But really the main news is of course last Friday's official update. This time they released another developer blog entry written by Principal Lead Systems Designer Damion Schubert and titled "Community: The Third Element". It takes a look at "sandbox" versus "theme park" MMOs (or as he puts it the "world" element versus the "game" element) and poses that both are equally important and that there's a third, even more important, element of "community". Here's an excerpt:
I have had a long history of making MUDs and massively multiplayer games, and in working with and building them. I’ve come to the conclusion that both extremes have serious design problems. Worlds offer great freedom, but that freedom comes at a great price: they tend to be harsh, and offer the new player little in the sense of goals and direction. Many players are overwhelmed by the freedom, or can never find the fun. Often, a world is only as good as the people who have arrived before you – depending on that level of serendipity makes designers nervous.It's an interesting read and I feel that there's a lot of truth in it.
On the flip side, pure games have their problems too. Freedom is a true part of the magic of MMOs, and artificial constraints and mechanics can undermine the fiction and the sense that you are living in the virtual world – and when you have a brand as rich and textured as Star Wars™, the last thing you want to do is undermine it. Even worse, the depth and visual splendor of Star Wars™: The Old Republic would be completely lost if players couldn’t jump off the rails and just live in the space from time to time.
I’ve long advocated that moderation is the way to go, and I believe on The Old Republic we are successfully travelling a middle path, a centrist path that takes the strengths of both: provide a directed and balanced game experience inside a lush, free-form Star Wars world.
I must say though, as someone who looks at MMOs as worlds to live in, that I don't fully agree with his characterization of "world MMOs". Or rather, I agree that how he characterizes them is how pretty much all of the so-called "sandbox MMOs" are, I just disagree that freedom is favored above all else.
You see, in my view the purpose of a "world MMO" is to create a world to live in. This means that they revolve around a high level of simulation (or "realism" as he put it). The thing is though that one can't simulate everything and thus choices as to what to simulate need to be made. By their very nature how much of a world one can simulate is limited. In this pretty much all sandbox MMOs choose to simulate freedom. This, however, does not create a realistic world because nearly always the consequences of said freedom aren't simulated and, as such, making it a very unrealistic world.
A good example of this is free-for-all PvP. It seems that pretty much all sandbox MMOs tends to value PvP above all else. I think that this stems from the fact that, in the real world, one could technically walk up to anyone and kill them. By simulating this freedom (through free-for-all PvP) one could argue that the level of realism has increased. However, out in the real world (almost) nobody actually acts like that because of the severe consequences to doing so. When such MMOs start also trying to simulate the consequences it often slips into them chasing their own tails, constantly running into the limitations of what they can simulate (executing a mass murderer ingame is meaningless because they'll just respawn or create a new character). On top of that, by going through the effort to simulate that particular freedom (instead of simulating something else) designers send the message that it's an important part of the world, which is ridiculous because in no realistic world would its people freely run around trying to kill each other (not even in the most brutal fantasy settings).
Don't get me wrong, freedom is definitely important. But it seems to me that many sandbox MMOs focus their freedom in places where realistically we'd rarely if ever exercise said freedom. What is the purpose of spending your limited simulation capacity into simulating something that few if any people in the world would realistically make use of? Instead I'd rather see said freedom implemented for things like construction and creativity. Give people the freedom to enrich the world instead of the freedom to destroy it.
I feel that I must note here that, for all its myriad flaws, Star Wars Galaxies had a reasonable approach that balanced this PvP freedom with player gameplay desires (for me PvP is much more a "game" element than a "world" element, and one I don't particularly care for). With its overt/covert factions you kept the freedom (and realism) of being able to interact with people of opposing factions, had the freedom to attack others where it made sense to do so (i.e. if you knew that someone was an enemy) and still balanced it with players' OOC freedom to choose to not participate in certain game elements.
Somehow I doubt that SWTOR will follow the same path, the same balance of "game" and "world". I fully expect them to keep things clearly separate (as games like WoW and WAR have done); keeping factions separate, keeping things class-specific (clothes, weapons, etc), having clearly delineated areas, etc. Community is definitely important, but it's important regardless of where the game lies on the "world" to "game" spectrum.
So despite Damion's encouraging words on how a balance between "game" and "world" is important, I've yet to see how SWTOR is going to be more "world" than the almost pure "game" we've seen so far. His talk of how community is important is irrelevant to that. I remain skeptical.
Anyway, read Damion's full blog entry at the official website.