Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Story Fans vs Game Fans

It's becoming increasingly apparent to me that initial reactions to SW:TOR can be sorted into two camps: those who want to experience a good story, and those who want to play a good game. Now, I'm not saying the reactions are black and white - more of a slide scale really - but that where story falls on an individuals' priority scale is a good indication of how they're going to feel about the game.

There are a whole lot of parts to any video game, but if we're taking a huge, convenient meat cleaver, we could cut them down the middle and have "game items" on one side and "story artifacts" on the other. Most of the time, it's pretty obvious what goes where. Talent trees? Game stuff. Conversation options? Story ingredients. It gets murkier when you dive in deep, but let's keep things simple for the sake of this article. Two camps. Sliding scale of importance to the gamer.

For some gamers, a lack of innovation in button pressing is totally a - excuse the phrase - game-breaker. For others (present writer included), the nostalgia-inducing controls are more comforting than upsetting. It sort of lets us get the "game" stuff out of the way and focus on the unique aspects of the story and world.

This isn't to say that one is more important that the other. It's completely personal opinion. In fact, in that spirit, I want to like a recent article from Gordon at We Fly Spitfires. He's explaining his views on the staying power of the new game, and I think he does a great job of laying out his concerns... I just don't agree.

Well, that's not entirely true. I agree that there is a certain slice of gamers out there that will probably grow bored of TOR after several months. I think there are a good number of people that will find its not a flat out "revolution" in MMO gaming (and, let's be honest, it's not. It borrows a lot, and does a lot well, but it's not re-inventing the genre, though I do think it raised the bar significantly in some areas). But Gordon specifically states that he doesn't believe the game will earn its creators "stupid amounts of money," mostly citing lack of player retention as the reason.

To be fair, he's in good company with this opinion. I've seen it uttered - and well backed up - elsewhere. Yet, I feel like a most of those articles are only written from the point of view of a "gaming" gamer. I'm not ashamed to call myself more of a "story" gamer. I don't need or crave innovative controls or mechanics to deeply appreciate a game. I need one thing: a good ride. A solid story. Something to draw me away from reality for a bit and let me escape. And I think escapism is something TOR has in spades.

Having stuck with WoW for 5 years (and counting), it is not the revolutionary mechanical changes and improvements that keep me logging in. It's not really the story either. Rather, it's my feeling of investiture in my character and my guild; I don't want to abandon my warlock. I would argue that getting a gamer to invest in their character is the single biggest hurdle new games face when we're talking about retention, and that's something TOR does very, very well.

But, again, I'm biased. I'm totally willing to overlook a lot of the mechanical flaws. It's a great ride. I'm investing more with every hour logged in, with every cutscene, with every dialog option. I'm a Story Gamer. Gaming gamers are totally right to feel contrary. They prioritize differently.

Having made this case, I would extend my argument by asking how many folks do you think exist in each group? Are gaming gamers going to carry the day? Do story gamers represent a significant enough portion of the gaming world?

I think, personally, that there are more story gamers than gaming gamers these days. There are more people willing to forgive mechanics in the face of a story that pulls them in. And new gamers are being created daily by this new niche. WoW, when it came out, didn't just nab all of the existing gamers and call it a day. They went after new and untapped slices of humanity. They created a playerbase instead of just stealing one. They re-sized the meat pie and claimed the Lord's share. I can't help but think TOR is going to do a bit of the same. They have two trump cards: a great story and, yes, the Star Wars brand name.

Blizzard may be more recognizable to gamers, but Star Wars is more recognizable to pretty much everyone else. I have relatives who still have trouble finding a power button a computer, much less have considered any product from Blizzard. Yet, you better believe they've seen Star Wars. Or at least they're aware of it. How many Americans do you think exist out there that don't know what a lightsaber is? They may only be able to mumble something about "Luke Starhammer" or something, but I think it's pretty ubiquitous in the way only Hollywood culture can be. Will all of those people try out a Star Wars game? Hell no. But you better believe some of them will. Some that never considered trying World of Warcraft (though the table has undeniably been set by the mainstream success of WoW).

Still, I'm straying somewhat from the topic of retention. Even if new players are created and assimilated, will they stick around? Will there be anything for any of us to do in 3 months? A lot of that depends on BioWare and EA. They'll be hard pressed, I think, to keep up with the living behemoth that is a successful MMO. There will have to be content additions, and bug squashings, and server tweakings. But if they can, the money will pile up like snow on Hoth. If you have any doubts, just give George Lucas a call. I mean, Star Wars fans will pay for Jar Jar Binks (and complain about it, but pay we did). BioWare has to only do slightly better than freaking Jar Jar.

