Written By: Zachary LaBarge
With less than two months until release, there’s little that many of us can do beyond trawling the internet for whatever information we can find in a vain attempt to quench our impatience. It is while gathering all of these bits of information that some of the broader points begin to surface. The very skeletal structure of the game itself, what makes it a “game” in the first place. So now, after months of developer articles, interviews, and con videos, we’re starting to get a picture of at least one: How difficult is Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Admittedly, the overall difficulty is not an easy thing to quantify. A young pre-teen Star Wars fan has a very different idea of “hard” than a seasoned raider that needs both hands to list his MMO experience, and BioWare needs to satisfy both of these groups. But how do they go about doing that? If one person wants what amounts to an interactive movie, while another prefers a multi-dimensional chess set, where do you draw the line to balance between the two? Short answer is you can’t.
The difficulty of a subject such as this comes from its immensity. The entire game influences how challenging it is, from gameplay as complex as operations and PvP, to something as simple as death and respawning. Some challenges aren’t even technically part of the gameplay itself; finding a group of like-minded players large enough to attempt The Old Republic’s numerous Operations could be a challenge all its own, as it has been proven to be in other games.
That’s How I Roll
One of the simplest indicators of difficulty regarding end game content is group size. It’s been on the books for a while that the maximum operation size is 16, with an easier 8-man option. Any veteran of MMOs can tell you that’s small. World of Warcraft, initially running 40-man raids, has since tailored its raids sizes down to 10 and 25-man options. Rift runs with a 20-man system, and even Everquest 2 is limited to 24.
BioWare’s decision to run with a smaller raid size tells us that they want Operations to be as accessible to as many players as possible. With the larger of the two setups still sporting a maximum size smaller than most of the other big MMO’s out there, we can reasonably expect it to be easier to get a raid together than in other games. Mind you, we don’t know that the fights will be easy, but the first threshold to raiding has always been getting a proper group together, and in The Old Republic it seems to be comparatively simple to do so.
Troopers Don’t Fear The Reaper
The penalties of death in an MMO can truly set the tone for any players working through the levels, and The Old Republic will not be the exception. BioWare’s Lead Combat Designer Damion Schubert left this gem in the forums earlier this year explaining his philosophy on death (the gaming sort, the guy’s not Sartre). He makes two key points; harsh death penalties deter player creativity and risk taking, and that BioWare intends for the “difficulty” of their game to come from the combat, not from the death penalties.
Georg Zoeller said:
“The first time you die, you have the option to summon the probe almost immediately or return to a med center. If a friend tries to restore you instead, the probe option is replaced by the ‘accept help’ button.
The second time you die (within 30 minutes), the timer to call the probe is 20 seconds.
From there on, the time increases so you’ll probably want to go to a medical center instead (which will restore the initial timer).”
Minor gear penalties and no corpse runs, this system is designed to be as accommodating as possible without being cheap. At the same time however, it is a far cry from the corpse runs and durability hits we see in games like World of Warcraft and Rift. Going back further to games like Ultima Online and Everquest we see even harsher penalties. Bottom line? The death penalty in The Old Republic is incredibly lenient. There is a much more important line in Georg’s post however; a direct comment regarding the difficulty of the game.
Just How Many Wampas Can Fit in an Ice Cave?
Georg Zoeller said (June 7th, 2011):
“Our testers also commented that they liked the more challenging content compared to other MMOs (no, Daniel’s demo wasn’t showing that, since running harder content and talking and answering interview questions is a bit much to ask of a writer.)”
Flashpoint and Operation difficulty has been tough to gauge. Combat videos released by BioWare, while showing content, give us little idea as to how experienced or geared up the players are. The first fight from the Eternity Vault looked relatively easy, and that’s why Georg’s quote is so important. He implies that harder content was either staged or not shown. As the fight shown is the first boss of the Eternity Vault in the 8-man operation, his comment is likely to hold water.
Even more important, we have a developer statement regarding the play experience of the beta testers, information we don’t see much of under the NDA. Knowing that the beta testers enjoy the “more challenging content compared to other MMOs” is a pretty big deal. Even if this isn’t completely accurate, just some PR mumbo jumbo, it indicates BioWare’s awareness of the importance of challenging content to its player-base. With the developer videos showing us just how exciting the gameplay looks, it is extremely reassuring to hear that the general populace finds it challenging as well, especially after reading press reviews such as this one. Developer blogs such as World Designer Jesse Sky’s further reinforce that we should expect coordination with our teammates to be extremely necessary, adding to the challenge often found with finding suitable teammates.
For the Greater Good
After all of that, we start to see an interesting dynamic. BioWare looks to be designing a very different kind of game; one where the challenge and risk comes from genuine content that is easily available, instead of arbitrary group sizes and death penalties. It’s a gamble, choosing to forsake the easier-to-implement time sinks for those more fulfilling and enjoyable. With The Old Republic’s price tag already placing it as one of the most expensive games ever made, it’s clear that BioWare is indeed pulling out all of the stops.
So what can we expect from The Old Republic? A game where you only need eight or sixteen people to access all of the content, but you need to work and learn together to complete it. Where the punishment of death is exactly that, instead of some elaborate requirement to grind or penalty debuff to further cripple your experience. Where group encounters are exciting and challenging, designed to bring back memories of the rescue and escape of the first Death Star. I think that’s what you can expect from TOR, and I hope I’m right.
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Tags: Bioware, Damion Schubert, EA, Electronic Arts, EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Flashpoint, Georg Zoeller, Jesse Sky, LucasArts, MMOs, Operations, PvE, PvP, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, SWTOR, TOR, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Zachary LaBarge