I know in my last column I said I would continue the story of Nomi Sunrider, and I will, just not this week. I felt Jef's Soapbox article about the hype surrounding Star Wars: The Old Republic required some sort of response.
The denotation of "hype" doesn't bother me. Stimulating the audience's excitement about a game is kind of the job of a game's producers. Teasing people with parts of the story or gameplay is common. It's the connotation of "hype" that drives me bats when people apply it to STWOR. Nearly every person, who uses "hype" when talking about SWTOR, seems to indicate that BioWare and LucasArts are attempting to sell the audience something that is not truly what it is. Do they tease? Sure, but the BioWare PR managers are not selling you death sticks. I contest that the people who are selling the death sticks are the fans.
Follow after the break and I will explain.
Personally, when I think of hype by gaming developers, the first thing that comes to mind is another recent LucasArts game: the Force Unleashed. The majority of the advertising and interviews were about the revolutionary physics engine, and how it was going to change the way games were made. I was super excited to get my hands on the game and see this groundbreaking work in action. When I sat down and played through the first level -- you know the one where you play Darth Vader, the most powerful Force user in the galaxy -- I threw around some Wookiees, but at the end of the level it seemed to work just as poorly as any other action game. All the promises of being something that would make me feel more immersed and extremely powerful in the Force just fell through when the controls -- and even the physics they advertised -- were just as clunky as any other action game. Don't get me wrong. For what it was, it was a decent game, but it did not live up to what they promised.
On the flip side, I do not see BioWare making those same claims (at least not officially). The only really bold claims they have made have been regarding the fourth pillar, which I will speak about in just a bit. The bold claims have been made by the fans themselves. The couple of examples that come to my head immediately are Darth Hater and Mos Eisley Radio. Both of these fan sites are great. They, honestly, have the best people working for them, so I feel it's safe to use them as an example. I have great respect for both sites. When I first started working at Massively, Darth Hater ran a story about Brentaal, the planet Satele Shan is from. Granted, it was all speculation. It was huge, not because it was wrong -- it wasn't -- but because it really hit home with fans of Knights of the Old Republic by mentioning swoop races, political gameplay, and economic strategy. However, it made "promises" that aren't likely to come to pass. Another example is Mos Eisley Radio reporting on Matt "AdeptStrain" Boudreaux moving from Star Wars Galaxies to SWTOR. They quoted my article about his extensive work on SWG's appearance tab, but they took it to a hyperbolic end. They suggested that because AdeptStrain was working on SWTOR that there would be an appearance tab for the game. Now, there may be an appearance tab in SWTOR, but I'm sure it has nothing to do with AdeptStrain's work at BioWare. Darth Hater and Mos Eisley Radio are very respected sources for The Old Republic information. I don't think they shouldn't speculate, but it does show that if the respected sources are adding to the hype, then the thousands of people on the forums and other media outlets are compounding the hype-ractive material. (Yes, even Massively is doing it. And by "Massively," I mean "me.")
The only piece of hype (an ingenious or questionable claim), I can think of to come from the developer's camp is that PAX would be the biggest event for them in North America. Although that is probably factual, it did not seem that they put in half the effort as many of the other studios that were there (*cough*Guild Wars 2*cough*). Otherwise, BioWare has been very careful about what and how materials are presented. Rich Vogel said very specifically to us, "What we try to do is not talk about things that are not finalized yet because we don't want to over-hype things. That's kind of why people are frustrated because we haven't revealed a lot. A lot of people hype things that just don't come to fruition and get people very frustrated." This has been reiterated by Blaine Christine, Daniel Erickson, and nearly every other SWTOR developer who has been interviewed.
Hopefully, by this point, we know that BioWare can tell a good story. Yes, part of the reason Mass Effect was so popular was because nerd-virgins were finally able to see a little sex and side-boob in video game, but the games that preceded (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, KOTOR) were incredible RPGs that really knew the meaning of roleplaying game. Jef admits in his article that BioWare has had the ability to make us enjoy the story of this sometimes trite franchise, "Yes, BioWare ... [has] managed to wring some actual artistic merit from the cash machine in recent years..." If I were to play a pure pen-and-paper RPG right now, I'd want BioWare's author's to write it.
I don't like to use "booth speak" as a source of information, but when, at PAX, Daniel Erickson said that part of what BioWare is trying to do is to bring back that pen-and-paper feel in the MMO space, it really hit home. I agreed with him, that if a GM did not have an event prepared for me when I came over to his house, I probably would not play the game. Jef 's Soapbox article reads, "the story my friends and I will create is better," as he looks for more player-generated gameplay in an MMO. I am not against player-generated content, I was one of the first to back the Chronicle Master profession in SWG, and if you look at Remahr's event this weekend in Blacksands, Tatooine (Starsider server), you will see how masterfully player-generated content can be pulled off. But one only has to spend a few minutes in the Mos Eisley Cantina or buy a Chronicle Holocron from some random player to realize that most people just do not have what it takes to make good use of player-generated content. How many times have you attended an event in your favorite MMORPG and said, "Wow, that really sucked"? I have to say that I have not been impressed by the majority of them, even the ones I've planned. I think I'd rather have professional writers doing my gamemastering, thank you. I think the ability to do a massive true RPG with thousands of people and professional writers is "taking advantage of what makes MMOs special," as Richard Bartle said.
Perhaps this article is a bit on the fanboy side, but I am a skeptic as well as a fan of the Star Wars franchise. I dislike the prequels. I think the NGE was crap (even if it has gotten better since). I believe most LucasArts games are terrible hacks of existing popular properties just to cash in on the Star Wars name. I even don't like to read a vast majority of expanded universe novels because of poor quality. There is one thing that Jef and I agree on: BioWare and LucasArts have already won. We may both cautiously optimistic, but, I guess, I lean more on the optimistic side.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!