Hey everybody! I haven’t written here in a little while, and unfortunately things have been so busy lately that I wasn’t able to do my usual E3 post, in which I round up all of the crazy stuff I saw and wrote about at E3 this year. You can basically see all of the stuff I wrote about for Joystiq in my posts over there, but I’ll specifically point you to these: Skulls of the Shogun, Payday: The Heist (the best title I wrote during the show, in my humble opinion), Torchlight 2, and Mass Effect 3. All amazing games.
I also finally got to play Star Wars: The Old Republic during the show. It’s been at E3 and other events I’ve been at before, but for various reasons, I’ve never had the time or been assigned to actually sit down and play it. I still wasn’t assigned at E3 to see it (the folks at Massively covered it very well already), but I did want to check it out to see if it was worth the fuss, and so I did. Huge thanks to the game director James Ohlen for putting up with my various jabs and jokes at his game’s expense while he kindly walked me through a couple of missions. I didn’t quite realize how close he was to the game’s development until it was too late, but hopefully he wasn’t too offended.
So what’s the verdict? In short, I loved it. I won’t call it a WoW killer because as far as I’m concerned, you can’t kill a game that’s already immortal, but Bioware has borrowed a lot of the things that made WoW such a great game, and added on some extra icing that will make SWTOR a must-see MMO experience. The much-discussed dialog scenes are completely awesome, in my estimation — while they are a little more wooden than your standard Mass Effect conversation, they still bring a heck of a lot to actually building and defining your character as you play.
There’s a lot of smart moves with the quests as well — Bioware has pretty much separated quest and story, and while some players might not dig that, I liked it a lot. You don’t get that many “kill 10 boars” quests, as far as I saw — instead, you’re told to go to a certain place for a story reason, and once there, you can get an optional quest to kill 10 boars or save 10 hostages, automatically granted when you kill your first boar or save your first hostage. That’s a small change but it makes a big difference, I think; if you’re presented with an unpleasant bit of grinding, you can choose to just skip it and still continue the story anyway. Of course, you can’t skip too many of those optional quests, or you won’t get the XP you need, but I think there’ll be a nice balance between grinding on enemies you like and skipping the grinds you find boring.
I did find a few hiccups, and these are what I joked about to the game director. You can have a mount in the game in the form of a landspeeder bike, which is awesome. But that bike will also jump in place when you press the spacebar, which I thought was silly — an out-of-place holdover from WoW’s animal mounts. The game also doesn’t take advantage of some improvements Blizzard has since given to WoW: I like WoW’s relatively new quest guides on the in-game map and the on-screen minimap. If you need to find a quest target in WoW, the game quickly and easily directs you to it. But SWTOR isn’t that helpful, and there were a few times I outright got lost, missing the help I am used to getting while questing in WoW.
No, the combat isn’t that different from other MMOs — while Bioware seems to be pushing it forward with mechanics like a cover system for one class and a few other various tweaks and additions, it still just felt to me like an MMO, where you stand there and use abilities, hoping that the enemy’s life bar runs out before yours does. I do like the addition of companions — not only do they add to the story and build the game’s surprisingly deep morality system, but they’re basically like party members who never leave, allowing you to do group-style content even if you’re solo or only with one other friend.
In short, the game seemed like a lot of fun, and after going back and forth on it for a little while, I’m very hopeful about how it will turn out. I think there’s a lot of polishing left to do in development, but I think we’ll see a big, solid launch from this one, and I think a few Bioware and Mass Effect fanboys who haven’t yet been convinced to jump in on an MMO will give this one a shot.
This post is long already, but I did want to mention one other thing I’m thinking about lately: Free-to-play games. It’s interesting — I’ve been following the free-to-play market for a few years now, and a couple of years ago, all of the best free-to-play games were coming out of Asia, specifically Korea and China. Developers wanted a bigger free-to-play market here in the US (and some Facebook-based companies like Zynga had it), but they couldn’t quite figure out how to get hardcore Western gamers to submit to a free-to-play model. Back then, microtransactions was a bad word — buying in-game items was akin to cheating.
Nowadays, of course, things are different — Riot Games is making big bucks with its League of Legends title, iOS games are selling in-app purchases like hotcakes, and just this week, both Valve and Blizzard have moved their games towards a free-to-play system, with Team Fortress 2 going completely free-to-play, and WoW becoming free-to-play up to level 20. What the heck happened?
I tweeted this yesterday, but I think what actually happened is this: For a long time, developers were trying to figure out how to convince Western audiences that free-to-play was OK, that these Korean games that required you to buy potions to win were actually fun. But in the end, they couldn’t do that — even big Nexon titles just aren’t taking off in the West the way they have overseas. So instead of changing the audience, developers instead changed the games. They simply took games people were already playing, and turned those free-to-play instead. And that’s a much easier transition: Team Fortress 2 had already been free for a short period, and a trial account for WoW was already easy to find (heck, I’ve got three referral keys sitting in my email right now), so why not push those out to a free audience?
I still think we won’t see big budget titles get released as free-to-play, unless they’re already supported by a serious microtransaction system like League of Legends (I don’t think, for example, that we’ll hear about Bioshock Infinite going free-to-play any time soon). But free-to-play is emerging as a way to make big audiences even bigger, so what I think we’ll see more of is established titles bringing out a free-to-play component. That will be things like a free-to-play Call of Duty game, free games from companies like Popcap, and things like CCP’s Dust 514, which is set to bring a larger and more varied audience to the already popular and profitable EVE Online.
Free-to-play is a fascinating model, and you don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s growing at a rapid pace. But I do find it interesting how it’s grown — developers tried to take the Western audience and bring it to the free-to-play games, and that didn’t work. So now we’re seeing developers take the games that people are already interested in, and bring those to a free-to-play audience. And that’s working, with a surprising amount of success.