The problem with instances in Star Wars: The Old Republic

swtorlogoSo Star Wars: The Old Republic has instances in it.  I’m a big fan of instanced missions in MMO’s.  They do a fantastic job of providing the user with a unique experience and can be great story-telling vehicles.  Sadly, the instances in SW:TOR all fall down hard on their instanced-faces.  And worst of all, the failure is a result of an unforced error and the programmer’s mindset that can ruin any project.

Each class in SW:90210 gets it’s own series of class quests that tell the story for that particular class in the game.  They’re some of the best examples of Bioware writing anywhere to be found, and they are very popular.  But there are 2 huge problems with all class quests in SW:XYZthat ruin all that great writing before you can even get into it.

The first problem is very simple.  Every time you enter an instanced mission, a warning message pops up.  It’s designed to be helpful and to keep you from making a mistake and it says something like:  “You are the only <your class> allowed in this map at this time.”  The message is designed to warn you when you are on teams with members of the same class.  Now what happens when 2 members of the same class enter a class mission together?  Based on the dire nature of the warnings, I would expect a singularity would cause a black hole to open up and the Earth to be swallowed.  The more likely scenario though, (much to my disappointment) is that probably one person won’t get the class quest XP for it and won’t be able to mark their class quest as completed when the team is done.

So in order to prevent this from happening, Bioware has coded a message to appear every time anyone enters a class mission.  This message is designed to be helpful and remind players of what can happen if they team with the “wrong people.”

This message tells me three things, every time I see it.

  1. It reminds me that I’m playing a video game, killing the immersion.
  2. It reminds me that I’m not special and other people are playing the same class as me, killing the immersion.
  3.  It reminds me that I’m REALLY NOT special and other people are playing the same missions as me, killing the immersion.

The worst part of the whole thing?  How many times have I done a class mission in SW:TAS while on a team?  Once.  And I wasn’t even doing my class mission, and I wasn’t even with anyone on the team who was the same class as me.  But, because there is a small chance that the error could occur, I get the message every time.

This is the programmer’s mindset I mentioned earlier, getting in the way of the game.  Because there’s a tiny chance that an error could occur, the programmers must catch that error and code for it, such that it’s not a game-breaking experience.  This is the kind of solid thinking and programming expertise you want in, say your nuclear missile launch codes, or your air-traffic control relays.  And while you need it in video games too, there’s a point where you can go too far with it, and ruin the game play experience.

I’ve never done my own class missions, with anyone on a team ever.  I’ve always been solo.  So it’s an error message that warns me about a situation that doesn’t actually exist.  And that’s lazy programming.  There’s no reason code couldn’t be added to check for the duplicate class condition and not throw that error up unless it comes up positive.  Instead, I get this immersion breaking message that totally takes me out of the game, right when I’m about to do the “special” content made just for me.

The second big problem I’ve got with instances in SW:CSI is more fundamental to the game design.  You see the open world in SW:LMNOP (oh come on, you keep typing it over and over) is very open.  Almost all of the buildings and sections of the game have doorways but no doors.  Even on the space stations.  No doors.  On a space station.  Because that’s how they’d do it.

The problem, aside from the dumbness, that this causes with instances is in how you can tell when you have an instance nearby you can access.  If an instance exists nearby that you can take part in, a huge green film will cover the doorway (that has no door), signaling you, that you can enter.  If there is no instance, or you haven’t unlocked it yet, the film will be red, and the game will throw another message up saying you can’t enter the instance.  You’re either not of the right class or it’s not available.  Can you kill the immersion a bit more, please?  Hello, 911?  Yes, I’d like to report a quadruple murder.  On the same body.  NO, don’t hang up, I’m not crazy!

I mean, when they were designing the game world, did nobody think to put doors in?  How much better would having a solid door in front of an instance you can’t go in, be over the red film?  Somewhere along the way, the SW:SG1 gang decided that it would be aesthetically better to not put doors in the game.  And I hate that red film so much.  When I’m running around a world map, I see green, and I go in.  But if I see red, I go, why can’t I go in there?  If an actual door were there (that was shut), at least my brain would go, oh it’s a door.  Instead it’s a red film that my Jedi powers can never defeat.

And this makes me sad.  And when I’m sad I don’t want to play Star Wars: The Land Before Time as much as I could have.  Especially given that the error messages are an easy fix to do.  I would think doors wouldn’t be that hard either, but what do I know.  Just don’t look for me on no space stations.  They don’t call it explosive decompression because it’s a gentle pushing sound with plenty of time to escape.

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