The conversation system in Star Wars: The Old Republic is always going to be a big talking point. Do you see what I did there?! Never mind. It’s clearly a much better way to immerse the player in the game world than walls of text which, no matter how well written, are always going to be a distraction from the game world proper. I’ve read on numerous blogs now how (brown cow) players have found themselves identifying with their character to the point of wanting to find out more about the story, and having trouble when choosing between the light or dark side options because they want to be true to the character their experience has created. Indeed, m’colleague mentioned in passing how other characters of the same class are slightly jarring because they also speak with ‘your character’s voice’.
I think those of us who are familiar with recent BioWare RPGs –such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect– don’t find the system to be anything out of the ordinary, where those players whose domain of experience extends primarily to MMOs will most likely find it to be a revelation. BioWare really have succeeded in taking their single player RPGs and extending them into the MMO space. I prefer to look at it that way: they haven’t made an MMO, they have taken the existing House of KOTOR and built a considerable MMO annex onto it, such that really you still live primarily in the House of KOTOR, but you can now have your friends over to stay, if you so want. I’m not sure how large the intersection is between the sets ‘People who play BioWare RPGs’ and ‘People who play MMOs’, undoubtedly it’s considerable in size, and yet there are still all those members of the two sets who remain outside this intersection, players who are now being encouraged towards it by SWTOR, much to BioWare’s profit, no doubt.
As much as I admire the conversation system, I do still find it a little ponderous in a world where you’re essentially being asked to kill ten womprats most of the time. I expect the idea is to give more meaning to killing those womprats by delivering grand exposition on the nature of womprats, and how they have ruined the life of Generic NPC 149. And that’s the problem in a nutshell for me. Outside of the class story, which is primarily a solo affair –very much ensconced in the comfortable living room of the House of KOTOR– even if you can bring friends along, all of these NPCs are still transitory. I know that when I speak to Henrietta Generic-damsel and get a whole great exposition about her life to this point, it’s all meaningless in the grand scheme of my adventures: I will do the quest, she will hand me a reward that I will probably sell to a vendor, and then I will never see that woman again unless I roll a new character. So why do I need to know about her at all? In all honesty I find it hard to care about her embarrassing knicker-elastic accident back in ’87, during a second year at university while she was dating Kevin from Lightsaber Comp. 101. Thus I quickly find myself returning to the standard MMO routine of wishing they’d just get on with it so that I could, in turn, get on with playing the game. Alas, once this mindset starts to take a hold, every conversation seems to be painfully padded out with unnecessary content, and every sentence seems to be spoken in an interminably slow manner…
“ter. I…… would…… like…… it…… if…… you……”
“be…… my…… friend.”
“Oka– do what?!”
“For…… if…… we…… were…… friends…… I…… could…… give…… you…… a…… qu…………………………….”
“Fine, let’s be friends.”
“Excellent! Boun…… ”
“Oh come *on*, hurry it up! Don’t you know I’m on paid time with my game subscription and all this exposition is slowing me down?!”
It’s dangerous to let that mindset take a hold of you however, because much like the quest text of other MMOs, it becomes far too easy to engage the ‘skip to the end’ device, which in the case of SWTOR is the Spacebar of Extreme Exposition Expedition (and not the Escape key, it turns out). Conversations go much quicker when you employ the SoEEE, but unlike skipping the quest text in other MMOs, while voice acting adds greatly to the immersion levels of the game, skipping over it does detract from the immersion levels in equal measure.
“La-but fn-it ha-bot?”
“Sure, I’ll look into a problem for you”
“The governor of the planet is going to meet with the Dark Sith lord of Dark Darkness, and you think that this might be a Bad Thing? And you want me to intercept him and go in his place, and I should use this disguise kit to fool the Sith into thinking I’m the governor?”
“Ye-zbt ha-yit bu-bit!”
“Oh stop fussing, I’m always discrete.”
“Fu-ou hm-ba rs-ole”
“Well there’s no need to be rude!”
“That’s more like it; I’ll be back with your information in a bit.”
“I… uh, love you too? Sorry, that one didn’t make much sense; hang on, let me read the subtitles.”
