Monday, 15 November 2010

Crew Skills Revealed

Ok, so I'm a couple of days late, but last Friday BioWare revealed the Crew Skills crafting system. There's also a new Community Manager (news near the bottom of this post). Crafting without doing any of the knitting yourself. Here's the official news:
The galaxy is full of resources and opportunities for your character to benefit and profit. The Crew Skills system allows you to gather those valuable resources, craft a wide range of useful items, and send your crew out on their own missions to retrieve rewards. With Crew Skills, you’ll be able to do all these things while your character stays in the action or even if you have to log off!

Crew Skills are a unique approach to a crafting system, built to suit the tastes of a broad range of players and to maximize your time spent adventuring and experiencing your character’s story while still earning useful benefits. Put your companions to work and get the most out of the galaxy’s myriad opportunities!

Learn more details about the inner workings of the Crew Skills Game System on the new Crew Skills System page.
The page also includes a video explaining Crew Skills.

In essence this is how it works.

You've got three "Crew Skill" slots. In these slots you put gathering skills, crafting skills and mission skills. As many of the three slots as you want can be gathering or missions kills, but only one can be a crafting skill (which is really limiting particularly considering that there seem to be more different crafting skills than any other type). Gathering skills lets you gather resources, crafting skills lets your crew make items from those resources and mission skills lets them go out and do 'unique' things offscreen (like diplomatic relations or finding valuable items).

For both crafting skills and missions skills it's basically just "you tell a companion NPC to do something and they go off and do it". Gathering skills have that too (you can tell a companions to go off and gather stuff), but with gathering you can also tell companions to harvest things you run into while playing. Or you can do the harvesting yourself (I really like that; that you have the choice to do it yourself if you want to).

Skills apparently still advance even while you're offline and when you tell a companion to dedicate a certain time (that you choose) to a certain skill they'll be unavailable for that time (so if you need a companion in 30 minutes, don't send them on a 23 hour mission). Since all this continues offline it seems smart to make sure all your companions have something to do until the next time you log in.

For more, including a couple of interviews, some developer quotes explaining a bit more about the system, my own views on the system and the announcement of the new Community Manager, read on after the break.

The first interview is by Massively who have an interview with Daniel Erickson about crafting and PvP. Here's an excerpt:
So kind of like a factory in Star Wars Galaxies, only it's a character?

Yes. If you wanted to play the old-style crafting game, and you wanted to watch that progress bar for 20 hours, I mean, you could. You could just stand there. But this is always the part that seems monotonous. So [in SWTOR], I'm the crew boss. I decide what we make. I'm the guy that knows all the recipes. I'm the guy that knows how to do everything. And then I'm putting all of these people to work as my whole crew, into one unit -- your companion characters are all a unit with you. And so, one, it makes all of your companion characters useful, which is nice. Two, it puts in skills for people who aren't ever going to be real crafters. People who are not really into crafting are going to take mission skills, so their people are still going to be useful, but they're going to run them on missions all the time. But serious crafters say that it's a super deep system.

[I] can't talk too much about it, but you are going to be able to make stuff that is among the top stuff on the entire servers. And there are going to be people who know things that almost nobody else on the server knows how to do.
Similarly Darth Hater also has, what they call, an 'interview' with Daniel Erickson though it's really more of an article. Here's an excerpt:
We went through a lot of versions of how we work with this, and one of the things we kept coming back to was companion characters. One of the issues with companion characters in past BioWare games has always been that you have a limited set of who you can bring in your party at one time. For most people, they pick the couple of companions they really like, and everybody else ends up back on the ship. These came together into a great kind of synergy for us and became the Crew Skills system, which is a combination of wanting crafting, but we don't want to make your character mundane and we need something for your crew to be doing. So alright, we have a perfect match.
The developers also made a few posts on the official forums with some further explanation. Here's one by Damion Schubert:
To be more precise, players can have up to three crew skills but only one of those can be a crafting skill. The fictional reason is that you only can have room for one crafting table on your ship, but the real reason is that we don't want all players to be self-sufficient.

