Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Focus on the stories, TSW

I am invited to the TSW scenario weekend - or so Funcom's latest spam informs me.
So far I've talked about Issue 3 and Issue 5 of The Secret World's post-launch content expansions. There's little point in going through all of them one by one. The pattern has emerged.

As a compendium of urban myths and counter-pop fads like a zombie apocalypse, much of TSW is derivative, and Issues 6 and 7 pandered to Indiana Jones and James Bond fans respectively. My complaints about them would only re-hash what I've said about The Cat God and Tyler Freeborn: content less meticulously balanced between novelty and obscurity, puzzles dependent more on metagaming and external references than cleverness, more and more pointless timesinks. For example in the final mission of Issue 6, getting killed by the boss bounces you halfway back through the eponymous train to Cairo, forcing you to pointlessly trudge through several completely empty box-cars over and over again. Long way to go for an S&M prop.
However at least in terms of aesthetics, Issue 7 delivered the same sort of engrossing theatricality as Issue 5's last mission. Lilith was delightfully, demonically crass and vicious and the phrase "Hello I walk into empty" is as memorable a high point as "What can change the nature of a man?" or "The cake is a lie" or, let's be honest, "That is not dead which can eternal lie" which was the central inspiration for TSW's cosmology.

However, if TSW is to continue even limping along as it has after its nearly fatally failed launch, it faces a self-imposed conundrum. Though its main selling points come in the form of adventure-game interactive fiction and puzzle-solving, it burdened itself with half-assed attempts at what the industry perceived to "sell" in MMOs half a decade ago: arena PvP and raids. Though not in any way competitive with their equivalent in TSW's MMO competitors these features keep a number of uninformed subscribers busy, and after plummeting interest over the past year and a half the dev team must be feeling a great deal of pressure to keep those disinterested achievement-chasers interested. Every dollar counts.

Problem: Funcom isn't entirely blind. TSW's launch tanked quite badly, and the poor investment seems to have been stripped of all but a skeleton crew. Post-launch content has been largely deprived of the high production values present in past adventures. Less acting, fewer bells and whistles. Visual cues remain invisible because bugs never get fixed. Monsters are not even re-skinned for re-use. Much of Issue 3 (mostly the 2013 Samhain edition) was in plain text, even. Content developers manage the odd proof of their abilities as with Freeborn and "I walk into empty" but for the most part the obvious strain results in painfully awkward half-measures.

Take for instance Issue 8, containing the "scenarios" alluded to in this week's spam. They are meant to be new adventures, a new type of group content... but they re-use existing game areas. They really are scraping the bottom of the barrel when they resort to that tired old gimmick: a "virtual reality training area" within the game itself. A computer game within a computer game... no, just no. I enter escapist fantasies to become a hero or villain taking imaginary actions, not to take imaginary imaginary actions. This is not Inception, thanks. Scenarios are of course just a shameful dodge out of creating new zones or even re-vamping old ones. Cut and pasted environments cut development time - handy when you're trying to crank out the paid updates. Unfortunately it comes across like one of those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons where the characters keep running past the same pasted backdrop.

But of course the real issue with issue 8 is that it, like #4, was mainly a gameplay and not content-oriented update. Most of the limited workpower went into developing the "scenario" combat mechanics to provide players with a new-ish type of group activity to keep them interacting and keep the so-called community kicking. As far as that goes, it's a pretty decent attempt... but it's a bandaid on a gaping chest-wound. TSW's skill system, split as it is between PvP/solo/group demands, needs a major overhaul. Instead of flexibility, it encourages cookie-cutter builds and merely dictates a few must-have skills slotted for each encounter. Scenarios bring this issue to the forefront because they really do provide and demand flexibility... and the game interface simply does not allow for it. Switching builds is aggravatingly clunky and winds up making a mess of your inventory more than anything. Trying to do so on the fly to slot the skill you know you absolutely need in order to beat the randomly-generated boss coming right at you is... well, ragequit-inducing.

So, yeah, I'll likely jump in and farm my character a bit of faction rep while this week's promotion is going on. Then I expect I'll quit for another couple of months, until the next story/puzzle expansion comes along. Without the manpower to completely re-do the skill system and interface, TSW's group content offers nothing over its competition and attempts to expand it without rebuilding the haphazard, amateurish combat mechanic infrastructure only (as I've said time and again) drain an already overloaded development team's time from their true talents.

Now more than ever the game needs to scale back, cut those half-assed unworkable PvP features out altogether, take the subscription hit for the present and focus on the project's strong points so you have some future. Keep cranking out atmospheric solo missions like Freeborn or Dream to Kill to make a name for yourselves in at least one department, maintain your best selling-point; sell it as offline content if you have to to cut server costs. Whatever extra time you have, pour into getting group PvE dynamics past the cookie-cutter tank/healer/nuker mentality. Then you can worry about new group content.

And no, I won't even bother posting this on TSW's forums. They didn't listen to me six years ago; why would they now?

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