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Global Wars: The Old Agenda

I’m taking a break from my usual “Don’t Be Surprised If column this week to celebrate Global Agenda—my current MMO obsession—dropping their NDA, and discuss what I think Star Wars: The Old Republic can learn from it. While far from a perfect game, GA has a lot to offer that TOR can emulate.

I have to admit that these two games are very different. BioWare distinguishes itself by putting story first while Hi-Rez has created a game where the narrative ends abruptly after the tutorial, and have what they call a “gameplay first” mentality. With such diverging priorities, what can be compared between the two games? Well, GA is fun. If BioWare can bottle that particular lightning and put it into TOR—with their narrative features intact—this would easily make TOR the MMO to beat.

It’s important to note that Global Agenda is a hybrid game of the MMO and Shooter genres. It is NOT fully both genres, but between them. To fully appreciate the benefits of Hi-Rez’s design, you must understand its shortcomings. Shortcomings that the more open and narrative-focused TOR already has covered, either because they’re not trying to be a “shooter” game, or because their status as an “MMO” is far less in question.

Global Agenda is missing some notable features common to first person and third person shooter games. There are no “head shots” for higher damage. While you can take cover behind objects, there is no “taking cover” mechanic. You cannot switch classes in the middle of a match. There is no option for clan-specific servers. You cannot modify the game or the parameters of a match (e.g., time limits, score limits, friendly fire). The filtering system for locating matches provides less options than even XBOX Live games. If you have more than 4 people on a team, you cannot enter a match. It is also missing aspects common to many MMOs. “MMO” usually implies a persistent world that players can go out and explore. This game has only PvP and PvE instances and a single social hub named “Dome City” to launch matches from. It does not even have Guild Wars instanced version of an “open world”. Loot is weak, resource-gathering is incidental, and crafting is largely—in my opinion—unrewarding. As stated before, the narrative is very lacking. World story is implied via cutscenes in the player tutorial, but that’s all you ever get. Even the idea of “quest givers” is thrown out to facilitate ease of use when entering a match queue. Less than two weeks from release, there is more setting lore on the Hi-Rez forums than in the entire game. Far, far more, in fact.

If you are a “shooter purist”, then you will view GA as a stock third-person shooter on training wheels with weak match-making and little variation of play. A poor man’s Team Fortress 2. And if you are an “MMO purist”, you will view it as a shooter with a fancy lobby system. Hardly an MMO at all, and a far cry from the explorable and exciting world of World of Warcraft. However, if you set those expectations aside and evaluate Global Agenda for its own merits, there are stand-out features that make it a very enjoyable experience. I will briefly address eight gameplay features that GA delivers on and how I think TOR might make good as well.

Tiered Pricing

Tiered pricing models are something I think any MMO can benefit from. Be they indefinite trial versions, micro-transactions, expansions, or—as GA does it—subscription optional. GA limits endgame content to those with an active subscription, but it would be difficult for TOR to do this without as much instancing. Especially as I have my doubts that GA has enough content to warrant a subscription (although they are adding features with every patch). TOR has a more “world” features and there may not be enough non-MMO gameplay to attract non-subscription customers.

If not the one being used by Hi-Rez, BioWare could explore other tiered pricing models. Anything that retains initial-purchase value without an active subscription is good. Perhaps repeatable arena combat? Perhaps limited to the central narrative but no endgame content? There are possibilities, and I hope BioWare explores them.

Extended Vanity Progression

In Global Agenda, characters range from level 1 to level 50, but players unlock all functional (i.e., combat-related) character improvements by level 30. Levels 31 through 50 are for vanity rewards only (e.g., character skins, armor dyes, flair pieces). I think this is brilliant, and it fully satisfies my personal preference to avoid endgame power creep at all costs. What Hi-Rez has effectively done is make the “grind” optional while still rewarding elite players who invest heavily in the game.

BioWare should provide vanity-only progression in TOR‘s endgame instead of the loot-based progression we see in many dungeon raiding MMO games, most notably the hyper-inflation seen in Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. If the content itself is fun, then vanity rewards are all you would need to maintain interest in the game. The idea that you have to provide increasingly powerful items as a carrot for players is flawed. Such a design leads to the endgame treadmilling problem, where the character is caught in a constant grind to keep up with new content. By comparison, vanity progression does not affect combat balance, but has a universal allure whether gamers are willing to admit it or not.


Player-Driven Endgame

Player-driven content, usually direct or indirect competition, provides a nigh-endless supply of MMO content. Perhaps it lacks the polish of professionally-crafted content, seems repetitive, or lacks in persistent value, but it’s something to do, and sometimes keeping busy is enough to keep people playing. For GA, their “Alliance vs. Alliance” endgame content is the primary enticement to pay for their monthly subscription.

Though BioWare’s primary hook is story, I think TOR could benefit from endgame competition between guilds. This could be direct PvP, P

vE achievements, or zone control and development. It need not be as elaborate as GA‘s AvA content, but allowing players to “own” a slice of land and defend it will make them care about the endgame after their class narrative has ended.

