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I have never understood the acronym “MMORPG”, because it lies.

Role-playing games are what I played as a kid in high school. Combat tables, equipment, and loot only served as structure for the interactions between our player characters and the non-player characters (NPCs) portrayed by the Dungeon Master. The role-playing was the heart of the experience.

Nowadays, we drop the RPG altogether and refer to the genre as MMO. Combat mechanics and loot tables are all that computers are fit to replicate from the tabletop. Role-playing requires human beings, and writing and performing your own dialogue is a challenge for most people. MMO players often establish unofficial “roleplay servers” to make it easier to find one another, as they are so few in number.

When Bioware announced their focus on story in The Old Republic it sounded like a step in the right direction, but I couldn’t figure out how a focus on individual plot lines was going to support the group play that is so essential to a successful MMO. If all the players have their own, individual stories to pursue, what’s to keep them gaming together over time? When I sat down with Daniel Erickson after my hands-on demo of TOR at E3, this was the first question I asked him.

“The demo you played takes place on the origin worlds,” Erickson said. “Most of that is class specific content, but you can still work together to accomplish those goals.”

Why, I asked, would we stay together after that point?

“The great majority of our content is not class-specific,” Erickson said. “Each planet in the game has a world arc. They are giant, multi-quest stories that are designed for party play. Also, you get different dialogue options from NPCs for being in a party,” he added as an aside.

I raised an eyebrow.

“If I talk to an NPC by myself, I get a different set of dialogue options than if I was in a group?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“If I have different types of character classes in my group during different conversations with the same NPC, do I get different dialogue choices each time?” I asked. No MMO has ever given me a reason to repeat a quest other than loot runs.

“We had to prototype the multiplayer dialogue system before we even had an engine,” Erickson laughed. “Brad Prince, our lead world designer, only plays MMOs. He’s a strictly multiplayer gamer, so he always asks how groups work. What we wanted to do was recreate the pen-and-paper tabletop roleplaying experience that people have always wanted.”

In other words, Bioware wants to create the first MMORPG that lives up to the name.

Here’s roughly how it works: you and your party of three players are on a quest together and encounter an NPC. Someone from your party starts the dialogue from the familiar Bioware radial menu. The NPC speaks, and then each member of your party gets to select a response from their personal radial menu, and you all issue your “lines” to the NPC. Think the party dialogue in Dragon Age, where party members opine about the potential choices you might make while dealing with an NPC, but now that party dialogue is being generated by human beings.

“In pen-and-paper roleplaying games, groups tend to move toward the extremes,” Erickson said. “You have a small group of dominant personalities all trying to control the direction of the party.” He gave me an example of how The Old Republic replicates this. Let’s say that your group is composed of three Light Side characters and you’re a Dark Side character. Your party begins the interaction with the NPC, and your three compatriots select Light Side dialogue choices.

You decide to screw with your party and choose a Dark Side dialogue choice.  That gets the NPC riled up, and now your other party members have to try calming him down as the dialogue continues, while you continue messing with them.

NPCs in modern-day MMOs serve as little more than quest bookends. Bioware is not only turning these interactions into substantive content through full voice support, but where groups of players are concerned has turned them into roleplaying exercises.

Bioware has taken the onus off players to learn how to successfully roleplay. The Old Republic may not even require roleplay servers because the game turns everyone into a roleplayer. Groups will no longer be solely about 40-man raids into instances, but about playing characters creating a story.

This may not make roleplaying the heart of the experience, but even introducing it as part of the default experience returns the RPG to the genre’s acronym and may forever change what players expect from an MMO well beyond expecting their NPCs to speak to them.

  1. That sounds… Just plain horrible :(

  2. avatar Heretic

    An interesting concept on paper, but I’m sure it will quickly become tedious and tiring in practice. Take for instance dragon age and the dozens of dialogue choices required for interacting with your npc party members to unlock quests and increase your standing with them. After people have seen the dialogue a couple of times it will turn into a clickfest in an attempt to get past it and into the action.

  3. Four player maximum parties pale in comparison to say, killing Arthas or Deathwing in an epic confrontation with 24 other people.

    TOR needs to ship with raid content to prevent itself from becoming a niche title, with quickly saturated content, and no long term loyal subscriber base.

  4. According to other, recent interviews with Daniel, there isn’t going to be much opportunity to see dialogue over and over again unless we really want to, such that it would ever turn into a clickfest. If the system resembles Dragon Age or Mass Effect 2, I don’t know many gamers who enjoyed those titles who ever felt those conversation systems were “clickfests,” and those are some immensely-popular games…

    I think that the long term customer base is going to be established by people who buy in emotionally to the story and their created characters, who will then want to take those characters through the expansions that Bioware provides. Expansions in WoW are driven by new “leet gear” and new encounters to run, but it’s all pretty much the same thing, just carved into different shapes. It’s thematically lifeless. TOR is going to give people places to grow with their characters. Again, it comes down to people who enjoy role playing games in their truest sense, the kinds of players who agonized over who Shephard should take on the different stages of the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2. Those stories are far from rare – and the players who tell them are very likely going to get sucked right into TOR for the long haul.

    Also, have we heard definitively that parties are limited to four people on TOR, Chris? I just picked a random number of party members out of the air.

  5. Well my main qualm is the required conversations at all. That will absolutely 100% kill this title in mass market release. Single player maybe it could fly, but if you’re waiting around for some asshat in you’re group to finish up a conversation. Or figure out how to play nice with the NPC before you can progress then this will be an epic failure. Most MMO players pretty much compare every game against WoW. If the game doesn’t have the big 3 then it will fail (Raiding, PVP, and repayable/engaging content). Just look at any failed MMO, most reviews attribute the failure to a missing element that WoW mastered and players now expect.

