Musings on The Old Republic and AAA Games

So, I took Monday morning to grind my way through the end of my Dark Side Consular run in “The Old Republic”.  Now, for the longest time — especially since they changed the XP awards so that you don’t need to run as many quests as you used to — what I’ve been doing is running the Class quests and the Planet quests because while some of the sidequests were interesting the quests that have the best narratives are those, and I’m really into the narratives.  So I end up running through those which means that instead of it taking me about 3 hours per planet section — and there’s about four or five sections per planet — I can now do the entire planet in about 4 hours or so, which means that I can get through a run a lot quicker, especially since in general I’d only have about 4 hours to play a game and the reason I have those time numbers is because they represent really good places to stop playing for a day, so what this means is that I’ve reduced the amount of days it will take me to finish a run in TOR significantly.  Which is good.

But something struck me while I was finishing this run:  the game originally advertised itself as KotOR III – X, and it actually is.  If all you do is play the Class stories and the Planet stories, you get an RPG that maps pretty well to what you got in those games.  There are 13 planets in a typical run (if you skip Ilum, as I always do), so that gives a playtime of 42 hours for me, plus the time for missions in-between.  Narratively, the Planet stories can be less detailed, but they often have about as much content as the Class stories, and the Class stories have about as much content, it seems to me, as KotOR had.  They certainly have more content than Mass Effect 2 did.  Arguably, Dragon Age Origins has more story than those games, because that one was more expansive in its story while these ones tend to be more personal, but then the fact that they are more personal makes them different, not less.  You get as much interaction with your companions as you get in the other games, excluding the specific companion quests that are most noticeable in Mass Effect 2.  So, yeah, it’s pretty reasonable to say that what they did was create eight different RPGs that you can play, and had two different faction sets of quests that did align with each class.

And then I thought that if they hadn’t done this in the MMO model, we likely wouldn’t have got anything like this ever.  We might have gotten 3 and 4 and maybe 5, but we wouldn’t have gotten all of these, and gotten all of these in one package, and all of these being interconnected (an Empire-side character can undo the work the Republic-side character did in rebuilding Taris, for example, and a Republic-side character can free Corellia after the Empire-side character participated in taking it over).  Part of this is that this sort of interconnected model is foreign to the single-player model, so even if they tried to release these things as separate expansions players would balk at playing the same Planet quests again to complete a new Class story, which I have to admit is how I would have felt until playing TOR so much.  But a bigger part is that without being able to appeal to the steady income stream of an MMO there’s no way they could have afforded to do this.  The TOR world is way too big for a non-MMO to manage.

Now, for me I’ve always played MMOs on the basis of world and narrative than on the basis of, well, the MMO aspects.  I played Dark Age of Camelot because I liked the mix of Arthurian, Norse and Celtic legends with different classes and worlds.  I played City of Heroes because I liked the superhero world.  The reason I bounced off of World of Warcraft was because I never played any of the strategy games and so had no connection to the world.  I play the MMOs because they provide something that I can’t get in a single-player game as there haven’t been any that have done that.

And what I’m realizing here is that the reason we don’t get things like that in single-player games is because single-player games simply can’t afford to do that.

Dark Age of Camelot would be three single-player games, and there wouldn’t be the interconnectivity but they would instead be different games effectively with the same engine.  If they tried to link all three of those myths into one game, it would have far fewer classes and individual quests than DAoC had.  It would, therefore, be much smaller.  Or else it would be three games like we saw with Mass Effect and Dragon Age.  That’s because the work required is enough for three games but they’d need to make sure that they generate enough income for three games, which was less of a concern for an MMO hoping for a steady revenue stream.  And the same thing applies to CoH.  The reason we haven’t seen a superhero game anywhere near the scope of CoH and Champions Online and so on is because it’s too much effort to do for the revenue that they could expect from a single-player game.  They simply can’t afford to make a single-player game as good as CoH.

Which leads me back to talking about the cost of games, which I talked about before in reference to a couple of videos by Extra Credits.  On the one hand, it’s really difficult to get customers to pay more for a game to cover the costs.  If we say that the price of a game is $60, then people are not going to pay about $500 for what The Old Republic delivered.  Paying $10 – $15 a month for a game at least feels different, especially if they play the game constantly.  And even that model failed prompting the rise of Free-To-Play MMOs.  But gamers also resist paying subscriptions for a single-player game, unless they feel that content is being constantly added.  Could they drift towards adding new stories/requests as DLC/expansions?  I do see some games on GOG trying that model, but am not sure if we’re getting to the level of game of TOR (some of the open world strategy type games might be getting there).  And I’m not sure that people will jump to play those games until most of the expansions are out, which would make them risky.  So maybe for games like that we still need MMOs to provide that for us.  Except the MMO bubble has kinda burst and while there are a couple of new ones out there, there just aren’t as many new ones coming up.  That being said, the old ones still seem to exist and still seem to get updated, which might cover a lot of this, but then it’s very, very difficult to play more than one MMO at one time.

Which, then, kinda puts a damper on this model, because if a company came up with a game that was constantly being updated and had lots of content and could generate constant income from that, they’d dominate their competitors because the people would be too busy with their game to play the others.  We have seen this a bit with the Elder Scrolls games and those strategy games I mentioned:  often, players recommend one of them to others because that’s the one they play and so which one someone ends up playing ends up being the one that they were recommended or picked up first and they have little time to play the other games available in that space.  That was one thing I was worried about with MMO saturation.  And if, as I’ve already opined, that I could play TOR exclusively just by playing all the Class stories over and over and over again, then a game that did this really well could end up getting its income — as long as it’s producing new things if it isn’t subscription based — but take that income away from everyone else.  This isn’t like streaming where the main block is money per month, but the main block here is time and interest.  If the game really is just want they want to play, why would they play anything else?  For streaming services, things are divided enough that they tend to be missing something interesting if they only have one streaming service (even if they watch one most of the time) and the big block is how much money a month they have to spend on TV (because it being there when they want to watch one of those shows will always be a benefit for them if worth it), but here if the game is providing the fun they are unlikely to sign up to another one because they are unlikely to ever decide to play a game of the same type.  They are far more likely to want to progress in the game they’re playing, or else want to play something different.

At any rate, I don’t have any answers here, but it is an interesting issue.  That being said, I don’t find modern RPGs as being hugely underwhelming in their content — I still love Persona 5, and the only problem I have with it and the big problem I had with Dragon Age Inquisition is where they had too much content — so it doesn’t seem like the MMO model is ruining me for single-player RPGs.  So while I might like a single-player RPG with that amount of content, maybe I can live without it … as long as I can get that in at least some MMOs.

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