Monday, January 2, 2012

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Danny's Impressions and Their Associated Experience


Are you from Bioware?
If you followed this page from my subscription cancellation, welcome! I did not feel it was fair to do the following without explaining my motivations.
  1. I reduced my subscription to 1 month from 3 months.
  2. I cancelled my subscription.
For the exact point at which I felt I would no longer want to subscribe, please see “Current Value”.

Overall Impressions

Star Wars: The Old Republic is worth experiencing to see the next steps in MMO story-telling. You will find many “logistical” features that are inferior to what you may expect as the industry standard. You will find other "logistical" features, gameplay flow decisions, and story-telling features which are executed superbly.

By types of players, I think…
  • if you actively dismiss the lore or story in games, this game is definitely not for you;
  • if you like to PvP, this game will temporarily deliver a fulfilling experience.

One Player’s Experience

Here’s what you can expect if your experience with this game goes as mine went. I’ll be starting from the very beginning, which includes elements that are not in-game.

Account and Game Setup

Means - Origin,
Ends - Beta access, “Early Access”, general game access

This is likely the worst setup experience I’ve ever had with any game.

Penny Arcade (a great webcomic) gave out beta access codes for Thanksgiving. After setting up brand new EA and SWTOR accounts, I redeemed my codes. The game client was not available for download. There was no indication about where the game client would be available. There was no indication of anything, really.

Origin is its own software to download and install. It is EA’s attempt at competing with Steam. For launch, I bought the Deluxe Edition there, but the “MY GAMES” list did not show my purchase. Clicking Settings -> Order History did show the order, but there was no indication about where or how the game itself would find its way to the consumer.

The website asked for a redemption code. From the Order History, I had an order number. This is not the code they’re looking for.

The redemption code arrived in an email about my purchase, at the very bottom, on a day I wasn’t told about.

Possibilities for Improvement
  • When redemption codes do not work, have more descriptive error messages.
Useful error codes can be tricky when lots of things can go wrong and engineers’ time is scarce. If useful error codes are not possible or too difficult, include more instructions and expectations in the part of the user experience before codes are entered. For example, simply saying “Enter the redemption code at the bottom of the email you received. Further instructions will come in an email after redemption.” effectively resolves user confusion after redemption. This is a cheap, better alternative to the lonely textbox there now.
  • When listing any redeemed items, also list the related date for when the item is expected to be delivered/available. A range of dates is acceptable for this note.
  • Link the website, or other location, where the user can get the game client in any listing related to the purchase, both at and in Origin.

I can download the game... after days of waiting around having no idea that an email would come and tell me about where my money went. I almost suspected fraud, considered telling my credit card company to cancel the charge.

Download and Installation
Means - internet,
Ends - get the game installed on machine

Star Wars: The Old Republic is a huge game (almost 20 gigs) with lots of patch data to download and install. This is no surprise and deserves no gripe that can’t be solved with the better instructions in the Account and Game Setup process.

Expect to download for a really, really long time. If you’re reading these words and know the author, you’re in a country where this probably isn’t out of the ordinary.

Running the Launcher
Means - game launcher
Ends - play the game

If the servers are down or something is wrong, utilize your psychic powers to find out what the deal is. The disabled PLAY button won’t be telling you much.

Possibilities for Improvement
  • If the launcher cannot run the game, include more descriptive error messages to let the user know how they can fix the problem or if the servers are down. The game client has great error codes at the server selection screen. Get the launcher and game client teams talking to each other to see if that error code system can be utilized at the launcher level. Alternately, just display the most common reasons the game cannot be run so users are informed of likely culprits.
Server Selection
Means - game server selection feature
Ends - play on a server that would provide the most enjoyable gaming experience for me and my friends
  • I did not achieve the desired result due to factors governing the means

If you have a friend that was excited to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, you will not be choosing your server. You will coordinate to see who got put where as a part of the Early Access process. The user with the earliest access wins; I ended up on a PvE server even though my buddy had requested an RP server.

I want to be on an RP-PvP server. I am forced not to play with all of my friends because they each got different servers as part of their early access. At this point, I can choose to play with one set of friends and not others while being on an environment I do not find ideal or I can choose to play on my ideal environment without playing with any of my friends.

Possibilities for Improvement
  • It’s too late to fix the source of this problem. I only hope no other company executes “Early Access” in the manner this was executed – don’t ever limit your players to a server because of your choice of a gradual launch process.
  • A free transfer, for characters created from Early Access to the first week of launch, would get my friends and me to a server we want instead of the server to which the launch process limited players.

Character Creation
Means - game character creation feature
Ends - create a character that will uniquely represent me in the game’s universe

  • I do not feel I achieved the desired result due to the limited nature of the means.

Character creation is much more limited than other MMO character creation systems. Don’t expect to create a very unique and striking character – all the NPCs in the game seem to be some randomly generated combination of the limited options given.

The process offers these selections in this order.