I guess I'm just saying: don't underestimate the power of the Dark Side.

6 comments:

  1. Well said, Ful. Trust me, you're not alone in just wanting a great story out of your game. As you may remember, I have an entire podcast dedicated to just that with enough listeners to make that argument. Is the gameplay revolutionary? No, but I have to say the small tweaks they've made to the formula mean I'm having far more fun playing TOR than I have WoW over the past several years, or ever in many similar games.

    I think the main thing people are getting wrong is they think TOR has to pull in WoW-level subscription numbers, which isn't the case. The game will not be a failure with less than 5 million subscribers. Hell, if they can capture even the smallest fraction of WoW's numbers, in the single-digits of percentages, the game will be just fine, if it can keep those numbers for an extended period of time. That is why the story elements will keep TOR around where so many other recent MMOs have faltered. It's one thing to capture an audience, and another thing entirely to keep it.

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  2. Right, and - even then - I have to believe that the pool of gamers for TOR is far bigger vanilla WoW was. There are simply more gamers now, and more Star Wars fans at the start than there were Warcraft fans at the start of WoW.

    I mean, when did WoW hit the 5 million mark? Was it two years in? Three? How long does SW:TOR have before we declare failure/not failure? It's unreasonable to expect any game to have 5 million people jump in and everyone stay. Even WoW has post-new-release peaks. The true trend can only really be calculated with many months of game time.

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  3. WoW was at 4 million players by year three. And the problem with Gordon's article is that it does seem to be taken from the context of a 'gaming' gamer; one who cares more for mechanics, numbers, and the endgame raiding scene. That type of opinion just doesn't speak to us, and therefore we have problems understanding. For me, and I suspect for you too Ful, the game itself is the journey we like being on. I'm immersed in my agent's story and I'm honestly overlooking most of the flaws I see; the music cutting out, the ability delay after keypress, the UI errors. For us, the story being told is paramount, and what happens after is just icing on the cake.

    What Bioware has done has taken two completely different segments of players and mashed them together in the same room. You have the numbers guys and the story guys. The numbers guys you gotta have; they provide purpose for your endgame activities like raiding, serious PvP, and crafting. They tend to write huge blog posts about tiny numbers that add to up to a dead boss. Then you have the story guys who are in for the RP/plot elements. We give perspective to the lore and pride ourselves on finding the hidden messages, examining where the plot is going, and making sense of this galactic war.

    Let's be honest, WoW was purely numbers first, plot second. It was an MMO designed to be an MMO and raiding was its 'thang.' The story was there, but it was so infantile in its complexity that it barely counted.

    Now we get to Bioware, where they have given equal (if not more) credence to story over numbers. This leads to friction in the community; is this a story game or a numbers game? The prototypical MMO numbers guy thinks this is a huge gaffe. He sees errors, inconsistencies, and imbalance. The prototypical MMO story guy sees something different; a massive galaxy full of plots, double-crosses, intrigue, romance, and war.

    Now, can Bioware get these two disparate communities on the same page? Can they get raiding guy and plot guy together so that they can live in harmony?

    Probably not, but that's ok. They're doing something here on a scale that's astonishing. They're making a story-driven MMO, the first of its kind of this magnitude (apologies to all who think otherwise). I'll be happy if the raiding is fun and the story remains paramount; and I'm sure Gordon would disagree. There will probably be two camps at war with each other as long as this game is around; raiders vs. storytellers. Much like PvE vs. PvP in the WoW community. It will probably be ugly and heated. But hey, diamonds aren't forged without pressure, right?

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  4. Yep.

    And, as has been pointed out, the catch of emphasizing story is what to do when the story runs out. That is, how do you construct a sustainable end game around story? We know how to do it around mechanics and numbers, but story? That's the real challenge for BioWare, I think. I'm not sure how to answer that myself. The true test will be six months or a year from now... what will be saying about the story then? Have they kept up? Kept the story folks happy?

    Only time will tell.

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  5. I have a slightly different take on all of this. I've been trying to argue that because of personal taste and the desire of humans to fulfill it NOW that no game will ever see the 11+ million paid subscribers again. In fact WOW will never see those numbers again probably falling to 6 million just before the Pandas come out.

    I use TV as an example. The base of TV watchers has grown but the days of a program dominating the rating are long over. Will we ever see a seriers get 50% of the audiance ever again? There are cable channels for just about every possible consumer taste. So while the base expanded the proliferation of cable channels dilute it more then the expansion of the base.

    Video games are bigger in money than the music industry. I thinks its inevitable for the various publishers to start to seek out a niche market and cater to it.

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  6. That is very possible. I don't really see it as a bad thing either, so long as someone is covering MY niche.

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