Sunday, 1 May 2011

Sith Progression, UI and more

This is going to be a long one. Not only do I have two weeks of official updates to catch up on (due to being away over the Easter weekend), but last week lots of sites started posting previews out of the Fan Site Summit. And then there's a lot of developer quotes on the official forums too. So sit back and enjoy the, euhm, read.

There are three Friday updates from the past two weeks; two last Friday and one the week before. Last Friday BioWare released a Sith Warrior progression video (similar to the Jedi Knight one a while back) as well as a BioWare blog entry talking about designing the UI. And the third update revealed the coming release of a new Star Wars: The Old Republic novel. But I'll start with the video; here's the official news:

In Star Wars™: The Old Republic™, your character advances through the ranks, gaining experience, growing in power, and reaping the rewards of more advanced gear and skills.

Take a look at this Sith Warrior as he develops and amasses power in The Old Republic. While there are many paths to choose from, this example gives you a small glimpse of the armor and abilities a Sith Warrior can claim as he pursues his own destiny.

Join the discussion on the Forums, or leave us a comment below!

To be honest I'm not really that interested in the Sith Warrior (anymore) and none of the appearances really tickle my fancy. But I'm sure that it's nice for those who are looking forward to the class.

I'll put the rest of the official updates after the break, in part because my responses to them will probably get a tad rant-y. Also continue on after the break for the Fan Site Summit previews as well as the developer quotes.

The Friday that I left on vacation BioWare had a surprise for its fans; namely the announcement of the next The Old Republic novel. Titled "Revan" and written by Drew Karpyshyn it is set to fill the gaps in Revan's story between Knights of the Old Republic and the MMO. Here's the official news:

Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ is continuing to expand beyond the core game and into novels and comics. Del Rey Books has already published two novels in the Old Republic timeline, Fatal Alliance and Deceived, and last year announced that a third Old Republic novel was to be written by Drew Karpyshyn, Principal Writer at BioWare, and author of the Darth Bane series of Star Wars™ novels.

Now the name of that novel can be revealed: Revan. As well as exploring what happened to Revan after Knights of the Old Republic, in this novel readers will learn who the Sith Emperor is in the time of the Old Republic, where he came from and how he has held onto power for so long.

The news page also contains a Q&A with Mr. Karpyshyn that's worth a read.

I must say though, I'm not happy about this; mainly because of them being forced to take the 'canon' Revan. One of the strength of KotOR was that Revan was your character and still played a major role in the story. Despite you being able to define the character and make it your own the story still revolved around you. I think that, above all else, that was it's strongest accomplishment and one which few games (and none of BioWare's games since) have managed to replicate.

But now they seem to be abandoning this and taking the character away from you as if saying "how you experienced the character doesn't really matter anymore as this is the only true way". For me this is noticed most strongly in that Revan was female for me, but in the book and in the MMO Revan will be male, trampling over what's my character. For others it might be that their Revan was Dark Side. And for all of us it is that our Revan likely has a very different personality than the one portrayed in the book and MMO (Extra Credit at The Escapist had a really good episode about just this issue).

In the past BioWare games were great because it felt as if I, as the player, was tellign a story together with the writers/designers at BioWare; theirs was the world and the NPCs and mine was the player character. But increasingly it seems as if BioWare doesn't care about that anymore and just wants to tell us their own story with minimal input from the player. Of course I understand that you can't really get player input in a book, but precisely for that reason I really, really wished that they'd just leave Revan alone and leave it to the players to imagine "what happened". Ideally I'd want some player-choice respecting hints in SWTOR (as a simple example; the game asks you ingame what gender Revan was and then in the rare few instances where Revan is mentioned (s)he's referred to as the gender you specified).

Adding insult to injury this novel will apparently reveal further secrets of the MMO (like who the Sith Emperor is... and I hope to god it isn't and has nothing to do with Revan). So if I want to be informed about their world I have to suffer through what's undoubtedly going to be a very frustrating read. Then again I haven't even read the second novel yet (as it isn't out on Kindle yet) so I can probably just skip this novel too. Just a pity that they (and the fans) can't seem to let Revan go and let him/her live on the way we remember.

