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Personal Story in GW2 vs. Class Quests in SWTOR

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March 29, 2012 - 4:19pm -- Sardu
Personal Story in Guild Wars 2

I decided to take a potentially more controversial approach to covering personal stories in Guild Wars 2 based on my experiences in the closed beta so far. This lets me neatly dance my way around including any spoilers (I’m sure there are plenty of other sites / videos that are more than happy to ruin major plot points for you) and it also gives me the opportunity to give you some points of reference to consider based on the most recent major MMO launch.

The developers at ArenaNet and BioWare have both stated from very early in the development of GW2 and SWTOR respectively, that story would play a major part in their games. While that is largely the case in both titles, the approach to story that either devco has taken, and the player experience of each are kind of like night and day. I’ll let you decide which one represents night and which is day (or apples and oranges if you’re one of those wacky fruit people).

To give you a top level comparison of the two games in terms of storytelling at the character level, consider the following:

Class Stories in SWTOR

  • 1 unique story per class (advanced classes of the same core class share the story) for a total of 8 unique character-level stories you can potentially experience
  • The direction your story takes is decided in advance – you’re mainly just an actor playing a scripted role in events
  • Choices you make during class quests mainly focus on conversational options, and have the potential to alter the attitudes of NPC companions towards your character.
  • Choices may also alter your light side / dark side progression which ultimately just leads to different sets of armor for your character to purchase later on.

While class quests in SWTOR can certainly be entertaining, you can largely liken them to being a single-player candy bar in an MMO wrapper. They also add little to no replay value outside of playing one of each core class in the game. Once you’ve made one sith warrior, it doesn’t matter what race or advanced class you choose, you get the same canned story that all sith warriors experience.

Now let’s compare that to Guild Wars 2.

GW2 Ranger vs Centaur

Personal Story in GW2

  • Players make biography options during character creation that will have a direct impact on the personal story they get to experience.
  • There are at least 75 different paths your personal story can take even before factoring in choices you make that will impact the direction of your story as you progress.
  • At various points, you will need to make decisions that will alter future events in the life of your character.
  • These choices can range from something seemingly basic, like choosing option A or B, to far more dramatic, such as having to decide to save a close friend, or let them die so that others can live.
  • Some of your conversational options will alter how the NPCs in the game perceive your character based on the choices you make.
  • Factoring in home instances, choices you make can have a lasting impact on the world for your character.

Keep in mind that I’m only going through some of the basics of each system, but based on the above you could think of the difference between the representation of character-level storytelling in both games kind of like this:

  • SWTOR = A standard novel that you read cover-to-cover in a more conventional manner
  • GW2 = A “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that lets you determine the outcome based on the choices you’ve made, but also one where you get to choose which key plot points you want the story to contain before ever reading a single page.

GW2 Personal Story Examples

To help illustrate how personal story factors into the gameplay of GW2, I made a point during this most recent beta to create a number of characters of the same race, only making as many different biography options as I was able. In one case I made the same choices during character creation, only made different choices at key points during missions.

For this experiment I focused on human characters, though the same principals apply to the other four playable races.

When you first exit the tutorial, your first step in advancing your personal story is to speak to a nearby Scout. This will be the same for all races, and this NPC will highlight any major events (marked on the map with an empty heart) happening in the surrounding area.

From here you will need to complete any of these events – you can choose any of those highlighted by the scout – as the next stage in your story. Upon completion, you will receive an on-screen prompt to check your in-game mail, where you will have a new message that directs you to where your personal story truly begins.

For the human characters I created for the purposes of my experiment, I made sure to:

  • Choose each of the three unique ‘background’ options at least once on unique characters
  • Choose each of the three unique ‘regrets’ options at least once on unique characters

Just stopping there I could have had up to nine different personal story chains based on my decisions during character creation. You also have to factor in that, during the beta events, personal story was capped at level 20, presumably to help avoid having too much of the story leaked prior to the game’s launch.

Each of these choices you make during character creation will account for multiple individual missions, together forming a longer chapter in the overall story. One thing you’ll want to pay close attention to is the intended level for the next stage of your story. At earlier levels these might only be a difference of 2 or 3 levels, but even a mission with enemies 3 levels higher than you can be difficult to complete. So in most cases, it’s best to wait until you’re roughly the intended level for a given mission.

Your biography choices will not be wholly contained to your home instance, but will often send you out into the world to complete objectives, track down an NPC, defeat some bad guys, or participate in some incredibly fun and unique activities.

