Monday, 21 March 2011

Fan Friday and PAX East 2011 Roundup

I so told myself that I would do the update post before the end of the weekend this time, in part because I knew that there was a lot more to report than usual and I knew that I wouldn't have time to do it all during my usual lunch-break at work (due to work being crazy busy these days too). But a well, here we are. Blame Dragon Age 2.

The official update this Friday wasn't that big; a Fan Friday with Studio Insider, but last week there was also a load of PAX East reports from various game website. In fact I still haven't sorted them out (lucky me my friends decided to postpone tonight's Lord of the Rings Online session until after the next update hits the EU servers, hopefully tomorrow). And there's a metric ton of developer posts, unsurprisingly mostly revolving around PAX East. So that's been keeping me busy writing this post.

But let's get to it. As I said Friday was a Fan Friday and Studio Insider day. The Fan Friday has the usual fan art and a couple of new forum avatars, as well as the following new pieces of concept art:

The Studio Insider on the other hand sees World Designer Jesse Sky explaining how they go about making the animations for the ingame cinematics. here's an excerpt:
To start off, the Animators get together with the Cinematic Designers to figure out what actions need to be recorded by the actors at the motion capture studio (you know, that place where people wear skin-tight suits with ping pong balls all over them). For this particular scene, we needed the player character to Force Push some guards away and slay a couple of Hutts. Each human’s action, from the player character thrusting his hand forward to the guards getting knocked to the ground, is then captured individually. You can’t exactly throw a human actor into a Jabba suit and expect to get a good result, so in this case the Hutts were animated by hand.

There are some crucial differences between motion captured animation and animating by hand. Motion capture is exactly what it sounds like: the actor's motion is captured using the suit and is translated into data that we can use to make our characters move. As a result, the animations we get are very natural and realistic. To animate something by hand means the animator will pose the character like they would an action figure. Essentially, we create a series of poses with a little help from the computer to smooth out the movement between poses.

Don't forget that you can click two of the images in the Studio Insider post to get a brief video on the animation in action (though I personally also would've liked to see the/a final result, which they didn't include).

The Studio Insider also includes a brief Q&A about Flashpoints, which we'll briefly look at after the break. There you'll also find links to lots of PAX East reports and a load of developer posts.

As said the Q&A this Studio Insider is about Flashpoints. Here's an excerpt:

Q: Will Flashpoint for Republic and Empire ever meet? - Sirious_Nora

A: Certain Flashpoints, especially at the end game, are available to both factions. They represent threats so large that neither the Republic nor the Empire can afford to ignore them. Each side has its own quest givers, dialogue and motivations, though, so what you get are two very different looks at the same story.

Maybe it's just me, but I get the impression that he didn't actually answer the question. Or rather, what I would be much more interested in finding out is whether the Republic and Empire players ever get to play a Flashpoint together, at the same time (either cooperatively or competitively). But I get the impression that the answer refers to both sides being able to play the same Flashpoint, separately, giving them different experiences of the same story.

Of course the root of the question there lies in whether one can play together with their friends on the other faction. I personally feel that the whole two-faction approach is highly problematic because it splits the player base in two (and it's already hard enough to play with friends considering the multitude of servers they'll likely have). But that's an issue for a different time (before I go off on a rant again).

So let's move on to PAX East. To start with allow me to take the cheap way out and point you to two forum threads on the official forums. Both have the interesting stuff in the first couple of posts so you don't have to go reading through massive multi-page threads.

To start with there is the "Unofficial PAX East 2011 Thread (Part 2)" thread. It starts with a quick overview of the PAX East schedule, but then goes into a big list of articles and videos coming out of PAX East. In fact, I'm sure (I haven't checked in detail) that they have pretty much everything I'm posting separately below as well. And all the YouTube shaky-cam footage you could possibly desire. I strongly recommend checking it out.

The second thread is the "Got to play TOR at PAX East? Tell us about it here!" thread. In it there's a load of (text) reports by people who played one of the demos (either the Flashpoint or one of the origin worlds) at PAX East. Since these are reports of average people (if you can call fans "average people") playing the game they can be a good insight into how the game is to actually play. And they seem to be quite honest as they're not all glowingly positive. If you've got the time then they're well worth a read (and no, I haven't had time to read them all yet; in fact have only read a few I must admit).

