Tuesday, 10 May 2011

BioWare Blog: Introducing the Codex

There are two major updates from last week. First is the Friday update with gave us a developer blog about the codex. And secondly the second embargo for the Fan Site Summit was lifted, allowing sites to write about their PvP experiences.

But first is the official update; here's an excerpt from the article:

The Datacrons Challenge

That’s not to say that some codex entries shouldn’t be challenging. Quite the opposite, we want some codex entries to be worthy challenges – but we want those challenges to be centered on exploration. Enter the datacrons. In-game datacrons will be a sub-set of the codex entries. The world builders had been kicking around the idea of these little world gizmos for a while now. These unique objects are placed throughout the world for the player to find, usually in hard to reach places. If you successfully reach one and interact with it, one of your stats will be increased -- permanently. The codex gave us a way to increase the visibility of these devices, and offer a player an easy way to track his progress finding them.

I do like the idea of the codex as I quite enjoy exploring and finding information, reading them back later. But I do wonder if the codex also tracks other things (like the Tome of Knowledge in Warhammer Online) or whether it's 'just' an information repository. I can't help but shake the feeling that the codex seems a bit... underwhelming. That said, most MMOs don't have any kind of codex at all, so it's already above that.

Read on after the break for more Fan Site Summit links, including a boatload of PvP articles, and the developer quotes.

After last week's post there have been a few more articles about the Fan Site Summit. In fact, there have been a lot as the PvP embargo lifted. But let me first list the additional, non-PvP articles. Again I've taken the list from the thread on the official forums (where the links were helpfully color-coded based on date added):

And as said there has also been a multitude of PvP articles as fans (and press) got a chance to play a Warzone in The Old Republic. And they wrote down their experiences as well as any interviews they held. I took this list from the forums as well:
Then before we move on to developer quotes a couple of small things. Community members across Europe (including myself) got an email from EA/BioWare saying that testing is about to begin in Europe and encouraging us to sign up for testing (it wasn't an invitation to be a tester, just advertising for their sign-up page).

EA also had its Q4 Earnings Call last week and Darth Hater has notes from the call. There isn't really anything new in it, except that they again confirmed a 2011 release (with an outside chance of it slipping into 2012). What was interesting though is that they still seem to feel that a release before the end of September might be possible (when they talk about shipping in fiscal Q2), which means that a release could be only four month away (even if I expect it to not release before October).

Anyway, thought that those two things might be interesting.

Developer Quotes

Got another big list of developer quotes today and I found myself picking up quite a few to quote below. So let's get to it.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on ramping up CS team.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on user interface.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on bit-tech preview.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on too many skills.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Dark Side choices.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on necessity of Companions.
  • [link] to Daniel Erickson on necessity of Companions.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on user interface.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on PvP embargo and map coordinates.
  • [link] to Randy Begel on solo-ing Dragon Age 2.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on quickslot bars.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on cover quickslots bar.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on user interface, part 2.
  • [link] to Michael Voigt on user interface.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on user interface customization.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on quickslot count.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on (no) third party addons.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Heroic Quests.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on PvP info embargo.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on quickslot count, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Companions in Flashpoints.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on various questions.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on difficult content.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on channeling skills.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit value.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit value, part 2.
  • [link] to Michael Voigt on colorblind user interface.
  • [link] to Michael Voigt on multi-monitor user interface.
  • [link] to Michael Voigt on key binding.
  • [link] to Michael Voigt on menu bar.
  • [link] to Michael Voigt on chat windows.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on immersion.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on (no) third party addons, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on (no) one spec.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on speculating.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on (not) attackable during holo conversations.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on EA conference call.
  • [link] to Brian Arndt on Brian Arndt.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on EU testing.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on EU testing, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on EU testing, part 3.
  • [link] to Daniel Erickson on story length.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on testing regions.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on testing regions, part 2.
  • [link] to Daniel Erickson on twi'lek Sith Inquisitors.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on cross-server queuing.
The first quote I'll copy here is by Stephen Reid where he replies to the bit-tech preview (which was fairly negative) to clear up a few things:
Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

A couple of things that might confuse in this review; while the reviewer played the game over a period of 48 hours, they didn't play for 48 hours. (If they did, they'd have gotten a lot further in the game...!)

Second, Origin Worlds are indeed a different sort of experience from the rest of The Old Republic. Essentially an introduction to the game, they focus quite heavily on story, and on getting you used to the pace of how the game plays. Game mechanics are relatively light, without the introduction of more complex concepts such as Advanced Classes, Crew Skills, and so on. In fact, your first Companion Character is really the first new 'system' you deal with on an Origin World.