An example of the latter brought back fond memories of playing Mad King Thorn’s interactive mini-game where you have to mimic his actions using in-game emotes. I won’t tell you which specific biography option led me down that path, but will note that there will be plenty of other interesting nods like that for original Guild Wars players to discover.

In each of these major ‘chapters’ you’ll also have to make at least one major choice that will branch your story into different directions. Most - if not all of these moments - made me stop to carefully consider the potential consequences of my decision. In other words, these will rarely be basic or arbitrary decisions, but rather ones that will have a direct impact on the world for your character.

As you go along, you can read excerpts from each major part of your personal story in the hero [H] panel by clicking on the story tab. Chances are, but the time you reach level 20 you will have a completely different synopsis for your story than your friends do, even if they choose to play the same race, profession, and select the same biography options during character creation.

The only real constant you’ll encounter in your personal story is the presence of one of the 5 heroes who were once part of Destiny’s Edge. For my human stories, this meant I was interacting with Logan Thackary on a regular basis. Please note, however, his participation is the only real constant here. So say you choose the noble background, Logan will play one role, while a commoner background might have your interactions with Logan (and his reactions to you) play out quite differently.

Another thing to keep in mind for personal stories in GW2 is that you don’t necessarily have to play them the moment each new mission or stage becomes available. Thanks to the sidekicking system, you can easily level to 20 first, and then double back and begin your personal story if you’d like.

The only reason you might want to consider avoiding this approach, however, is that some of your personal story missions will reward you with some awesome armor or weapon upgrades. While many will be consistent with gear for that level found as drops or via crafting, you’ll occasionally get the choice of an uncommon weapon or armor piece that are worth snagging. For example, I really dug the longbow I obtained on my ranger at one point, and ended up using transmutation stones later on to be able to keep using the same weapon skin at higher levels.

GW2 Centaur

GW2 Personal Stories – A Clear Winner on All Counts

Let’s face it – MMO gamers abhor reading quest text for reasons unknown. I mean, I get the idea that if you read a quest description or not, you still have to go out and collect 10 bear asses either way. So it really comes down to a combination of the quests themselves being generally lame, and the quest text not really mattering to the overarching story for the game.

Thankfully, developers have finally begun to realize that maybe MMO gamers do like story, but there are better ways to tell those stories. For SWTOR, that comes in the form of a rough translation of most of BioWare’s single player games. In other words, highly scripted events that point you in a pre-determined direction, with little to no opportunity for deviation from that set path.

But for GW2 you not only get a say in what your story is going to be, but will no doubt end up actually caring about what the heck is going on in Tyria by the time you reach the higher levels. The personal story system is also an elegant method of keeping the spirit of the story missions from GW1. Only instead of forcing all players to experience the same story, it’s factored in character-level decision making as well.

Another major difference in character-level storytelling between the two games is that in SWTOR most, if not all class stories reach a point where they feel half-baked, or that maybe the writing team was when they wrote the stories. Maybe both. Probably both.

In Guild Wars 2, I never reached a point where I felt that was the case, and found the storytelling to be cleaver, inventive, and a major highlight to the overall gameplay experience. Kudos to the writing team at ArenaNet for not only making story matter in an MMO, but for doing such a great job with it.

I’m sure there will be a LOT of people who dive into GW2’s structured PvP as their primary in-game activity right from day one. After all, ArenaNet has aims of making competitive PvP into a true e-sport this time around. For those players, however, I would still encourage them to take some time between rated Conquest matches and hot-join rotations to go out and experience the personal story for your characters. They’re as expertly crafted as every other aspect of the game, and absolutely worth your time.


jeffprime's picture
Submitted by jeffprime on

Good summary of the story system, Sardu, and I whole-heartedly agree. I like how there are enough beginning choices to make multiple paths, which are then multiplied by your choices. It'll be interesting to see how they play out and how people will want to replay the storyline to see how choosing differently may impact the story.

On a side note, I had dozens of the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books back in the 1980s. Man, I feel old. :)

Lucrece's picture
Submitted by Lucrece (not verified) on
Sardu, on the topic of rewards, I read in Guru that it appears items are bound on account? So you could transfer items from one character to another?

Sardu's picture
Submitted by Sardu on

I'll have to go through more of my notes / images / video to confirm re: personal story rewards, but for now can at least confirm:

  • Dropped items are labeled as Soulbound on Use
  • Crafted items are also labeled as Soulbound on Use
  • Non-gear story rewards, such as Salvage Kits, are also labeled Soulbound on Use

I'd like to say gear rewards are the same, but want to make sure I have documentation of it before confirming. I'll let you know once I find anything though.