See, I told you it was going to get a bit rant-y. :)

The second update last Friday talks about something that tends to be dear to my heart: the user interface. Here's a snip from the blog post:

The Logical Grouping of Systems

As the different controls for various game systems came together we took the time to develop a logical layout for these. We took the canvas of the screen and broke that out into corners of the screen. The controls felt right pressed into these corners so as not to obscure the center combat area of the screen. Much like the controls of a sports car do not cover the view of the road, our game controls do not cover the combat/explorative portion of the game world.

Interface Layout

We came up with the following structure which you can see above in diagram form:

  1. Social Systems: Chat - Top left
  2. Game Systems : Help - Top Center
  3. Mission Systems: Top Right
  4. Navigation Systems (World Indicators) - Bottom Right
  5. Combat Systems: Experience (Player Indicators) - Bottom Center
  6. Party Systems: Companion - Center-to-Bottom left
It's an interesting read, but for me one very vital word was missing throughout the entire post: customizable. I think that the first, most important, thing for any UI designer to understand is that every user is different and has different needs and preferences. It is simply impossible to make one UI that fits all those different users. The only way to go is to ensure that users can customize the interface to their own requirements. And the fact that, at least based on the blog post, that's not really considered in the design is a bit... worrisome.

Luckily Mr. Voigt confirmed in a forum post that you can at least reposition the chat window (and I would assume the other UI elements as well) and I really appreciate them working to minimize the framing. But I still think that the very first and ever-present requirement for a UI would be to ensure that it's incredibly customizable and from the blog post that didn't seem a main concern at all (which you can also see from the player health bars and target window seemingly being attached to the skill bar). And I'm saying that as someone who tends to do only fairly minor UI customization (I'm sure I'll drag the chat window to the bottom-left and the radar to the top-right where I'm used to having them, but probably not much more beyond that).

Either way though an interesting blog post.

Before we get to the Fan Site Summit previews there are two updates, both courtesy of Darth Hater. First of all they did an interview with Cory Butler, Associate Producer at BioWare, about game testing and launch. Here's an excerpt:

We saw a lot of stuff change in the game based on testing feedback. Are there any changes that you didn't see coming or think about? Are people are bringing up some interesting stuff?

The great part is a lot of it is matching up with what we were expecting and what we were planning to do. But we are learning some new things, and of course, BioWare quality is always a key component of our game. We want to make sure the fans are loving the game and enjoying it, so we want to cater the game not just to their expectations, but make sure they are going to have a great time playing it. So yeah, we are working on that feedback.

Can you give us a general example?

A couple of areas come to mind. The balance -- or the level of difficulty -- of the game is always being tweaked based on testing data. We may discover that some conflicts are a lot more difficult than we anticipated or vice-versa. Character Creation is another specific area that we're improving based on tester feedback. That is one of the beauties of MMORPGs; the types of changes that can be made during testing and after launch.

And the second bit from Darth Hater is the news that BioWare hired Jeff Hickman as Executive Producer Live Services. here is the news according to Darth:
In the wake of BioWare Austin's Co-Studio General Manager Gordon Walton leaving Star Wars: The Old Republic developer for Playdom, there were big shoes to fill. Many wondered who would fill Gordon Walton's shoes and now we know. During the Fan Site Summit event, Stephen Reid explained that Jeff Hickman joined BioWare to take on the role left open by Gordon Walton's departure. Many of you may know Jeff Hickman from Mythic Entertainment where he worked on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning and Dark Age of Camelot. By completing the transition to BioWare, Jeff Hickman's new title becomes Executive Producer, Live Services for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

From all of us at Darth Hater, we wish him the best during his time with BioWare on SWTOR and look forward to interviewing him in the future.

