A New Tabletop Campaign

I’ve wrapped up the first arc of my Shadowrun campaign and, thanks largely to the timing and the Star Wars hype going around, I’m getting started with a new game before picking up Shadowrun again. I’m running the Fantasy Flight Star Wars system, which I’m excited to run. It’s a somewhat unwieldy system with three “core” books, so I’ve slimmed things down a little bit to make it a bit more accessible. For the most part, my players will only be using the new Force and Destiny book.


The premise should be fun. Set right around the time of Episode IV, the party is a collection of Force-sensitives who were slated to train at the Jedi Temple but avoided the Purge and have been hiding out ever since. They’ve been raised on Coruscant by a loyal and savvy local businessman (Dexter Jettster, of Dex’s Diner) and kept out of harm’s way. It’s a reasonable arrangement, with the kids helping out at the diner and picking up some tricks in secret. It keeps everyone together and with roughly aligned goals even if they have wildly different personalities; they’re more like a family than a party of convenience.

I’m looking forward to running in parallel with the original trilogy, writing for and showing off a different view of events as the movie plots play out (elsewhere in the galaxy). I like the “party of nascent Jedi” concept, too, especially since with this setup I can lean on the interesting mythology and have it be relevant to all of the characters, but not force everyone to be the usual berobed lightsaber-wielding knights.

Systemically, I’m also interested in seeing how the game plays out. It’s a much, much less deadly game than Shadowrun is in general, which makes for some interesting choices. It should feel like it’s a lot less necessary to make extremely detailed plans and avoid risk at all costs, and I think that’ll be a good break from the sometimes-oppressive Shadowrun setting, where one wrong move and horrible things happen to everyone.

I really like that the system has clearly-defined degrees of success, along with a non-binary resolution system. There’s more to a roll than whether you simply succeeded or failed, and it’s entirely possible to fail but still have something good happen or succeed and still have something go wrong. It makes even failed rolls interesting as a player, and gives me as the DM a lot more hooks to attach interesting things to.

The big concern I have is writing time. I usually write campaigns for about three to six months prior to the first session, and I’m compressing that time into about three weeks. I’m taking next week off of running game because there’s an Infinity tournament that day, but it also gives me more time to get a lead on writing this campaign. Because I don’t have time to extensively map out every possible set of actions that the group can take (notably, I’ve done this in the past and as I’ve mentioned previously, throw out about 80% of everything I write), I’m adopting a style of writing that I used for the previous Star Wars game I ran. Instead of a highly detailed tree, I’m essentially writing little “blobs” of content and connecting them on the fly, adapting to what the group is doing and sometimes stringing them together. My biggest worry about this approach is that it can lead to a “monster of the week” sort of feel, though I think even that can be fun for a little while.

I’ve got a big group for this one– seven or eight players– and I suspect there will be some amount of cycling that goes on as some people can make it some days but not others. It’s a good, balanced group, though, and one of the nice things about FFG’s Star Wars system is that it splits the usual party roles up enough to prevent certain common problems from arising. There won’t be a disaster because the one Face character isn’t around, and they’re not going to suddenly have a combat disaster because the healer can’t make it that night. I should be able to run just fine even if any one or two characters are missing, which is perfect.

I’m really looking forward to running this one. It’s got some cool moments already, and I look forward to dropping the party on Taris once again.

SWTOR Class Story Reviews (Part 2)

More on SWTOR class stories today, as I finished another one last night which gives me a nice grouping to work with. I wanted to talk about these thematically, starting with the “member of a military organization” pair, because I think they work well as story pairs. Part of this is the duality of Republic vs Sith, but really I think it has to do with source material and inspirations.


For this part, I want to go into the Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior stories. These two have the clearest source material– Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, respectively, and I feel like they live up to their inspirations in interesting ways. They’re also two stories written VERY differently, which I want to talk about a bit, because it’ll come up later when I’m less kind about a particular class story. As before, expect spoilers here.

Without further ado:



Sith Warrior is, among other things, a story about privilege. You start as an acolyte who is sped through the Sith training process, handed everything on a silver platter, and disliked intensely by your rival, who by all accounts worked hard to get to where he is. From here you move to being the favored apprentice of a powerful Darth, given both free reign and high-profile assignments.

Your first three companions exacerbate this– Vette is a former slave, Quinn is bound by military discipline, and Jaesa is wrapped up in Jedi teachings. You have none of their limitations, which is the source of both their interest in you and conflicts between you and these party members. I bring up companions here because the Sith Warrior’s story is bound into its companions more than any of the others I’ve played. The entirety of Act 1 is a lead-in to Jaesa– you first hear about her at level 13 or 14, and finally acquire her as a party member around level 30, as the crowning finale of Act 1. You are Darth Vader, tempting Luke Skywalker over to the Dark Side, and it takes quite a bit of doing.

This Darth Vader throughline lasts throughout the entire story, and it’s great. You get a lot of moments that feel like you’re a powerful Sith Lord without taking directly from any of the movies. What I get a lot of from the Sith Warrior storyline as well is a sense that my choices matter. Of all of the classes, this is the one I’m most likely to play a second time, because the variance between the Light Side and Dark Side feels pretty significant. Depending on how far to one side or the other you are, the outcome of Act 1 can change drastically, giving you a literally different Jaesa depending on what your choice is.


Act 2 moves in a different direction, with you working to turn the cold war between Republic and Sith into all-out war, at Darth Baras’ direction. You’ve gotten hints all through Act 1 that Baras has plans within plans, and in Act 2 it starts to become apparent that not only is he manipulating the two sides into war, he’s also using the conflict to push his own agenda. Your role in this is eliminating key Republic officials to get the ball rolling and ensure the Sith have a strong position, and by the end of Act 2 you’ve openly gotten a war started, and fought alongside another of Baras’ apprentices to eliminate Baras’ superior and propel him onto the Dark Council. Throughout all of this, Baras is more and more open about how much of a pawn you are, up to and including taking credit for your work when you’re not around. For all that he’s given you, it’s the point where you start to resent him.

Act 3 ramps this up: in your very first mission you’re set up and left to die in a bombed-out cave. It’s blatant that Baras is behind it and expect you to have died, and this Act centers mostly around revenge. You’ve dealt with/heard about a lot of people who have a bone to pick with Baras, and in this chapter you’re working with them to bring down your former master. The timing here is great. Right at the point where you’re tired of taking orders from Baras, you start working against him directly. In this chapter, a bunch of Sith mysticism stuff starts to come into play, but it’s an extremely light touch. Mostly you’re disrupting Baras’ power base, so the details of the mysticism he’s employing aren’t terribly important insofar as you can ruin it.


One of the things I like a lot about Act 3 here is that it inverts a lot of what you’ve gotten used to in the rest of the story. Throughout the storyline’s first and second acts, you land on a planet and get immediate respect and obedience from everyone you talk to, because they’re afraid of Baras, if not you. Starting in Act 3, you no longer have that buffer and people will openly defy you, forcing you to take other routes. It’s a bit of friction that works really well in the story and drives home that underlying theme. No longer propped up by the system, you start working outside of it to get your goals accomplished.

