So my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic is coming to an end. There’s no real surprise in this for me: I wasn’t going to buy SWTOR initially, but the breathless blog banter lauding its already much vaunted fourth pillar of storytelling had convinced me that, for the price of the box, it’d be worth a look whether I chose to subscribe to the game afterwards or not. The fact that m’colleague and other friends were also intending to play, however, added much needed girders of reinforcement to the somewhat shaky foundations of my decision, and thus I quickly cemented the whole deal with an order, before the building inspector of common sense could review the plan and tell me that it would never stand the test of time.
Based upon the standard indicators of ‘time played’ and ‘entertainment had’, I certainly got enough out of the game to justify the box price; compared to many games I’ve bought recently, I’d say that SWTOR settled towards the happy end of the value for money scale. Only games such as Dragon Age (89 hours played) and Skyrim (128 hours played, and counting…) can make any sort of impact on the ‘value for money’ assessment, and really those two should be treated as freakish outliers of my recent game time investment.
I have enjoyed my time in SWTOR, but while the story element is certainly entertaining, in wrestling for my continued commitment to the game, it simply wasn’t differentiating enough to be able to overpower and suplex the plodding linear progression and constricting nature which is typical of this type of MMO. This is not a failing of SWTOR – for many this is still as perfectly enjoyable and entertaining as it always was, and for those people SWTOR is surely a fast flowing stream of fresh IP into the rather stagnant pond of fantasy MMOs. My tastes have definitely changed, however; be it through burnout, or having discovered pastures which are richer grazing, better suited to my game-play appetite, I struggle now to find any pleasure in on-rails grind, as well as the hotbar combat, common to MMOs of this sort.
The simple fact is that I like to look into the world when I play a game of this sort, for if it is not –to a greater extent– about the world in which our characters inhabit, why have the world at all? We could easily write games where the player is required to stare at a number of little coloured icons, and press them in optimal order based upon the variable cooldown counters which tick above them, and simulate pretty much everything there is to MMO combat, without the need for a game world. Even UI addons which move these elements of buffs, debuffs and hotbar abilities into the middle of the screen do not alleviate the simple fact that the player’s attention must be, for a disproportionate amount of play time, concentrated on these tiny little UI elements, rather than the world around them. The perceived increase in difficulty of tanking, and to a lesser extent healing, in these games stems from the fact that the situational awareness and positioning that these roles require runs counter to the entire rest of the combat design – to stare at tiny little icons and press them when cooldowns allow, when debuffs require, or when priority demands. The entire combat design of these games, which has barely changed from generation to generation, is akin to a person in a pit spinning a comfortable number of plates on the end of broom handles, and where every now and again an angry wolverine is thrown in such that the plate spinner has to try to frantically beat it away with a spare broom handle while still trying to keep the plates spinning.
In Skyrim I have to watch where my enemy is in the world. If the enemy is close, I try to hit him with a big sword. Sometimes the enemy will try to hit me with a big sword, and in this case I have to watch for him swinging at me, at which point I block the attack. After one hundred and twenty eight hours or so of playing, this is still fantastically entertaining to me. I do not have to look down at a UI element and see if my sword is off global cooldown. I do not have to look at another, different, UI element to see if my shield is off its five minute emergency cooldown. I do not have to juggle a number of short duration buffs which, if they drop, will mean the almost guaranteed defeat of my character. The cooldown on weapons is, to some extent, reflected in the length of time it takes to swing them: two-handers feel slow and ponderous compared to their one-hander cousins, but this simply serves to add solidity and texture to the combat, while building in a suitable restraining mechanic to the more potent damage range of the various two-handed weapons. There are no plates to juggle in Skyrim’s game-play, just one big plate, which I must smash over the head of my enemy; this is what I need in a fantasy game, not taking a sixty second ‘day’ and organising my hotbar meeting schedules into this time period.
“Well I’ve got an armour buff telecon in fifteen seconds, maybe we could reconvene the channelled ranged attack best practise seminar until after then; hmmm, but that does leave me with a short window where we could probably leverage a quick value-added primary attack GCD, which would be win-win if we can then schedule for the thirty second self-heal strategic planning afterwards. Of course, we’ll have to be proactive if an off-GCD defeat response occurs in the meantime – we’ll fast track it and bump the rest of the day’s schedule if that happens. I’ll get my people to macro your people. Okay, ciao.”
I could not program an Excel spreadsheet to play my Skyrim character effectively.
That’s the feeling I can’t shake with many of these hotbar-based MMOs – that an Excel spreadsheet could probably be doing it better. The realisation hits that a spreadsheet program should be my gaming idol, that at the next PAX I may well witness an Excel box surrounded by the flickering flashlight of photographers while two scantily clad women lean in from each side, one leg kicked out saucily behind each of them, planting kisses on the sides of this perfect specimen of hardcore MMO player. And then there’ll be the stupid puns in magazine articles, such as How to Excel at MMO Gaming.
Again, I have nothing against SWTOR as a game, I’ve just come to an even more firm conclusion that MMOs “where you play combat primarily in the user interface rather than the game world” are not for me. Which is rather a shame, because that’s most of them, by my current calculations. I’ll be interested to see if games such as TERA have actually made an action-orientated MMO, or whether it’s the same old concession to hotbar plate juggling, only now the rabid wolverine is a permanent fixture; in which case I can’t imagine it will fair terribly well (the game that is, not the wolverine, who I’m sure will have a whale of a time). I’m also somewhat less sure about Guild Wars 2, because on the one hand the game has a vastly restricted hotbar space, such that there are far fewer plates to keep spinning, but on the other hand the hotbar is still there, and I’m just not sure that you can realistically expect to have a hotbar and a true action RPG occupying the same game client.
In the meantime I’ve rolled a new character in Skyrim; having finished the main story and vast swathes of the game, I now want to go exploring with a slightly less accomplished (read: overpowered) character, and discover all the places that my boss keeps telling me about from his play through, but which I’ve yet to discover. I went for my favourite character type the first time around, a female paladin sort, wearing heavy armour, wielding a sword and shield, and well versed in the arts of healing magic. It was tremendous fun, but now I’m going to play an orc barbarian, with a big two-handed axe, and wearing only light armour; I’m going to see if it’s possible to play an in-your-face melee character without relying on heavy armour or healing magic. I’m also happily taking a leaf out of SWTOR’s book and eschewing the quick save option in all but the most game-breaking cases. This has already lead to interesting developments, where, in the first town at which I arrived, my character accidentally (no, really!) stole something from the bar of an inn and –in self defence, Your Honour– killed the innkeeper when he attacked over the inadvertent indiscretion. As a result of which I quickly fled the town, with the grubby wooden plate I had stolen as a somewhat disappointing trophy of this early exploit in my adventuring career. An intriguing, if ignominious, beginning.
I’ll see you all in another hundred and twenty eight hours.