From what I've seen here and there the news hasn't really been welcomed that positively by the fans. At lots of people seem to be blaming a number of the shortcomings of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning on Mr. Hickman. Having followed that game quite closely as well when it was in development I always liked Jeff; he seemed to be the more level-headed, honest, no-nonsense type compared to Paul Barnett's over-the-top, tiring enthusiasm. And I never really got the feeling that he did wrong by the fans (and was perhaps more a victim of unfortunate circumstances). As such I'm definitely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt others seem to be showing and do wish him the best in his new position.

Fan Site Summit

Okay, that brings us finally to the Fan Site Summit. BioWare invited a bunch of journalists and fan sites over to their studio to get some extended hands-on time with The Old Republic and last week the (first) embargo on releasing news lifted, leading to a flood of news articles (there's a second embargo regarding PvP experience that they've had which is said to be lifted this week I think).

Now, there are a lot of posts to go through on a lot of different sites. So I'm going to be (relatively) lazy and post a (reformatted) list of articles from this thread on the official forums; as far as I can see every article I found on my own (with the exception of a GameSpot video interview and an Bounty Hunter interview, both of which I added) is in there and a number more besides. note that I also took out the developer responses to a couple of the articles (as I post dev quotes separately).

As you can see that's quite a big list and I admit I haven't read all of them yet. Of those I did read the Darth Hater ones are very informative as always. I also particularly liked the Rock Paper Shotgun preview which seems to take a level-headed yet generally positive view at the game (instead of just blindly positive or blindly negative as is so often the case with (p)reviews). They did get something wrong about the number of skills (and have since edited the article) which Georg Zoeller corrected on the forums.

Speaking of corrections, it should also be noted that the buff stacking that some previews mentioned was a bug that has been fixed.

As far as I've seen all the previews have been largely positive, with one notable exception. The bit-tech preview above is almost slanderously negative (and Stephen Reid made a post in response to it). Having played the game as well I must say that my experiences don't match with the bit-tech previewer's report, but I do believe that he experienced things the way he reported. Not everyone will like SWTOR (or any game), which is a good things as the world would get rather boring if we all liked the exact same things. Though I do question his assertions towards what others might think of it and some of his critiques seem unfair, but what gets me most is the responses in the comments.

Most people seem to immediately dismiss the game based on the review (a number seeming it to be 'expected') and when pointed out the majority of positive reviews that's dismissed as being "paid advertising" or such. I don't understand why it is so hard to believe that people might honestly like the game while others honestly don't. I am glad for the negative preview though. Not because I agree, but for two reasons. One, I believe that the more negative one's expectations the more likely that they'll be positively surprised and thus enjoy the game more (if you expect the game to be the best ever you're almost certainly going to be disappointed and thus will probably end up not liking the game so much; something I've noticed in myself a few times before with other games). And two, a negative view helps to offset the positive ones and helps keep a level head. It might point out things that the positive views gloss over. Just because one person likes/dislikes a certain facet doesn't mean that I will similarly like/dislike the facet.

Anyway, that's enough about that preview. Let's head to the developer quotes.

Developer Quotes

I'm not sure if I made this clear before, but I tend to list the developer quotes from the forums up to the Friday update, even though after the update (and before I make my blog post) there's usually a number more dev quotes. Seems like a good cut-off point to me; the new ones will get their chance the next week. Anyway, here's the dev quotes from the last two weeks.
  • [link] to Gabe Amatangelo on forced PvP.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on crafting criticals.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on group play.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on less dev forum activity this week.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on dual spec.
  • [link] to David Bass on Fan Site Summit embargo.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on dual spec, part 2.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on dev life.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Friday speculation.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Friday speculation, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Friday speculation.
  • [link] to Emmanuel Lusinchi on ???. (in French)
  • [link] to Emmanuel Lusinchi on ???. (in French)
  • [link] to Emmanuel Lusinchi on ???. (in French)
  • [link] to Emmanuel Lusinchi on ???. (in French)
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on announcing release date.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on equipping droid companions.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on no friendly fire.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Jedi Knight on Ord Mantell.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit embargo, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on herding.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on reporting leaks.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on dev life.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit embargo, part 3.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on European game testing.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit embargo, part 4.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on European game testing, part 2.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on (no) advertisements in game.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Fan Site Summit embargo, part 5.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on characters per server.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on beta download.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Friday update.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on class ability progression.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on (no) buff stacking.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on endgame content started
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on class ability progression, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Flashpoints once a day.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on endgame content started.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on Jeff Hickman's position.
First, in another one of those "I have no idea why people were worried about that", Gabe Amatangelo assuages fears that people will be forced to do PvP:
By design, players on PVE servers will not be forced into PvP.

