Anyone who has been paying attention to games on the PC knows just how many RPGs and MMOs are scheduled to be released in the coming months. Each development team hopes they'll be the ones to beat World of Warcraft at its own game. But with the massive success that WoW has achieved, and with fans eagerly awaiting the upcoming Cataclysm, taking away from their player base is a tall order.
The next contender, heavily hyped and anticipated, is Star Wars: The Old Republic, being brought to us by Canadian-based developer BioWare's Austin, Texas studio. BioWare also happens to be the studio behind RPG classics like Baldur's Gate, Jade Empire, and more recently Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect.
With titles like these under their belt, it's safe to say that BioWare knows the RPG genre fairly well, and has the skills to move their talents into the MMO arena. We've already been given promising gameplay footage, as well as a look at the classes available to play, but the question that remains is how they plan to address the problem of "the grind." For those unfamiliar, the grind is the name given to the long, repetititive, mindless quests or sections of gameplay that must be completed before players can get to the fun again. Basically, hoops to jump through, which aren't fun or interesting, in order to unlock skills or environments that will (hopefully) be a great deal of fun.
With the increase in major RPG releases, the concept is becoming more and more apparent. Given that the grind is a way to keep players busy without having to extend the scope of the game, it's becoming a tool used to prolong gameplay by nearly everyone. So when Damion Schubert, systems director on The Old Republic spoke at GDC Online 2010 this week, he wanted to make it clear that BioWare was well aware of the problem. In the case of TOR, they had actually run into the opposite problem, and had "too much gold-quality content into the game." By overloading the game with extraordinary content, "we had, by jamming all of this good stuff together, actually made it grindy."
So to correct the problem, they began to remove the least powerful of the major missions, and spread the remaining ones out. While this does mean that you will no longer be given the chance to go on a Wookie-rescue mission, it will make the more substantial quests stand out. And in addition, we'll be given the kind of optional side quests that have become more and more popular in current titles. These side quests will reward the player for achieving extra goals (skin 5 Buffalo) while keeping the focus on the larger quests. Giving players more options "keeps the activity level up, but lets the gold-standard content breathe," Schubert explained.
It's nice to hear a developer address the balancing of quests and rewards, since that aspect of gameplay can both addict players and frustrate them. My biggest complaint with the kind of gameplay Schubert mentioned actually occurred in Just Cause 2. In order to advance the main storyline, I had to spend hours wreaking havoc just to gain enough of a destruction score to unlock story missions. While going on a rampage in a sandbox is fun to begin with, doing so only to get back to what I wanted to be doing killed the experience for me. The same experience in Red Dead Redemption, however, managed to be entertaining on it own, since the world was so artfully realized. And considering how successful that game turned out to be, I'm not the only person who spent hours doing nothing but hunting bunnies. Clearly, there are improvements to be made on the formula.
Having too much high-quality content is a good problem to have, and definitely a good sign for those with high hopes for The Old Republic. We've already been given a more casual Star Wars MMO, and The Force Unleashed 2 is only weeks away. But apparently, the best may be yet to come.
Do you share Schubert's thoughts on "the grind," or do you think repetition is a necessity for the genre? I'm sure there will be more than a few of you who wish BioWare had just left all of the content in the game, and would have managed just fine.
We'll find out how successful the decision turns out to be when Star Wars: The Old Republic is released for the PC in 2011.