Small-Increment Time Requirement

Say what you want about instanced content, in GA I can join a queue and be playing PvP or PvE in under 3 minutes, and be done with the mission in 10-30 minutes. Hardcore AvA is the same except with longer “bidding” processes between matches and repeated matches are usually necessary before the “hex” map locks for the night. Yesterday, I was able to join my agency’s AvA team and play only one match before subbing back out. It was fun and meaningful endgame play despite very limited availability. And my character wasn’t even level 30. That’s a strong incentive for casual gamers to care about the endgame.

I would love it if 13-33 minutes in TOR allowed me to both progress my character and contributed to my guild’s endgame endeavors. At the very least, I hope TOR provides rapid-transit features to get the player into the action quickly.

Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master

GA has a basic “point-and-shoot” style of play that lets players get into the action fast. There is a learning curve, but once you get comfortable with the esoteric properties of the game—like how you can’t jet-pack and shoot at the same time—you are competitive. It’s easy for someone familiar with shooters to “de-n00b” themselves quickly. However, there is higher mastery that becomes very apparent in endgame play: counters and teamwork. As a player gains deeper understanding of the game and better coordination with their teammates, it gives them great advantage during play. Your class has a counter for every other tactic in the game, and if your character isn’t currently “skilled” in a way to implement that counter, good teamwork can make up the difference.

I hope that TOR provides this same type of learning curve. The game should be easy for new players to pick up, but allow for mastery beyond simple “competence”. I hope that TOR refuses to go the route of allowing random-number-generators, character levels, or ability cooldowns to determine victory for the sake of accessibility. The gameplay should have more depth than “Go Fish“.

Variety Within Classes and Roles

GA only has four classes: Assault, Recon, Robotics, and Medic, but each of these classes can be specialized—through the assignment of 13 skill points across three skill trees—in ways that set them apart from members of the same class. By applying these points intelligently, players can take advantage of particular weapons and strategies. For example, a “healing” Medic is very different from a “poison” Medic. A “sword” Recon from a “sniper” Recon or a “rifle” Recon.

TOR has already confirmed that each class will have two specialization paths that set them apart. I hope it goes further than that. Skill and power selection should allow you to set your character apart from members of the same specialization. Even Troopers don’t want to be clones of each other.


Twitch, Tactics, and Progression

By removing “insta-kill” features from GA, such as head shots and critical hits, Hi-Rez has made it far less of a “twitch game“—a game that rewards player reaction speed over tactics or character progression. Instead, the three components ALL contribute to player effectiveness. While the player’s power grows between levels 1 and 30, a low level character can still compete with a level 30+ character, including defeating them in combat. Players who lack the Mountain Dew-infused reaction-speed of 13-year-old can still spec their character to take advantage of smart tactics. The Robotics class especially: a well-placed rocket turret can “what-the-Sith-PWN” enemy players before they get anywhere near the objective.

As TOR is an RPG and not a shooter, this is unlikely to work the same way. Yet TOR can still make combat exciting and tactical rather strictly “my rock beats your scissors, oh, and paper is totally over-powered“. I would be tickled pink (apparently this is a good thing) if BioWare allowed low-level characters to group with or compete with high-level characters effectively.

Emphasis on Teamwork

As mentioned before, victory at the highest levels of play comes from effective teamwork. I hold this as innately valuable for a genre defined by social play. I far prefer rewarding teamwork rather than “forcing” grouping via restrictive roles systems or flat XP bonuses. GA prevents the problem of “zerging“—when swarming tactics are more effective than all other strategies—by instancing all combat with strict limitations on team size (i.e., 10 players per team in PvP).

It’s possible that TOR won’t be able to do this. We don’t know the extent to which BioWare plans to instance the game. Also, BioWare has clearly stated that they want to support solo play. However, companion characters, one of their key innovations for TOR, can simulate the benefits of keen teamplay while still “soloing”. Furthermore, if BioWare wants to prevent “zerging” via NPC reinforcements and world objects (e.g., defensive positions, vehicles) instead of instancing, “teamwork” can be considered as taking advantage of these features effectively when in ungrouped PvP play. This design helps keep the game social without “forcing” players to group up, something that will benefit the game community in the long run.

Global Agenda is by no means a perfect game, and it is a very, very different game from what we have been told to expect from Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yet both BioWare and Hi-Rez are in the same business with the same ultimate goal: to entertain. I don’t expect BioWare to shift their design style to match that of Hi-Rez. BioWare is known for story and no doubt intends to deliver another dynamite narrative experience with TOR. I’m only saying that there are other concerns they might want to look at, and if they can deliver on the above points as effectively as GA has, TOR will be a better, more successful game for it.

Thoughts? Anyone think TOR could integrate these features? Or is it too different from GA to even try?

Update (2010-01-23): Hi-Rez Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Erez Goren was kind enough to point out that I had some imprecise wording in my article that might mislead some readers. I claimed that Global Agenda had no dedicated servers when I meant clan servers. I critiqued the game’s match making (the “lobby”) when it was clear I was actually talking about match filtering options. I mention that one cannot take cover behind objects and did not clarify that I meant there was no cover mechanic (GA does have line-of-sight blocking of projectiles). I have edited the article where necessary, and thank you Erez for the feedback.

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