Thursday, May 9, 2019

Only Human: SW:TOR

Something Shintar posted today set me thinking about a puzzling aspect of Star Wars: the Old Republic. It's a game with galactic reach, set against a backdrop of unimaginable complexity. According to Wookieepedia there are "over 20 million sentient species known to the galaxy". Wikipedia lists more than 250 of them.

Among that multiplicity of intelligences there are thinking plants, arachnids, slugs, rocks, wasps and jellyfish. There's even sentient fog. Not to mention the seemingly endless variety of AIs, housed in droids of every conceivable shape and configuration.

And what do we get to play? Humans with funny heads!

TOR has eleven playable species: Cathar, Chiss, Cyborg, Human, Miraluka, Mirialan, Rattataki, Sith Pureblood, Togruta, Twi'lek and Zabrak. Maybe that means something to someone but in case not I'll break it down, based on the headshots:
  • Cathar - Human. Looks a bit like a cat
  • Chiss - Blue Human. Looks almost exactly like a Dark Elf from EverQuest 
  • Cyborg - Human with a few bits of metal stuck to their head
  • Human - Um, Human, obviously
  • Miraluka - Blind Human
  • Mirialan - Green Human
  • Rattataki - Human with goth facepaint
  • Sith Pureblood - Red Human
  • Togruta - Varicolored Human with horns and big, dangly head-tentacles on each side
  • Twi'lek - Varicolored Human with no horns and big, dangly tentacles going down the back.
  • Zabrak - Human. Looks a bit like a devil. Or Hellboy.
Shintar was talking about what TOR players might want to do before the next expansion arrives in five months time. Since I've barely made any headway in the core game, it's not really the kind of help I need right now, but I was interested to see that one of the features of the Onslaught expansion is a new playable species.

This is a Twi'lek.
For Nautolan add more droopy bits and color green
The latest addition, bringing the total to a round dozen, is the Nautolan. As far as I can see, the Nautolans, described by Shintar as "the undisputed fan favourite at Star Wars Celebration" is a human with an octopus stuck to the back of their head.

Technically, the Nautolans are amphibians. Much good may it do them in a game where the deepest water comes to just above your knees. Maybe there's some waterworld later on I don't know about.

I was looking at the picture of the Nautolan and wondering why BioWare were so insistently humanocentric when several blindingly obvious answers struck me all at once: animations, gear, demand and cost. Cost is both the most and least important: I'm sure money would be found if the payoff was worth it.

Animations are one reason we do sometimes see given for why new mounts or playable races in other games are obvious re-skins of existing models. I know nothing at all about 3D modelling but even I know that creating animations from scratch is a very time-consuming and skilled job.

That explains why we don't get new, complicated creations with lots of moving parts but look at one of the few non-humanoid races we do see plenty of, albeit as NPCs, The Hutt. There's vast potential for playable characters with next to no animations when you have races with hardly any visible limbs.

It's not even as though they need to move about much. All a Hutt ever does is sit there. Occasionally they might smirk. How hard would that be to animate? There must be some species that could just squat on a hover-disk and float. It was good enough for Zirk. I bet those sentient rocks wouldn't need a lot of animations, either.

The issue isn't so much about the cost of animating new, weird alien lifeforms. That could be sidestepped. It's more about whether anyone would want to play them in the first place. Most F2P imports offer nothing more in the way of "racial" choice than pretty humans, big humans, short humans and pretty elves (who look like pretty humans with pointy ears). The ambitious ones might stretch as far as humans with tails (catgirls) or wings (fairies as imagined by a five-year old).

The reason they do that is cost, yes, but also because experience has taught them almost no-one chooses to play anything that doesn't look human. Even in Western MMORPGs, whose players are considered to be more willing to experiment with appearances, the less human the race, the fewer people choose to play it.

Let's say BioWare did decide to take a chance and add a non-humoid race anyway, choosing an easy-to-animate one that looked nothing like a human. Maybe without a head or obvious limbs. The next hurdle would be gear, with its twin functions of buffing stats and looking good.

Sheena's in a Goth Gang. (Mildly NSFW!)
TOR isn't Guild Wars 2, with an endgame that consists almost entirely of playing dress up and posing, but it does have a fairly elaborate wardrobe system and an income from armor sets in the Cartel Market to consider. Hutt, to pick on them again, don't wear much in the way of clothes. Or, indeed, anything, most of the time. I can't imagine sentient rocks are big on designer labels and as for fog...

Then there's the stats to consider. The whole system is predicated on everyone having the same number of arms and legs, not to mention heads. The paper doll gives that much away. I suppose you could keep all the slots and just rename them - Top, Middle, Bottom, Left, Right... Sounds bit generic. Or you could have one piece of gear, like a belt, and put lots of slots on it...

Whatever solution you come up with, it's going to be a kludge. And take a lot of work. Why would you bother? If you'd had non-humanoid species from the get-go, you could have come up with something elegant - or at least something that worked. Too late now.

There are probably lots of other very good reasons to stick to humans but the ones I've given are more than enough to convince me we're never going to see anything thatt deviates from the humanorm by more than a few tentacles and a respray.

