Sunday, 10 April 2011

BioWare Blog: Advanced Classes Update

After all the excitement of the UK Community Event, this last Friday BioWare had an update about the advanced classes for us. Principal Lead Combat Designer Georg Zoeller takes us through skill trees, class roles, and changes they've made recently to the advanced classes and why. It's a fairly lengthy and interesting (I thought) blog post, but what I found particularly interesting was getting a glimpse of how they use metrics. here's a bit from the full blog post:

Here is a movement heatmap and death details for a sub area on Ord Mantell, from an earlier test. This exposed, shall we say ‘survivability issues’ for Smugglers on their class quest at early levels. That’s since been corrected!

We also use these heatmaps to understand the flow of movement through an area, optimize maps and other guidance systems and identify potential locations for special content such as datacrons or unique enemies, which are specifically designed to reward explorers that go off the beaten path.

Quite interesting stuff. Don't miss out on the rest of the blog post which includes details on recent changes to the advanced classes (Troopers and Bounty Hunters can now also fulfill healing roles, Jedi Knight and Sith Warrior has a viable single-saber damage role, Inquisitor and Consular get a tank spec, etc) and some more details on how the skill trees work.

There's more from last week though, including a surprise mid-week update with a PAX East video, more from the UK community event and the weekly developer quotes.

Read them after the break.

As I was busy with (waiting for) the UK Community Event BioWare released a highlight video coming out of PAX, filming people standing in line and such as they're excited to play the game. Here is BioWare's news:

PAX East was an amazing experience for us this year. We were humbled by the enthusiasm the community showed for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™, and got the chance to meet with thousands of fans. We were overwhelmed by the response to the game; fans filled the queue for the game every single day within minutes, and many waited hours to get their hands on Taral V.

We’ve put together this highlight video to share the PAX experience with everyone. Thank you all for your support, passion, and enthusiasm for the game!

I think that there have been some requests on the official forums to see more post-play reactions (which makes sense; people what to see what others think of the game) so maybe we'll get that too sometime.

Speaking of post-play reactions, after the UK Community Event a lot of attendees posted on the forums with their experiences and thoughts and Allison Berryman started a post to collect as much of them as she can. If you're interested in people's play experiences then I can definitely recommend taking a look at the post link in that first one. And if you haven't seen it already there's also my blog post from a few days ago (and my follow-up on the forums).

Commenting on my report another attendee, Jono Bradley, linked to a detailed audio log and transcript of the second Q&A session (the one I didn't attend). Also has some interesting answers in it and definitely worth a read/listen. Here's an excerpt showing a question about accents:

Question: Erm; why are all the Empire characters British?


Daniel Erickson: That was actually my decision; really early on I wanted too evoke really my memory of the original trilogy and in the original trilogy - although there are a couple of exceptions..

Stephen Reid: Some really weird exceptions;

Daniel Erickson: Yeah; you know Kenobi and that sort of thing but all of the officers that are evil have that great sort of upper-class British accent and one of the things we wanted to do at the beginning was - we always have to look at the fact that we know where the history goes; so we know at some point that the Sith Empire that we've got here and the Galactic Republic are going to sort of form together so we took particular things from each side do they actually come - one or the other and so what I decided was the British accent comes into the StarWars universe via the Sith Empire. So it gives it a very distinct instantly recognizable thing - it also gives a feel of the singularity versus <...> so the Republic are not just the Americans, the Republic is everybody else we got Spanish people in there, we have French accents, we got people coming from all over the world... just no British.. British are the Sith and so it gives good a... it also means; you know one of the great things as soon as I told the staff they were like "oh yeah, we're going to London; we're going to get you know, the best British actors- we're going to make sure; you guys that have played the Agent; you noticed that your accent switches allot when you're playing the Agent? Because your keeper tells you "hey, loose the accent" so we had too to get a really good pair of British actors that could do an American accents; because a British actor doing a bad American accent doesn't bother Americans- But an American actor doing a bad British accent; Ohhh Boy! We'd hear about that one very, very quickly. Yeah, so; that is why the British accent, it represents... not evil remember; Faction is different; it just happens to represent a particular culture - a very Imperial culture.