There’s a note about the Sith Warrior that I want to make before moving onto the Inquisitor. This storyline, despite being about a lightsaber-wielding Sith Lord in a Star Wars game, is a fully fleshed out story on its own. You don’t need to know anything about Star Wars to appreciate the story, it stands on its own without the trappings of the setting (much like the Agent and Trooper stories do). Put another way, it’s a good story that happens to be in the Star Wars universe, not good Star Wars that happens to be formed into a story. Moving on:



This is a fascinating story when compared to the Sith Warrior, because it’s the opposite in many ways. You start as a slave, who happens to have a talent for the Force and thus gets shuttled off to be a Sith acolyte. Whereas the Sith Warrior is handed success on a silver platter, the Sith Inquisitor is set up for failure from the word go, with an overseer who is openly prejudiced against you and is trying to keep you down. It’s a stark contrast, and when you get matched up with a Darth, there’s the distinct impression that it’s because of your perseverance in the face of adversity, not your raw awesomeness that overcomes your flaws.

Whereas the Sith Warrior presents you with a position that you can be proud of, with others fearing and respecting you, even once you’ve made it as the apprentice of Darth Zash, you’re still criticized and disrespected by other Sith. Zash isn’t as feared or respected as Baras, and as her apprentice you’re even less respected. As a point of comparison– when you first land on Dromund Kaas as a Sith Warrior, you’re met by a groveling servant whose biggest fear is that you won’t tell Baras he did well. As an Inquisitor, your welcome is a face-to-face with another Darth, who threatens you and then laughs in your face if you speak up against him.


Act 1 of the Inquisitor storyline is all about setting the groundwork for a ritual for Zash. Unlike Baras, who is pretty clear in his authority, Zash is almost cloyingly sweet to you unless you back-talk her directly, and you’re warned multiple times, sometimes explicitly, that Zash is going to betray you. This starts early, before level 20, when you wind up in a tomb facing an ancestor of yours. As it turns out, you’re the ancestor of an old Sith Lord whose ghost is interested in maintaining its legacy through you, and helps you out through the story. He warns you first of Zash’s impending betrayal and while you’re working through setting up for Zash’s ritual (which she promises will make you incredibly powerful), he’s providing you defenses against her. Ultimately, when the ritual occurs, it turns out it was a possession ritual– Zash knows you’ll be more powerful than she is so seeks to possess your body, combining her knowledge and your talent. Instead, she winds up possessing one of your companions. More on this a bit later.

The “communing with ghosts” theme runs through the story, and it’s one of the most-criticized aspects of the Sith Inquisitor storyline. Frankly, I think it works– the idea that you’re digging for more power through ancient mysticism is a pretty reasonable one, and since you can’t take power the usual way because the system is keeping you down, you take a more obscure path.

Act 2 of the Inquisitor storyline is about gaining power. Zash’s power play attracted the attention of another Darth, a hyper-traditionalist who seeks to discredit and dishonor Zash and eliminate her entire power base as a posthumous punishment for her arrogance. This includes you, and the start of Act 2 is this new Darth, called Thanaton, trying to get you killed. When this fails, you return and fight him directly and he beats you down pretty thoroughly, using powers you have no real defense against. Act 2 then becomes about finding defenses against Thanaton’s powers, which in this case involves enlisting the aid of other spirits beyond your ancestor. Essentially, you’re taking an extreme shortcut to power by robbing the dead.


It’s at this point that I want to go off on a tangent and talk a bit about the Sith Inquisitor’s companions and supporting NPCs. The companions are (unfortunately) mostly forgettable, and you’re stuck with your first one for quite a while. This companion is a big monster in a loincloth who is disagreeable, talks down to you, and ultimately winds up getting possessed by Zash, which both he and she resent. This companion represents my biggest criticism of the Sith Inquisitor storyline, which comes up a lot. Your first companion, Khem Val, is something called a Dashade, which is some kind of Force-resistant something something Sith assassin something something ancient Sith Lord something. It’s a one-shot of obscure Star Wars lore that’s largely irrelevant to the story but feels like a reference to some obscure piece of Star Wars mythos. This kind of thing litters the Sith Inquisitor storyline, and I think leads to the “ghostbusters” critique you see a lot. On the other hand, a lot of the incidental people you meet on various planets are rather important to the story and quite interesting, and you return to them quite a bit in Act 3. I particularly like the cult you start as a quick route to acquiring an artifact, which keeps returning and being relevant later on.

While the overall arc for the Sith Inquisitor is very good, it suffers from a lot of these one-shot lore bombs, where you’re told about some obscure bit of Star Wars backstory whose only relevance to the story is that it’s the next thing you’re going to go collect. As a result of this, Acts 1 and 2 can feel like a long fetch-quest with some interesting bits laced throughout, because really you’re just going and acquiring ancient power for the first forty levels or so. It boils down to “go to planet, collect artifact/ghost” six or seven times in a row, making the first two arcs feel very repetitive if you aren’t bought into the lore. If you are bought into the lore, it’s a cool lens into some obscure Star Wars mythos, which is where I draw the distinction between the Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor storylines. Sith Inquisitor is a bunch of good Star Wars lore mashed together into a story, rather than a good story set in the Star Wars universe.


This changes in Act 3. Having proven that you can stand up to Darth Thanaton and survive at the end of Act 2, Act 3 is about consolidating your powerbase and facing Thanaton for good. There’s a bit of a snag, though, in that your extremely quick route to power is destroying you. While fending off Thanaton and building a solid powerbase, you’re trying to find a cure for the degeneration your stolen power is causing. This takes things in a new direction, where rather than acquiring tchotchkes, you’re following vague hints and scraps of lore for notes. The thread of “obscure Star Wars mythos” continues in this chapter, but it’s directly tied to the story and completely relevant, so they feel a lot more meaningful. Effectively, you’re seeing a technological and spiritual cure for your condition, and as you do so you’re putting together a front against Thanaton.

The Inquisitor Act 3 is an interesting inversion of the Sith Warrior. Up to that point, you’re kind of disrespected as a Sith and often have to use force to get any kind of consideration. In Act 3, between your powerbase and your increasing allies, you’re taken more and more seriously as a legitimate rival to Thanaton, and get the according respect and assistance you might require. You go from being outside the system and the machinations of the Sith to playing a direct part in them, and your allies and powerbase are helping you the entire way through. You finish the story having earned a place on the Dark Council, which is notably a step further than even the Sith Warrior gets. While the Warrior is a lone badass operating outside the lines, the Sith Inquisitor is a legitimate member of the Dark Council with a network of allies and agents spanning quite a few planets.


The big difference in the two that I want to call attention to is that the Inquisitor’s main storyline is possibly the least interesting thing about the class. The writing of the individual planets is far stronger than the overall thread, and the incidental characters you meet are interesting and fun, even when they’re temporary or short-lived. Whereas Sith Warrior has a compelling thread all throughout, Sith Inquisitor has a lot of good moments, even without the thread. Inquisitor’s Act 3 pulls everything together quite nicely, which is also somewhat rare; I tend to dislike Belsavis and Voss on most characters, whereas they’re interesting on the Inquisitor and feel more tied into the class story, as opposed to incidental (they feel INCREDIBLY incidental to the Sith Warrior and Trooper stories).

Of the two, I like the Sith Warrior more, but Inquisitor is also rather good if you buy into the Star Wars mythos it’s built on. I think the use of mysticism is generally fine, but I think Act 3’s direct link between action and lore is stronger than the Acts 1 and 2 lore tie-ins that mostly serve to make it feel like going to a planet and finding some macguffin or another is more interesting. That being said, both deliver on the feeling of being a powerful Vader-type character or a shadowy, schemeing Palpatine figure extremely well, particularly with the payoffs at the end.

The Price of Failure

I’ve been running tabletop games more or less continuously for the last five or six years, and on and off before that. I take my role as DM fairly seriously, and most of my larger campaigns are a few hundred pages’ worth of notes and reference material. A big part of that involves layers of failure– what happens if my players don’t succeed at whatever their goals are at a given time?