We definitely want players to be able to enjoy PvE content without threat of PvP, if that is what they want.

For the rest of us, I'll see you on a PvP server.

That kind of approach is pretty much standard these days and I'm glad of it. Having played on (RP-)PvP servers I won't be doing that again and will be happy to PvP only when I decide to engage in PvP.

Damion Schubert made what I think is quite an interesting post about group play, looking at how you can 'synchronize' your gameplay with friends:

We’ve put a lot of time and effort into making sure that group play and playing with a partner is important. To answer some of the individual questions:

1. No, Republic and Imperial players cannot meaningfully group or play with each other. For the most part, they have entirely different content and progression paths through their planets.

2. If you're on the same side, once you leave your Origin World, your class stories will tend to take you to roughly the same planets, areas and quest hubs at the same time (even if you are not the same class). This has proven pretty vital to keeping groups together and happy. There are quest areas that the class stories do not drive you towards, where play is more freeform.

3. Most of the key moments of a class story happen in a class phase. You can enter the class phases of party members (to, for example, help out with combat events). Many players choose to, but many also choose not to, instead choosing to craft, farm xp, or do their own class quest if it happens to be nearby.

4. There are moments where the class quests send you to largely divergent locations (for example, a Jedi might be sent back to Tython to report in to the council, whereas another class is sent to an abandoned asteroid facility). These tend to be relatively obvious and relatively synchronized with each other. In most of my own playthroughs, the group typically chooses to do these events on their own time.

This is, obviously, an area of great importance to us, and one we continue to iterate on, but it is one area of the game where we've made a lot of progress, design-wise. It's quite fun, right now, to play the game with a steady group.

This is interesting to me because I'm hoping to convince some friends to play the game with me. Right now we're playing LotRO together and I'd love to play TOR similarly, so I'm glad with the approach they're taking here.

Damion Schubert made a post about equipping droid companions:

You can equip all of your companions, including your droid. Some equipment slots are shared with those of players and non-droid companions. Others are droid-specific. We're still playing with the specifics of these.

An earlier poster is correct in assuming distributing these items is trickier than one might guess at first glance. If you don't have a droid companion yet, then getting a piece of droid gear is possibly even more disappointing than getting grey 'junk' loot. We do have plans to deal with this issue.

Tragically, droid armor at this point does not change the appearance of the droid. Given the wide variety on shapes and skeletons the droid CCs can operate on, this would be a fairly large undertaking.

I don't really have much to say about this other than it's nice to hear a few more details on equipping companions.

Finally a short post by Georg Zoeller about the number of characters per server:

Yes, you will be able to have multiple characters per account per server. 8 seems like a good number, but that's not definite yet.
It's always a question how many characters you can have per server and eight seems more then plenty (even ignoring that I tend to stick to one character anyway in most MMOs). The only question left is whether those characters have to be all of the same faction or whether you can have characters of both factions on one server (I'm hoping for the latter).

And that's it for now. Next week should be a lot more Fan Site Summit posts; this time revolving around PvP. See you then.

[link] to interview with Cory Butler at Darth Hater.
[link] to Jeff Hickman news at Darth Hater.
[link] to Fan Site Summit links at official forums.

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