Licensed IP MMOs Aren’t A Bad Thing

Licensed MMOs
I saw a player proclaiming in Guild Wars 2 the other day that he or she would never play a game based on an unoriginal intellectual property. Their reasoning was the usual; since the creators do not “own” the story, they are limited in what they can do with the lore. It also opens the developers up to all sorts of criticism for “breaking lore” (don’t bring up the Rune-Keeper in LotRO global chat; it’s still a huge sore spot in the community over seven years later). As someone who just got back into Lord of the Rings Online for the umpteenth time, I actually disagree with this rather strongly. While ultimately gameplay is what makes a game good or bad, I think a licensed IP can actually be a really good thing for a game.

The License Sells The Game
Let be honest, MMOs are businesses, businesses need to market their products, and brand recognition is huge. I know it’s hard to imagine, but there are people out there–gamers even–who have never played an MMORPG and know absolutely nothing about Guild Wars, EverQuest, or possibly even (gasp) World of Warcraft. Those people, however, can probably identify several super heroes and have seen at least some of the Star Wars movies. Unless this hypothetical person has a friend who plays, there’s not much of a chance a game like Guild Wars 2 will catch their eye at Walmart, but if they recognize a franchise they like they’re significantly more likely to give it a try.

Many Players Already Know The Lore
I still feel fairly lost as to the lore of Guild Wars 2 after playing it for a couple of years, but as soon as I stepped into Lord of the Rings Online, I already knew the world because I had read the books and seen the movies (yes, in that order). The enjoyment in exploring Tyria is discovering new locations, whereas the enjoyment of exploring Middle-Earth is all of the moments that make you say “Oh! These are the trolls that Bilbo defeated!” or “Hey, this is the spot where Frodo got stabbed by a Nazgul!” or “Man, the Old Forest is a huge pain to find your way around in, just like Tolkien described it!” Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I tend to prefer the latter a little, mainly because I don’t have to trawl dev posts and wikis to learn the lore. The game may have to fill me in on the current political climate of The Old Republic era or the fallout of the destruction of Romulus, but the game world at large is already familiar to me long before launch day.

Storytelling Limitations Aren’t Necessarily Bad
Licensed IPs are like the storytelling equivalent to Twitter; some people prefer it because of its limitations. And really, it’s not that limiting. There are still plenty of stories to be told in the Marvel universe or the Star Wars universe. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be an ongoing franchise beyond the game. Furthermore, the vast majority of the individual writers, even in a game with an original IP, have a story pretty much handed to them. They may have the freedom to add a few minor characters or create events that change the world in small ways, but for the most part, by the time the game is a few years old the people who wrote the original story likely doesn’t even work there anymore, and if they do, you can be they don’t write every day-to-day quest added into the game. At that point the writers for a game based on an original IP is basically the same boat as someone who’s writing a story for a game whose IP is owned by a major movie studio. Yes, there may be more red tape and approval process for the licensed game, but either way they don’t have total freedom/

All of that said, I agree that there are downsides to licensed IPs. The biggest and most obvious downfall is the license itself. If Lord of the Rings Online was an original game it could go on indefinitely, maybe shifting into maintenance mode at some point, but still there for the loyalists to hang out in. I don’t mean to bring this up every time I post about LotRO, but its Tolkien license comes up for renewal next year, and I think there’s a real question as to whether or not all parties involved will feel like it’s worth their time and money to renew it. The other downside is that, for every player the IP attracts, there will be one more that it pushes away, like the player mentioned at the start of this post. I’ve played some pretty awful movie tie in shovelware games in my day, and I can see why players would associate those games with games like LotRO, SWTOR, or DCUO.


Subscription Guilt

I’ve just remembered why I don’t subscribe to MMOs anymore. I feel a sense of guilt for not playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I am currently subscribed to (technically my subscription is canceled, but I have the better part of a month left). I haven’t played Marvel Heroes as much as I’d like to lately, and my Guild Wars 2 guild probably thinks I’ve fallen off the face of Tyria. There are also, of course, a number of non-MMO games that I’ve wanted to play, like last weekend’s beta of Star Wars Battlefront (not to be confused with the 2004 game Star Wars: Battlefront), which, incidentally may break my general apathy toward shooters. Playing those games isn’t as fun right now because I have the swiftly approaching deadline of Knights of the Fallen Empire hanging over my head, and with it the end of the 12x XP bonus that I subscribed for. I’m really in love with the newly-F2P WildStar right now, so I’ve actually been playing that a lot, but every time I launch the game, the SWTOR icon right next to it calls out reminding me that I have less than a week to get my characters to 50, or they’ll have to go back to the normal leveling slog that I’ve had to do in the past. I keep consoling myself with the fact that I’ll be getting a free insta-60 token at the expansion launch, but I really want to wrap up a couple of the class stories before the deadline.