For all the pages of content, I wind up using about 15-20% of it. To use a recent example, I just wrapped up the first chapter of a Shadowrun game, and I think about a third of the NPCs I created for the game wound up getting used, and of those, a goodly fraction wound up appearing once and never again, not playing an important role in the game. I’m not bothered by this “wasted” work; I leave my games and the approaches my players take very open, and I rarely see a reason to force an NPC on my party if he or she doesn’t make the game more fun and align with the party’s goals. I do my best not to be a ‘railroading’ DM, and I provide story hooks but rarely explicit tunnels. At pretty much any point, my players can say “nope, not going to do that” and they’ll wind up going down some different, alternate path.

I can get away with this because I’m gifted with a group of players who aren’t actively trying to break the game world or intentionally derail the story. I can throw interesting and varied challenges at them and they’ll be taken seriously, but still approached creatively. I haven’t killed a player-character in years. I haven’t needed to, although it’s been close a few times in particularly scary combat encounters. Outside of combat, though, I don’t gun for my PCs– I generally feel like killing a player character is so trivial a job for a DM that there’s no real reason to do it except to curb game-destructive behavior.


As an example: I’m not going to kill a PC because the party forgot to disable one of ten security systems, or because a hacking attempt went badly and they got noticed, or what have you. It’s way too easy to create “gotcha” moments where something the party could never have anticipated comes out and kills them. I will cause problems if a danger they should have discovered and neutralized goes ignored, but again, I’m not killing anyone because they overlooked some detail. On the other hand, if I have a party member start openly trying to break the game or turn it into their personal playground to the detriment of people taking the game more seriously, I will and have punished that kind of destructive behavior by killing that character. At one point, I had a player (not in my usual group) make a point of cutting in and mocking every NPC the party talked to. At first, NPCs ignored this, then they started getting insulted and treating the party less well, but this didn’t curb the behavior. Eventually, they ran into a particularly powerful NPC who intended to make a deal with them. She got instantly insulted by the player, gestured once, and the player was cut down by sniper fire, at which point she turned back to the party to continue the conversation.

This brings me back to the concept of failure. I’m unlikely to kill players for failure; that’s not terribly interesting. They may be inconvenienced, but if I’m going to make a legitimately challenging encounter, I think it’s unfair of me to start killing players because dice randomness didn’t go their way in a particular session. Instead, I go down a different story path; failure is interesting, and winning all the time gets dull.


What’s interesting to me is that my current party has become highly risk-averse. In the last several games, there’s been a pretty strong reticence to take anything other than the most calculated risks, and any situation in which they might delve into the unknown leads to quick paralysis and inaction. At least in Shadowrun, I feel like the game system is oppressive enough and lethal enough that taking anything but a very carefully measured approach is very dangerous, but I’ve also seen relatively little risk-taking elsewhere. Powerful artifacts are left alone or returned to their owners, dangerous encounters are avoided rather than turned to an advantage, and moving forward without as complete knowledge as possible is rare.

I consider this a failure on my part in two ways. First, I haven’t made it clear enough that failure and death are not synonymous, and that the game will go on (and potentially be interesting with interesting hooks!) even if a particular quest or mission or fight goes badly. Second, I’ve been a little too balanced in my encounter design. I keep very careful tabs on what I know the party is capable of, and I never put them in situations that I don’t think they have a statistically significant chance of winning (75% or more). Combined with my players’ penchant for coming up with clever combos and creative solutions, I haven’t actually seen a failed encounter in quite a while now– there’s pretty much been a string of resounding successes, often well beyond what I expect.

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As a result of all of this, I’ve started looking into systems that have failure as a built-in mechanic. I always look at Burning Wheel as a compelling system; it creates fantastic stories and has some really interesting character creation and advancement, but there’s a ton of crunch involved and it’s a really impenetrable and lethal system. I think a couple of my players would love it and the rest would get bogged down in the mire of rules.

I’d thought that my group disliked the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars system, which I’d always thought was a pity because it builds degrees of success and failure into the basic dice rolls in (I think) interesting ways. I found out recently that pretty much everyone is interested in getting into it, so I’m excited to give it a whirl. I think the system does a great job of making you feel like your die rolls are more than binary success/failure, and gives me a lot of interesting buttons to push and levers to pull on the DM side. On top of that, it’s not a very lethal game– even losing the entire party in combat isn’t necessarily a death sentence, unlike… pretty much every other game I’ve played.

My biggest concern is that the power level of starting characters in the system is very low. It can be hard to succeed at much of anything on your first try, and you want to work together and try to get bonuses from a variety of sources to try really difficult things. Failure is still interesting and moves things forward, but you are going to fail quite a lot, and the game will keep moving. I’m worried this is going to result in people hyperspecializing, to maximize success in a single given category, and then avoid using that skill at all if the key person who’s “good at it” isn’t around. I may have to do a bit more splitting of the party than I usually do.


That being said, the premise is interesting (force-sensitives before and during Episode IV), and I’m excited to see what kinds of characters I’ll be writing for. I have a very loose sketch of the early parts of the game, but I don’t like writing until I know what my players are playing, so I can weave their ideas into the story. I’ll have about a week to start fleshing things out, which should be enough to get a few sessions going.

SWTOR Class Story Reviews (Part 1)

This week I want to spend some time talking about the SWTOR class stories. I’ve played through most of them and should be catching up on the last ones soon. There will probably be some spoilers, so feel free to skip these if you don’t want to hear them. Part of this is going to be recap, part of it is going to be review, and part of it is going to be “what I would have done differently”. It’s worth noting that I think the writing in the main storylines of the game in general is top notch, and while I’m going to be game-dev critical (read: harsh) in some places, I think that even the less-interesting stories are well-written and have some great moments, which I’m going to try to call out.


The first two I want to talk about are the Republic Trooper and the Imperial Agent. I want to start with these two because they were the two classes I was the LEAST interested in playing, and I’d heard quite a lot about them. I also want to start this series with some absolutely unmitigated praise. Without further ado:


Imperial Agent

Holy wow, this class story. There is some absolutely top-notch storytelling going on here, and for a class I didn’t actually enjoy the gameplay mechanics of, I was hooked through all 50 levels of main story. Even if I don’t come back to it later, it was worth the ride, and by itself was probably worth my resubscription money. I’d play it as a standalone game.

Let me break it down: You are an Imperial spy. The tutorial is a mission in which you pretend to be a notorious criminal (with a hilariously awful American accent) in order to manipulate some behind-the-scenes Hutt politics. It’s a pretty straightforward affair, with you befriending a close contact of the Hutt’s and working with him to clean up some messes and get him looking good for his Hutt master, who wants an edge over his rival, some other Hutt. It doesn’t matter, the main friend you make is this beefy older guy who is happy to have you around and who you are lying through your teeth to the entire time.


It’s a great setup, and right around the time you’re getting to like your new buddy, a call comes in from HQ, informing you that an accident has happened to the guy’s two sons and that you need to kill him before he finds out the Imperials caused the accident. It’s the kind of little-detail wrench in the works that tipped me off that there’s a lot of thought put into the Agent story. It forces your hand; you have to either do your job and kill the guy you’re after or set him free, but make everyone think he’s dead. The story changes the op on the fly, and you get a taste of how your support team at HQ handles situations– professionally and effectively, if ruthlessly.