TekkWolf's picture
Submitted by TekkWolf (not verified) on
Story in mmos, I love it! However, the number of branching story lines and quantity of decisions mean nothing if the storytelling is poor. Whenever I hear gw2's personal story featured, all I hear are numbers and statistics. What we WANT to hear is; it offers immersing and creative experiences. I hated the fact in tor that every sith warrior had my exact same story, BUT I looked Forward to every single story mission because they were written and voice acted so well. The characters felt real and I felt like I was with them. I pray guild wars 2 can make me feel that way. But after reading edge of destiny, I'm a bit worried. That book was an embarrassment. I hope for better from this awesome franchise.

Whopster's picture
Submitted by Whopster (not verified) on

@Tekwolf: EoD was not well written. They had some good story elements but the writing was like a slapstick. GoA had a lot better writing, like day and night, although by no means perfect it was a decent book.

@Articel - Would beg to differ on the:

"GW2 = A “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that lets you determine the outcome based on the choices you’ve made, but also one where you get to choose which key plot points you want the story to contain before ever reading a single page."

it's an arc, so the outcome of the book is pre-decided, but you get to choose the path to the ending though, which is massive in itself.

Nyth_'s picture
Submitted by Nyth_ on

Past experience tells me that I'll remain careful (not as extreme as sceptical, but a bit precautious).

This all sounds really good; and if it's all true I will greatly enjoy it.... however, I read something along these lines before I played SWTOR as well. And mostly the huge excitement (which is clearly visible in your post as well Sardu :p) often comes from it being a refreshing new thing.

I had the same with SWTOR when I started it. Level 1-10: This is epic.... Level 10-20: This is awesome... Level 20-30: Cool, cool.... Level 30-40: Well it still beats most other MMOs... Level 40-50: Yea, i'd rather go do some PvP. (I found the decline in quality to be quite noticable, and the first story arc was for most classes the most epic one).
A good analogy would be an hour long rollercoaster ride. It's amazing the first 10 minutes, but after the 30 minute mark you're gonna be either bored or nauseous.

I'm still cautious with hyping up GW2 too much (mostly for myself). And I quite frankly don't 100% believe that GW2 will surpase SWTOR on personal story on all fronts. And there are some things that are slightly glorified (not the exact wording I'm looking for but using it due to lack of better); such as the 75 different paths, of which I think several paths will be similar but branch out here and there before joining back (that's my guess though, as I can not imagine Arenanet putting so many unique storylines in).

However I do think that GW2 will surpass SWTOR on the most important thing that made me drop it quite early on. That being the fact that SWTOR focues TOO MUCH on the personal story; other than the occasional flashpoint and PvP the core of the game was your storyline. And SWTOR not only felt more of a singleplayer game, there was at no point an incentive (other than a quick pug for a group quest) to connect with people. GW2 won't have this issue purely due to the extensive implementation of dynamic events (which rewards grouping up more than any other kind of system in MMOs) and the massive WvWvW.

orwellsghost's picture
Submitted by orwellsghost on

I agree that dynamic events theoretically creating more player interaction is a far more significant narrative difference than anything the author describes.

Sardu's picture
Submitted by Sardu on

To answer some of the questions here / provide some additional info based on the comments so far:

What we WANT to hear is; it offers immersing and creative experiences.

I wanted to avoid spoilers here, so didn't mention any specifics from any individual plots I experienced. That said, I found the writing was well done, and in all cases I'd be eager to begin the next stage of the chain the moment one of them was completed. And as noted towards the end of the article, I "found the storytelling to be cleaver, inventive, and a major highlight to the overall gameplay experience."

it's an arc, so the outcome of the book is pre-decided, but you get to choose the path to the ending though, which is massive in itself.

Good point, and one I admittedly couldn't properly evaluate due to personal story being capped at level 20 during the beta. But I do know from speaking with developers and reading through various interviews that stories will ultimately lead us to the same place with the same basic goal - put a stop to the Elder Dragon. But even with that end goal in mind, don't forget that players will also be making other decisions in the game that will impact what role we may play in events. So the book may end with the same climax, but our role in that ending may still be different.

A good analogy would be an hour long rollercoaster ride. It's amazing the first 10 minutes, but after the 30 minute mark you're gonna be either bored or nauseous.

