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Did Bioware Back Themselves Into A Corner?

March 21, 2013

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Story is Bioware’s fourth pillar in Star Wars: The Old Republic. They have spent possibly millions of dollars on voice acting alone. Almost every single quest in the entire game is voice-acted, and in fact, they literally hold the world record for voice-over content. What does that mean when it comes to putting out future content? Today I want to talk about the question that burns in all of our minds: did Bioware make a mistake in going fully voice-acted?

There are many great things about having a fully-voiced MMO. The immersion and storytelling can be deep and rich. The characters can come alive. “Kill-ten-rats-quests” can be presented in a fun and entertaining way. I frankly love a lot of things about the voice-acted system, but here are some of my problems.

New Content Is Expensive!

All new content comes at a price (cue Rumpelstiltskin-like finger twirl in the air, for all of you Once Upon a Time fans). Both time and money are invested in new content for MMOs, and sometimes, even when money is no object, time is of the essence when it comes to pleasing your quickly-bored fan base.

Flashpoints and Operations

If we go by past experience, every flashpoint added to SWTOR will have to contain intro and outro story sections, a Lightside/Darkside decision, and humorous quips from the Smuggler in the group. *grin*

This is a bottleneck for production, as voice actors have to be brought in to do the acting, compelling story moments have to be created with new actors if there are new bad-guys, and overall, the time constraints may outweigh the money constraints (or in the case of big actors, it may be both).

Solution to this problem: raise old content to a new level. That is exactly what is happening with Rise of the Hutt Cartel. New level 55 versions of Athiss, Cademimu, Hammer Station, and Mandalorian Raiders will be in the expansion at launch, and will form the entirety of the end-game flashpoint experience.

While this is great, as I have been wanting to see those flashpoints again for a while, the problem is obvious. There is a higher burnout rate when completing and repeating old content. Old, rescaled content moves quickly from nostalgia to nausea.

Events

There was an obvious lack of character responses in both the Chevin and the Gree events. The Rakghoul event actually had some  rare dialogue from the player, but it was probably in the works before the game launched. Now, I have had issues with the structure and systems of the Chevin and the Gree events (outlined here and here, respectively), but the big bee in my pretty floral bonnet about them was that all of the conversations were one-sided. I still remember hearing that one SIS agent tell my Smuggler “don’t speak,” and it makes me mad.

Expansion

The future of SWTOR will really be determined by how the expansion does, in my personal opinion. What worries me is the fact that we will not have any more personal story arcs for our classes. Instead, we will have what the devs referred to as “Avengers-style” storylines, that involve all of the classes. This must be done very well, i.e. include the distinctive flavors that each class brings to the table. Otherwise, it will be a disappointing experience that we have to repeat four times on each side.

Retroactive Changes Are Difficult

Obviously, when you want to make a change with a text file, you can copy, paste, and delete your way to satisfaction. When you need to make changes in a cinematic/voice-acted story…it is a little bit more difficult.

Typos

If a character says something that doesn’t match what you want, going back and changing that one word or sentence is expensive and time-consuming, because you have to bring that voice actor in for only a few words. This can be mitigated by extensive checks beforehand, as well as lumping any corrections in with recording time that is set up for future content.

Luckily, SWTOR is relatively clean of typos. Going forward, however, extensive time should be spent in QA testing.

SGRAs

The decision to include Same Gender Romance options for NPCs on Makeb has stirred up a lot of trouble. One of the issues some people have is the fact that it is only included in content going forward. Existing companions and NPCs will not have these options, making it essential to both level up to at least 50 and buy the expansion to experience this content. While Bioware will probably go back and complete work on true “Same Gender Romance Arcs” with companions, it will take a while, simply because the voice-acting commitment is large. Again, we see the bottleneck of coming back in and adding content is with the voice-acting.

Tweaks On Old Stories

If Bioware wanted to tweak an old story, such as allowing the Sith Warrior to romance Light side Jaesa Willsaam, that would also require a large amount of rerecording and voice-acting to accomplish. In short, this would probably never happen.

Replay Is Frustrating

Because you cannot simply click an NPC and get a quest with text to quickly skim, you have a longer ride ahead of you just simply from watching the conversations. This is great, except when you are, a) going through it for the 3rd+ time, or b) trying to level quickly.

“Esseles social points spacebar run starting”

This behavior in groups, asking people to use spacebar to skip through conversations more quickly, has created a dichotomy among the player base. On one side, you have the elite players that have done content dozens of times, and on the other side, you have the first-timers that want to enjoy the story. It is complicated and frustrating to balance these two playstyles.