This is a continuing theme throughout the Agent storyline, and it’s extremely well done. Keeping your humanity or being a soulless murderer and liar is a continual question; what are you willing to do for the Greater Good? Each of the planets you land on as an Agent is a separate mission, with its own characters and parameters, and with you pretending to be someone different each time. After a terrorist attack against a Sith Lord and his personal battleship right over the Sith capital, Imperial Intelligence becomes dead set on hunting down the terrorists who did it, which comprises the majority of your Act 1 arcs. Each mission you do gives you bits and pieces of who and what you’re looking for, while you dismantle the terrorist organization in a variety of ways.

The story also starts slipping in suggestions that you shouldn’t trust anyone, mostly from unreliable sources. It comes off as the kind of thing that desperate people would say to make you doubt yourself, especially considering that your handlers have your back pretty much the whole time. It’s a very effective setup, and though you do ultimately find out WHY people are saying this, it’s ambiguous enough that you can still decide if you think they’re right.


In the meantime, you dismantle a terrorist organization through a serious of classic spy tropes on various planets. You’re like a mix of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Agent 47, with plenty of ways to express each of them. Act 1 ends with a bang, giving you one of the hardest choices in the entire game across any of the stories and really making you FEEL the impact of that decision. It seems like it could play out in a huge number of ways, and I only saw one of them. I won’t lie, I’m tempted to play another Agent just to see some of the rest.

After the Act 1 finale, however, I expected the story to take something of a downturn. The “mission on each planet” theme had just about worn out its welcome, and the Act 1 finale was so good I couldn’t imagine the game topping it. I was horribly wrong.

The Agent Act 2 begins with you being inserted as a double agent. It instantly and totally changes your main contacts and the kinds of decisions you make throughout the second arc. You’re working for the Republic while trying not to cause too much damage to the Empire but also not blow your cover… and that’s just the setup for every mission. It turns the structure of the story on its head and hands you several compelling new characters, a few of whom introduce a twist to make you despise them. Act 2 becomes about working undercover while subtly working towards Imperial interests, all while juggling these new, compellingly awful characters who need to believe you’re on their side.

The Act 2 finale, weak for most classes, is surprisingly strong for the Agent, allowing you to finish off your double-agent career and put a stop to the plans of this Republic spy force you’ve been working with. One of them escapes, however, and you realize that he’s much more than just a Republic spy.


The third act of Agent is about chasing down this incredibly elusive character, who has given you a ton of reason to hate him. He’s got a ton of resources mysteriously at his disposal and is perfectly willing to use your own past against you. Throughout Act 3, I would get ambushed by the agents of characters I’d dealt with previously, who were tipped off to my location and out for revenge. The looming threat of having my identity publicly exposed was a spectre throughout the third Act, and the secretive spy I was hunting for would frequently call in to gloat, Handsome Jack style. It was fantastically compelling and an absolute pleasure to reach the final conclusion, which is the second most satisfying finale of any class story I’ve played.

I’ve got a lot of good things to say about the Agent, and very little criticism. The biggest criticism I have is that the Sniper subclass is relatively uninspiring compared to the others. It hits hard, and that’s about it. The only other major criticism (that you’ll see a lot of) is that the Agent takes FOREVER to get companions, getting the standard first one on its starting planet then not seeing another until Tattooine. It does, however, have some of the most interesting companions, and while I don’t love all of them, I’m at least interested in them. I just wish I’d gotten them sooner.


Republic Trooper

Talk about a class I had zero interest in playing. I don’t go in much for the whole military-dude-in-power-armor thing; I’ve never liked Halo and I have Opinions about Warhammer 40k, so the Trooper seemed like it was going to be dead in the water for me. I was extremely wrong.

The Trooper story begins with a mission on Ord Mantell, a backwater planet. You’re a part of the elite Republic Special Forces, nicknamed Havoc Squad, and you meet the rest of your team, who are all welcoming but not super personable. This is fine, you work with them, work on recovering a nasty bomb, have to make some choices between being dutiful and being humane (the running theme of the class), and honestly this is where Trooper always stalled out for me. The finale on Ord Mantell revolves around your squad betraying you and defecting. You’re the only one left, things have gone pear-shaped, and your commanding officer is Not Happy, and trying to keep the wholesale defection of Havoc Squad off the record.

To this end, the majority of Act 1 is hunting down the defectors. This wouldn’t be so interesting if it weren’t so characterful. You meet a LOT of interesting characters, and make a lot of decisions between doing the right thing and pissing off your CO, who really wants the Mission To Be Adhered To, Dammit. Some of the defectors can be captured, some have to be killed, one even escapes, and ultimately you face off against the leader, whose plan is falling apart thanks to your work. There’re a lot of interesting characters and mini-arcs as you find the various defectors, and I found myself really interested in finding out the stories of the defectors and the people I met.

The strength of the Trooper story is in its characters and in the choices you can make in dialogue; there’s some really funny stuff in there, and the characters are compelling and interesting. I really want to call out the male Trooper romance here. Elara Dorne has a fascinating companion storyline that meshes really well into the rest of the plot, and the romance between her and your trooper has some serious hurdles to get over, due to that whole “fraternizing with a squadmate” thing. More interestingly, it’s not glossed over the way it is in other class stories, partly because of Elara’s by-the-book personality. I really like the resolution there, and the entire arc feels a lot more adult and mature than a majority of the other romances, where the primary conflict pretty much gets resolved at the point both you and your companion decide you’re into one another.


There’s a common trope in romances in media where the biggest conflict two lovers face is confessing their love for one another, and that things are pretty much smooth sailing from there. Once the “main couple” is together and settled, it seems, everything else falls into place and most of their interactions revolve around being sappy and lovey at one another. Indeed, most of the romances in SWTOR follow this arc, and there are very, very few examples I can think of where that isn’t the case (honestly, it’s one of the reasons I like SAO as much as I do). The Trooper storyline doesn’t do this anywhere near as much, and the most significant relationship conflicts actually happen AFTER you’re together with Elara. It’s a detail I like quite a bit; it makes the whole thing more believable and richer for me, and less like a “hit buttons, get romance” thing.

Trooper Act 2 is interesting, because it revolves around you bringing Havoc Squad up to full strength to take down an Imperial superweapon. It’s a neat concept, and the character focus switches from hunting down defectors to the new characters you’ll get to recruit. You need particular experts and specialists, and the story takes you to some remote planets to retrieve them. The interesting twist here involves their COs, who often aren’t thrilled to part with the best person under their command and sometimes work against you as best they can.

The Act 2 finale is even better than the Act 1, with your entire squad taking part and you working directly alongside a couple of members yourself to get the mission done. It’s fantastically scripted and makes you feel like there’s a full team effort going on. There’s no Big Bad to deal with here, but there doesn’t need to be, because your team provides the characterization you want to work with. Funnily enough, I suspect this superweapon might be adjacent to the one that appears in the Sith Inquisitor storyline, but I might be wrong.


Act 3 is where the Trooper story loses me. It’s analogous to Act 2, in that I’m going from planet to planet to retrieve key personnel, but the personnel in question aren’t characterized as well. It would be a great opportunity to focus on a particular Big Bad, and there is one, but he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so I’m not terribly interested. It’s a telling rather than showing problem; I’m told this Imperial guy is really bad, but I barely see him and he doesn’t do a lot to convince me I should care.

I feel like the Trooper story would have benefitted from a better throughline connecting the Acts. If the Imperial Admiral in Act 3 had been the contact of the original defecting Havoc Squad, and more closely connected with the superweapon, he could have been sending agents to personally hunt Havoc Squad, which would give him more face time and make him a more compelling villain. As it stands, I’m not terribly interested in this guy other than from the standpoint of “my CO is telling me he’s bad and I should fight him, so that’s what I’m doing because I AM SOLDIER”. Without the compelling characterization or the thought-provoking choices of the first two Acts, Act 3 falls quite a bit short, and even at 12x XP I managed to stall out on Voss for a while.

