Tuesday, August 17

SW:TOR - Voice over Choice

I still vividly remember my first time starting up Bioware's Mass Effect, creating a character in less than optimal lighting conditions (a design flaw perpetuated in every Bioware game since) and then launching in what you at first think is a very good cinematic. Only to discover after about 60 seconds that the video graphics are the game engine and you're actually being prompted to say something. The visuals fore the time (and even today) were awesome.

The second incredibly awesome thign was that your character, commander Shepard, was completely voiced as well. In the prior Bioware RPG's Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire your character was regrettably mute while everyone else in the world was full of expositional monologue. The Main Character Voice Over was so great that the lack thereof in Dragon Age: Origins is still one of my pet peeves. In Dragon Age the problem was agravated by the fact it used the same advanced Unreal engine technology that Mass Effect did and this includes a lot of facial animation, triggered through speech. Your main character never bats an eye or cracks a smile in any dialogue but stares ahead like some sufferer of extreme autism. because it has no (audio) lines. This managed to greatly break my immersion just about every conversation. It wasn't nearly so bad in Kotor due to the fact the lip-sync in that game was limited to a bit of head bobbing which your character actually did upon mutely saying a line.

In order to Voice Over a Main Character Bioware typically needs three to four different voicetracks per conversation. Three attitudes (nice, neutral and petty or as Bioware would have it Good, Neutral and Evil, but real Evil is a no-no so it ends up being petty most of the time) and some more-background-questions dialogue. Add this times two for gender choices as Biwoare always allows for male and female protagonists, inadvertently allowing for strong female leads in the process. Something I for one appreciate. As you can imagine, the Voice Over for the main character isn't cheap.

This is the main reason why Dragon Age didn't have a voiced Main Character. With the various different origin backgrounds, nine in total I believe, the amount of voiced dialogue increases nearly tenfold for that sectio of the game. I've noticed that beyond the Origins prologue your dialogue options are identical for each species with a few racial or cultural exceptions and even a rare male/female difference.
Understandable as this is, many people myself included greatly missed the fully voiced aspect of Mass Effect, and later Mass Effect II and Bioware took note.

Dragon Age II (forgot the subtitle) will be the story not of your old character but that of a single human being Hawke (male or female). The comparison to Shepard is quickly and at least on a technical level, correct. Let's hope they don't make it Mass Effect in Fantasy land in other aspects. The pay-off to fully voiced is no more chocie of background origins. You won't be able to play a Dwarven Prince or Elven slummer in Dragon Age II. Voice limits Choice.

Now to the point of this article:
The same applies to SW:TOR. From the moment Bioware announed the MMO would be Fully Voiced I was worried. I kept being worried when they re-affirmed it that yes, every line of dialogue would be voiced over, including your own character. When they then explained that "yes everything will be voiced over, not tjust the main story arc quests. Every line of dialogue" I got really worried. I began expecting lots of unintelligible Alien-speak audio to be re-used in multiple conversations. That's how they did it in Kotor to reasonable effect. This was quickly and proudly debunked though.
Then they said their MMO would contain about 8 times as much content as any Bioware game before and quick math has you understanding that you're going to spend a significant ammount of time either alting or aiding friends through their Missions, kind of like Guild Wars.

On a side note, who really wants the "Kill ten Wompa's" quests to be fully voiced? Unless SW:TOR has no grind whatsoever, I suspect we'll be seeing something along the lines of Mission Terminals with non-verbal quest objective texts. Not sure though. If they don't have something like that, 8 times a Bioware single player game has me leaving in 3 months. A mere 48 hours went between completion of Mass Effect II's installation and completeing my first play through. I slept 6 hours during that time. I did play through the game 2 more times at a more leisurely pace and in all spend a full month of comparable to MMO time play on it. If Bioware's comparison holds through I would play through a given class-content in 2 to 4 weeks depending on how hardcore I am. So, given the lack of any end-game mentioned (I hate the term, with this quick burn through rate, I suspect for once I may be looking for it)

The biggest issue for me though is that this Fully Voiced thing is killing my choices in the game. How? Class and Race choices. Each class will be playable as a human, and one other race. Not the same one each time mind you. In the case of the Sith races you can either pick human or the appropriate Sith race of that caste. In the case of other classes you're stuck with human or whatever Bioware deemed appropriate for that class. This has of course to do with the high cost of voice-over acting. With something as expensive as that you don't want to have to do voice for 5 races per class and find out race X is really unpopular for that class. I understand that.