My normal philosophy when it comes to games is that you should play the thing you get the most fun out of at the moment. It’s a game. If it’s not fun, it has no purpose. There’s a certain amount of deferring fun for the promise of future fun that I can stand, but I have a lot less patience for that in a game than, I don’t know, real life. But on the other hand, I paid $15 for a month of SWTOR game time, and if I don’t play during that time, I’m essentially throwing away a chunk of my limited gaming budget for the month. WildStar isn’t going anywhere any time soon. In fact, if I wait a couple weeks there will probably be less random lag.

And the thing is, it’s not that I’m not having fun when I log into SWTOR. I still want to play it, it’s just that WildStar is more shiny right now. And in a few weeks, Guild Wars 2’s expansion will be more interesting than that. That’s just the way things work, and it’s frustrating that, so often, they all hit at the same time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for gaming.

Three Features Every MMO Should Have: Star Wars: The Old Republic

This is a part of my Three Features Every MMO Should Have series.
Well, that’s possibly the longest post title I’ve ever done. In keeping with my SWTOR post from yesterday, here’s three features from my latest obsession that every MMO should have.

Let’s be honest here; the lightsaber is the coolest weapon known to man. Followed closely by the double bladed lightsaber. What game wouldn’t be improved by a few glowstick swords? Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

Bounty Hunters
Because Boba Fett didn’t get enough screen time in the movies. Spamming missiles and flamethrowers FTW!

Ok I’m being a bit silly with this list. But let’s face it, the IP and storytelling are the only things that make SWTOR really stand out. Its combat is ripped straight out of WoW, and many of its other systems–player housing, PvP, group content, quest structure, even its F2P model–are just imitations of those of other games, ranging from passable to mediocre. I’m convinced that, if BioWare had decided to make a Dragon Age MMO instead of a Star Wars one, by now it would have been branded as a white noise, generic fantasy MMO with a some ambitious storytelling and character development ideas, and slowly slipped into obscurity. As a whole, it’s actually pretty fun, but if it weren’t Star Wars I’m sure I would have never played it.
So here’s my real three features from SWTOR that every MMO should have, all based around its story.

Class story
As I talked about last time, I recently subscribed to SWTOR for the class story XP boost, and playing them as a more cohesive whole has reinforced how well written the class stories in this game really are. Giving each class its own story was the best decision BioWare ever made when it comes to making SWTOR. Games like Guild Wars 2 do unique stories based on your race, which is the next best thing, and works for that world, but I prefer class stories and they definitely fit the Star Wars universe much better. SWTOR’s classes all represent people from very different walks of life whose archetypes are ripped straight out of the movies themselves. I’ve always felt like games like LotRO have had to water down their stories because every character plays the same story; the Lore Master never helps anyone out by sending a bird messenger to Gandalf, the Captain can rally exactly one soldier to help the Fellowship’s cause, and the Burglar does surprisingly little burgling. Every player just follows the same path with no mention of their individual talents. Not only does it make more story sense to personalize your story to your story to your particular character, it also makes me a lot more likely to roll a new character (not that I particularly need a good reason, but you get the idea). For instance, the Bounty Hunter class isn’t even that exciting to me at this point, but I’ve been enjoying playing mine because the story is good. I understand that a lot of games don’t have the budget to come up with class stories of the scope that SWTOR has, but if at all possible, it would make alt-lovers like me a lot happier.

Granted, the companions in SWTOR are not as developed as those of other BioWare games–I’ve recently been binge-playing the Mass Effect series and dabbling in Dragon Age Inquisition, and now I understand why people were so disappointed with SWTOR’s companions–but they sure beat anything I’ve found in any other MMO. It’s always fun when companions interject in conversations, either to affirm or admonish you for your chosen actions, or just to make a smart aleck remark on the side. Even more interesting are the companion missions. They range from a short conversation to a full-on quest chain. Gain enough affection points, and you can even get married to some of them. Obviously not every game has or should have companion characters, but this kind of supporting cast of recurring NPC characters goes a long way toward making me feel like the players’ characters aren’t the only sentient beings in the universe.

