Monday, 24 November 2008

Adjust Your Thinking: Story Comes First

I already quoted this bit from Rob Chestney’s BioWare Blog entry in a previous post, but let me quote it again:
What blew me away more than anything in those first few months was that this whole idea of story coming first… it wasn’t just talk. The storyline and narrative setting were the starting point of every discussion about design and even the conversations about art.
As I said before I think that there’s an important lesson to learn in that, but I didn’t say what I thought that was last time, so I thought I’d make a post about it.

The important lesson here is that, for BioWare and here specifically in Star Wars: The Old Republic, story comes first. As such we have to adjust our thinking to keep that in mind. When we talk about game design or anything really we have to keep in mind that story comes first.

Let me give an example of what I mean.

A lot of the discussion in the community at the moment seems to be, understandably, what classes are going to be in the game. And often these discussions centre around what gameplay mechanics people feel the game needs to have, like ‘needing’ classes for tank, damage-dealing and healing. For instance when people talk about there needing to be several Jedi classes the ones they suggest tend to be Guardian (in a more tank-oriented role), Sentinel (in a more rogue/dps-oriented role) and Consular (in a more healer/crowd-control oriented role), taken from KotOR.

What people seem to tend to forget is that for BioWare story comes first, and classes that people suggest tend not to be that indicative of story. Those three Jedi classes I mentioned above all are likely to have pretty much the same story. In fact, that is how it worked in KotOR; no matter which class you pick you get the same story. But BioWare have said that each class gets a unique story, so doesn’t it make sense that the classes themselves suggest to the player what kind of story and background you have?

Instead I prefer to look at the movies and see what classes those stories might suggest. One story is that of Luke Skywalker, which could be a Jedi class (all the way from clueless moisture farmer to Jedi Grand Master in the expanded universe). Another is that of Han Solo, something like a Smuggler class perhaps. These two stories intertwine and even share significant segments, but they’re still separate, particularly in the second movie where Luke is going to Yoda and Han is trying to escape the Empire’s pursuit. Or in the last movie where Luke is off to face the Emperor and Han is trying to deactivate the shield generator on Endor. Add some more classes for the other characters and their stories (like Leia who could be a Republic Soldier or such) on both sides of the fence as well as the prequel movies and you’ve got a solid set of classes.

That’s not to say that there won’t be tank/dps/healer archetypes, but the gameplay needs to work within the story and not the other way around. As such if you have the general classes story might suggest then you can look if those generally fit those archetypes. If not then you have to look for other solutions, like making each class flexible enough to take different paths. There might only be one ‘Jedi’ class (and there could be more, but it seems to me that they’d be story-centric like “outcast Jedi”, “redeemed Sith”, “rookie Padawan”, etc), but within that class one could specialize as Guardian, Sentinel or Consular. Think of it like the entirety of KotOR is really just a single class. I think that is the scope BioWare is talking about.

Classes aren’t the only place where keeping story in mind is important. Some people have been clamouring for a strongly player-driven economy with lots of player crafting for most mundane items. But while I’d love to see something like that the question one has to ask themselves is: what does it contribute to the story? Sure you could tell the story of a moisture farmer on Tatooine, but is that the kind of heroic story BioWare is looking to tell? Note that Luke’s story pretty much starts when he stops being a farmer. Instead let crafting be heroic itself and add to the story. I think learning how to craft your own lightsaber, having to gather rare parts in dangerous places, and learning to customize your own outfit to establish your character more would fit the bill, but not this endless clicking of buttons that crafting usually is in most games.

Another place where one might need to keep story in mind is when talking about things like instances. Instances are often considered a dirty word by MMO gamers these days, which is a shame since they are one of the strongest tools MMO developers have at their disposal to tell stories. It gives them unique control over the area, allowing them to change it for a specific player depending on the circumstances. If you’re asked to get rid of a certain boss and that boss just respawns then that automatically takes away from the story. After all, in the end you’re not really changing anything and stories are all about change. Even more, with instances the developers can make changes to the world, destroy part or add new parts, etc. Imagine going over a bridge to get somewhere, but when you need to get back the bridge has been destroyed and you need to find another way. You can’t do things like that in a shared environment where others still need to cross that bridge.

I can probably come up with a dozen more examples and I’m certainly not saying that story is the only thing to keep in mind. After all, it still needs to be a solid game as well and it still needs to feel massive to players. All I’m saying that in all our discussion and thinking about the game, thinking about how it might work, we need to keep in the back of our minds that for BioWare story comes first.

So adjust your thinking: story comes first.

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