I wouldn’t have played either of these characters were it not for the rave reviews I’d heard from other people, and I’m really glad I came back to SWTOR to play them. Even if the third Act of Trooper fell a bit flat, the first two Acts were great and Act 3 still has some great moments. Imperial Agent was fantastic from start to finish, excellently written, excellently paced, and honestly worth my subscription fee by itself.


Pretentious. I just used the word and you thought of one or two or a handful of things– people, speeches, movies, games, books… it’s a term thrown around for a lot of things.

It has a very simple dictionary meaning: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. It’s not how it’s used, mainly. It’s mainly used an an attack, a way of saying “this thing isn’t as smart as it thinks it is”. It’s barely a critique; it’s a meta-critique, that attacks the thing for daring to try to be more than the attacker has decided it is “allowed” to be. We see it elsewhere, when someone is “trying too hard”.

There is another meaning, one people don’t want to admit. A thing is pretentious when I am afraid I am not enough for it. Not smart enough, not fashionable enough, not witty enough, not attractive enough– not enough of something. It is the crowning attack of the anti-intellectual, the denial that something can push our limits, be beyond our grasp.

We’re hardwired to do this. We fight against anything we don’t understand, and our first reaction is to deny it any validation. We weld our understanding to our beliefs, and we fight for both. That something might be valid but beyond our comprehension is anathema– we instead fight against it and seek to validate ourselves in so doing.

It’s possible to be genuinely pretentious. Creators often do this, when they’re afraid their audience is catching up with them. Works will be made obtuse, defy explanation, and hint at a bigger picture than is actually there. To actually be pretentious, something has to pretend.

I remember playing The Stanley Parable, and Braid, and the rallying cry of the detractors for both games was that those games were pretentious. They are not. What they don’t do is fully explain themselves, but that isn’t the same thing. It just sounds better to say something is pretentious than “I didn’t get it”, or “I did get it, but it didn’t move me”. It’s okay not to be moved by a powerful work. It’s not okay to try to say a work isn’t powerful just because it wasn’t powerful for you.

I’ve written before about how it’s okay to not like things. This is the same concept. It’s okay to have a different reaction to things than other people. In fact, it’s pretty much inevitable. I don’t think we talk about this enough. I feel like we have culturally moved to a place where, in our little circles, it’s not okay not to like the things everyone else likes. You have to have a reason WHY, and if you do, you have to be willing to listen and try all the suggestions people have to make it better. If someone likes something and you do not, something is wrong and must be fixed.

I just finished a game, one that’s already being blasted as “pretentious”. It’s about a lot of things, about game design, about relationships, about fixing broken things. It’s about being pretentious, and about being heartfelt and genuine. It’s powerful, and a lot of people won’t get it. A lot of people won’t be able to get it; they’ll simply lack the experience and understanding to have it resonate. They’ll have different experiences and understandings, and other things will resonate with them.

I keep typing this paragraph over and over again, because I can’t quite get the thoughts in my head to coalesce. Maybe it’s late, maybe I’m tired, but I don’t want to sleep and have these thoughts get lost, paved over by the new day. I lose a lot of thoughts that way, because I’ve convinced myself that I’m creative and can just come up with more. I’m fond of saying that ideas are worth very little until you make something with them. I still believe that, but I think I’ve started to conflate ideas with thoughts, and I think I’ve started discarding thoughts, even important ones, because I believe I can just come up with more.

I can, I always will, but perhaps sometimes it’s worth holding onto a thought. I just finished a game that felt like a front row seat to a cry of anguish, and in experiencing it I felt like I could have perfectly mimicked that cry. It cut deeply, and I’m still reeling. This whole post, all of it, I’m writing so that I can make sense of my own thoughts, because they were a mess. They’re better now, I’ve made sense of them while talking around them for ten paragraphs.

I’m very reticent of recommending games to people, especially ones that affect me personally. I see myself as something of a curator of media, and I try to only make recommendations to specific people for specific things. I don’t want to recommend The Beginner’s Guide, because it’s a work that’s powerful for me and I have no way of knowing if it would be powerful for anyone else, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

I think I’ve come to an end, here. This post rambles, and doesn’t really go anywhere, but I think it has to be that way. Like many such posts of mine, I’m leaving out images as a bit of a flag; my half-baked thoughts are distinctive as half-baked blog posts. I could clean it up, put a polish on it, and make things look more like I meant them, like I’ve got a point to make in saying all of this, but that would be, well. Pretentious.

Thank you for reading.


X-Wing and Tactics Games

Kodra and I have been diving into the X-Wing minis game lately. I love playing tactics games with Kodra because he’ll dive into it as deep as I do but takes a wildly different approach than I do, so I learn a lot from his ideas (hopefully the same is true in reverse). It’s hard to get him into minis games, though, because the assembly/painting part of the hobby doesn’t interest him and the concept of eyeballing distances frustrates him as an unnecessary skill check to an otherwise compelling tactical experience. I tend to agree with him on the “no premeasuring” thing, as I feel like it’s a bit of minis gaming elitism that doesn’t add a lot to the game experience other than “gotcha!” moments when you misjudge a range. That being said, I’m good at eyeballing distances so I can live with it without being frustrated by it.


X-Wing hits a nice middle ground, because it skips the assembly and painting and offers really high quality prepainted miniatures. I think I’d like prepainted minis games a lot more if they had the quality of X-Wing, frankly– the ships look great and there’s a ton of detail without the cost being outrageous. From a purchasing standpoint, it’s a pretty decent deal. A given ship is roughly $15, or half again what a standard mini of that size would be, and comes painted with nearly all of the game pieces necessary to use it (more on that in a moment). It also comes with a variety of pilot cards, so a single ship purchase can represent a pretty wide variety of units in the game. Finally, each ship comes with a selection of equipment and upgrade cards, which is where the cleverness of the system comes in.

In X-Wing, each ship has a selection of upgrade slots, things like torpedoes, missiles, bombs, and more technical things like crew, system upgrades, and modifications. These can take a mediocre pilot and bump it up to respectable levels, or turn a powerful pilot into a devastating powerhouse. They also let you set up interesting combos. More importantly, however, the upgrade slots are standardized, so there’s no reason that a copilot for your Milennium Falcon can’t help you out in a B-Wing. It means that even purchases for ships you aren’t necessarily interested in flying may still be worth your while if the pack contains useful upgrades, and it’s a very clever way to get people to buy into more than one faction, if only to get the upgrades.


Outside of the marketing angle, though, it adds a lot to the game. Regular releases often add new equipment slots that older ships have, and can take older ships that aren’t as popular or interesting and breathe new life into them. As an example, the Rebel A-Wing started off as a fast, agile counterpart to the TIE Fighter/TIE Interceptor, but was more expensive without necessarily adding a lot– Imperial players were taking barebones TIEs in larger numbers, and the more expensive A-Wing couldn’t pull off the same trick. In a later release, which included an A-Wing with a fancy paint scheme and several new pilots, a card was added that lowered the cost of A-Wings. Essentially, you could take an upgrade for your ship that did nothing but made it cost less, which evened the playing field.

