Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Of Jedis and Pavlov

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .

. . . there was a massively multiplayer Star Wars RPG that didn't suck.

That's what I like to believe when I contemplate the shocking dullness of Star Wars: Galaxies.

Let me give you some background. I did not subscribe to the game. I merely played a two-week free trial. I did, however, play it obsessively during those two weeks.

I liked my character, Zagnoob Thweep. He was a rapacious little Rodian with a fondness for slinging a pistol. In those two weeks I had managed to climb the unbelievably dull ladder of skills to become a Novice Pistoleer. I'd also gotten pretty far in Surveying and a few steps in to some other things, crafting and dancing and swedish massage.

When the two weeks were up, I was positive that this was my game. This was something I wanted to pay a monthly fee to play. This was my salvation.

Then I relected on my experiences. The entire two weeks had consisted of me ordering my character to attack low-level creatures that spontaneously generated before my eyes, taking on 'missions' that bore the same format with a word changed here and there, repairing my ridiculously expensive speederbike every ten minutes (until it finally got to 0% and, despite still physically existing, was impossible to repair - yay, a worthless mode of transportation!) and painstakingly searching for scraps of minerals I could use to craft ineffective grenades and weak blasters.

I realized that I had been drawn into the MMORPG trap. Let me summarize the goal of these vile creations: Provide players with unceasingly repetitive tasks which provide just enough of an incentive to keep playing. Turn the player into a rat pressing a button for morsels of food, and dole out these morsels so sparingly that the tension generated is enough to keep him on that button.

Galaxies has no content. Let me explain what I mean by first saying what Galaxies does have. It has more than enough racial variation to create an interesting avatar. It has a broad spectrum of large planets. It has cities that are architecturally consistent. It has Rebels and Imperials. It has Jedis (if you have the patience for that route). It has blasters and sandpeople and Jabba the Hutt (though I never did get to see him).

But an avatar is not content. Taking your avatar and immersing him into an engaging quest which requires emotional decisions is content. Big planets are not content. I spent two hours running across the barren landscape of Tatooine without seeing 1) any kind of creatures 2) any other players 3) any buildings or 4) anything interesting at all. The landscape is not content. I would have been much happier with a smaller map that yielded surprises around every bend, caves hidden behind waterfalls, nests of animals, farmers eking out a living, an ancient library yielding some forgotten scraps of Galactic history - which is still not content, but is a step closer.

What if that hidden cave had held a small piece of Imperial code which could be turned into either the Imperials or Rebels? And once the game had calculated 1000 total pieces of code turned in it would figure out which side had the majority of pieces. If Imperial, then their code was secure and their presence on the planet would increase; If in favor of the Rebels, then they would gain knowledge of a critical flaw in Stormtrooper armor, granting all Rebels a bonus against Stormtroopers. That is content.

At one point in Zagnoob's travels, I thought I had found content. I learned of an impending election in some major city (the name escapes me). The two candidates had much to say of their opposing views. The voting system required you to obtain testimonials from the citizens (an interesting justification for a 'fetch' quest). So Zagnoob scoured the city and soon had what he needed. He went back and registered his vote.

And that was it. After that point the NPCs repeated the same bits of dialogue about the election. I had no idea when the election would be, if ever. Even after returning a week later they looped the same conversation. There were no sidequests I could do to give my side an edge. It was effectively a dead end. What was the point?

Let me try to narrow down this idea of content. Publishers tend to think of art assets or skill systems as content. My notion is that content has relevance. Art assets set mood and tone, they facilitate in role-playing, but they are essentially skin for a spreadsheet. Skill systems describe character advancement, but they are the spreadsheet. Content unites the art assets and the skill system with a compelling reason to continue playing sans the habit-based level treadmills most MMORPGs use in place of content.

Ignoring MMORPGs in general, what exactly drives my ire toward Galaxies?

Oh, it looks like Star Wars. They did a great job of creating an atmosphere perfect for a Star Wars game. But it doesn't feel like Star Wars. In all those hours I spent guiding Zagnoob hither and yon I never once felt driven to really do anything. Even after I had tracked down the Rebellion and gotten a few generic missions to drive up my faction points (whee) I never felt that what I was doing had any effect on the gameworld.

Enough of my general complaints on the entirety of the game. Here are a few specific gripes:

Letting players build their own houses and shops is a cool idea. In Galaxies, though, the implementation is garbage. Hundreds of houses and shops are strewn all across the landscape in haphazard fashion, and the way they are streamed in creates annoying popup. Zagnoob would be riding his speederbike, zip-zoom, and then BAM, he slams into the side of some retard's shop that contains absolutely no merchandise other than ore that's selling for 99999 credits. At least impose a little order. And maybe create an Amazon-style ratings system that allows players to rate different shops, so that Zagnoob wouldn't travel twenty minutes to someplace promising sweet blasters only to find a broken newbie pistol going for a thousand times its worth.

Why, why, why make dancers such a necessary class? I understand that the designers wished to ensure that cantinas would become social gathering spots and that it adds a non-combat element blah blah blah. I will grant that the dancer profession is an interesting idea and implemented in a creative way. But fuck all that. Instead of attempting to force players into cantinas (there is a thing as too much structure), make the dancers a useful member of a group. Give dancers some combat skills. Give them bonuses to dodge. Allow them to work their healing powers inside campsites. In other words, get them out and playing with others. There are similar qualms about some of the more esoteric professions. Playing a chef is, well, it's uh, let's be honest, it's essentially useless. Any player who has poured enough hours into a game to master the chef profession is going to want compensation for his time and labor in collecting ingredients, forcing him to charge exorbitant prices.

What you get is a game that is incredibly unfriendly to new players.

And the friendlier you make the game to new players, the more players will stick around to become veterans.

Where is the Force? It's supposed to bind and penetrate us. It's supposed to be generated by all living things (well, other than creatures that have adapted to neutralize it). But other than the people who choose to pursue the path of the Jedi, the Force is absent. Why not have certain quests generate Force points, which players can then spend to increase certain skills they have mastered, e.g., a pistoleer has earned ten Force points, which he chooses to use to increase his pistol accuracy by 5 percent. Why not specialized multi-part missions that yield special force abilities, like increased dodge, surveying range boost or crafting focus? Using the Force is not singular to Jedi, so why cut off players from this part of Star Wars mythology?

As for creating non-combat professions, where are the diplomats? Here is a simple system: Have certain major NPCs with several tiers of conversation that will be checked against a character's progress through the diplomat tier. Higher-level diplomats will open up the top level conversations, which will yield not only information but the ability to influence the gameworld. A good diplomat could get the coordinates for a secret Rebel base and then sell that information to the Imperials (again, have a counter - each diplomat can get that information only once, and when the counter reaches a certain level, then the Imperials launch an attack on the base).

I find Galaxies' greatest flaw is that it paints a broad, pretty picture but conveys no emotion at all. The developers made a list of fascinating professions, but they feel more like time sinks than independent, compelling experiences. There are large cities, but they're filled with NPCs that convey nothing interesting or useful or players hawking garbage. The planets are huge . . . and boring. The combat contains plenty of options, but most battles go one of three ways: 1) You shoot at things from a distance while they shoot at you from a distance or 2) Things come right at you and attack you while you attack them or 3) You run like crazy and hope you can outrun whatever's chasing you before it knocks you out.

Lots is not content. Big is not content.

Next time, I hope they can take an idea I love and, out of it, make something I care enough to play.

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