Forced roleplay
I’m not really in to RP. I know people who live for it, but I’m just not interested in playing a character in most game worlds. I’m not against it–it is called a Roleplaying Game after all, you should be free to roleplay as long as you don’t disrupt people’s gameplay–I’m just not generally into it. But somehow SWTOR, and BioWare games in general, have really gotten me sucked into getting inside my character’s head. BioWare’s genius is that they force you to decide as you go who your character is in every conversation. Is Shepherd a renegade or a paragon? Is the Inquisitor a Chantry loyalist? How far will your smuggler go to make a few extra credits? A lot of SWTOR players just play in such a way to get the maximum light/dark points, or maximum affection with their companion, but I’ve found it’s a lot more fun to pick one option or the other based on what I feel my character would do, regardless of the alignment gain. Besides, light side and dark side gear isn’t generally that exciting, and affection can usually be gained more efficiently through companion gifts.

SWTOR’s 12x XP: An Altaholic’s Dream

Ricoshay Relaxing
I think the last time I subscribed to a game was early 2012, and before that circa 2009. Now, I’ve suddenly been subscribed to two different MMOs in the span of three months. Fittingly, the last game I was subscribed to was SWTOR, and now BioWare is once again taking my money. This time, however, the Game Tax comes with the perk of a huge XP boost to the class story rewards that allows players to level to 50 exclusively through their story from now until the expansion hits on October 19th. As much as I love the charm of a lot of the sidequests in SWTOR, I have to begrudgingly admit that I agree with everyone who’s saying that the story-only leveling is actually a really nice experience. It feels more like playing a single-player RPG; one main story with only as many sidequests as you choose to do. It’s also great because I can play as many different classes as I want and don’t have to replay the same quests I’ve just done. So far I’ve almost finished my powertech’s class story, and my sorcerer is in her mid 30s. I’m planning on finishing off my operative next, who is around level 40.

A lot of the reason why SWTOR has never stuck for me is that I want to play every class, and I want to simultaneously be at endgame right now and experience as much of the story as I can. So basically this is exactly what I’ve always wanted. I’m not sure if I’d recommend it to someone who’s never played the game, as it kind of rushes you through the learning stages of the game, but as someone who’s played off and on since the beta and dabbled in all of the classes at one point or another, it’s great. I’ve seen some discussion among players of just scrapping the sidequests and keeping the class story XP boost on all the time, probably only for subscribers. I have a hard time being excited about this, because there are a lot of memorable quests and quest lines outside of the class story that I would miss–who can forget the Black Bisector series, or the first time you became a Revanite?–not to mention all of the light/dark decisions, companion affection, and gear drops we’d miss out on (I’ve been living on almost nothing but commendation gear since I subscribed). I know they’re reworking the leveling process for the expansion, but I don’t think they’ll be so lazy as to just leave the boost on all the time. The best solution I’ve heard is somewhere in the middle: boost the XP payout of all of the quests (both class story quests and traditional ones) by 3-5 times and leave them all in. This way you’re still progressing at a more normal rate, but you can pick and choose which quests you want to play. Either way, I’m sure the leveling experience will be better. And if it’s not, they’ll be giving you an insta-60 with the expansion (free with a subscription) so you can skip it entirely. I’m planning to use mine on a Sith Juggernaut, since my old main character was the mirror class on the Republic side, but my new guild is mostly Empire. I’ve never done the Warrior’s story, though, and I’m told it’s pretty good, so it would be a shame to skip it. We’ll see.

Monthly Gaming Check-In: October

During my blogging hiatus (see previous post), I plan to give at least monthly check-ins about what I’ve been playing lately. Here’s the first, catching you up on what I did in October.