Watching the arc of the game, it’s very clear they’ve been using new releases to balance things out. I originally started playing this game with a friend a few years back, right at the launch, and it felt very one-sided, with swarms of TIE Fighters crushing the X-Wings and Y-Wings that were available. I wound up losing interest because I much prefer to play smaller, more elite forces over large swarms and it felt like the game didn’t support that. Flash forward a few releases and some of the killer lists focused on one great big ship with a support wingman or two, and swarms were a lot less popular. More releases have evened that out, and at this point there are enough options for everyone that (it seems) like there are a lot of viable ways to play.


I really like games where I can take my favorite units and give them more stuff to make them awesome. It was a huge frustration for me with Warhammer 40k (one of many, honestly) that optimal play was more about bringing lots of dudes and mostly ignoring the upgrades rather than heavily upgrading a smaller number of powerful units. Infinity also gives me this to some extent, where I can have a unit I particularly love and use different loadouts depending on my needs; it’s not the same as adding lots of upgrades, but it’s got a similar feel. With all of this, you’d think I’d like Battletech a lot, though I’ve never really gotten into it. I like it in concept, but I found playing it somewhat unwieldy.

X-Wing offers me a nice blend of tactics and lets me come up with lots of different interesting strategies. I can fiddle with the list building tool for hours and come up with a ton of different, interesting options. In a lot of ways, it’s the same thing that got me hooked on Infinity: the ability to easily come up with a bunch of different lists and then pick the one I’m most interested in trying out on the table. There’s room to refine the list but I can also scrap it entirely and change tactics without a massive investment in new stuff.

There’s an interesting pair of philosophies that come up with this kind of game, one that I find compelling and that triggers the game design part of my brain to start analyzing. I very much like minis games, especially ones with spatial reasoning and tactics taking the fore. Kodra prefers games like Magic: the Gathering and more contained board games, particularly ones that involve decks of cards as a randomizer rather than dice. We each find the other kind of game frustrating, often.


I’ve been mulling over it for months, and my current working theory is that it’s a difference in agency. Kodra likes games where when he takes an action, he can be assured that that action is going to do what it says it’s going to do with no uncertainty. Having an unreliable set of actions doesn’t bother him, provided the actions he does take are reliable. I’m the opposite: I want as broad a selection of actions as possible at any given time, but I don’t require that they be reliable– I would much rather have a chance to pull an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat than know that if I pull off my combo I win, every time. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and it bears out in how we approach customization. I like versatility and giving myself lots of angles to win from, Kodra tends to prefer a very focused approach: “I only do this one thing, but that thing will win.”

I suspect a lot of it has to do with our gaming backgrounds. I’ve learned by being, generally, the lesser player in a group of skilled players, and have honed my skill and won games by achieving victory through avenues that my opponents are unprepared for, rather than facing them head-on. Kodra, to my understanding, has mostly been one of the best if not the best player in his local metas, and has taken the tack of refining very powerful strategies to be more efficient and win more/keep winning, rather than having to find alternate avenues to victory. When we played Warmachine against each other, this was extremely apparent– he would create unstoppable legions and march forward, making no bones about his tactics, whereas I would bob and weave and strike where I could find an opening, rarely engaging and simply waiting for the single perfect strike.

This picture included exclusively to troll Kodra.

This picture included exclusively to troll Kodra.

He’s won the games we’ve played, but they’ve been close. I credit his speed at building interesting and functional combo engines for his wins, while I think and adapt quickly enough with inferior forces to stay in the game a lot longer than I probably should. We’ll see what happens as we refine our skills and play more.

MMOs on the Brain

I’m following a lot of MMOs right now. Elder Scrolls Online had a great update with The Imperial City, The Old Republic I’ve been talking about, Wildstar’s F2P conversion went live, Destiny’s Taken King expansion has been very well received, Final Fantasy 14 has a major update coming, but not until November… there’s a lot going on in the existing space.

Xray image of a human head brain

These established MMOs have some room to experiment, and in a lot of cases build further towards the vision they were going for, or refine a vision that didn’t quite work out. In a lot of cases, it’s highly successful, and for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that goes on around the internet about “failed” MMOs, there are very few that actually shut down. Even SWTOR, after suffering from brutal layoffs and being left with a skeleton crew for a while, has managed to come back and launch some honestly excellent content, as well as make a bunch of needed changes to the game itself.

I keep coming back to this, but the trend I see is that these games push more and more towards the singleplayer aspects, making it easier or more convenient to play alone rather than with the rest of the server. I can’t help but wonder if some of these games would have benefitted from a different model– rather than the server-full-of-people model, having characters saved on a server (see: Borderlands) and have drop-in small group multiplayer. It’s what Destiny did, and with its latest update that brought story more forward than it’d previously been, there’s a lot of love for the new stuff.

Much as I wish there were a more “world”-like MMO to play, I’m also just a fan of good games where all the design pieces come together elegantly. Several of the games I’ve mentioned would, I think, have worked better as smaller, more intimate affairs with more leeway for high fidelity content (because making content that works when 30 people are all doing it at once is tricky at best).


It’s honestly something I expect to see. Destiny carved the path, but I’ve noticed that after being quiet for a while, The Division has been distancing itself from the “MMO” side of things and focused more on the small group play; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s made a similar shift. There are very, very few MMOs on the horizon that fit the bill of the “classic” style– I’ve talked about Pokemon Go here as the future of the genre, but otherwise you’re looking at a pretty short list of mostly Kickstarter or other small projects and larger projects that are distancing themselves from “MMO”.

I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing from a “fun games to play” perspective. That being said, I keep looking for an MMO that scratches that “world to hang out in” itch. A lot of people will hand-wave that by saying that what I’m looking for is a sandbox MMO, but that’s not actually true (at least, not with the current offerings). The concepts of “sandbox” and “pvp playground” get conflated a lot, and it’s somewhat striking to me that there hasn’t been a large-scale sandbox PvE game. If there were, I’d be very interested.

Consider: a game where the world, not other players, is the most dangerous thing out there. You can build and fortify cities and structures, but the world will try to reclaim them, actively in some cases. Cities would be well-defended, and ultimately able to handle their own upkeeps with enough players moving through them. You could pretty reasonably create a game economy that’s relatively stable, without the spiralling inflation of most MMO game worlds. As an adventurer, you’d have plenty of stuff to do keeping cities and villages safe or going treasure hunting out in the wilderness– it’s the same kind of gameplay that some people thrive on in Minecraft, and seeding the world with treasure and resources would make things very interesting. You could play as a guard captain or a city coordinator, keeping things going at a macro level. You could be a crafter or merchant, with people constantly needing your goods and services to make things or repair things. There’d be space for socialites, bringing players to cities for everyone’s benefit. You could make it your goal to go out into the world and bring back new skills and knowledge, or find new resources, or what-have-you.

Found on google image search, couldn't find original artist to credit :\

Found on google image search, couldn’t find original artist to credit :\

It all hinges on the world being genuinely dangerous and scary. I’m not saying Dark Souls level of dangerous (though, maybe if you get far away from civilization), but scary enough that you’re happy to see another person out fighting enemies, rather than worrying if they’re going to “steal your kill”. I imagine seeing a campfire in the distance and being happy to find other players there, who are taking some time to rest while out in the field. There would need to be a lot of different forms of progression, so there’s something valuable you can do while sitting around a campfire and not-fighting. Crafting comes to mind, learning/practicing new skills, repairing/upgrading gear, as long as these things are interesting gameplay, you could create these kinds of situations.

Really, what it comes down to is having more interesting verbs. We currently have “fight” as our sole interesting verb in most MMOs, with the occasional “craft” in certain games. “Move” isn’t generally all that interesting, and we could do a lot of things to make that more fun, and pretty much everything else is just a click on a UI pane or in the world– these could be much more interesting.

