeat a boss and 9 other players which you could say about a lot of games, except that in a lot of World of Warcraft dungeons, you are literally getting help from AIs to defeat bosses, now). Considering that the player’s functions are restricted to actions also valid for the AI scripts which they encounter (in many cases, literally the same function with the same graphical representation), and the fact that there is an instant-messenger program conveniently included in the game, the *only* differences between MMO experiences as a single player and a player group, are in arbitrary details that have to do with temporary states of the system. For example, it’s not that you *can’t* kill the dragon alone, it’s that, for the current level cap of the game, it would be exceedingly unlikely, and therefore you will have to show up with a certain number of other scripts that run complimentary functions until the dragon script completes. Later, when years have passed and the game makers have released more content, that dragon becomes an experience that only requires one instance of the player script to be manipulated sufficiently that is shuts down. It is extremely difficult to play a game in this universe, because the provided functions are meant to maintain the system. The outgrowths of those scripts (logged events storing the state of the ‘character’) are utterly abstract. There is no variation in experience, even dependent on the script subset employed–as the access to functions across classes is, really, only a variation in the experience of mechanical input not the player participation, goals, or duration. Or at any rate, any variation is a mistake which the developers work to eliminate, on purpose (usually in concert with player urging to do the same).
When an MMO occasionally contains some kind of game, it is in the ambiguities of precise placement and timing which cause AI scripts to fail Turing tests set in the system. When you are easily able to deduce that a character is an AI, because it is not standing in a virtual dustbin, waiting for simpler AI scripts to collect on top of it, before launching a series of functions which will deactivate a large group all at once, then you are dealing with an MMO that has gamelike qualities, but is still different from actual games in the same way that being good at laboratory procedures is different than being a good scientist. In this case, the illusion of contact with personable entities stands in for genuine interaction with other people.
Bioware, in some ways, has broken open the issue at the root of the MMO experience; that if you build a server architecture to gate access to a system, then the system should probably serve some purpose. In cases past, this purpose was analogous to a Bulletin Board.
I’m gradually feeling older, and this is one reason; I vaguely remember what bulletin boards were like. The easiest way to describe it is Text Adventure games are to all modern video games the way that Bulletin Boards are to the Internet. It was a collection of simple programs in a central place that were mostly for communication, a little bit for archiving, and occasionally helped with some file transfers (in order of popularity, Porn, Pirated software, and drivers (so really, nothing has changed except the graphics)). Instead of snappily opening a browser, you dialed a modem to a specific server, and were presented a series of obtuse options via console command line.
Right up until World of Warcraft, the purpose of the MMO has been to enable playing an MMO with other people. It barely qualifies as a task. Because people are intensely social, they will congregate over almost nothing, and the industry relies on it. More recently, the design has evolved enough to adapt a kind of play-by-mail style game. Various activities are parted out on a weekly or daily basis to encourage a certain fealty–a more regimented obedience to the system that helps people coordinate time and space better to chat idly about the system.
In Bioware’s case, the system finally does something; it serves and manages Bioware single player roleplaying ‘games’ (and as much as I enjoy these things, I think you at least need to be doing what Bethesda is up to in order to get something ‘gamelike’ in your RPG) and star wars themed minigames. Really, it represents the best possible scenario of the implementation of something like Battle.net or EA’s on-all-the-time nanny software (or SONY or ubisoft (I don’t need to pick on one monolith as if it’s unique)).
As for the design of their RPG, they harkened back to the era of multi-games and hybrid game types. TOR is nearly an ‘adventure game’ as opposed to an RPG. In World of Warcraft, there are ‘vehicles’, and some of those vehicles put you in rail shooter situations that feel more interesting than the standard play. But all of them share two things in common; a control scheme which keeps you grounded in piloting your scriptmule around the world, and a reliance on designs which feel very much the same as something you might do on foot. Rather than take your rogue up to a vampire and interrupt its key attacks while doing damage as efficiently as possible, you are given a giant mech to walk up to a corpse ogre and interrupt its key attacks while doing damage as efficiently as possible. Their simplifications of various game types for positioning inside World of Warcraft are, at best, strange clunky remakes, and at worst, insulting reskins of the basic interface.
Space combat in TOR is its own minigame. It is a good minigame. I pay good money for simple rail shooters just like it sometimes, and I’m a sucker for star wars themed ones. To have one with modern polish and careful design (and the levels are surprisingly well layered and designed) is delightful. It is especially delightful when you realize that completing the space combat levels gives you large rewards which make your progress through the ‘main’ RPG story easier.
You can see this policy at work in the upcoming Mass Effect 3. There will be multiplayer, and single player, and iOs offerings, and all of them will tie together to help you progress through their story. This is shrewd business and, as a consumer, feels better than Dead Space 2 haranguing me every time I launch it to register in order to access multiplayer.
We’ve seen the initial game concept which was the front-loaded purchase of the piece of software. Then that gave way to shareware and demos when it became apparent that taking a risk on $40-60 piece of ‘fun’ that might not even function wasn’t fucking fun anymore. Then that gave way to enticing users to adopt or stay on board with multiplayer, for subsequent purchase of expansions, or later, just sequels (to avoid losing the market share to rising cost of new adoption as your series develops). Then it became DLC isolated from the actual disk into a virtual account. Then it became subscription services that entitled you to unlimited play of several (or occasionally 100s) of offerings. Then it became free to play with all the meaningful content locked into DLC. TOR is probably the most egregious step backwards for multiplayer subscription models while simultaneously being a step forwards for single player.