    I’ve said it over and over, if you want an MMO to compete with WoW you have to offer everything they do plus so new twist or element. I don’t think it will ever happen, as Blizz has had almost 6 years to perfect and tweak their game. No, sadly nothing will topple WoW till Blizz stops making new content or World of Starcraft is released :P

    This one like WAR, SW:g, STO, wtc will be niche only and in the bargain bin soon after release. It’s really a shame, as I loved the Kotr series.

  6. I have followed this game for some time now so let me endeavor to allay some fears.

    First off his isn’t Dragon Age or Mass Effect, most of your conversations last maybe 2-3 minutes if that and normally are very direct and to the point. You won’t be grilling Barla Von for info on the Shadowbrokers illegal dealings for 10 minutes here. Also responses are timed so if someone in the conversation goes afk mid way they will still auto continue after about 10 seconds. You can also begin quest conversations with or without all of your party, your party is not required to participate, and you can skip it and reduce it just to text which can then also be skipped if you want.

    However you don’t really want to skip though because the choices effect dark side/light side points which has been confirmed to have an effect on your endgame abilities. They also change how your NPC companions feel about you which effects what quests they may offer you or even if you get to keep them around long term.

    Content wise they have already confirmed solo content, group content, a crafting system which supposedly sits somewhere in the middle of EQ and WoW, raids though they haven’t announced a number for party size, advanced classes, specs within advanced classes, a “soft” version of the holy trinity, and pvp battlegrounds one of them being Coruscant which was the focus of the “Hope” trailer they put out at E3. Don’t forget the game won’t be out until spring 2011 so there is at least a good 6 months more testing to come too.

    Just to give an idea of how important Bioware, EA, and Lucasarts consider this game it’s current budget is already over 180 million, that makes it the most expensive video game ever made.

  7. As an old pen and paper RPGer this scares me – I could be sucked into my first MMO ever! :D

  8. @ Komplex

    I think this is something else that many people seem to not realize – *no MMO maker wants to compete with WoW.* No one.

    Take every MMO ever made, and stick it into a blender. Take that liquid and put it through a strainer. Then bleach it and cook it. That’s WoW. It is the distillation of every MMO that came before, and no one’s improved on their formula since, because WoW stole all their gameplay mechanics and design from other MMO’s that pioneered the genre, and then wrapped those bland mechanics into an established fantasy world, and you just can’t beat that.

    WoW is easy, WoW is simple, WoW is accessible, and that’s why people play it – and it’s also why smart developers understand that competition with WoW is stupid. Follow the gaming news – MMO developers are actually going out of their way to get on the record as saying that they don’t want to compete with WoW, and I think they genuinely mean it.

    The fact is that Raiding is not the end-all, be-all of MMO’s that WoW players want to think it is. Raiding actually deters many people from playing WoW. Yes, WoW has something like 11 million players, but consider that is a worldwide figure. There are still plenty of gamers who don’t play WoW, or any other MMO for that matter, precisely because they don’t want to grind, and they don’t want to raid.

    I already know from speaking with Bioware at E3 that TOR doesn’t have grinding. It was a big concern of the developers. I didn’t get enough details to warrant writing an article about it, but I believe Bioware when they tell me that TOR is not going to be grind-centric, because I am familiar enough with their sensibilities as developers.

    I think, based on what I know right now, that story content is going to effectively replace raid content in TOR. Rather than spending hours doing the same thing over and over and over again, TOR players will roll up different characters and experience entirely original, fresh, and new storylines. Imagine an experience like Mass Effect 2, but you are actually getting what, eight games like that in a single package for $50, assuming current PC pricing strategies remain in efffect?

    Each class and alignment in TOR gets its own class story, and the world arcs are also tailored to faction. Add in the content you get for grouping, and we may be able to begin understanding why TOR is the largest voiceover project in the history of entertainment, because they have SO much content to generate!

    I think that TOR is going to be a smashing success within its target audience, and it’s not going to be about raw numbers. It’s going to be about people who like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but who haven’t played MMO’s before, because they weren’t RPGs, but just combat mechanics in a shell. This is why I say that TOR is going to be the first of a new breed, because it’s going to be an MMORPG.

    Stop thinking about the MMO part. It’s done and dusted. I don’t think there’s any more innovation to be had. Just as WoW stole its mechanics from other games, other games will take WoW’s mechanics and further simplify them until, in a decade, we won’t recognize one MMO from another in terms of mechanics. The difference will lie in the stories they tell. WoW doesn’t tell a story.

    • Not to be a spoil sport but like I said in my earlier comment there is going to be raid content in the game dev’s have said so. They do obviously want you to re roll too but having no end game would be just plain stupid. Honestly this game should ultimately (from a gameplay perspective) turn out fairly similar to WoW.

  9. You’re not being a spoilsport at all. :)

    Every time I’ve read someone from Bioware talking about raids, they haven’t had much to say. It doesn’t seem like a very big deal to them. Perhaps they’re just not talking about it, but I get the feeling that raids aren’t going to be very important to TOR as a whole, which makes sense if you think about the unique way they’re going about designing this game as an MMORPG, not an MMO.

    • Historically speaking they have kept a tight lid on just about everything until it was almost a done thing or at least 70% or so. Look at the player ships, they already had two fully realized before they even mentioned them. So while I can’t say raiding will be “the end all be all” I can’t say it won’t be either, just don’t know enough yet. I know I plan to re roll and play most classes regardless though.

      One last thing on the voice chat… I played mmo’s with some serious lewt whores and power gamers. Guys who would never even think about reading a quest text in wow. But when I got them to come muck about with me on Age of Conan every one of them listed to the NPC’s on the starter isle just fine.

  10. It makes me incredibly happy to read this. So many blogs just ignore MMO discussion it seems.

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