Thoguh I'm sure the PAX East thread above lists them as well, allow me to lift out a couple of reports from some of the bigger game nes sites. First there is with their Flashpoint impressions. Here's an excerpt:

It’s a little daunting to jump into a game in the middle of the leveling process, but for the most part I think our rag-tag group did pretty well. Now we were told that the difficulty of the instance was turned down a little bit, being that we were just thrown into the game midway, but as Garrett (who took over for me about halfway through) found out that “easing the difficulty” didn’t make it a cakewalk. The look of the game, though divisive, is absolutely gorgeous in my eyes. I can value the artistic bend on the Star Wars mythos, and it reminds me of the Clone Wars TV show (which is actually pretty good dagnabit). Note: I don’t think of this as pandering to the younger audience as some might, but rather as trying something that’s a little more artistic while making a game that has a chance to run on a wide range of machines. It looks fantastic in person and I was quite worried going in.

Massively also had a hands-on with Taral V and also wrote about their experiences. Here's an excerpt from their write-up:
The dialogue system gripped me first. I picked the Smuggler class, which you'd expect to be the dirt bag, right? But apparently everyone else wanted to be the dirt bag too, so all the characters who spoke were really mean to the little Yoda-like guy, Master Oteg. It was really loud in the convention center, so I couldn't exactly hear what he was saying, but BioWare was kind enough to provide subtitles for all the speech. Now, I'm not sure whether the guy playing the Jedi Knight just didn't see or couldn't figure out how to use the dialogue wheel or was distracted by Oteg's pretty eyes, but he gave us a wonderful demonstration of what happens when you do not click on a dialogue option. Toward the end of the speech, a dialogue wheel a la Mass Effect pops up and a timer starts; the timer finishes shortly after the main speaker completes his dialogue. If anyone in the group has not made a choice, then that group member automatically passes. The other members of the group perform an automatic dice roll when they have chosen how they would like to respond -- 0 to 99, it seems -- and the one with the highest number gets to actually speak. However, as it's been mentioned before, light side and dark side points are awarded based on your choice, not the dialogue spoken.
Kotaku also got their hands at playing the demo, but their views were decidedly less positive as you can see from the excerpt:
From the rear I began to feel less charmed that I was playing a Star Wars game and more worried that this game seemed like World of Warcraft. What I'd assumed were trappings of Blizzard's vaunted MMO must be trappings of the genre. These games, I guess, are played with one eye on a keyboard's worth of on-screen ability icons, each needing a number-key to activate them. These games, I realize now, require you to stop aiming and shooting and require you to instead click on whoever you want to heal or hurt, then press the key that represents what you want to do to them, then watch said thing happen. In other words, they still require, fast fingers, digital intent but also the patience of moving at less than half the speed of thought. I'd underestimated how stiffly MMOs flow, how much they feel like orchestration rather than like virtual existence. I forget I'm not the character in most modern video games I play. On Saturday, controlling my smuggler, I felt like a puppeteer. At least, that's how The Old Republic feels, as did WoW.
Overall I can't help but wonder if he would've liked it better if he had tried one of the origin worlds instead, as there you're (supposed to be) gradually guided into playing your class and there's more story content there to set itself apart from its MMO brethren. The Flashpoint was after all more meant to show that SWTOR also includes the more traditional MMO stuff. And I think that his unfamiliarity with MMOs coupled with jumping straight into a mid-level character probably contributed to his feelings. Not that his fears are completely unfounded; MMOs do tend to feel more like puppeteering than getting immersed into your character (particularly if the main thing you're used to is console games). But I do think he might've felt different if he didn't try to start what's basically a new genre for him in the middle.

Then a couple of shaky-cam videos, the first one coming from, showing a Jedi Knight at the end of the Flashpoint demo:

They end the video with them defeating the monster, seemingly ending on a high-note. But they've still got the commander to defeat as well. And with two man down, including their main healer, I seriously doubt that they managed to win the Flashpoint by defeating the (full) boss encounter.

VG247 also posted some off-screen videos, getting theirs from Evil Avatar (didn't they have their own people at the show filming?). Here's one of them:

G4TV has a brief video interview with Cory Butler taken at the expo:

They're not the only ones with video interviews, as Darth Hater also has a couple of them. First there's one with Hall Hood:

And then one with Stephen Reid:

Moving away from PAX East for a bit there are a couple of other little tidbits to report as well. First, as Darth Hater reports, the third (currently unnamed) Star Wars: The Old Republic novel (after Fatal Alliance and the soon to be released Deceived), written by Drew Karpyshyn, is set to be released in October:

Drew Karpyshyn said:

There is something I can confirm about the book, however. As was hinted at earlier, the novel is a tie-in with the SW:TOR game. And, on April 15 we will be officially announcing the title once that happens, Ill be able to talk a bit more about this project.