Third, your story mileage may vary. As everyone in the studio plays the game a lot, we talk constantly about it, and what comes up very often is of course the story involved. We compare quests, talk about the choices we made, and often just ask each other "Have you gotten to the bit when..." Just like a great book or TV series (as we feel 'longer' than a movie), there are generally 'moments' people enjoy in most stories.

I'm slightly worried about the Origin Worlds being a different sort of experience from the rest of the game and deeply hope that they're not repeating the mistakes of Age of Conan (which was great for the first twenty levels because of it being so story-focused, but then the rest of the game paled in comparison). But I guess we'll see. I do know that if the story start thinning out after the Origin Worlds it's going to be a lot harder for the game to keep me interested in playing it.

The second post is by Daniel Erickson who clarified some comments he made about Companion Characters being required:

Hey Folks,

Sometimes quotes are taken out of context (this one was not, but thanks to everyone who tried to give me the benefit of the doubt!) and sometimes people (read: me) just say things poorly when answering live Q&A.

Companions do represent a sizable amount of your power and The Old Republic is not balanced to play without them. That said, I was attempting to talk about people's likely styles of play, not what was possible. It is totally possible to play solo. You simply put your companion away. It is an extremely hard way to play and you'll likely be destroyed unless you're crazy-uber-elite guy - and even then you'll be going very slow.

Randy, our Bounty Hunter writer, booted up Dragon Age: Origins the first time we got it, put it on "Nightmare" difficulty and declared he would never take any party members with him. He's that kinda guy. Doesn't mean most people would want to attempt it. I certainly got obliterated trying to do the same thing.

Similarly, playing solo with no CCs in SWTOR isn't for everyone. Or most people. You're making the game much more difficult and choosing to miss all the companion content. But it is certainly possible.

You could also play in a two person team with no CCs, do all the solo content that way and you'd be stronger than one person with a CC. There are lots of possible scenarios but that doesn't mean the game is designed with them in mind. The solo player who is playing PvE content is expected by game design to have a CC and the game is balanced accordingly.

I did not say CCs would have to be micro-managed - at least if I did I certainly don't remember and didn't mean to. CCs have continually changed from build to build and we're always looking for that perfect solution. The goal always has been to let players who want to personally control their CCs have a meaningful amount of ways to do so and to give those people who don't wish to control them a robust enough AI that they can let them act as independent party members.

I hope that helps!

Daniel Erickson

I'm sure that there are going to be people trying their damnedest to play the game without Companions now. And I'm glad that they can try, but personally I think I'll happily stick to using them.

Another post by Stephen Reid then to answer a few questions about the UI:

To answer a few questions...

Yes, the hotbar at the bottom of the screen can be expanded to show two lines of ability icons. Damion also talks about this here. You can also add two additional bars for more abilities right now - one at the left and one at the right.

Ability icons can be dragged around to different quick slots; the bar can also be 'locked' to prevent accidental dragging.

FYI, you can now see a bigger version of the final screenshot in the blog here. For those wondering, that Jedi Guardian is on the planet Voss.

Last but not least, something we can't convey in screens is that we have subtle but (IMO) pleasing sound effects associated with the UI that really make the game experience feel more Star Wars-y.

Damion Schubert also talks some about the UI:
Apparently, my brain shut off a little - a danger of posting first thing in the morning. Let me clarify my own post.

There are four possible quickslot bars, two central and one each on the left and right side. By default, only action slot bar 1 is up - that's the lower central one. A player can certainly turn on all four if he chooses.

If you prefer to access your additional bars by paging through bars, you can instead page through all four bars on a 'spinner' attached to your main bar. This is pretty much industry standard.

One thing I often find in MMOs is that there are way more skills than I know what to do with and my ability bars then to fill up, leaving most skills unused because the key combination for them is hard to reach. I was hoping that perhaps one bar would be enough (with perhaps another off to the side for abilities that you don't need shortcuts for, such as teleporting back to your bind point), but four bars doesn't sound too bad as long as the two in the middle are in indication of the maximum number of skills you tend to have slotted (I can deal with that number).

Speaking of the UI, Michael Voigt, who wrote the UI blog entry last week, also had a fair number of posts to explain a bit more about the UI. Here's one about the chat window:

Thanks to Sizzlelean and everyone else for taking taking a look at my blog. We appreciate it.

Sizzlelean, we have great feedback, we definitely thought about eye-travel while laying the elements out. One of our goals was to reduce the amount of eye-travel needed to perform basic combat actions. Having the companion and party members near the ability buttons and health bars helped to reduce this.

We have put the chat top-left by default. However, it is quite easy to drag and undock your chat channels and place them wherever you would like. So you could easily place your main chat channel down towards the combat area. The chat channels can also be resized by dragging the sizing icon located bottom-left.