The difficulty is that it’d take a serious commitment to make something VERY different from what we’ve seen. Exploring the world to find hidden libraries, ruined cities, caches of treasure, all relatively unknown and often in very scary places would be fascinating, and having teams of elite players coordinating to raid a ruined city and take it as a new hub for players would be exciting, possibly a lot more exciting than simply beating a raid boss. Being the first player to discover a new skill, or the first one to open a school to teach rare skills would be compelling, I think, and there are enough systems that have already been experimented with that allowing NPCs to do a lot of automated work while you go off and do other things would be entirely possible.

Napkin-designing a bit here, but it’s been on my mind for a while.

SWTOR Revisited

It’s no secret that I’ve been putting a lot of time into SWTOR lately. I talked about it a bit last week, and I want to delve into it a bit more. In about two and a half weeks, I’ve done the following:

  • Jedi Shadow from 50 to 60
  • Commando from 1-38
  • Smuggler from 1-15
  • Jedi Sage from 1-34
  • Sith Warrior from 1-16
  • Imperial Agent from 1-51
  • Sith Assassin from 1-53


I’ve created a Jedi Knight and Bounty Hunter but haven’t played them yet. Several years on, I feel like SWTOR delivers on one of the promises it made back before it launched: it’s very much now eight KOTOR games in one, and as such it’s a lot of fun. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m enjoying going through the game, seeing the story content, and taking advantage of the vastly increased levelling speed to take the story at a better pace and do only the sidequests I’m interested in, rather than doing everything possible for experience just to keep up in level.

It’s made me a lot more forgiving of a lot of things as well. When I originally played, I was turned off by what felt like tepid storytelling in a few of the classes– when I’m spending hours grinding levels to be able to do that next story mission, I really want that mission to feel like a reward for all of that grinding. Now, the stories feel well-paced for the most part and make sense– there are highs and lows but each piece feels like a part of a story, not a reward for doing unrelated chores. It reframes the experience to be more like a single-player game, so I can enjoy the stories without needing every one of them to be a fantastic ride.

Similarly, the new speed of levelling means I don’t get tired of planets and can actually enjoy the biomes, rather than being forced to explore every nook and cranny just to move on. I actually think I’ve gotten a better feel for what’s going on in some of the planets because I *don’t* have to do all the quests on them, and I’ve been interested in finding out what’s going on even though those quests aren’t as efficient or as high fidelity as the main class stories.

maxresdefault (6)

That being said, wow does this game not feel like an MMO anymore. I previously mentioned that I hadn’t interacted with any other player in my entire time playing, and that hasn’t changed. The other people running around the fleet (which is the only time I see other players) might as well be NPCs with broken pathing AI for all they matter to my play experience. In focusing on a high-fidelity story, which I feel the game delivers fairly solidly on, there’s pretty much no reason to do anything with any other players. At this point, a number of my friends have jumped in to play the game and despite us all having characters in the right places and the right roles for it, even when we’re all playing at the same time, no one talks about playing the game *together*. This is incredibly strange for our group, but I think speaks to how strong the shift to single-player has been.

In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Divinity: Original Sin, which I also talked about recently. The story in that game is subsumed by multiplayer– the storytelling creates a tension between the players that’s easily fixed by ignoring it and going out fighting. Even the best storytelling with the best multiplayer mechanics seems to have the problem of you needing to wait while someone finishes reading or finishes a cutscene, which is where that tension comes in. Storytelling in Divinity:OS feels at odds with a good multiplayer experience, and the same is true in SWTOR and the other modern story-forward MMOs that I’ve played.

To me, it speaks of a gap in our collective game design knowledge. We know how to create and deliver excellent multiplayer experiences, both cooperative and competitive, and we know how to deliver fantastic storytelling, but there are precious few games that manage both at once. Honestly, the only game I can think of that successfully delivers story while being a coherent multiplayer experience is Borderlands, which is a game that suffers greatly from having a relatively poor singleplayer experience. We don’t seem to know how to make games that are fun for both one person and groups of people while still telling interesting and compelling stories, and we shortchange one to bolster the others.


To go back to my comments last week about the modern MMO, I think it’s that shortchanging that’s caused post-WoW MMOs to flounder. There hasn’t been a big breakout hit since WoW in the MMO space, and I suspect that there won’t be. MMOs want players who will hang around for months, rather than playing for a few weeks and leaving. You can accomplish this by making it take a very long time to level up and see everything, but as games have sped up their own levelling process to get players to the new content faster, it’s made tolerances for long levelling times drop hugely. It’s possible at this point to have a game where you can reach max level and see every scrap of content within the first month of play and STILL have it feel grindy by comparison.

The goal of players in MMOs has become consumption rather than creation– the game has content that you as the player want to see, and you’re done when you see it all. It’s the single-player game model, but it’s at odds with the idea of a game that you log into regularly for months or years– it’s simply not possible to create content that quickly. The fastest pace I have ever seen or heard of for creating content for an MMO was about four months for an hour of content, start to finish, from nothing to ready to launch. My friends reading this who have worked in the industry are probably cringing at that number and imagining the crunch that would be required to pull that off– it’s not a small amount. That ratio of dev time to playtime should make it clear how impossible it is to keep up.

A few games (notably Cryptic’s games) have tried their hand at player-made content to fill the gap. It’s a neat concept and often beloved, but it adds a ton of overhead to the game and creates a huge signal-to-noise problem; it’s very hard to find the good content amid all the mediocre-to-bad content. I think it also continues barking up the “story content” tree, where it’s trying to keep up with the content consumption rate by throwing more people at it.


I beat the “abolish levels” drum a lot, and part of why is this content consumption problem. When there’s a clear numerical “end” to a given progression bar, it splits players into those who feel like reaching that end means the game is over and those who feel like everything that happens prior to that end is irrelevant compared to the things that occur at that end. It fuels the consumption mindset and fragments players.

There’s a grand plan in there somewhere, finding a way to make an MMO that isn’t hamstrung by its own split foci, but it’s a lot of moving parts. We’re no longer in the era of high-budget experimental ventures, which will make implementing that kind of grand plan very difficult. I think that the promise of games like Pokemon Go is that they represent a push into a new MMO frontier, where there’s space for experimentation. To steal a marketing term, the current MMO market is a Red Ocean space, that’s crowded and hyper-competitive. Pokemon Go represents a push into a Blue Ocean space, where things are mostly uncharted and unknown. Different risks, different results.

It might be what revitalizes the genre.

Aggrochat Game of the Month: Tron 2.0

A bit of a followup on this month’s GOTM for Aggrochat. At Thalen’s suggestion, we played through Tron 2.0, a game that regularly makes “top shooter” and “greatest games you never played” lists. You can listen to the show here — we had a lot to say about the “golden age of experimental video games”.


It’s something that I mull over a lot. For a little while in there, just as video games were starting to poke their heads into the mainstream, there were a whole ton of experiments going on as people searched for The Next Big Thing. Mostly what this meant were a lot of buggy, unpolished games with really interesting (if not entirely implemented) ideas were coming out, and a lot of big promises were being made. I remember it as the era of vaporware; games that promised big things but never really materialized, but I was playing MMOs at the time and for a while there in the early-to-mid 2000s, there were a slew of interesting MMOs, most of which either never made it to release or released and floundered.