I attempted to address this towards the end of the article as well, as most SWTOR class stories took a major nosedive at the end of Act 1. The sith inquisitor story gets terribad at that point, and only continues to get worse the further you go.

I never hit a similar point in GW2 stories so far, but again, keep in mind that I only got to play story up to level 20, and then also experienced the dungeon story mode at level 30. So it remains to be seen if GW2 will suffer from the rollercoaster ride scenario you described, but I honestly don't feel that will be the case.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

This article should have been titled "Why GW2 stories are AWESOME AND PERFECT and SWTOR stories are LAME AND TERRIBLE and GW2 is gonna make SWTOR cry like a little baby".  Personally, I hope the GW2 story system is as well done as the author describes, but I've been burned too many times by pre-release fanboi articles to get my hopes up. 

Maybe my age (over 40) is showing, but I find criticizing the SWTOR approach by comparing it to a novel to be a little confusing - I still enjoy a good book now and then and see nothing wrong with approach to storytelling.  It has worked for centuries.  I'm quite enjoying the two SWTOR storylines that I've leveled far enough to know anything about (Consular and Agent.  IMO, Agent Act I was good, Act II is better, haven't reached Act III yet).

Now, that's not a shot against GW2's system, about which I know almost nothing beyond what this article states.  I really do hope it is gripping and well-executed.


jeffprime's picture
Submitted by jeffprime on

The main reason why I think the story would be better in GW2 as opposed to SWTOR is that while both games have a set ending, the fact that you have more twists and turns in the middle make the story more interesting in GW2. If you decide to play with a class you've already leveled, you can make different choices as opposed to seeing the exact same story unfold. Naturally, it'll depend upon the quality of the story, so we'll have to wait and see. From the limited time I had during the beta, I liked how the story was unfolding for my toon.

orwellsghost's picture
Submitted by orwellsghost on

Sounds like a nice system from this rough description. But to state the obvious: All stories are predetermined and scripted. Choice is an illusion. So this is a question of what illusion works best, which is partly inherent and partly subjective.

In terms of the replay value cited by the author, it is quite possible that SWTOR has as good or better replay value. SWTOR guarantees you a minimum of eight totally unique stories (each of which has more meaningful choices than the author acknowledges). GW2 sounds like it offers more variation, but in practice, is someone going to replay all the way to Point X to see what happens if they make an alternative choice? I don't know the answer and some of it will be up to personal taste; the rest is up to the quality of the story and narrative design, not merely the quantity of the choices.

Weedy's picture
Submitted by Weedy (not verified) on
My heart goes out to Ben and the Suprunowski Family for all that they have been through duirng this time. But, because of you guys, and your faith in Christ, I am able to write this letter of thanks to you. Though everyday is a miracle in and of itself, I would have to say that Ben's healing was the first solid miracle I have witnessed and been apart of through prayer. I don't know Ben personally, and I am at loss for words as to how I managed to find out about Ben's accident, because I haven't heard anything about it in the news, and none of my friends know about it. However, I thank God everyday for allowing me to find this prayer blog because it has changed my life. I now long to live ALL my life for Christ, and I mean every part of my being thanks to Ben! I was raised in a Christian home my entire life, (praise the Lord), so I knew God, but I lacked the personal relationship with God. Then, about 2 years ago, I decided to take the step into dedicating my life to Christ by being baptized at my church called Solid Rock. Now, 2 years later, my walk with God has grown termendously, but I still felt like I was lacking something. As I was praying for Ben, I realized that I needed Christ to be a part of every aspect in my life. From my schooling, to my job, in my friends and hobbies Christ needed to be evident in all that I do. Through doing this, I hope to reflect Christ and His love through my actions and words Just like He is evident in the Suprunowski Family. Now, at age 20, I was able to unveil the plans that God has for me. My heart longs even more to become an emergency/trauma nurse so that I may be able to help people who are involved in serious incidents such as Ben's. My heart breaks for what Ben had to go through, but my soul rejoices for all the glory that has been given to God, and His name. Thank you so much Suprunowski Family for staying strong and relying on God through this situation. It was by faith, prayer and God's healing power that Ben is still with us today. And it was through these things that so many other lives were touched as well.Not only was Ben's life saved, but Ben also helped save my life as well! May God continue to pour out His blessings on you Ben Suprunowski, as you have been such a blessing to my life. Thanks again to the entire family for radiating the light of Christ for all to see. God Bless,Chantel Baucom