So, it seems like Knights of the Old Republic Online is a definite thing now. I've actually been trying not to think to hard about that – I normally end up having to change my pants afterwards – it hasn't worked though, so my washing machine's been taking a serious beating recently.
But enough about my bodily functions and laundry habits.
We know that Bioware can make awesome singleplayer RPGs which provide you plenty of opportunities to choose the kind of person you want to be in-game. That's all well and good in a singleplayer environment, where character growth, progress and even gear can be controlled and directed with much more precision than in an MMO.
Decisions you've made in the past in a singleplayer game can have a lasting effect – refusing to help a shopkeeper from being beaten black and blue could come back to haunt you if you found out you needed a favour from him later. People you've wronged in the past may simply refuse to help you in the future – a contentious premise in an MMO, unless you spawn two vendors for every item in the world, one 'good' and one 'bad', but then that negates the point of making the choice in the first place.
One result of an MMO where player choices have lasting effects is that there's a chance areas of the game become 'out of bounds' to certain groups of players. Is that necessarily a bad thing though? If we want the freedom to make actual, valid choices, then surely the price to pay is the fact that sometimes those choices come back to bite us on the bum? I'd tell you the story about how I got barred from the local supermarket as an example, but you've probably heard it already. It would be a controversial move to make content completely unavailable to a player because, for example, the Hutt Clans have them pegged as a soft mark, or the Republic has them pegged as a borderline psychopath, but certainly not without precedent.
Realise it or not, we all make at least one decision about what our characters can and can't do – which faction we choose. Choose Alliance in World of Warcraft and you'll find your holidays in Orgrimmar rather unpleasant, while Horde players with open arms.
Balance is hard enough to achieve at the best of times (ask the original Star Wars Galaxies developers), but how much more difficult will it be to balance a game where players may gain or lose access to game areas as they play, rather than simply choosing it at the character creation screen?
While I have high hopes for KotORO, I'm concerned that it's not going to live up to my hopes. Much of the appeal and success of Bioware games lies in the fact that your choices have repercussions. Choose to kill a man, and he'll still be dead when you finish the game. In an MMO however, the same man will just respawn a few minutes later for the next player to interact with. Maybe I'm looking at things the wrong way though.
It could well be that I'm simply hampered by thinking in terms of the standard MMO tropes, reinforced as they are by my WoW career. With WoW, and any other MMO I've played, quests or missions have a simple succeed/fail mechanic – you either accomplish your task, or you don't. An MMO in which you're free to follow your own moral compass not only presents the opportunity for a game to be structured differently, but may demand that it be structured differently.
A while back, I pondered moral and ethical choices in Star Trek Online. I also mentioned that I'm responsible for a truly shocking number of deaths in WoW. Translating those concerns to KotORO, similar concerns surface. As a Jedi, for example, how comfortable are you expected to be with killing your opponents? Jedi are expected to disarm or disable their opponents where possible, as opposed to killing them. While these restrictions only rarely apply when fighting droids, it would be a poor game which only pitted you against murderous assassin droids.
Looking at it from the other side, a Dark Jedi or Sith player (no, they're not the same thing) would and should be comfortable with all the things a Jedi avoids. Narcissism, debauchery, selfishness, violence and all manner of Dorian Gray-like behaviour is to be expected from Dark Side characters. That's not to say that Dark Siders are simply hedonists, but they are the kind of people for whom the ascetic life of the Jedi simply isn't an option.
Speaking from experience, these things are easy enough to provide opportunities for in pen and paper RPGs, but having the ability and inclination to force NPCs into giving you free stuff, or murder their family for kicks loses its appeal in an MMO if those NPCs are just going to reset and respawn shortly afterwards, as previously noted.
So how do you create opportunities for genuine moral choices in an MMO? For all the good stuff to be found in Bioware's previous games, sometimes the choices end up coming down to he two extremes of doing something undeniably good, like paying off someone's debts for them, or out-and-out evil like simply murdering someone and stealing their stuff.
While such sledgehammer subtlety is fine for your average Final Fantasy plot, it can easily leave you wanting something a little more in-depth. For example, imagine you're playing a Sith – a character whose core beliefs are such that sadism, domination, violence and torture – things which are anathema to most people – are a way of life. How do you represent that in game without cheapening the experience, and making the player feel like little more than a thug?
The only answer I can come up with right now is to do so through a combination of good, quality writing, and clever game mechanics. With large quantities of quality writing, quests can be written with more than one outcome, instead of the Boolean structure we've become accustomed to. Game mechanics can play a part, allowing you to use your character's skills not only to alter the outcome of the quest, but the conditions – what's that, Captain Placeholder? You wanted 2 dozen womp rat tails? *waves hand* I think just 2 will be fine, thank you. Alternatively, I hear a lightsaber to the face can do wonders for discounted rates in many stores on Sith-occupied worlds.
Then again, there's probably even better ideas out there on how to create an awesome KotORO universe which I'm not seeing – Which is fortunate, given that I'm not a games designer. Alternatively, I'm simply being naïve, and there's no way any MMO could live up to my ridiculously demanding standards because I'm giving in to my latent Dark Side/RP tendencies.
Either way, if you can think of any good ideas yourself, hit the comments below and share your ideas with the world.