So... British is imperial and not British is Republic. Check. (Actually more multi-cultural than 'Republic' but anyway).

And that leaves us with the developer quotes.

Developer Quotes

At the start of the week I thought that the developer quotes had quieted down a bit, wasn't much to pick from. But that definitely picked up later after the UK Community Event with (unsurprisingly really) lots of comments on that.

  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Shyriiwook Localization.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Community Event.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on April Fools.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Community Event, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Community Event, part 3.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on NA/EU separation.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Community Event, part 4.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Community Event, part 5.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Community Event, part 5.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on story overload.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on multiplayer conversations.
  • [link] to Allison Berryman on UK Event play experiences thread.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Event play experiences.
  • [link] to Allison Berryman on UK Event play experiences thread, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Companions in Flashpoints.
  • [link] to Daniel Erickson on UK Event play experiences.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on UK Event play experiences, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (no) swimming.
  • [link] to Allison Berryman on faulty email from EA.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Datacrons.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Companions in Flashpoints, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on swimming.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on beating the game.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on international community support.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on international community support, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on EU servers.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PAX East highlight video.
Stephen Reid made a number of posts about EU community support, the following is just the first one briefly explaining the general approach:
The Community team structure as a whole isn't changing, it's just expanding. We're getting BioWare employees 'on the ground' in Europe to work directly with community members, and in their timezone.

Server details will be revealed at a later date.

They're definitely working on expanding their community team; during the event I got a card with the address of BioWare's career site (I've looked briefly and there's nothing there directly suiting my abilities, particularly not in community management and such).

Damion Schubert talked a bit about throwing too much story at players and how they're trying to manage that. Here's part of his post (the rest of it talked about how they're doing a "previously on" bit through the loading screens):

Believe it or not, the issue of throwing too much story at the customer is something that we talk a lot about at Design Central. Throwing too much talk at the customers all at once tends to be confusing, and can dilute the power of the strong quests. We've become pretty adept at understanding quest flow, and how it's unique in our game. VO quest givers tend to be a little more spread out from each other than in other games, for example, and we lean on systems like Bonus Quests (quests that are unlocked on the field) to deliver goals and objectives without VO and story.

There were originally concerns that these systems would weaken the sense of story in the game, but its done the opposite -- our VO'd quests now really shine, largely I personally believe because they have more oxygen to breathe.

In the time I had to play I haven't really gotten a sense of pacing of the story (partly since I was rushing a bit to try and soak up as much of the game as possible), but I can see some of the things he's talking about like spreading out the quest givers a bit and such. Can definitely see that working well.

Another post he made was about multiplayer conversations (and seeing the die rolls deciding who gets to say the next line):

You see the roll numbers. Multiplayer conversations are actually a lot of fun, it turns out, because of it. Our playtests are full of snark about winning a roll with a 9, or edging by someone who rolled an 89 with a 90. And there's something odd about throwing out trash talk because your LIGHT SIDE option won, but it happens a lot.

Discovering this was actually one of the first things we truly discovered on the project that was shiny and new. We thought people might get upset about not winning the roll, but there's just an attitude of good, clean fun to it. "Clearly", we said to ourselves, "we need more of THAT!"

Mark my words now, sports fans, running dungeons with a split LS/DS group is WAY more fun than going with 4 people who all choose the same option all the time.

I'm not entirely sure what to think of that last one; ideally I would like it to be equally as fun regardless of who picks what options. I kind of fear that people might form groups expressly with mixed LS/DS players and it already feels like it's going to be a pain forming groups. Then again I've got friends who tend more towards the DS options (where I personally lean more towards LS) and I can understand that it's impossible to make all combinations and choices equally fun for everyone.