I must say that I was quite happy to hear that you can reposition the chat window (and I think probably every UI element). It might seem like something standard for an MMO< but I've definitely played MMOs before where you couldn't drag the windows around. I think I'll quickly drag things to the spots I expect them to be in.

UI was a hot topic last week (no surprise as it came directly after their UI blog post), so Georg Zoeller had a post about it as well:

Just to answer a few of these.

- Emotes have a quick access menu near the chat panel.
- Crew Skills (AKA crafting) have a dedicated UI, you can't map them to the quickbar (when you see more details on the Crew Skills, you'll understand)
- Companions have their own bar for their abilities. Additional utility is available by clicking their portrait (e.g. selling junk/greys)
- Certain functionality (target of target, etc.) are accessible via user definable keybinds, roll into cover, etc.

As a general philosophy, we have full UI support for all game functions. We try to avoid using slash commands as the single point of entry into functionality.

I take it his last comment not only means that they have buttons for every action, but also have keybinds (possible) for them as I tend to be very keyboard-oriented. But for the most part I'm sure that it'll be fine (certainly based on what I've seen so far).

Another post by Georg Zoeller talks about targeting:

There's a check upon ability activation to verify you can see your target (front facing).

After that, your character will be tracking the target - jumping through you, bunny hopping, running in circles won't break the ability channeling. The only things that can break the channel after initial activation is:

a) Use an ability that interrupts channeling (such as Force push, stuns, etc.)

b) Break line of sight (360 degree) with the character, e.g. by running behind a wall or jumping down a pit.

This applies both in PvP and PvE.

I found this quite interesting to know; useful to know that the check is made when you start to channel. I'm not sure if you can turn around while channeling, but in most MMOs I often find myself manually turning to keep facing the target while channeling if they walk behind me. Might still do that (always useful to keep an eye on your target), but nice to know that you don't have to.

Georg Zoeller also made a post about immersion (and telling the difference between players and NPCs):

The word 'immersion' tends to be thrown around a lot. It's a very generic word, so you can use it in almost every context.

The fact is - players immediately know they are fighting a human due to different nameplates. One could argue that because everyone has a name plate over their head that is immersion breaking. After all, people don't seem to carry nameplates above their heads in real life.

Players are also going to notice if targets behave predictably (AI) or not (player). They will notice a wild array of abilities used against them (player) vs. a small subset (AI).

There is no illusion here that can be dispelled, no disbelief that is suspended. At any time, you know when you're dealing with a player. We accept that we can chat with players or /dance at them and that they may react, and we accept that NPCs usually don't.

As such, the 'immersion breaking' argument, for me, is often an empty one. The term has a different meaning for different situation and different people and in my experience usually is a different way to say 'I don't like it'.

One could argue that it might be a good goal to minimize and hide the difference between NPCs and PCs - but that's not the kind of game we are making, we have no interest in trying to beat the Turing Test with our NPCs

Personally, for me, it's the RPG equivalent of invoking Godwin's Law - it pretty much kills any need to further discuss a topic.

I don't quite agree with his views on the invalidity of using "immersion" as an argument. At least, I've often find that it can at times be really, really difficult to explain what you're referring to without using the term (and tends to derail any argument you make in explanations of what you're referring to). Saying "immersion" tends to give at least a general indication of what you mean and tends to, at the very least, be a very specific kind of "I don't like it".

"Immersion" isn't that hard to understand either; it's really just a factor of significantly lowering the ease of suspension of disbelief. The main problem with the term is that this is achieved in different ways for different people (I personally find it harder to immerse myself in a fully voiced player character than in a 'mute' one, for example). But it's still useful as a means to show what general thing you're trying to achieve. If someone says that realizing which characters are players and which are NPCs breaks "immersion" for them, then it's understandable what they're trying to get out of the two being indistinguishable (and not, say, looking for a level difficulty between the two).


Daniel Erickson made what could be a risky post as he talked about the length of the game:

Hey Folks,

Glad to clarify. Please bear with me, though, as it can be hard when we're talking about story and story length. So let's start with a few rules for how we tend to talk about it at Bioware:

First: the whole critical path of the game is the length. The walking, the combat, the travel on your ship, world quests, everything you'd have to do to come out the other end the right level. When we say the story of Chapter 1 is X long we do not mean if you somehow took all the conversations and ran them together. Sneaking through the Death Star and shooting stormtroopers was just as much of Luke's story as talking about going and saving the princess. So all the content you're expected to do goes in there. What doesn't go in? Warzones, crafting, socializing, auction house, space game, etc (yes, you could skip world quests and do Warzone or space game quests or Heroics for XP instead but swaps like that tend to more or less even out). Anything not required to level up is outside the estimate.

