Oh, I know all about creating and implementing test plans --I worked in software QA for five years-- and I've a nose for finding bugs, so that's not a problem. It's the lack of time I can devote to a (non-work) project that prevents me from assisting in a beta.
So while everybody else was checking out the MoP and Diablo III betas (although D3 isn't really a beta, since it's a bit late in the cycle for it to be called that), I took advantage of what time I had and tried out The Old Republic instead.
This past weekend was one of the TOR 'free weekends' for people who haven't tried the game out yet. In anticipation of me wanting to at least get my toe in the water, I'd downloaded the game a couple of weeks ago, so it was a small matter of getting up and running with TOR.*
For me, there were two really big concerns about the game, and none of them had anything to do with gameplay. The most important of the two was that I barely met the minimum requirements to play the game on my family PC. The graphics card was better, but the motherboard/CPU/RAM was right at the minimum. I'd 'played' games before in that situation, and most games at the minimum requirements were barely better than worthless; I'd much rather DL a movie trailer on a dialup line than play a game with the bare minimum requirements. The second, and it was kind of unique to my situation, was that if my kids found out I was testing out the game over the weekend, I'd be deluged by requests for them to play too. It's one thing for them to pay LOTRO for free using my account, since I turned off guild/kinship and group/fellowship invites, but everything I'd heard about TOR pointed toward grouping up as more of a requirement than some other MMOs. Besides, given the 'romance' aspect of TOR, I knew that I'd have to police their activity, and I didn't really feel like dealing with that.
When I made the decision to try TOR out this past weekend, I did so knowing I'd play the game only when the kids were asleep, and that it was entirely possible that the game was unplayable for my machine. I'd have preferred a better set of circumstances, but you have to roll with what you're dealt.
I logged in, started up TOR, and.... had to adjust the graphics settings.
I tweaked several settings down to low, and managed to get a relatively smooth movement experience. The graphics itself seemed to be okay, but I knew I wasn't getting even an average experience. Hell, when 4.0.1 dropped on WoW I had to turn off a lot of the 'gee-whiz' water settings, because otherwise my PC would be spending all of its time rendering water while I'm over on, say, Darkshore.**
In WoW, when I used to hang around Dal in Wrath my PC's framerate would drop to the teens on a regular basis. Org/Stormwind during Cata is better, but the low 20s still ain't that great. When I made it to the first space station in TOR, I expected things to get busier. They did, and I could tell my framerate dropped by comparison. However, there were fewer toons wandering around than were ever in Dal --more NPCs, but fewer real toons-- but what I saw didn't give me a lot of hope that if I hit a very active zone that my PC could cope.
For the record, I created a Smuggler.
Yes, I like Han Solo.
Plus, I didn't feel morally obligated to play it to the straight and narrow that a Jedi toon would have driven me, so my toon could act far more like The Man With No Name than Roy Rogers.
As for the kids, they had no idea I was playing the game at all. They noticed TOR on the start menu, and I told them that I'd downloaded the game so that if they had a free weekend I could check it out, but I kept mum on the free weekend being THIS weekend.
I knew that if they found out there'd be a "OMG!!!! STAR WARS!!!!!" frenzy, and they'd be hanging on me like piranhas until I relented and let them play. But compared to WoW (or LOTRO, which they do play), I expected there to be a bit more morally ambiguous choices in TOR. In WoW, you head to a quest hub and almost every quest is a "rah rah--go good guy--save us!" variety; not all, but most. LOTRO has the same thing. Age of Conan is a bit greyer, but the quests are still of the "go out and labor like Hercules" group. TOR, however, makes you choose the result of the outcome, and rewards you with Dark/Light Side points --or affection points for a companion-- for doing so. The NPCs are grey --even the ones found in the Intro Zones-- and they have motives where you'd never expect WoW NPCs to go. If you ever had any opinions whether the Republic is the 'Good Guy' side, the Ord Mandell Intro Zone will disabuse you of that idea. How else do you describe NPCs who actually are trying to smuggle drugs to keep the populace "stupid enough to stay with the Republic"? Or NPCs who are really Sith spies? Or who set up a "competiton" so they can thin the refugee population of excess mouths to feed? Or NPCs who grab and torture those who they claim are Separatist spies to make them divulge their secrets?
No, TOR delves into greyer area than you see WoW plumb, and it is definitely not for kids who aren't mature enough to handle the questions.