Really, the biggest problem with Bioware games is that they lack convenient multiplayer, and are not compatible with each other. So when your friend is playing Dragon Age, there’s no way for his knight to show up in your Jade Empire game and watch you do stuff. You can’t click on a sailing vessel somewhere, either, and go back to his eastern themed areas and help him complete quests. TOR does exactly this. It is, basically, Knights of the Old Republic, except probably 4 separate installments of it in one box, where your buddy can be playing his jedi knight story and you can be playing your smuggler story, and both of you can drop in on each other, or cooperate to go into typical MMO ‘dungeons’ which, in this context play more like optional quests.
Ultimately, what they really need to do is get more things in there like the fully realized rail shooter–I’m talking everything. Bring back that Age of Empires star wars RTS reskin, and the Masters of the Teras Kasi fighting game. Just put it behind some virtual door somewhere, and keep adding chapters to the story. The Bioware brand will sprawl across consoles and mobile platforms, and as long as you subscribe, or purchase entrance to one of their offshoots, you can accrue Achievements/Trophies that actually help you progress in a virtual story world of your choice. After all, if they have crossover promotion for Mass Effect 3 and Kingdoms of Amalur, what is the barrier to having your star wars rail shooter game drop storm trooper armor for your Dragon Age character, or your Ork in Warhammer Age of Reckoning create ‘choppa’ weapons that your star wars character can wield like a brutal vibrohatchet.
Bioware has only cut its own throat in trivial ways. Which is why I unsubscribed (at least for the time being–after having my month worth). One is that they made it too much like a traditional MMO. They packed 7000 artists into a shipping crate and demanded they create star wars shit until the screaming, crying, and bloody fingernailless scratching at the steel walls stopped–but they still felt a lack of confidence that players would feel like the universe is big enough, so they included old hat bullshit like speeders that go no faster than horses, and can’t fly. There are personal space ships that only land in hangers that are off the beaten path and far from the action. They used the distant-future-as-ancient-past metaphor for all the ‘magic’ shit that makes playing these games easier (respawning, teleporting, traveling back to previously visited checkpoints) but they copped out at the parts that would make it convenient or even sensical to play. So instead of flying your own space ship to the neighboring district of the planet sized capital city (Coruscant, jewel of the galaxy, and fuck Taris–It’s the Atlantic city of the Republic, and it deserved to be bombed into nothing) or at least flying your own space ship somewhere, and then flying your own speeder from there to your destination, you leave your ship, walk for a few minutes, find a droid, pay them for the privilege of sitting in an automated taxi, and then walk some more to your destination.
Another strange irritation is that they set the leveling curve approximately where the content curve should be and set the content curve to be fucking endless–and probably not entirely necessary. When you play Mass Effect fresh off the fed ex envelope, you do not reach the level cap by the end. In TOR, you generally reach it before the end if you do *any* of the enterprising things that a typical MMO player would (play the space missions for xp–go through dungeons a few times to get a cool helmet–pick up all the side quest looking things you see). This means that, perversely you feel like you’re ‘complete’ on a story arc right before you actually reach the climax of content. On the other hand, they had to reel in their typical progression (personal revenge progresses to crises in the land which culminates in the entire universe nearly exploding), or, rather, since it’s Star wars, repeat it until it the emotional scale diminished. But don’t worry about it, if you don’t like the game you played (loyal republic storm trooper/catty sith inquisitor/vaguely foppish jedi knight), just pick another one. It’s like getting the Bioware anthology from a time traveling bargain bin–10 years of dialog trees (in a box of burnished gold).
The final confusion which keeps it from being 4 stars, but catapults it past 2 is the content, itself. This is not only several games worth of stories, setups, and arcs (though, obviously, much reused between encounters–and potentially completable in a fraction of the time if your buddy and you play 2 characters on the same side, together, and share as much as you can of the side quests), there’s several expansions worth of content per story. I don’t know why I’m drowning in this much crap (to the point where it starts to bleed together and I can’t keep one galaxy-threatening super weapon straight from another (favorite story is when I go to a planet to discover how to stop a fleet with a planet destroying weapon and talk to the person in charge who’s worried about their own, local fleet-destroying super weapon and pause to think ‘sounds like we have a solution here, if only we could get some of these people to talk to each other’)). It could use some editing. On the other hand, when I’m in the mood, and I play one of these games, I don’t care, generally, that it’s like other similar games I’ve played. The fact that I can keep coming back to this one for a while and work on a legacy of characters who share abilities and account-wide resources is a strong draw. If RPG games are much the same in tone, presentation, and content, then why begrudge one for being too similar to itself?
Bioware, apparently, is on the shrewd cutting edge of business. As players, I think it’s fair to say we do not particularly care how our time is broken up on the receiving end of our money. If one publisher gets it all because we like their offerings, that’s fine. If we have to go several places, the only irritation is convenience. In general, the latest Coriolanus to entangle himself in patrician politics doesn’t bother us plebes. But this may be a more effective synthesis of the shape of things to come. The only real drawback is that TOR, mechanically, is a cool, polished rail shooter, fascinatingly deep and broad reaching achievement system, as well as mountain of raw RPG story content, but with the same shitty single-unit-RTS (to be fair, the side kicks make it a 2-unit RTS) that’s been in every other MMO since ever. As a product, TOR is a very satisfying purchase. As a game it is a strange wank.