Following up on the UK Community Event and the comments people made coming out of that Daniel Erickson made a big post clearing up a number of things:

Hey Folks,

First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who came out for the event. I was running on four hours sleep, jet-lagged and we had just finished an all-day press event. The energy and enthusiasm you folks brought woke me up and kept me energized throughout. Like PAX, any time we get a chance to share the game with our fans it turns into an amazing time. Now, let me see if I can clear some stuff up that there seemed to be questions on:

- Party size in the game right now is four, which includes CCs. This is also true in Flashpoints. This does not mean having two people and their CCs is the same as having four people. CCs are powerful but they are not the same as having smart humans nor are they equal in power. So on a less difficult Flashpoint with amazing players or players that had a couple extra levels it’s likely possible to two man or three man them but I will say that when Alex and I tried to two-man the Heroics on Dromund Kaas with our CCs we got stomped flat. And, you know, I’ve been playing this game a while. Most important to remember: All of these rules can and likely will change in the future. And yes sometimes they’ll change week to week if there’s a new build during that time. This is what testing is about.

- I referred to “ten plus hour worlds”. It’s my short hand in the office for “big worlds.” It's not a concrete number for play time. Some of them are bigger than that. Some are much bigger. And obviously, your time spent on them may vary, especially if you like looking at our gorgeous landscapes.

-There are light side and dark side icons on the dialogue wheel if you are using the mouse. If you are using number keys to pick dialogue options, you’ll never see them. So if you hate the idea of choosing wrong, you’re going to be a mouse user for dialogue. If you hate the idea of hand holding you’ll be a number key player. Best of both worlds.

-Swimming will not be in TOR for ship. It is not a 'free feature' we turned off and is actually a huge amount of animation, pathfinding and AI work. Either every creature in the game needs to have water moving/fighting animations and AI to handle 3D movement or combat has to stop in the water with all the AI craziness that having safe zones you can jump in and out of entails. We have nothing against swimming but it’s never going to outrank improving combat, Companion AI or any of our other core features.

-Dark Side / Light Side is working even though most people didn’t see a difference in their bar on the terribly ugly placeholder Character Screen. The bar doesn’t move much per decision because it’s a long game. Highlighting the bar shows the point value which makes it easier to tell quest by quest progress.

- Class quest answers are not arranged by DS/LS but by class appropriateness. So the most “Boba Fett” response (curt, professional, all business) goes on the top of the Bounty Hunter. The most “Vader” on top of the Sith Warrior etc. So if you’re playing purely to your class fantasy you can just keep moving along easily. So in similar situations a Sith Warrior might have a “[Kill Him]” option as a first response but an Inquisitor might have it second and the first response might be trying to look deeper at the situation and discover what’s really going on.

-Darths do outrank Lords in our time period and both are official titles in this Sith Empire. The honorific, however, is always “my lord” when speaking to a Sith who outranks you whether they are officially a lord or not. So all soldiers in the Imperial military of normal rank (not moffs and generals, etc) will call you “my lord” as soon as you achieve Sith status. This doesn’t mean you’re actually a Lord by title yet. The Sith themselves have a complex sense of rank and will often try to test others with their forms of address.

-There was an odd bug that was causing cover points to appear for Troopers and Bounty Hunters. These have not become cover classes.

-Training abilities does cost credits.

-Datacrons are, in fact, spread all over TOR in hard to reach places, do appear on your map if you’re close enough, have some awesome history pieces for your codex, are very hard to get (I’ve only gotten a couple ever in playing) and do permanently increase your stats. Kudos to Kandycane for being the first person I’ve ever seen to get one at an event. Explorer badge!

Hope that helps,
Daniel Erickson

From that I noted a couple of mistakes in my report (which I updated the post with), like there being no dark/light icons in the dialogs (I maintain hope that they'll at least add an option to show colored text or such for keyboard users like myself) or the order of the dialog options (which they should probably explain to new players). But in general it all sounds good.