We call the system Crew Skills because they are skills possessed by your amorphous crew as a whole. If your crew can go treasure hunting, you can order any of your crew members to run treasure hunting missions. Vette may have a bonus to treasure hunting (being a native treasure hunter and all), but to be honest we currently have these bonuses set to be relatively mild - we don't want people to choose NOT to take their favorite companion out on the field with them because the economic bonus to keeping them on the ship is that much greater.
And another one:
You can have three gathering skills, or three mission skills, or one of each. Or two gathering and a craft. The only limit (right now) is you can only have one crafting skill, and you can only have three as a whole.
And yet another one:
So just to throw a couple more stray thoughts about our philosophy.
  • No, you the player cannot craft currently - which is to say you cannot choose to watch the progress bar fill up yourself. That being said, to us, watching a progress bar has always been the least interesting part of crafting in other MMOs. The part of being a crafter that is interesting to us is things like finding rare schematics, finding hard-to-find components, and the social game of finding customers and suppliers. We really wanted devoted crafters to be able to focus on these aspects of crafting, and not so much on the 'watch a progress bar go forward' part of things. Crafting should be a social thing - staring at a progress bar is not.
  • No, you don't see companions running missions out 'in the real world'. While I laugh at the idea of a stream of companion characters filing into the palace on Alderaan, it's unfeasible for a lot of reasons.
  • The real test of the value of crafting is less about whether companions or players are swinging the hammer and tongs, and more about how the itemization of crafting is balanced in a way that the gear is useful. Crafting is important to the systems team, and we're devoted to ensuring that crafted gear has a place in the economy, especially at the endgame, and doubly especially for the devoted crafters.
  • It's worth noting that we really want the system to support the casual crafter (the guy who is taking crafting largely to outfit himself while levelling up) and the devoted crafter (the guy who wants to be known as the best Armormech in the galaxy). Supporting the former means making the system accessible and easy. Supporting the latter means ensuring that hard work can allow you to provide goods and services that almost no one in the galaxy can. The systems design team is striving to satisfy both groups of people.
  • My own personal goal is that some crafters can get so good that players all over the server seek them out. My problem being a crafter in most other MMOs is that you tend to become a guild's pet at some point, and you're expected to do all of the work for free. We want those devoted crafters to be exceptional enough that they can actually demand a price, and that people will actually break out of the guild in order to pursue those goods and services. The system isn't there yet, but we have plans...
And one more:
You can unlearn skills. If you relearn it later, you must progress it up again. (You will not lose your schematics for crafting skills, but they are inaccesssible until you reach the proper skill level).
As for my own thoughts on the Crew Skills system...

Overall the system sounds nice. I like that you can gather while you're out questing, I like that the companions who usually just waste space can actually do something useful and I like the missions where you can send your companions out to do stuff for you (though I've got my reservations with having that system change your Force alignment... how does everything thinking you're good make you any less Dark Side if that's what you are?).

However, to call it a 'crafting system' is pushing it. To me this isn't a crafting system at all, but a time management system. It's about as much a crafting system as a game producer is someone who implements code (in fact, I think it's mostly a producer who thinks that this is a crafting system). For me there are two base requirements for something to be a crafting system.

One, it needs to involve the player actually crafting something themselves. Turning in resources with an NPC and then telling them "now go make something" is not crafting. It's more a different kind of item vendor (much like the 'crafting' system in Guild Wars) where you have to order ahead of time. You completely lose the sense of "I made this". In MMOs when I've played a crafter I'd often wear things I made myself even if the stats were worse, proudly displaying the stuff that I made. Just having an NPC making it doesn't cut it.

The second thing is a note of personalization; naming the item, assigning colors or patterns, experimenting with materials to get different properties for the same item, etc. Though very few 'crafting' systems in MMOs have this (I don't really consider most crafting system to really be crafting as dumping resources in a box and pressing a button to watch a progress bar isn't crafting either), but it seems that the industry standard thinks otherwise.

I still say that the first point at the very least is important though. It's not about watching progress bars go up (those just give a sense that your character is spending some time doing something), but about putting things together with your own hands. Like the crafting system in KotOR; I don't recall any progress bars in that and yet it had you putting together your lightsabers and guns yourself, complete with personal touch (as you could mix-and-match components).

In fact, I'm now very worried that they'll have NPCs 'crafting' your lightsabers (and other identity weapons like a Smuggler's blaster) for you. Or worse, that you can only get new ones by getting them as drops from mobs. That isn't Star Wars. While the developers might joke that Darth Vader wouldn't do any stitching himself to make his outfit or something and use that as 'proof' of how crafting isn't heroic and thus something our characters shouldn't be doing, I most definitely can see Darth Vader crafting his own lightsaber. In fact, I can't see him letting anyone else do that very important task. And didn't he craft C2PO? He certainly seems to have the skill and the inclination to craft.

But I think that's one of the problems I repeatedly see with SWTOR; they're taking that whole 'heroic' thing waaaay too far (and it seems to me that a lot of what I don't like about SWTOR has 'heroic' somewhere in the description... like 'heroic proportions'). Yes, we all want to be heroes (well, I could be quite happy playing some idyllic life as a farmer or somesuch, but for the purposes of Star Wars we all want to be heroes). But if everyone is being heroic all the time then being heroic loses all its value. You need the downtime and the mundane stuff to make the heroic parts stand out and get meaning. You need the contrast. And by constantly ridiculing anything that's not 'heroic' in their minds BioWare is showing us that they don't get that. And I fear that as a result the game won't feel heroic at all, but feel more like you're some action figure in a never ending fighting scene in some b-movie.