But wait, theres more! The release date has been announced as October 15 (though that might shift slightly), and at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July were going to preview the cover and release an excerpt of the novel.

Darth Hater also reports on the Lazard Capital Markets Technology & Media Conference where CFO of Electronic Arts Eric Brown talked about The Old Republic (among other things I'm sure). The main bit of news out of that is that The Old Republic is unlikely to release before the 1st of July. No real surprise there (Autumn still seems the most likely to me at this point), but there were some who were still holding out hope. But the talk also included a couple of other bits, such as this one on the subscription model:
Question: Extending that market is assuming that the monthly subscription model could also be extended to a broader audience or are there other potential modifications?

Eric Brown: We've talked about going in with a traditional subscription model, which is, requires the purchase of a game client, a PC game client. That's the going in assumption. But we have nothing ruled out, in terms of intent or design future micro-transactions because some interesting opportunities is there. The key is you know, what do include in a base monthly fee versus what do you charge extra for? So that requires some pretty careful decisions making. For now we're focused on the more traditional monthly subscription model.

I've never expected anything other than a standard subscription model (and in fact this has been known for a while), but even so considering how much I've come to enjoy the free-to-play model lately I was holding out some vague hope that EA/BioWare might be bold and be the first to launch a triple-A MMO with a different subscription model (instead of adjusting to the somewhat ill-fitting "Freemium" model some recent MMOs have adopted). Then again I think we can count Guild Wars 2 as a triple-A MMO; I jsut hope that this doesn't come to bite EA/BioWare in the rear as the market seems to be increasingly shifting away from the subscription model.

I know that it's going to be a big consideration in how quickly I quit playing the game (and I'm not someone to re-subscribe again once I stop playing).

Almost there (as far as external links goes)...

In a small bit of news several sites (including The Escapist) are reporting that EA has some critique regarding WoW:

"When I play World of Warcraft, you go and get your quests, and you go and do your quests, but it feels more like doing a shopping list at times," Gibeau said. "[TOR] is more about talking to characters, learning what's going on, investing in it, getting emotionally attached to it."
A number of sites (including, to my disappointment, The Escapist) are seemingly trying to make it sound as if EA is bashing WoW, but it seems to me more that they're raising some critique and noting how TOR will do that better. "Bashing" seems way too strong a term to describe that as it seems nothing other than a reasonable comparison (and I'm not one to shy away from critiquing some decisions TOR is making).

On the flipside it seems that Blizzard has nothing but high hopes for TOR, as reported by VG247:

“This is a game that has an opportunity to grow the MMO market if done right and therefore is very important to the industry as a whole, not just EA,” he said.

Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime added the company hopes to see the title do well.

“It’s certainly a strong franchise and BioWare’s a great developer,” he said.

“We’ve talked about this internally and from our perspective we hope they make an enjoyable game because they’re going to bring in a lot of new players to the MMO genre, and those players’ idea of whether or not they like this type of game is going to be determined by that experience.”

Again, seems nothing but reasonable (then again Blizzard has a tendency to speak praises of competitors before they release and they also seem to think that Diablo 3 may cannibalize the WoW audience).

Anyway, that's about it. All that's left is the developer quotes.