I know this is probably news to you all, but there’s this little-known company called BioWare that makes really good games. What? You knew that already? Well apparently I didn’t. I’ve owned Mass Effect for a while now–I got it and its sequel free for filling out some survey about Origin (summary: Steam is better, don’t bother trying)–but never played it past the opening level. Ever pick up an older game go “holy crap, why didn’t I play this years ago”? That’s what I just did with Mass Effect. I’ve been hearing for years about how it’s the crowning achievement of humanity, but I’ve been told that about a variety of games that I’ve been unimpressed by (Skyrim, I’m looking at you). But a few weeks ago I was bored and looking for something new and different, so I figured I’d give it a shot, and I was blown away. The depth of the story, the quality of the graphics (MoCap!), the voice acting… it all blends together into one incredibly immersive package. Better yet is that they’ve done a masterful job of keeping the gameplay and story feeling fluid, thanks in large part to the conversation wheel. I don’t feel like I’m stopping to watch a cutscene, I feel like I’m there helping make the decisions that determine how the story plays out. And many of the decisions aren’t easy, either; I’ve had to stop and think about what to do, and I’ve even found myself reloading because things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. I also love the idea that your save from the previous game loads into the next one to continue your story and relationships with your teammates.

Speaking of BioWare, Mass Effect reminded me of how much I missed Star Wars: The Old Republic. I played it a lot when it first came out in late 2011. It’s one of the few games I’ve ever actually paid a subscription fee to, and it’s probably the most excited I’ve been for a new MMO launch. Sadly, though, a few months after release, the new content dropped off, and so did I. I’ve never been back since, mostly due to the rather overly restrictive F2P. But there’s been an expansion since then (plus the starfighter and housing updates, both of which sound pretty cool), and another one on the way next month, so I figured I’d give life as an F2P a try. As I mentioned, free game is pretty restrictive, even compared to F2P early adopters like LotRO. Here’s my breakdown of restrictions:

Kind of terrible:

  • A few of the raids must be purchased.
  • The raids that are available are restricted to a few plays per week, as are PvP arenas, unless you buy a weekly pass.
  • Restrictive gold cap with no way to unlock other than subscribe (seriously, I’d gladly pay $5-$10 for this, but apparently you don’t want my money).
  • Must purchase the right to wear purple gear. This one probably bothers me the most. Worth the $20ish to remove it for all characters? I haven’t decided yet.

Not so bad:

  • Can only play as the three most boring races, namely Humans, Cyborg Humans, and Zabrak (aka horned Humans with face tats).
  • Small inventory and bank. Expansions must be purchased.
  • Several cosmetic options must be purchased (hide head piece, unify colors to match chest, etc.).
  • Must pay to unlock hotbars. This one is just silly. Sure, as a preferred player I can have four, which is all I ever used four when I subscribed, but it’s still ridiculous that they expect to make money off of adding a box to the interface.
  • Only two crafting skill slots. You really only need two to craft gear, but to craft augments (not unlike gems in WoW), you need a third.

Note that I’m a former subscriber; many of the restrictions on people who haven’t payed a dime are worse. BioWare will tell you that a lot of these restrictions (most notably the gold cap) are to cut down on gold farmers/sellers/spammers, but it just feels like I’m being punished for not paying the game tax. But F2P isn’t completely without merit; I can play the story to my heart’s content, and that’s where the game really shines anyway.

I had a few Cartel Coins (premium currency) lying around as a reward for subscribing prior to the F2P transition, and, rather than doing something sensible like saving for the epic gear unlock, I bought the Cathar species, because why wouldn’t I want to play as a cat person? I’ve rolled an Imperial Operative, because it’s almost universally regarded as the best story and I never got very far with my sniper last time around, and a Jedi Sage, because I miss wielding a lightsaber (even if I’m mostly a caster, it still looks cool). Yes, both of those are healer classes. Apparently Guild Wars 2’s “everyone is a healer, therefore no one is” policy made me really miss healing. Both are still pretty low level, but I’m having a lot of fun.

Speaking of recent expansions to licensed sci-fi MMOs, Star Trek Online just released its Delta Rising expansion. I was excited about this one, but somehow it isn’t pulling me in the way I thought it would. I was playing it for about a month before the expansion hit (during the bonus XP time), and sadly I think I got just enough of a taste of the game before the expansion hit for the fun to wear off and remind me of the frustrations that caused me to drift away the last time. Star Trek Online is one of those games I can’t seem to get away from for too long, despite its faults, so I’m sure I’ll be back to play the new content eventually, just not right now.