But the choices sometimes seem a bit arbitrary. The Miraluki, a race of blind-born force users who have "Jedi Consular' written all over their veils are only allowed to be played as Jedi Knights in stead. Miralans, barely seen in any movie but have a character in George's flailing Clone Wars cartoon get the honour of being Consulars. If you want to play a Twi'Lek you're stuck as a smuggler, no matter that the race would be equally suited to being a jedi, a Sith-Assassin or even a Bounty Hunter. They've not yet been able to come up with an alien race equivalent of the Republic Commando.

Come to think of that, another pet peeve is the lack of a Fringe faction. Both Smugglers and Bounty Hunters should be part of this Fringe, a criminal element prevalent throughout the galaxy, not aligned to either Republic or Sith Empire. But nooo. A Smuggler works for the government apparently and Bounty Hunters are soldiers in the Imperial Army rather than freebooters. Bioware claims in terms of story your smuggler and bounty hunter do start out a little less attached to a cause, but you're still stuck in that one faction. Han Solo and Boba Fett got to choose their sides. You only get to choose between playing a good or a bad Han Solo, but you'll still be fighting on the side of the Republic.

I can live with lineair story based gameplay in single player games like Mass Effect games and Dragon Age II, I can also live with the constraints of playing good/bad cop with a single cop personae (male/female) in a single player game.
But MMO's aren't supposed to be lineair. You're not supposed to be limited to a single character (or a single character and an alien looking duplicate). They're supposed to be about freedom, choice and going your own way. So while I still think SW:TOR is going to be an incredibly good game, the self-imposed limitations Bioware puts in their game, lack of content, the ability to quickly generate more content and the lack of choice of character make me feel it's not something I will be willing to spend more than 2-3 months (including the first free month) on.


  1. My apologies for the bad spelling here and there. I was relying on the built in spell-checker, but Google's philosophy of "Your IP address is in the Netherlands so we feel it's ok to ignore 4 different Language Preferences which you consistantly set to UK English and provide you with a Dutch language page" now has moved beyond annoying Interface elements into actual functional content. I.e. My spell checker defaults to Dutch and doesn't seem to offer a choice. Google wants people to only blog in their own language, er the language of their IP address actually.

  2. Hmm, I noticed no bad spelling at all. So you beat Google :)

    I don't really know yet if it is really restricting for not being able to switch sides. In COH/COV you play hero or villain. I have never felt that as restricted. I have created two sisters on each side on the game, and both of them are actually playing the middle.

    Yesterday 'Going Rogue' went live and they can switch sides now. Which means they can reunite and live happily ever after. But I don't know if I like it. It is nice to have those borders you can't cross. You can RP against it. Full freedom doesn't always make you more free.

    It is possibly one of the issues I have with FE at the moment. I can do and act as I want, but I have to force myself to do it. The lines between playing/reading through a story and living/writing your own is getting too blurred. I tried to play FE over the weekend but I was just standing around feeling lost. I felt as if the game is too perfect for me.

  3. Mmmmm. I'm not sure the Coh/CoV compariosn works here. There you have rather clearly defined two different factions. Law Enforcement and Crimelords. In SWTOR there's two gorvernments duking it out and a substantial crime synidcate not taking sides. Members of this latter group have been arbitrarily assigned to either side.

    Let's compare it to AoC. It'd be like saying There's two Factions Cimmeria and Stygia. Aquilonian Wardens are members of the Cimmerian faction (but they can still be a good or bad Aquilonian) and Aquilonian Priests of Mitra are mebers of the Stygian faction.

    This analogy also falls flat as AoC's end-game isn't Factional PvP as SWTOR's might be. But still a Priest of Mytra should feel as out of place amongst the Stygian Demonologists as a BOunty Hunter would feel amongst the rank and file of an Empire's army.

    I recognize the problem with Fallen Earth. We've all gotten so used to the guided tour amusement parks that sand-box games become a bit unfocused by comparison. Optionally they deteriorate into badge collecting (xbox achievements anyone) games rather than good gameplay. I still think Richard Barttle nailed something on the head when he suggested starting out with the guided tour theme park ride and ending with an open ended free for all sandbox, with elements as PvP and possibly player created as well as generated content is the way to go. Especially if you want to have any kind of player retention. These days I'll assume an MMO can keep me entertained between 3-6 months, 9 if it's exceptionally good. Are our expectations changing as we grow older or is it the too much choice of very similar games we have nowadays?