Remember back when Star Wars the Old Republic was still new, and there was a bit of a debate about whether it was The New Awesome, or a poor execution of a fundamentally flawed design? Often there were comparisons drawn between SWTOR and Guild Wars 2, which was interesting since the latter game wasn’t (and still isn’t) yet released. Now that I’ve played both games, I think I get why.
On Twitter, I took SWTOR to task for not having a mouselook-toggle. If you want to look around, you have to hold either mouse button while you move the mouse. There is no setting or option that will let you click to switch between “looking around” mode and “clicking on stuff” mode. Some people thought I was being petty for complaining about this, but it’s an important aspect of the game and it goes way beyond “my hand gets tired holding the button down all the time”. By making the interface default to a mouse-pointer mode, the game is telling you that the normal interaction is to click buttons and menus. This isn’t just about how the game plays, but about what kind of game you’re playing in the first place. Or to put it more accurately, it tells you how the designers intended for you to interact with the game.
The interface of Sim City has clicking menus and placing objects with the mouse. You press your mouse button in order to press an on-screen button in order to perform an action. There’s a layer of abstraction at work that keeps the game at arm’s length. The interface of Doom 3 has you looking around and moving directly, without the middleman of on-screen buttons. You don’t bring up your PDA to decide who to attack, you just look at him and pull the trigger.
Neither experience is invalid. The menu-clicking one is more abstract and distant, and is more appropriate for strategy situations where you’re making granular, long-term decisions or choosing from a large list of possibilities. The action interface is better for fast-paced gameplay where you’re making many moment-to-moment decisions that shape the course of a single encounter.
In SWTOR, the game is at the bottom, and the visuals are just window dressing. Ugly window dressing, if you believe what some people are saying.
Even if you use hotkeys to activate those powers at the bottom instead of using the mouse, that bar is still the center of the gameplay. You need to manage your cooldowns, and trigger your powers in the most efficient order. You don’t choose target by aiming at them, you choose them by selecting them with the mouse or by pressing TAB.
In a game like Jedi Knight, Force Unleashed, or Republic Commando, you don’t spend all your time looking at your health bar and ammo count at the bottom. You spend it looking at the world in front of you. In fact, designers go out of their way to add as much information to the world as they can so you don’t need to look down very often. When you get shot the view kicks, your character cries out, and there’s a red flash to indicate the severity of the hit. In some games there’s even a directional arrow to go with it, so you know which direction the damage is coming from. You know you’ve been shot, and you should have a pretty good idea of how hard you were hit. All without needing to look away from the game.
In an online game, this is replaced with a health bar at the bottom, which you monitor during the process of clicking on things. You know your enemy is about to die when you see his bar get low.
As you go around the world, you’ll run into various types of enemies, like this guy:
Farkus here has the same character model as other mooks in the area. If you look closely, you can see a little silver pip to the right of his name, indicating he’s a special. But beyond that? Nothing. What level is he? What kind of foe is he? I made the mistake of attacking this guy to find out, and was dead within seconds. After it was over, I was mad that the game didn’t tell me what I was looking at. But the game did. I just wasn’t looking at the game.
I was looking at the window dressing and mistaking it for the game. The game is at the bottom.
The reason I died is because of the other guy. The guy standing to the left of Dev Farkus.
Let’s just ignore that he’s the same color as the environment. Actually, let’s not ignore that. It’s stupid. And don’t make an argument that this is ‘camouflage’ for the sake of realism, because I will beat you over the head with the other ten thousand oddities, absurdities, and contrivances that make up this area. This is not a sudden, dramatic shift towards gritty simulation of warfare, this is the result of Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V game design and one-note art direction.
If you’re looking at the middle of the screen, the guy standing up doesn’t look like anything special. He’s wearing the same armor as most of the rest of the guys in this zone. But if you’re looking at the game, then you’ll see that the guy on the left is:
NOW we can see he’s a badass. We can see his level. We can see he’s an elite. We can even see he’s a melee-based foe. Take a shot at Farkus and this guy will wreck your day.
In a game like Borderlands, you can spot an elite right away: They’re huge. They have OMG GLOWING EYES LOOK OUT! They often have distinctive armor or combat taunts. You don’t need to check your dashboard and tab through a cluster of foes to know who the troublemakers are, because that information is already in front of you. In fact:
Note that the Skag on the right isn’t highlighted, but you can still tell he’s the dangerous one. On top of this crucial little datum, you can see your weapon, what foes you’re dealing with, their relative strength, and which ones are elites, all without taking your eyes off the action. Compare this to an online game like SWTOR, where you could go through an entire battle with the top 90% of your screen blacked out and still have great odds of surviving.
Despite its pretense at action, SWTOR is very much an old-school MMO. It’s a fussy little game about babysitting abilities on your hotbar, watching cooldown timers, and monitoring health bars as they go up and down. In the early days of online gaming, this was a necessity. Most people were on dial-up. By making a game built around a hotbar, they could make a game that was much more tolerant of low framerates and terrible network latency. Online games were basically a new kind of chatroom. You camped in a single spot for hours, beating down the same cluster of mobs as they respawned every few minutes.
But we’re about a decade past those technological limitations. An online game is free to move towards more action-oriented gameplay if that’s what they want.
This is where the Guild Wars 2 comparisons come in. A lot of people are eager for online games to evolve into something more like regular games. They want a tight experience with solid mechanics. They want a third-person action game with a connected world, not a third-generation Everquest knock-off. The superhero games have been at the forefront of this, but now we’re seeing some quasi-medieval fantasy games like Tera and Guild Wars 2 try their hand at turning the looting & leveling games into action games.
SWTOR occupies such a strange spot on the spectrum. It arguably looks more action-oriented than World of Warcraft, but in terms of actual gameplay mechanics and focus it’s cut from the same cloth. It might even be a step back. I don’t know. Some of it is fast paced, but other parts aren’t, and I’m not even sure if the developer understood what they were doing. It’s entirely possible they thought that making a game more “action oriented” meant adding explosions and speeding up the cooldown timers.
As I mentioned in our recent hangout: I’m a fan of single-player action / roleplaying hybrids, especially ones that offer a lot of exploration. Randy is almost exclusively a PvP player, to the point where he almost never bothers with single player games. Josh likes a little bit of everything, including hardcore number-crunchy games like Crusader Kings 2. We’re three totally different types of players, and yet we’re all excited for Guild Wars 2 after playing the beta. In fact, I stopped playing the beta for a while because I didn’t want to spoil too much of the game before it was really finished.
Again, this doesn’t mean Guild Wars 2 is unambiguously better. The point I’m making is that Guild Wars 2 has a very deliberate identity and set of design principles that push online gaming in a new direction, while SWTOR is a muddled Frankenstein’s Monster of established MMO gameplay conventions. Its parts are stitched together from existing successful games and they don’t always seem to satisfy. This is a game that does things because that’s how we’ve always done things. (And then it does them poorly.)
Two hundred million is a lot of bucks. I wouldn’t buy a new car without making sure the driving felt just right. Game designers really ought to make sure they have a game prototype that feels right before they start shoving sacks of money into the game-o-tron.