  1. Faction (2)
  2. Class (4)
  3. Species (4)
  4. Gender (2)
  5. Appearance (below, depends on race and gender) and Name (15 characters)
  • Body Type (4)
  • Head (11)
  • Scars (15)
  • Complexion (11)
  • Eye Color (7)
  • Beards (36)
  • Tattoos (11)
  • Jewelry (6)
  • Hair (25)
  • Hair Color (6)
  • Skin Color (6)

Those numbers are from a skim through the Sith male selection. Some may not appear for other races. Numbers will also vary based on gender – the human female has 40 selections for Complexion, for example.

The name field accepts apostrophes (and possibly other unexplored characters), which WoW roleplayers will appreciate if only because we couldn’t have cool troll names back in Azeroth. Ja, mon!

Possibilities for Improvement

  • Tell your producers to play Aion and EVE Online to create characters. Those systems should be considered the current industry standard. Particular ways in which the feature by NCSoft and CCP is superior follow.
  1. All selections up to appearance are extremely and purposely visual. Interactions effectively convey differences without the usage of text.
  2. Much more potential for customization overall.
  3. Superior feedback based on sliders instead of “business application” controls. Sliding from left to right on “Jaw Line” (Aion) or “Complexion – Aging” (EVE) means more than option 3 (out of 11) for Complexion.

Tip of the Hat

  • Thank you, user experience or interface designer, for preventing customizations from being lost. The hatred I have for RIFT began with a “RANDOM” button at the bottom-right – the end – of all their options, which caused me to lose all the touches I had made on my character.

Protection from ourselves.

Gameplay - Story
Means - Cinematic cutscenes, conversation wheel, missions, level design
Ends - immersion and development in the game’s universe as my unique character

The game delivers magnificently as far as stories in MMOs go. This implementation should be considered the industry standard going forward.

Missions are usually conversations with audio. During these conversations, the user can interact with the conversation through one of three spoken replies available at different points in the conversation. Throughout missions, cinematic cutscenes make each part of the mission a cohesive experience, even when leaving the game mid-mission. If you’re grouped with other players, they can also join in on the conversation. It will roll out with participation from the players involved.

Being able to witness other players’ conversations is the feature that made me buy Star Wars: The Old Republic.

In instances (called “flashpoints” in this game and “dungeons” in others), the level itself is utilized to convey elements in the story through positional triggers and elegant mission design that extends throughout the entire instance. The principles behind these instances should be considered the industry standard going forward.

Edit: The voice-acted lines can be easily forgotten or disregarded during conversations. I found that turning on subtitles brings me back into the game instead of just waiting around for the next conversation wheel and its related text. Thanks to Matt Schembari for mentioning this!

Gameplay – PvP
Means - warzones, warzones queuing feature, designated World PvP areas, unintended World PvP areas
Ends - a gratifying gaming experience drawn from playing against other players

  • The game delivers the desired result for some time before halting it without notification.

Three warzones are available.

  1. Huttball – move an item-of-interest to other team’s side
  2. The Voidstar – Linear 3-point assault/defense
  3. Civil War – 3-node capture-and-hold

Huttball is a game between two teams to move a ball to the other end of the map. The layout is designed such that each path has associated opportunities and costs, which makes for outcomes that vary depending on player choice, knowledge, and skill. The “Huttball” can be thrown – an AoE, ground-targeting ability – to another player, adding the ability to traverse different paths. This is my favorite warzone and the most common since it does not require a set number of players per faction on each team.

The Voidstar is a faction-versus-faction stroll down a linear map with two paths. One team assaults, moving forward by planting bombs on gates and defending the planted bomb, and one team defends by preventing the assaulting team from planting the bomb or by diffusing it if it has been planted. There are three sets of gates to overcome.

Civil War has three turrets evenly spaced out horizontally along the map. Each faction begins at the center of the top and bottom ends of the map with the choice to take a speeder down toward one of the turrets. After a turret is captured, it fires at the enemy faction’s ship – the team to control more turrets longer wrecks the other ship first and wins.

With the exception of The Voidstar, these warzones have more lore-integration than any other game’s PvP premises. This is exemplary in an industry that players often feel is negligent of story and lore. Huttball is a plausible sport in the Star Wars universe, connected feasibly with the Hutts for entertainment; seeing laser fire coming at your spawn point – the ship – is immediately descriptive of the purpose of the Civil War. The Voidstar does have a reason behind its players’ actions when they assault or defend, but no explanation is given for the switch.

A colleague with designer experience was able to pinpoint the reason I find The Voidstar and Civil War trivial compared to Huttball. Planting bombs and capturing turrets require an unchanging duration for any player. That means that a defending team’s skill in these games is capped by their ability to keep this capture mechanism from completion. That’s it. Coordination for that is easy. Huttball, on the other hand, simultaneously involves a fluctuating defense and offense element, potential for passing or not passing, traversing multiple paths, or positioning to optimize one particular strategy at the cost of others. All of those elements are acted upon by player choice. The skill cap here is determined by one’s own teamwork and the reaction of the enemy.