Second: Your mileage may vary. When we talk about the length of the game at all, we keep it vague for the important reason that people burn through content at different rates. The numbers we're using today are based on best case estimates from hundreds of people playing through Chapter 1. Some people were faster, some people were much, much, much slower as they apparently not just stopped to smell the flowers but had their CCs pick some, studied them, made adrenals out of them and then decided to sit by the roadside and consider what they'd done.

Third: This may change somewhat before ship. Difficulty has been going up in the mid and late leveling game to create real, RPG-style combat challenges. This makes the game longer. Death penalties have been going down. This makes the game shorter. But we have a general idea where we want it to end up and I think it's safe now to make some broad statements.

Okay, with all that out of the way, let me clarify. I was speaking of the a single average first time playthrough of a single class's Chapter 1 being more than twice the length of a single average first time playthrough of the entirety of the original Knights of the Old Republic. Chapter 2 and 3 are each somewhat shorter than Chapter 1 (which are extended by the Origin and Capitol worlds experience) but still pretty darn big.

If we are talking about playthroughs of all the classes we're well into four digit hours but even one class is in the plural hundreds. Anything more specific is going to get me into trouble and honestly will just make me look silly when one guild makes it their all encompassing mission to beat the leveling game in a single marathon session then Photoshop their completion time onto a shocked looking picture of my face and spread it all over the interwebs.

Hope that helps!
Daniel Erickson

As far as talking about a game's length goes I think it's pretty smart to talk about it in terms of the length of another, similar, game (in this case Knights of the Old Republic). The question is whether KotOR is similar enough, but it gives a good indication.

Now, I could complain about having played through KotOR in three days (the first time) and thus it making SWTOR very short (by that measure one class is about two weeks), but that was one long marathon session with very little sleep; when I played it through normally years later it took me over a week to finish it. So I won't go there (oops, too late).

It does give an interesting feel of the length though. Extrapolating and comparing to my general play behavior it's probably going to take me months to finish even a single class and I'll likely try playing two at once. So sounds like a good length to me.

The last post I have today is one by Georg Zoeller about cross-server queuing:

Hi guys,

I thought I should clarify this, since there's a bit of speculation around.

We won't have cross server queuing for Flashpoints. We do think it's bad for building the server specific community, but that shouldn't be taken as some kind of of dogmatic approach to isolating servers from each other.

It has much to do with the age of the game and its community - if you start a new server and a community forms, having players create natural relationships during play is preferable over synthetic, short term relationships through a quick to use tool.

Once a game has so much content that it easily fragments the player base and local community so that it will cause long wait times for players to access such content, then the question of giving players the right tools to find other players becomes pressing again - and we'll worry about it at that time and see what the right approach will be.

As for PvP: The goal is obviously to keep queue times low. We'll do anything to ensure that people that want to play a match get a match. Features such as bolstering are a direct result of that approach. At this point there is no cross server queuing - but that does not mean we wouldn't entertain it as a measure to improve queue times if we feel it is necessary. As said, we're just practical about these things, not dogmatic.

Hope that clarifies, and, as always, interested to hear your thoughts.

I'm not sure I agree with their choice to not include cross-server queuing from the start. I think that keeping server queues as short as possible for multiplayer matches (be it cooperative or competitive, though I expect for cooperative many people will party before entering a Flashpoint) far outweighs the importance of "community building".

But in the end what they're, in part, running into here is the general problem with having multiple servers (and no free, unlimited server transfers); if you had that then it doesn't really matter that much if you play with someone on another server as you can still meet up outside the match. Though, granted, you lose the sense of "seeing the same people again and again", but I think that's a really small price to pay for being able to play a match as fast as possible.

This whole reply he gave reminds me a lot of Warhammer actually, which made the same mistake. And I recall quite vividly that it could take quite a long time to get into PvP matches because there just weren't enough people playing a specific Battlefield or such. Granted, WAR had population problems in general, but I think that it's very wrong to just assume that SWTOR won't. Heck, even WoW has cross server queuing now as far as I'm aware and that game it incredibly busy. But even on busy servers the wait times could be just too long (I recall sitting around for 90 minutes just waiting to get into a match... and eventually just giving up). So I hope that BioWare will reconsider before launch.

If I queue up for a random match I really don't care who I play with/against (because if I do then I'll party up beforehand). I care about getting to play a match.

Maybe an idea is to let people optionally choose to queue for a server-only queue or a cross-server one, but most people will probably pick the one with the shortest wait time (i.e. the cross-server one), which should really tell BioWare something.

Ah well, we'll see what way they go in the end. Maybe I just don't understand "server community building". Anyway, that's all of it today.

[link] to EA Q4 Earnings Call report at Darth Hater.

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