GDC Online 2012: SWTOR's Damion Schubert dissects story as a mechanic

BioWare's Damion Schubert at GDC
Damion Schubert remains a well-respected member of the online development community. He can tell tales of his time working on Meridian 59 and Shadowbane. His latest project allowed him to build many of the integral systems of Star Wars: The Old Republic, arguably his most successful work to date. He also writes regularly for Game Developer Magazine and speaks at GDC Online and many other game development conferences nearly every year. When it comes to developers who have shaped mulitiplayer online games, Schubert is one of the originals.

At the Game Developers Conference in Austin, Texas, this week, Schubert spent an hour explaining the thought process and development woes of taking an element like BioWare storytelling and making it work in a massively multiplayer setting. This being the first GDC Online since the launch of SWTOR, Schubert spoke frankly and openly about many of the struggles his team had to overcome to make the gaming systems work. Some of the ideas worked out well; others, not so well.

As an avid player of SWTOR, I saw new light. As I listened to Schubert speak, I began to understand why many players are frustrated with elements of the existing game. I also began to understand that if some of the systems and thought processes has been changed early on, players might have received the game better. That said, I also believe that Schubert's team prevented a lot of issues that could have popped up had certain elements been implemented in the way they were originally conceived.

GDC Online 2012 SWTOR's Damion Schubert disects story as a mechanic
Branching storylines

If you have ever play any BioWare single-player game, then you know that the questlines can and will take you all over a given setting. Knights of the Old Republic had you visiting planets like Taris, Korriban, and Kashyyyk, finding bits of Star Map. Mass Effect allowed you to travel from one end of the Milky Way galaxy to the other attempting thwart Sovereign's indoctrination of all known life. As Schubert pointed out in his presentation, in a single-player game, it doesn't matter which of these planets you visit first because the NPCs scale based on your character's level. However, he argued, "That's not as easy to do in an open world, where different people of different levels are sharing the same space." Consequently, BioWare "ended up kind of backing up that scale and going to a branching story."

Any MMO fan should question this assessment. Why can't you have story content that allows you to continue your quest on multiple planets in the order you wish? In fact, by the time Schubert joined the BioWare team, that type of mechanic already existed in a fairly prominent MMO: City of Heroes. The developers of CoH had the foresight to understand that friends like to play with friends despite a discrepancy in level. So the devs created a mechanic that allowed a player's level to scale based on the instance and the other players in the group. Why couldn't this mechanic be adjusted to scale a player based on which planet he's on? Guild Wars 2 does this now based on zone. Had BioWare implemented this mechanic early on, then we could have friends playing content together and have that "rod of many parts" that Schubert mentioned in his presentation. Sounds like a win-win to me.

GDC Online 2012 SWTOR's Damion Schubert disects story as a mechanicQuest syncing

Schubert mentioned that he was the first MMO designer on the TOR team six and a half years ago. The other designers had worked only on single-player games. This was new territory for the crew, and as Schubert explained, his first job was to teach these developers how to mold their skills for a online platform.

In single-player games, quest syncing isn't that important. If you happen to have different storylines for different characters in a single-player game, it doesn't matter where you pick up the quests. The only huge factor that dictates quest location is the story. Just play DragonAge and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. That game was all over the place, but it didn't matter so much because you were the only person playing it at that time.

But as Schubert pointed out, in an MMO, you have to consider that people will group up to do quests, so there has to be some sort of synchronization between the quests. If I'm playing SWTOR with you, and we are different classes, it would be extremely frustrating if your class quest took you on a journey across the planet where I had zero corresponding quests. Additionally, there were limitations to the personal story because designers had to consider group play.

Schubert gave the example of the Jedi Knight storyline. In the original iteration of the story, the Knight was knocked unconscious, then woke up on a completely different planet. In a single-player game, there is no issue. But when you consider that other players might be grouped with the Jedi Knight, then you have to see things through those players' perspectives. Do you bring those people with the Knight? Do you have them wait until the Knight travels all the way back? Honestly, the best solution is the one BioWare and Schubert settled on: rewrite the story.

With few exceptions, Schubert and his team did a phenomenal job at quest placement. Rarely do groups of players ever get completely separated if they are of similar level.


At the end of the presentation, Schubert was asked whether the SWTOR model was sustainable, given the amount of "incubation time" required for systems and quests to launch. Jokingly he replied, "Gosh, I hope so." In other words, he believes that it is. However, in a follow-up question, he was asked what the team is doing to help maximize the life cycle of the current content. His answer surprised me, but not in a good way:
"We have not focused on making our content replayable. We have taken a lot of heroic quests -- particularly the group quests -- and made all those replayable. What we have spent the most time on since launch is beefing up the Legacy system, which is designed to get you to play the other really good content. We will probably continue beefing that up because it's our best stuff."
As an avid MMO player and TOR fan, I'm concerned by this. It's not because I don't like those quests or because I don't like to play other characters. In fact, it's just the opposite. As many of my guildmates will tell you, I'm an alt-oholic. But when I hear a designer explain that his team is concentrating on a system that encourages me to roll new characters but isn't focusing on building content that is fun and repeatable, I begin to understand why we witnessed a significant drop in subscriptions shortly after launch. People ran out of things to do. There is no way any MMO design team will ever be able to produce content faster than the playerbase can burn through it, no matter how good or fast the team is. So teams should concentrate on making MMO content repeatable, and BioWare just isn't doing that.

Schubert definitely dissected story as a game mechanic during his talk, but in doing so, he might have revealed more than he realized about SWTOR's current problems.

Massively sent two plucky game journalists -- Beau Hindman and Karen Bryan -- to Austin, Texas, for this year's GDC Online, where they'll be reporting back on MMO trends, community theory, old favorites, and new classics. Stay tuned for even more highlights from the show!
This article was originally published on Massively.