October also saw the release of Super Smash Bros 3DS. My excitement for this game warrants an entire post for itself, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m a long time Super Smash Bros. fan, and I’m absolutely in love with this game. It feels so much more well-balanced than any previous game, and the online play actually works most of the time (as long as the person you’re playing isn’t on the other side of the ocean and/or have really bad Wi-Fi reception). Playing the game on the 3DS’s circle slider and tiny buttons is no substitute for the almighty Gamecube Controller, but it took surprisingly little adjustment. Can’t wait to play the Wii U version in a couple weeks!

Do We Really Want to Be the Bad Guy?

So I finally broke down and started a Necromancer. The last straw was that I heard they’ve gotten a fairly major buff since I last played one. Also, the name Count The Shadows, a reference to one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who, was available, and the appeal was just too much for this whovian. Playing him, combined with my last post, got me thinking about reasons why I’ve never been attracted to the Necromancer in Guild Wars 2. Yes, it’s mostly because early on they can’t do big damage to save their life (though I must say that power boost from Signet of Spite is making me rethink that statement). But more than that it’s the fact that I’m basically indistinguishable from the enemy that I’m supposed to be fighting, namely the dragon Zhaitan and his undead army. Also, just look at the blood fiend:
Count The Shadows 12
That’s my pocket healer. A rib cage with a spine tail and a bunch of pulsating innards hanging out in it. Ew. Just… ew. Make it a little bigger and it could pass for a world boss from Orr. Who wants that following them around? It probably smells awful too. Can Sylvari even smell?

Anyways, that got me thinking about the fact that Guild Wars 2 offers you no way to be the bad guy. There’s no two-faction system like most MMOs, and no meaningful choices to make in the story in terms of your character’s personality. You’re basically on rails down the straight and narrow, even if you’re a thief or a zombie-wrangler. But when it comes down to it, do other games really offer a choice? Sure, a lot of games give us a “bad guy faction,” but do they really? Let’s take the obvious example: World of Warcraft. Players get to choose between the zealous Alliance, and the merciless Horde. The Horde is populated by races that are clearly the bad guys: orcs, and undead, and trolls, oh my! But any Horde aficionado (like the vast majority of my WoW-playing friends) will gladly launch into a long diatribe about how the Horde is made up of races that aren’t evil, they’re simply misunderstood, outcast, and discriminated against by the Alliance, and, at the end of the day, are perfectly justified in their actions. Many Horde fanboys will go so far as to say that the Alliance are the real evil faction. Why would Blizzard do this? Is this sociopolitical commentary, or good psychology at work? I think they’re smart enough to know that, while one gets a certain amount of pleasure from playing the role of the villain in a game, after a while, unless you’re some kind of sociopath, it starts to make you feel like a horrible person, and games that make you feel worse for having played them aren’t enjoyable.

The best example I know of is Star Wars The Old Republic. SWTOR is one of the most open-ended games in terms of character personality. In SWTOR as in most MMOs, the “bad guy” Empire side is significantly larger than the “good guy” Republic side. PvP is filled with more arcing electricity than a Tesla convention. Yet in my experience, the majority of Imperials chose primarily light side actions (showing mercy, helping people instead of killing them, etc.) rather than dark side like they’re “supposed to” as a Sith. Some would say players just like to subvert the expected behavior and point to a large number of dark-leaning players on the Republic side. There is likely something to that, but even then, dark actions on the Republic side generally take the form of violent or unfeeling solutions to complex moral decisions rather than things like outright torturing people (as is commonly seen on the Empire side’s dark decisions), and still lead to the ultimate goal of protecting the Republic from the evil Sith Empire.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that many people might think they would like to indulge their own dark side, but in the end wouldn’t actually find it a satisfying experience. Even today’s most ultra-violent games have plots that attempt to morally justify your mass murder (whether or not they are–or can be–successful I will leave up to you). Some find this to be an annoyance, but I think it just makes sense; why bother writing a story option to turn your character evil if, as in SWTOR’s case, the majority of players aren’t going to choose it? It makes a lot more sense for the developers to write the story in such a way that most players are going to play it anyway instead of throwing resources at a bunch of underused questlines. Players are going to imagine their characters however they want regardless of how they behave in the story. I know that, even with all of the story options, I still imagined all of my SWTOR characters talking and acting a little bit differently from what their pre-recorded voiceovers dictated. The storytelling disrupts this momentarily, but doesn’t disrupt your idea of your character’s personality.