There were a lot of experimental games in that time frame. Spurred by the first really off-the-wall experimental shooters (my favorites being two of the first: System Shock and Thief) and bolstered by top-tier productions like Half-Life, there were a ton of games that tried to deliver on the promises of great games that weren’t just “shoot all the guys in this room”. It’s the point where I really got into shooters; I never cared for Doom/Quake/Hexen and that era of games, though Dark Forces is an exception (and I adored Dark Forces 2 and the Jedi Outcast/Academy series). A lot of the groundwork for what are pretty standard features was laid in the years of experimental games.


A few things mark these games for me. A lot of them haven’t aged well. Some of the things that were really experimental were in the realm of graphics, which were amazing for the time but look brutally dated now. I remember just looking around the environments of Deus Ex in awe when I first got the game– there were REFLECTIONS and LIGHTS — now the game shows its age. A lot of these games have new, really interesting ideas– shooters started to pick up RPG elements and an open-world feel, something that you don’t see a whole lot of anymore as that kind of friction has given way to a more streamlined, action-heavy experience. A lot of these games can be very well described as “really great, there’s nothing like it, but it’s got some bugs and issues you’ve gotta work through”. The ideas were fantastic, but a lot of them reached past what their budget and time constraints let them actually make.

Tron 2.0 is interesting to me because I feel like it’s a game that came out about five years too early. It’s got a bunch of mechanics that aren’t quite fully thought out, and it tries to do a whole lot of things that eventually turned out to be good ideas but needed iteration to really shine. It’s also got a story that (I think) isn’t quite bold enough– it tells an interesting, very TRON-like story but it has/had the potential to be a seminal work in post/transhuman sci-fi, in something of the same way that Mass Effect revolutionized the space opera.


There’s a good reason Tron 2.0 makes the list of “greatest games you never played”; you can see the edges of the future, like stumbling in the dark watching the sun rise. Nearly every single mechanic in the game has survived in one form or another, which is not something you can say about a lot of the ideas that came out of that era of games. Even the other fondly-remembered games of that era– Deus Ex, Vampire: Bloodlines, Arcanum, KOTOR, Hitman 2 — all contained ideas and mechanics that were pretty rapidly shed.

At the same time, the mechanics that didn’t survive are very noticable. The ability to run completely out of ammo in places, reliance on quicksaving, non-regenerative health, all of these exist in Tron 2.0 and make the game feel a lot more dated than it otherwise might. As I commented in the podcast, it’s amazing to me how much the game shows how far we’ve come. We have better mechanics than we used to, and for as much as people complain about regenerating health or frequent autosaving making things “too easy”, it’s rather hard to go back to games that lack these things. Not because it’s too difficult, but because it’s easily recognized as unnecessarily frustrating by now.

I wonder, sometimes, if we’ll see another era of high-budget experimentation in games. Indies have filled the experimental games gap in a lot of ways, but there are things that indies just can’t achieve with their generally limited production values. I think that might be why I like Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored so much (and why I’m so excited about the sequels)– they represent new entries in the experimental, high-budget game sphere, which I see precious little of.

Playing the Modern MMO

I’ve been out of town for about a week, but am back now, and back to my usual posting schedule. A short break helps me get my thoughts in order.


I’ve spent a decent amount of my available free time playing SWTOR, as I mentioned before I left. In the two weeks since I picked the game back up, I’ve levelled my original Jedi Shadow up from 50 to 60, have a smattering of characters between 15 and 20, and have levelled a Sith Inquisitor from 1-51, completing the main story for the class and getting a good chunk into my goal of seeing all of the class stories in the game.

My /played time on the Sith Inquisitor is 23 hours and 14 minutes as I check it while typing this. I’m taking advantage of the massive exp boost you get for main class story quests as a subscriber, which levels you at an incredibly fast pace. It’s honestly been a fairly leisurely pace for me, I’ve taken the time to do a few side quests that I liked, to play through a bunch of the companion stories, and a variety of other neat things. What it reminds me of, more than anything, is playing the original KOTOR. I’m essentially playing the game as a series of single-player campaigns, but the pace is fast enough that I’m not bored of grinding for the next story hit. It’s just a steady stream of storytelling that I get to enjoy, and the natural pacing of the main story quests is rather good.


What I’m realizing as I do this is that I MUCH prefer this to the usual slow pace. Things are changing and moving along at a pace that doesn’t bore me, and I actually get to enjoy the stories. What it does is rob the experience of the sense of playing an MMO. I haven’t interacted with a single other player in my entire two weeks of playing, and for the most part I don’t *want* to, because this is a story experience for me that doesn’t mesh terribly well with other players.

It’s interesting to me that the MMO space has moved so determinedly into the storytelling space. With story as a central ‘pillar’ of an MMO, it asks a player to voluntarily cut down on how much they play the game, lest they run out of story. As anyone who’s worked on an MMO will tell you, you can’t possibly hope to keep up with the speed at which players consume content. As a result, we get the grind, a way of slowing things down so that we as designers have a prayer of releasing content at a rate fast enough to keep people from getting bored and leaving.

Here’s the problem: we’ve gotten really good at writing stories. We’ve gotten good enough that players get hungry for more story, and will grind as fast as possible to see it all. We’ve paired this with a pervasive sense that “max level is where the game really starts”, when in reality the so-called elder game is a desperate struggle to keep players interested when they’ve run out of all but the most minute forms of progression.


Once upon a time, an MMO was a place where you logged in nightly to hang out with friends, meet new people, explore someplace you’ve never seen, try some dungeons, do some farming, basically live a second life. We’ve stripped away a lot of those frivolities in favor of streamlining, and ensuring that you have all the tools you need to experience the content we’re creating. We’ve replaced the frivolous “life” parts of the game with storytelling and high-production-value glitz and glamour. We’ve chased the fidelity that single-player games have brought, and attempt to deliver stories and experiences that meet that quality bar.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I think that the pursuit of higher fidelity has broken the genre. I know a great many people who tell amazing stories in the MMO space, but I’m not convinced their talents wouldn’t be better placed in a brilliant singleplayer or small-group co-op game, where player actions can be more constrained for a better story experience. In the meantime, none of the MMOs I’m playing feel like a ‘home’ I can log into; they’re games, not worlds, and my pursuit is for more tokens to buy fancier gear. Very specific things, not the vague “adventure” or “something new for my house”, or “meet some new people” that I’d chased after in earlier times.

As I run through SWTOR, I’m struck by how much I avoid other players. They’re an active detriment to my experience– I’m not talking to players I run into in the world, I’m not talking to my friends on voicechat (because it interferes with the storytelling!), and I’m not seeking out shared experiences because the ones I’m having are so personal that having another person around might harm it. I’m reminded of the opening segment of Divinity: Original Sin, wherein you run around a town talking to NPCs with a friend, and quite possibly find yourself frustrated or ignoring the writing because you’re there with a friend and really you want to get out of the town and do something.


We’ve successfully brought single-player aspects into MMOs, and with them has come the single-player mentality. It’s why I think Pokemon Go is the future of MMOs– not because it’s a technical marvel or a new frontier in storytelling or raids or whatever, but because it’s building on the original promise of the MMO: get out there and meet new people in this game, who will be your friends and allies on a great big adventure that YOU set the goals of.

It’s a promise that even the most sandboxy of MMOs (EvE, Elite: Dangerous, etc) fail to deliver. Seeing other players in those games is very rarely a joyous occasion. You can set your own goals, but other players exist to disrupt them, not add to them.

I worry that we’ve forgotten how to make open multiplayer games where seeing another player is a cause for delight and excitement, rather than concern and worry (or competition, if you’re a PvPer). It’s so much easier to paint red targets on every other player than it is to make that green or blue highlight something you’re happy to see.