Which is a shame. I'm one of those peculiar players who likes to go for the least humanocentric option character creation can offer. I'd play a sentient rock.

Okay, probably not as my Main.


  1. You know, I just looked at the list of races, checked them in google, and only now noticed that Togruta and Twi'lek are two different races. I had them both filed away as "humans with large, sausagey appendices dangling from various parts of their skull". Seriously, I can't look at them and *not* think about how the model looks like the skin of a big, still raw sausage. I wonder what's supposed to be in there? Fat storage? Do Twi'leks that go for the fat body type larger head sausages?

    1. Suasageheads! Actually, I tend to see them as windsocks, those things you get at small airfields to tell the pilots which way the wind is blowing. The wiki says they are "shapely prehensile tentacles...used for communication and cognitive functions". So probably not full of air.

    2. Maybe not, though some communication is mostly hot air.

  2. Yes, I think it mainly comes down to practical concerns and desirability.

    That said, SWTOR also has the particular "problem" that it's designed around all characters fitting into a class mould that's supposed to take part in a fully voiced story and can involve romance with NPCs, which puts some additional limitations on what's feasible. Though now I'm having fun imagining Corso falling in love with a Hutt smuggler...

    1. Yes, the "romance" element could be a bit of a problem, although it would be a good test of how 21st century the playerbase is. Not all that would be my guess.

  3. I think mainly it is loot and models. For non-human(like) models you would have to create a model for every piece of armor (loot) in the game that can be applied to that new body-type. That would be an enormous amount of work, and is probably could never be financially feasable.

    1. It was thinking about the loot/gear issue that got me writing this post. I'd always understood the issues with cost, animations and lack of player interest but it suddenly dawned on me that, as you say, it would involve a huge amount of work on the gear side too. It's no wonder they all avoid it.

  4. I used to play a decent amount of Star Frontiers when I was really into Pen and Paper RPGs. It was unusual in having races you could pick that were decidedly non humanoid. Sentient blobs that could mold themselves into a roughly humanoid form, for example.

    In our group we started expanding the race options with some of our own designs. Even there, the overhead for adding a race got higher the less humanoid the race was. You had to think about things like what kind of gear they could use, what amenities they would expect in quarters or in a business (and which businesses would even cater to them for that matter), and what the stats and price of gear that was modified to be usable by a really oddball race would be. If your race is a floating ball of tentacles with eye stalks, can they wear armor or wield large melee weapons?

    Also, even in that setting a lot of players just wanted to be humans. They found insectoid aliens and the like hard to relate to, and so difficult to roleplay.

    Back on topic, in SWTOR it's pretty obviously two main issues: 1. art and animation overhead gets much steeper the further you stray from a human character model, 2. a lot of players won't pick a race that is too inhuman looking anyway, so there would be a really poor return on the steep art and animation investment if they wanted to implement humanoid clouds, a centaur race, or the like. Even something more mildly odd like Ithorians or Wookies is probably off the table.

    1. One of the best tabletop systems I ever played, and one of the best campaigns, was Golden Heroes, a superhero RPG. The first charater I made, which I played for quite a while, was Ghost Dog, who wasn't even a dog. He was a robot dog who could phase.

      I enjoyed playing him but after a few weeks it did become quite apparent that playing a completely non-humanoid character in a campaign and setting designed for humans is quite problematic. And that's in a situation where the only limit is imagination.

      In MMORPGs, there are a few I can think of that use completely non-human player characters - Istaria has Dragons and Project:Gorgon has cows - but those have been designed to accomodate those races from the beginning. And even then I wouldn't want to play a cow.

    2. Aww, but Cow makes for a great battle tank! And you can eat grass to self heal :) And get milked, for better statted cheese than NPC cows can provide.

  5. Even the humanoid options have limits. A race needs to be able to (canonically, I assume) speak Basic. A number of races that people have suggested don't speak it. The devs have said they tried non-Basic speaking races and folks quickly got tired of the race because of all the spoken scenes. Even with subtitles, the average person gets weary of not being able to understand the character, especially since in Star Wars the same nonsense phrases get repeated many times over masquerading as another language.

    1. I'm really glad you mentioned this. I've been meaning to shoehorn it into a post for a while but I haven't found a spot for it. I can't stand how TOR deals with alien languages in voiceover. I can see why there are some aliens that don't speak Basic (which is the dumbest name for a universal language but that's another issue) but why there have to be so many of them beats me. Sometimes it seems like I do half a dozen missions in a row and all I hear is gibberish.

      Much more annoying, though, is the looping of nonsense phrases. It's so lazy! And so obvious. At the bare minimum, when a proper name appears in the translation you should hear that name in some form in the voice over. If I talked to a Latvian about soccer and they mentioned Manchester United (as they inevitably would) it would be recognizeable. That never happens. Instead you just hear the same few short segments over and over regardless of the context. And don't get me started on Ugnaughts!

      Given the money they must have spent on voicework it surely couldn't be that out of reach to have at least recorded different gibberish for each line. It's a classic case of spoiling the ship for a hap'orth of tar. And try saying that in Ugnaught.


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