Developer Quotes

There are a lot of developer posts this week. Though the vast majority of them are about PAX East. Though there's perhaps the odd snippet of somewhat interesting information in that, most of those can pretty much be skipped (unless you're interested in PAX East). Even so, let me list them all here together.
  • [link] to Eric Campbell on restricted guild names.
  • [link] to Jesse Sky on PAX East feedback.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East Jedi Knight gameplay.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East Jedi Knight gameplay, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East videos.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East boss difficulty.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East Flashpoint size.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (no) release date.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East day one.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East hardware.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (no) release date, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East developer walkthrough video.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East runthrough video (not being released).
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East user walkthrough video.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PAX East demo boss fight not being representative.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Google Translate.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Google Translate, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on joining via holocom.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on no day/night system.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on no day/night system, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on last names.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Jedi Consular Shadow.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on no Companions in raids.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on (no?) Companions in Flashpoints.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Master Oteg's speech and (no) release date.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East day two.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East developer videos.
  • [link] to Allison Berryman on PAX East.
  • [link] to David Bass on PAX East.
  • [link] to David Bass on PAX East waiting line.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on gearing up companions.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on mounts not not being confirmed. (wait, what?)
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on no day/night system, part 3.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on every class has out-of-combat heal/rez.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on joining via holocom, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (no) release date, part X.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (undecided) separate clients and PAX East.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on guild types doesn't mean server types.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (no) release date, part X+1.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on difficulty.
  • [link] to Daniel Erickson on Miraluka Jedi.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on preparation presentation release.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on joining via holocom, part 3.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Companions in endgame.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on early grouping.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on using vibroblades.
  • [link] to David Bass on Guild HQ post-release.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East thread.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on origin worlds being relatively small.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on shows.
  • [link] to David Bass on Guild HQ post-release, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on minority (not) dictating gameplay.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PvP XP.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on melee vs ranged dps.
  • [link] to Allison Berryman on PAX East waiting lines.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East flashpoint not endgame.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East flashpoint advanced classes.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on listening to feedback and group stories.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on listening to feedback.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on story choices.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on story choices.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Heroic Quests.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Smugglers not forced healer.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on groups without healers.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on hybrid Smuggler spec.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on quest sharing.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on tester claims.
  • [link] to David Bass on tweaked guild recruitment forum policies.
  • [link] to David Bass on tweaked guild recruitment forum policies, part 2.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on (no) friendly fire.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on last names, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on subtitles.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on (no) friendly fire, part 2.
Even skipping all the PAX East-specific posts there's still a fair number of posts to go through. Below I'll again quote a couple of posts I found to be interesting to some degree or other.

The first is a post by Georg Zoeller confirming a feature that people noticed in the game: joining group conversations through holocom. If you're not close enough to join a group conversation then you can join 'holographically', which doesn't give you the full range of conversation options (no point threatening physical violence), but at least allows you to follow what's going on. Here is Georg's post confirming the feature:

Originally Posted by Kalaesk View Post
Sweet if thats correct then you don't have to wait for someone to get to the conversation they can just click the button and appear as a hologram.

The purpose of this feature is to enable groups to play the story seamlessly together. You do not have to wait for all players to arrive an important quest NPC (since there's always the guy who lags behind in an MMO group anyway). People that are not within the range to initiate physical conversation may opt to join as a hologram instead.

Obviously certain choices will not be available to them (e.g. threatening or applying physical violence), so there is certainly a benefit of actually being there, but it definitely does the trick for many situations just fine.

I must say that that's very neat, though I can't imagine how much extra effort it must cost them to go through every conversation option and mark whether they're available through holocom or not (and the additional testing that goes into that). But pretty cool nonetheless.

In a further post he also confirms that, at the moment, this feature is limited to on the same planet only.

One thing that seemed to have taken certain corners of the community by storm is the confirmation that they've decided to not allow Companions in raids and that they're still not certain whether they'll allow them in Flashpoints. It seems that some people think this means BioWare scratching what was once an important feature (though that says more about the mindset of some players and how important they feel raids are to the game than anything really; for me that news changes pretty much nothing). Here is Georg's post explaining why they're not included in raids:

Not really, no.

Everyone who is familiar with raid type mechanics understands that they are about human coordination. AI mobs have little place in such scenarios and we always wanted companions to not be management heavy (they are not pets in that sense - pet classes in other games are required to micro manage their pets for equal efficiency with non pet closses, we purposely avoid that). We don't want you to micro manage your companion, and that is exactly what you would end up doing in a raid.

We could spend tremendous resources on trying to make companion AI able to handle raid scenarios, but frankly, most scenarios in game would probably end up with players taking matters in their own hand ("Raid Forming, no companions") - so we decided to make companions polished and great in the areas of the game where they really matter and not force them onto areas where they would end up conflicting with the rest of the design.

Companions are available in the overwhelming majority of content in the game, but we are very careful to make the feature feel right and not become an annoyance.

And it must be stressed that they're still looking at Flashpoints. I must say that personally I'm hoping that they decide to include them for Flashpoints. Particularly since Flashpoints are (said to be) for full groups (meaning four players). I'm playing Lord of the Rings Online together with two friends right now, going through all the content together and without being able to bring a companion or two we wouldn't be able to do Flashpoints (we're not good enough to make up the missing player).

To kind of continue with that, the following very short post by Georg shows how important Companions are still going to be (in the rest of the game):

If you don't gear up your companion, you will end up dying. A lot.
What I take from that is that everyone will not only be expected to bring a Companion along during gameplay, but is also expected to spent attention on keeping that Companion up-to-date with equipment. Just shows how it's still an important feature (though I can already hear people balking at the idea of being forced to bring an NPC along, and considering how badly they often tend to be even in the best games I can definitely understand the fears there).