Huttball, the story effort put into warzones, and story overall are what make me play Star Wars: The Old Republic instead of League of Legends.

You will beat max-level characters if your strategy is better! Stats are saturated to match. Reward that critical low-numbers healer as the match MVP, he or she deserves it!

I cannot speak to the enjoyment of designated World PvP zones or unsupported World PvP encounters, as I am on a PvE server and have not been forced to encounter either.

User Interface
Means - in-game user interface features
Ends - navigation of information and control of functionality that is related to but abstracted from the game universe

The game sets industry standards for some UI features and falls frustratingly short in others. All but one of these negative implementations can be gradually improved over the next months to satisfy the industry standard. We’ll look at maps and at the Galactic Trade Market (auction house) for my favorite good and bad UI features in the game.

The guys behind maps delivered on everything they wrote about in their developer’s log. Each map seems to be crafted specifically for each area in which your character enters. Exit and entry denotations prevent a waste of my time, simplifying navigation and mission completion. The only complaint I have is that I have trouble with ground that’s a different height (second levels at the top of same-area stairs), but that’s completely minor because I should be made to make sense of my actual surroundings to some degree. I might have those same difficulties if I were a character in your universe; that’s my personal criteria for acceptance.

The Galactic Trade Market looks like it was designed by an engineer with a typical lack of end-user consideration (disclaimer: I was an engineer before becoming a producer, and if you genuinely feel offended by my statement here, do your coworkers and clients a favor by reading The Inmates Are Running the Asylum). This would not be so bad if players didn’t already have an outdated expectation from World of Warcraft.

In general, most all the features outside of what the game does well are implemented in a way that will frustrate users at some point. The game went with a World of Warcraft limitation that is limiting enough to begin with: there can only be 2 or 3 windows that are actively shown at a time. This game is not World of Warcraft – there are different pieces of information to be shown in positions that do not correspond to its WoW equivalent, tabs within frames with other layouts, and various other sub-optimal placements that can only be well-listed by the most experienced of user experience QA.

Possibilities for Improvement

  • Again, tell your producers to play Aion and EVE Online to get an idea of how an auction house should behave at a minimum. Patch the auction house based off those expectations.
  • Again, tell your producers to play Aion and EVE Online to experience a UI foundation that is not limited to 2-3 immovable frames on-screen. This is a much larger endeavor, depending on how the current foundation is implemented, that interacts with virtually all features implemented in the game.

Current Value

I decided to unsubscribe at the point of the following two game events.

  1. I could not push my Valor (PvP) Rank past my level.
  2. I could not purchase the Korrealis Prince despite having the currency to do so. This is because a player cannot purchase an item if it has a Valor (PvP) Rank requirement that is not satisfied.

If the game is patched a change that allows me to do those two things, I will re-subscribe at that time. You may also remove the cap from the PvP currencies (Mercenary Commendations and Warzone Commendations) to re-acquire my subscription.

Currently, Star Wars: The Old Republic holds less value than it did before. From my listed experience items, PvP was my favorite. From PvP gameplay, I earned the following.

  1. Warzone Commendations
  2. Experience
  3. Increase in Valor Rank

Warzone Commendations can be spent to purchase Mercenary Commendations. Both of these are capped at 1000 (I just found this out at the loss of 30 warzone commendations). I have enjoyed the game to the point that I have 1000 of both. All the package items – including Champion Bags – have the UNIQUE tag associated with them, so I can only buy one. Since I am not level 50, I cannot use package items above my level. The flavor item, the Korrealis Prince speeder, could have been a good usage of my currency – but I’m not allowed to purchase it.

Thus, I am at a situation where my enjoying the PvP game will not be earning me the fruits of my time as I have come to expect.

Where do we go? Where do we go, now? Where do we go?

To play devil’s advocate, let us imagine that it is a luxury, an added bonus, to be able to receive rewards for PvPing. I would be fine with this – except I am going to have to do the same amount of “grinding” at max level when I am able to finally purchase the items for which I have always had the currency. Any exploitation for surpassing PvE armor is still available at the time I am max level.

The arbitrary decision to keep me from doing that work now, as I am enjoying it, is what irks me. The reaction to the Slicing crew skill indicates that the designers have an intention to curb the upper bound instead of raise the lower bound, a trend which is in-line with my current limitations in PvP rewards and future prospects.

Without PvP, the unique value from my purchase and subscription of Star Wars: The Old Republic goes down to story-telling. I may re-subscribe if friends ask me to for a purposeful, player-driven activity. Unfortunately, multiple other single-player games – Zelda: Skyward Sword in particular – win out in the “story” arena right now.

I look forward to seeing how Star Wars: The Old Republic shapes up and how the developers react to their community!

Danny is an imperial level 34 mercenary and a gladiator in practice by level 29. His character will roleplay with you for social points.

1 comment:

Tyrone said...

good review Danny. I will not be playing this as of yet, due to lack of free time at the moment.