And thus you’re so intent on skipping the voice acting that you end up reading all the quest text in order to find out how to answer a question appropriately…
Blarmed clever those BioWare folks. Blarmed clever.
When friends told me that SWTOR was “WoW gameplay with Mass Effect dialogs”, I knew the game wasn’t for me.
There’s another option for quest exposition that I’ve seen in Rusty Hearts, a F2P corean MMO (much more on the action side, even if there are skills on cooldown): each quest is given through a dialog between the quest giver and the various characters of the game (2 at the start, 4 after a point). It could be immersion breaking when you’re playing a character that shouldn’t be in the story yet, but the whold game is so nonsensical and takes quests with such humor that I don’t mind.
But I read it all. And with a smile every time.
There’s quest text as well as voice? That’s the problem I think, if the exposition was contained solely in the dialogue, and then just a brief objective given in the journal, the player would have to pay attention, remember what they were told.
@Modran: Rusty Hearts certainly sounds most intriguing; I’ve added it on to the old ‘to play’ list, which is admittedly rather long.
@darkeye: Usual BioWare RPG thing where they put up subtitles so that you can re-read the last conversation point, in case, like me, you have to agonise for seven hours over each conversation choice, perhaps wander off for a cup of tea and a biscuit while you mull it over, get distracted by a squirrel outside the kitchen window, and by the time you come back inside from chasing it, you realise you’ve entirely forgotten the conversation and have to go back and re-read it again. Then go make another cup of tea while you consider your options…
On my server (The Swiftsure), there are groups that explicitly state no watching of cut scenes in their lfm message. It’d be like “manda/cad lf1m no rp”
Sadly, I think the fully voiced “story” is going to end up being SWTOR’s weak spot. While it adds a huge amount to the main quest line, I think it -detracts- from the “regular grind” quests. It works in single player RPGs because A. there are generally a -lot- fewer quests and B. you can run at your own pace.
Much of the gameplay of MMOs revolves around “progress” through completion of “generic” tasks. No amount of fancy voice acting is going to disguise that, especially on you second or third alt running through the same zone.
Likewise, another significant portion of the gameplay of MMOs revolves around repeating the same group-based content over and over in the hopes of acquiring better equipment. Odds are, most of the other players will have run the content before and will probably be sick and tired of the the conversations; it would be extremely rude to force those players to sit through the conversations when they no longer want to deal with them. So, it’s perfectly logical that many groups will specify “no rp” when forming: they don’t want you to waste their time and, to a lesser extent, they don’t want to ruin your “first time” by rushing you through it.
Finally, the biggest problem with the voice acting is that it will impose a major limitation on the production of new content. It’s a paradigm that can -only- be maintained if the game is a spectacularly profitable success. Anything less and Bioware will quickly discover why both EQ2 and AoC rapidly abandoned the goal of fully voiced interaction….
@Calreth: With my Balanced Hat on: I suppose they are at least stating their desires in the recruitment ad, rather than kicking, mid-flashpoint, those people who don’t conform to their world view.
With my Melmoth Hat on: It’s one step away from Gear Score, and quite frankly I wish they’d all bugger off back to WoW, but they won’t, because they’ve already optimised all the fun out of that game, so they need a fresh virginal MMO to ruin in order to sake their thirsting hunger for getting to the level cap in record time, then presenting their case –in all caps Pidgin English on the game’s forums– for joining their country’s 2012 Olympic Whining Team.
Oh deary my, deary me, I forget how I shouldn’t put the Melmoth Hat on without taking my medication.
@Vatec: I think that’s a pretty fine assessment, and certainly reflects many of the concerns that I also have. Producing new content quickly will have to be a priority for BioWare, especially considering I saw the first level fifties within a week or so of the beginning of the head start period. I’ve been playing reasonably casually, and dabbling in alts, and my main is already mid-level. However, if BioWare can produce new episodic content quickly and consistently, then it seems to me that there’s a not insignificant chance that they could hammer several nails into World of Warcraft’s coffin. It’s a big ‘if’ though…
Damn… I had an insightful comment on this thoughtful and troubling post but…
oh well… this will have to do instead;
ME: It’s the same damn game I’ve already been playing for years, and I don’t feel like paying for yet another re-skinned version of it.
THEM: Yes, but this one has STORY! Great BioWare story to boot!