Or to be more precise that it'll be more like a long action movie where the viewers are just supposed to accept that our characters have a life beyond what's shown in the pictures.

Don't get me wrong. I do like the Crew Skill system. It's definitely something new and unique and I don't know of any MMOs with a time management system like that. But it's not a crafting system and I think won't satisfy the needs of those who truly wish to make things. For that I would've much preferred it if you could queue up some item to craft for your PC character where when you log out it'll show an animation of your character getting to work on doing just that as the screen fades to black (with the item being ready if you log back in after a minimum of time has expired since logout). That way the progress bar is offscreen, but your own character is still doing the actual crafting.

Anyway, enough ranting about the crafting system.

Another piece of news last Friday is that The Old Republic has a new community manager by the name of Stephen Reid. He's made a number of posts already on the official forums (as would be expected of a new community manager), including this big introduction post:
Hi. My name's Stephen Reid, and I'm your new Community Manager.

Like probably all of you, I've been a Star Wars™ fan for almost my entire life - starting with the original Star Wars in 1977. When that Star Destroyer came thundering into frame, the unforgettable John Williams' score blasting out in futuristic Dolby Stereo... well my 5-year-old mind was well and truly blown.

Fast forward to 1999, and I made a pilgrimage to Portland, Oregon (of all places) to see The Phantom Menace on opening night - midnight showing, natch. When Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber ignited... well, my 26-year-old mind was blown again.

Fast forward to 2003, and from my bedroom in a south London flat, I experience BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic™ on Xbox. When I realized exactly who I was playing... well shoot, wasn't your mind blown? I also knew without a shadow of a doubt that with BioWare, Star Wars was in good hands.

Which brings us on fast forward right up to last week, when I arrived to work at BioWare Austin and saw - well, we're not ready to discuss that yet. All we can say publicly right now is that it involved minds and... actually let's just move on in case I get my own intro thread deleted.

So, let's get the vital info in before the lock: I've worked in the games industry, and in various types of content and community management roles, for about 12 years. I'm a huge believer in the power of online communities to bring the creators of games closer to their fans, and vice versa. Quite frankly, I have one of the coolest jobs in the world, and that's before you add the Star Wars factor.

In other words, I'm absolutely thrilled, excited, privileged and humbled to be here and working on Star Wars™: The Old Republic™. It's an incredible opportunity to serve you, the community, and to help make what I know will be a landmark MMORPG.

There's still plenty to do, to see, to talk about and of course to debate about that galaxy far, far away that we're preparing for you to explore. I think it's going to be an amazing journey. And I hope you're ready to come along.

Thanks for reading.
He seems like a nice guy, good sense of humor and cheerful as far as I can tell from his posts. How good of a community manager he'll turn out to be remains to be seen (though he seems to have a good amount of experience and he's definitely involved with the community for the moment). And I'll let you to discover the rest of his posts on the forums; I'll just post this one:
Originally Posted by IaoKim View Post
Of course some friday updates will be better than others but does this update mark a new tread of increased dev communication and an increase in the overall of clarification and information about the game?
Yes! No! Maybe?

I'm quite aware that there's been a lack of direct communication over the last couple of months (although that wasn't part of a plan!), and we hope to rectify that a little (maybe even a lot - your mileage may vary). It may take a while as the seized cogs and gears start to turn again, but it should happen. There are plans afoot.

As others have said, indeed, we are heading towards launch and the closer we get the more we'll be talking about game specifics. There's still a way to go (and plenty to cover) but that's a natural effect of the release getting closer.

I will say, on the general topic, that one man's 'discussion of vision' is another man's 'irritatingly vague waffle'. So my job, in part, is to try and get a good mixture of game-specific details and broad vision statements from the devs to you folk.

That way, hopefully, everyone's satisfied to a degree.

I'm sure you've heard this before (and will again) but there are loads of people who work hard to bring you updates week in and week out. On their behalf, thanks for your enthusiasm and praise - when it comes.
Welcome to the community, Stephen, and good luck in your new position.

And that's all for now.

[link] to interview with Daniel Erickson at Massively.
[link] to 'interview' with Daniel Erickson at Darth Hater.

1 comment:

Jounville Blackferne said...

I think that you make soem pretty good points, but I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the crew skill system as "true crafting". Very few games have gone deep down the crafting hole. SWG and EVE online have reputations as the most complicated ones out there. I don't know the EVE system so I can't speak to that, but for SWG crafting was done in part by factories and crafting tools. If you think of your companions as those things, then you are still crafting those items in a sense. I think Bioware is going to have an issue with this in other areas as well. The companion system blurs the distinction between first person singular and first person plural in regards to the concept of self. I guess in a sense a WoW hunter might view their pet bear or wolf as an extension of themselves, and maybe Bioware is expecting a similar connection between players and their companions. It will be interesting to see how that issue manifests itself in other aspects of the game.

I expand on the time management idea you brought up here The Church of Alvis.