Daniel Erickson also has a short post, confirming another species for Jedi Consulars:

Confirmed. At this time Miraluka are slated for both Jedi classes.

Hope that helps!

Daniel Erickson

So that makes the list of Jedi Consular species Human, Mirialan, Twi'lek and Miraluka. I personally never really saw the appeal of the Miraluka, but for those that do it's nice to know.

Another question that's always of interest is: how soon after character creation will I be able to play with my friends? Particularly if your friends play characters of other classes (or races/species in some games). Georg Zoeller has an answer, more or less:

When you finish your class story on your Origin World (which could be earlier than level 10), you are free to travel on to the other origin planets to group up with your friends, or, move forward to the border station which provides travel options to your capital planet (the express shuttle, or, the first Flashpoint, which is an event that takes place en route to your capital planet).
So about ten levels, which is about five hours (judging from the earlier Jedi day). Of course if you and your friends start on the same planet (because you're both playing Jedi) then you should be able to group up much sooner.

There was some confusion on the forums about story quests and how group members making decisions would affect you. So Stephen Reid made a big post trying to clear some thing up:

We're all getting a little confused. Including me! Well, it's hard not to be - this thread seems to be about a million different things. Also, I am still functioning at 75% post-PAX efficiency. So, I did some research and we can clear this up a little better.

The Old Republic has a lot of different types of quests that make up the entire story of the game. All of these will interweave to make up your final play experience.

Your 'Class Story' is the storyline that specifically relates to you as a Jedi Knight, Bounty Hunter, or whatever you're playing. Quests that advance your class story in important, decisive ways are instanced. During those instances (which are generally short, and do not make up the majority of the game world) you get to make story-defining choices. If anyone else is with you in that story instance, they do not get to make choices that would affect your story. (In fact, they can't even enter the instance unless you're grouped together.)

Outside of Class Story instances, we have World Quests, Flashpoints and Heroic Quests. In those, if grouped, your choices will be dictated by the decision the group makes. So, to put it bluntly, if you never want to see a decision taken by someone else - well, the final solution is to not group.

That's kind of extreme, though, and we want you to group because that's part of the fun of any MMO. So, the choices that are presented to you in Flashpoints, for example, are not so critical that you should ever feel your entire game story has been destroyed by one dice roll. (However, you should hopefully enjoy the unfolding story that may go some interesting places due to other players. That's the fun of an MMO.)

Your over-arching Class Story, which has the most critical set of decisions you'll make in the game, is never affected by other people. That's a deliberate design decision, to ensure that the 'big moments' in your story are guided by you and you alone. Here you truly are 'Master of your Story'.

Hope that clears things up a bit, and sorry if I caused some confusion.

Nothing really that I didn't already expect. But always nice to get these things clearly spelled out.

And finally Damion Schubert made a post about friendly fire, or to be more precise why they're not having any of it in The Old Republic:

I worked on Shadowbane - it had limited friendly fire. Of particular note, the Fury class was designed to have more powerful AoEs than any other class, but have this balanced out by having them hit everyone in the group. The end result was that Furies ended up being shunned by groups and guilds because unless they were played by the hands of a maestro, they were usually more of a liability than a benefit. Unsurprisingly, they were our least popular class.

We don't have friendly fire in The Old Republic for a simple reason: a lot of players are, well... idiots. I don't mean you, of course, dear reader, I mean those OTHER players. You know who I'm talking about.

Was anyone honestly expecting them to include friendly fire? I mean, even beyond what he's saying (or maybe he's including it) friendly fire is just too rife a tool for griefing. I recall an old game that didn't have PvP as such, but players still killed each other by using friendly fire. And as someone who probably would mistakenly (honestly) cause a fair bit of friendly fire let me say that I'm glad that they're not including it.

[link] to "Unofficial PAX East 2011 Thread (Part 2)" at the official forums.
[link] to PAX East gameplay reports thread at the official forums.
[link] to Flashpoint impressions article at MMORPG.
[link] to Taral V hands-on article at Massively.
[link] to hands-on experience article at Kotaku.
[link] to Taral V off-screen video at Gametrailers.
[link] to Taral V off-screen videos at VG247 (from Evil Avatar).
[link] to video interview with Cory Butler at G4TV.
[link] to video interview with Hall Hood at Darth hater.
[link] to video interview with Stephen Reid at Darth Hater.
[link] to third novel news at Darth Hater.
[link] to Lazard Conference news at Darth Hater.
[link] to EA criticizing WoW comments at The Escapist.
[link] to Blizzard high hopes for TOR news at VG247.

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