(An aside: perhaps the Sha is Blizz's answer to Light/Dark Side points. Given the current state of WoW, however, I'm not sure how that will work out. From a story perspective, it's kind of hard to simply flip that switch on in Pandaria and ignore it in the rest of Azeroth.)
As for the romance, I didn't exactly progress along anything resembling that in my online time to say how that will shake out, but I'd say that if your kid can't handle real romance very well, I doubt they'd handle an in-game one any better. Then again, maybe the "not everyone is who they seem" isn't a bad lesson to learn, either.***
None of this is news to someone who has played TOR the past few months.
("In other stories, Deathwing has returned to Azeroth! Film at eleven!")
And if you haven't noticed, some WoW (or ex-WoW) bloggers have left for TOR, grown dissatisfied, and left. All of this, naturally, has fueled the WoW vs. TOR flame war simmering out there.
That said, I think there needs to be some perspective here. Should we expect a new MMO to have as much to do as one that has been around and expanded upon for seven years? Or, perhaps, TOR's focus isn't on luring existing WoW gamers, but bringing in new gamers into MMOs?
What's the startup cost for someone brand new to WoW these days? Let's say someone comes in, plays the free L1-20 on WoW, and decides to subscribe. For that person to get up to speed on Cata, they have to plunk down $20 for Vanilla + BC, $30 for Wrath, and $40 for Cata = $90 (not counting discounts via, say, Amazon). With MoP, that price will go up by another $50 or so to $140 (again, before discounts). That's a hefty cost for one game, especially if you want to play a Goblin or Worgen.
For TOR, by comparison, the cost is $60 (before discounts). Sure, you get less, but you've paid less too. You're not getting a game that has been either in development or in production for almost a decade, but something new. The polish and variety of gaming experience will always favor the older title, because it has been around longer.
As for the quests, the feel is somewhere between WoW's BC and Wrath questlines. TOR has one main quest chain running through a zone, with a lot of side quests along the way. For everyone whom I've seen who complains about the linearity of quests in TOR, I have to ask whether they've actually done the quests in post Cata Old World. I coined the 'quests-on-rails' term for Cata, not TOR; if there was ever proof that there's too much of a good thing, it's that. The news that WoW is returning more to a pre-Cata model for MoP is a good thing, in my opinion.
WoW will always win out on the "things to do at max level" argument, because WoW has been tinkered with for so long. The only way TOR would hope to match that reality would be to hire an army of developers and have them slave away as quickly as they can, and no software company in their right mind will do that for a title that hasn't even proven itself.
Where WoW suffers the most is from a continuity standpoint. A new MMO such as TOR doesn't have the baggage of a base game + three expansions worth of quests, so continuity isn't going to be a problem. But to a new gamer, WoW's environment --while vast-- tells a chaotic story. The timeline jumps around so much that a new gamer will get lost trying to understand the plotline. Once a new gamer gets the whole idea of what is going on in the Old World, they're whisked back in time to Outland and then Northrend. And MoP isn't going to do anything to fix the continuity issues, either.
Add to this the design decision by Blizzard to have significant events take place not in-game but in books, and the story gets even more chaotic.
For long time WoW players, this isn't an issue at all. Really, anyone who began playing in the Wrath days or earlier remembers the original questline progression, and they're on the current timeline without a problem. But new players didn't have that experience, so they'll be lost.**** By comparision, TOR (or even LOTRO) with their single timeline continuity won't have these problems.
One final item of note: is it so much to have an MMO where the word 'hero' isn't thrown around so much?
I thought I'd escaped that word once I started playing TOR, but even there it follows your toon around like a bad penny. In WoW, "Heroes!" is used so often that I've taken to calling it the Azerothian equivalent of "Hey you!"
I could have used more of the "....then my son is dead to me" sort of quest endings than the almost-sappy "Oh, you're a hero!", because if you're going to plumb some morally grey areas, you might as well have morally grey responses.
*Well, sort of. The 'free weekend' download required me to re-download the game again, but in this case I suspect it inserted a file that gave me a temp license and then just rubber-stamped the rest of my installation. It was more than I expected, but in the end much less painful than if I'd have tried to DL the thing over the weekend.
**I did the same thing when I tried out Rift, too, so maybe that was why I was kind of non-plussed about the game's graphics.
***Also, unlike Age of Conan, it doesn't seem like there's any nudity in the game, so at least that isn't an issue for kids.
****Or, potentially, they won't care, having bought into the belief that the game only really starts at max level.
EtA: Corrected a few English errors. My English teachers would not be amused....
EtA: Apparently I can't add either. Geesh....