Something you can see in Daniel's post above and which seemed to be a big reveal coming out of the event is the existence of "datacrons", which from what i gather (I didn't see any myself) are glowies which not only unlock codex entries, but also give permanent stat boost. And it's the latter part that has people concerned, fearing that they'll have to grind datacrons in order to stay competitive or something. Georg Zoeller made a post with some clarifications:

Just to clarify a few things here, to avoid unnecessary panic attacks.

We put a lot of focus in SWTOR on making your character's journey mean something.

We're trying to eliminate grinding as much as possible, make your character's story matter and give you meaningful things to do on your way through the game.

We're also not shying away from rewarding or encouraging certain activities. The primary example, of course, being story. It's very hard to ignore, definitely not something we consider optional. It's hard to convey to people just how much impact it has on our game, but if you look at the feedback from all our recent events, people usually walk away surprised by just how powerful of an impact the feature has.

Exploration is another example. Exploration is an optional activity, but it is encouraged. If you choose to play just along the critical path, you can beat the game, have a good time, but you will find it is not necessarily the path of least resistance either:

Without exploring the world and stumbling on unique treasures, hidden quests, codex entries, the occasional world boss or encampment of rebels, you will be missing out not only on equipment rewards, XP, chances to further affection with your companion or build your alignment... but also you will deprive yourself of some very interesting stories

Datacrons are an exploration reward.

Yes, their effects are permanent, however they are also predetermined (there are X datacrons with exactly these effects, not randomized) so we can ensure they are balanced and luck has nothing to do with their effect. Their locations are fixed, not randomized and they don't 'spawn', meaning they will always be there for your character when you get to the location.

We're not talking about people having to find the 99 hidden flowers on each planet or something like that; the number of datacrons is small, scaling with the size of the planet. Think single digits. Not the kind of thing you would usually associate with grinding.

Do they matter? In the grand scheme of things, sure, they'll matter. How much? That depends what type of player you are. If you are in pursuit of the most optimized character ever, you will probably want to pick them up, but most people will probably do just fine with finding just a handful of them.

If you are not an explorer - no big deal - datacrons always stay accessible to you, so you can't lock yourself out of them and you can come back and pick them up later in the game when you have your comfy personal transport to get around in.

In short - we think it's a feature that adds to the game, that rewards going off the beaten path and discovering the wonders we put all over the worlds.

One thing he doesn't mention (though it's kind of implied) is that pretty soon the location of all datacrons can simply be looked up on a website for those who have no interest in finding them themselves. Me, I like to think of myself as a bit of an explorer so it'll be fun to jsut run around and randomly bump into things like that (though I'm also a bit of a complete-ist and will probably make a list to check whether I've got them all yet). Either way it sounds like a fun think to add.

Another thing that got a lot of discussion was the reveal that there is going to be no swimming in SWTOR 9at launch at least). Georg Zoeller made a post on this too:

There's no rigid wall in the game at this point. You walk in shallow water, it becomes deeper as you progress, and at some point you start getting the message that you should turn back. You can continue on and ultimately drown (then respawn) or move back.

In order for swimming to be actually worth the implementation and time, we'd want to do it right - meaning content built around it, maybe a water centric planet, etc. Absent that content - there are no water worlds in this game - we've decided to focus on other things that are more important to us.

I can definitely see why people like swimming (or any other feature for that matter), however, the decision to put a feature like that in the game cannot be solved with a simple yes/no poll. In reality, the question is more like “Do you want swimming or 'feature X'”. In this case, we chose feature X (or Y, or Z) for a number of reasons - one being that just adding a very basic version of swimming without building proper content around isn't something we wanted to focus on for launch.

We'll definitely look at this again later, after launch, but if we were to decide to do it, it'd be accompanied with proper content and mechanics themed around it.

Thinking on it I wasn't really expecting swimming to begin with. With one exception (when they head to the city of the Gungans) Star Wars never seemed like a 'swimming' kind of setting anyway. Even in KotOR's Manaan water planet there's no actual swimming (just walking underwater in a suit at best).

That said I do think that it would be fun to have swimming in the game at some point, to have new worlds where players can swim (I vote for Lehon or another such beach-type planet).

And that's it for now.

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