I know that elite players groan when they get Esseles or Black Talon as their random group finder daily, as there is a LOT of talking. While it was a fantastic experience the first time, arguably the best pair of flashpoints in the game, the 50th time you play them, it is not only a little old, but really slow and painful.

On the other hand, first-timers shouldn’t be robbed of getting to experience the wonderful, rich storytelling of Black Talon and Esseles. Most people are fairly nice about people not skipping when they are in the flashpoint for the first time, but there are some jerks that will quit at the first sign of trouble.

So Many Characters!

My last issue with having pure voice-acted content is the fact that after a while, names and faces blur together. Sure, that would happen when you have text boxes too, but every conversation feels like it should be important. With the emphasis placed everywhere, nothing actually gets emphasized, so some poignant moments fall flat when a character that was from that one conversation 14 hours ago dies. People with a good memory really enjoy these fantastic story moments, but people who get confused by a large supporting cast lose out on some of the joy.

Overall, the voice acting is fantastic and wonderful, but it has its downsides. I would recommend that Bioware use it for the best parts of the stories going forward, while taking advantage of using more text than they’ve used before. Class stories and world arcs would be great, while side quests maybe not as much.

So that is my opinion on Bioware’s voice acting! What is yours? Let me know in the comments section!

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  1. depizan
    March 21, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    My opinion is that, er, SW:TOR killed MMOs for me (unless future MMOs replicate the awesome stories – yes, including voice acting – that SW:TOR has, and I doubt they will). But I was always an odd MMO player in that I am very reluctant to interact with other players (as I often say, MMOs, I’m doing them wrong) but I’d rather have a character that I feel like is, well, actually a character. Players who are comfortable actually engaging in the whole role-playing thing with other people can have characters in any MMO. In SW:TOR, I can RP with the game. No other people required.

    I hope they do manage to do new content that lives up to the level of the original content, because I’d like the game to be around for a while, but I think you’re right about the added difficulty and expense. *sigh*

    • March 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE SW:TOR’s story. Hard to find a game that had as good of a story. Actually impossible, at least maybe until Wildstar comes out.

      • depizan
        March 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm

        And, in my case, what I really care about are characters and stories. Though I have to wonder what, exactly, Bioware’s plan for going forward was in the first place. Some of the class stories end in rather odd places for going forward (at least if both class and overall story were meant to go forward). The Force using classes (especially Sith) end up really powerful. The Agent ends up… well, that would be spoilers. (And the various possible endings there further complicate matters.)

        Did they really have a plan for Chapter Four? Ever?

  2. jamvaru
    March 22, 2013 at 1:15 am

    SWToR will continue to be developed more or less lavishly, relative to other mmo offerings out there, because it is Star Wars, and they are banking on it being appealing to fans of the cartoon and AND the new movies they have coming out
    … so, if it doesn’t make a lot of money, or doesn’t break even, they won’t mind TOO much, which is good for us, cause the game will continue to improve; it is MUCH better than before (i played the beta, didn’t bother subscribing, now i am premium… hopefully premies will get more love in the future, and i will spend more money on the game)

  3. jj920010
    March 22, 2013 at 3:32 am

    It does not help that the cinematics team went from 19 people to 2.

  4. Youknow
    March 22, 2013 at 5:13 am

    ” but there are some jerks that will quit at the first sign of trouble.”
    Interesting idea. So if I’m not satisfied with the experience and quit, I’m a jerk? Cool storywriting brother.

  5. March 22, 2013 at 6:55 am

    “All new content comes at a price (cue Rumpelstiltskin-like finger twirl in the air, for all of you Once Upon a Time fans).”

    That made my day. :D

  6. LD
    March 22, 2013 at 7:40 am

    As Bioware announced they were going to have full voice acting, I said it was going to be a problem. And everyone I mentioned it to just ignored me, preferring to put their faith in the wizards at Bioware and refuse to believe it was going to be an issue down the road.

    The Old Republic was always going to suffer from either the new content being released at a much lower quality than the original content, or from new content being released extremely slowly compared to other MMOs. I didn’t think it would actually manage to suffer from both, but… well, the wizards at Bioware are full of surprises.

  7. CD
    March 22, 2013 at 11:25 am

    The problem with VA is that most of them aren’t that memorable, and dialogs proceed along rails regardless which button your choose, at most you hear an extra line.

  8. jamvaru
    May 5, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    CD :
    The problem with VA is that most of them aren’t that memorable, and dialogs proceed along rails regardless which button your choose, at most you hear an extra line.

    this is key; it is just not that great; if it were truly interactive and allowed for clearly divergent outcomes… but really, there is only one storyline; effort spent on cinematics and voice acting would be better spent on more story development and better game mechanics

  1. April 9, 2013 at 7:29 am
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