ME: I’ve almost always enjoyed my BioWare gaming experiences (BG, BG2, NWN, DA, ME, ME2, KOTOR) but those were SPGs where the story, and interaction with the NPCs essentially ARE the whole game… I’m not sure I’d like the usual activity in a “WOW-style” MMO mashed up with my “private-spg” story telling…
THEM: It’s not “WOW in space.” You’re over generalizing!
ME: Trinity-based class system… hotbars full of icons… stand in place to perform skills… I’m sorry but, no amount of “story” is going to change the fact that I’ve ALREADY PLAYED THIS GAME.
THEM: It’s NOT WOW.
THEM: It’s not…
ME: *stern look*
THEM: *whispered* But, it has story…
ME: There are these things called books… they’re extra long, papery bloggy-type things… from the before time, in the long, long ago… Don’t tell anyone *leans in conspiratorially* but, books are actually where all these movie and game ideas come from. I know, I know… sounds too far fetched to be true but, trust me on this one…
@ArcherAvatar: I think you hit the nail right on the head, with one small exception. It’s -not- the “same damn game,” it’s a weak copy of that game. After playing Dark Age of Camp-a-lot, EQ2, (M)Age of Conan, LOTRO, and Rift, I found SWTOR’s responsiveness to be at the very, very low end of the scale, superior only to LOTRO. It was not quite “painful” (unlike LOTRO), but it -was- “jarring.” I hit the button to Force Jump, half a second later my avatar does some sort of convoluted Hancockesque leaping flipping spinning thing; I hit the button to swing the lightsaber, half a second later my avatar does something lightsaber-related. There was just a huge disconnect between what I was telling the avatar to do and what was actually happening.
Mind you, there were times when the combat seemed pretty fluid. Surrounded by three sword-wielding grunts, my JK would occasionally actually parry one of the ones behind him. But such moments were few and far between. Given that games as old as EQ2 were capable of performing a parry animation when your avatar parried an incoming attack, I can’t say that I’m impressed.
“So why do I need to know about her at all?”
She’s a supporting character. Someone you help who isn’t just a random dwarf with a text box over his head that never moves and had his dialog written by an intern. A hero on an adventure encounters many supporting characters throughout their stories; consider [that book series you really like] and how many transient yet seemingly well-developed characters [the protagonist] encountered.
Not putting details into that supporting character makes for a poor story. More details = a better story.
If you don’t care, well, as you said, there’s a space bar. But the reason she has character and a story – however small and temporary to the grand scheme of your path – is that she is one of the very nice trimmings on your character’s path. Your character didn’t save Nameless Mook 139. Your character saved Henrietta and, romantically, things didn’t work out, as is often the case. The hero needed to leave, to save other people. And Henrietta, she’s sad, but she understands.
@ArcherAvatar: Be careful, you’re creating a disturbance in the Force, the game’s Forceboys will be around to beat you with their Rightsabers.
@Vatec: I have to say, having still been dabbling in LotRO until recently, the combat in SWTOR hasn’t really jarred with me. It’s the same old 1-2-1-2-1-2-3-1-2 combat of MMOs, but I haven’t found a massive disconnect between keypresses and character action. Perhaps it’s class dependant?
@thade: “She’s a supporting character.”
I don’t think she is, that’s my point. She’s a crowbar plot device to get me to kill another ten foozles, and it’s terribly obvious that that’s what she is. That’s what MMO NPCs have always been as a general rule, and, for me, a lengthy and diffuse voiceover hasn’t changed that fact in any meaningful way.
Now the class quest NPCs felt like supporting characters, and I found them to be believable and compelling, but alas, the class quest is only one small part of the game’s whole.
@Melmoth: it’s habit. After a week-long pause of LotRO combat, spent playing in WoW, when I return to LotRO it takes me some time to correctly adapt to the action queuing and the overall low responsiveness of the character. It’s like playing WoW with some serious lag.
I must head back into WoW at some point. It’s been so long that LotRO feels quite natural to me now, but I do remember being frustrated with the Champion class in LotRO when I first came to it. They did patch LotRO later so that the combat was more responsive, but perhaps that was only ever more responsive in comparison to how LotRO was originally.