Sunday, 5 June 2011

Lost Suns and Advanced Classes

With E3 right at the door (starting Monday) BioWare gave us an overview of what we can expect from The Old Republic during the expo. And on top of that they also talk about the Lost Suns comic to be released next week and revealed a new Advanced Classes page. Here's the official news on the latter:
Today we are excited to announce the launch of a newly redesigned Advanced Classes page. Advanced Classes give your hero access to unique skills and abilities that allow you to customize your character to your own unique play style. The new page allows you to explore each of the Advanced Classes in-depth and to check out the skill-sets that become available as you reach higher levels in Star Wars™: The Old Republic™.

Check out the new Advanced Classes page and experiment with the ways you can develop your character, or if you’d like more perspective on the system, read the developer blog from Principal Lead Systems Designer Georg Zoeller.

The new page is quite neat, allowing you to select a class, then one of the class' advanced classes, then giving a preview of a few skills up to level 20.

There's much more though (and E3 hasn't even started yet). Read on after the break for information on the Lost Suns comic, a preview of E3 next week, some details on EA's new Origin online store, and the developer quotes from last week.

A new Star Wars: The Old Republic comic will be available from June 8th. Called "The Lost Suns" it features the son of Satele Shan, a republic spy. In the news article on the official site there's an interview with the comic's author, Alexander Freed. Here's an excerpt from the interview:

Q: The new comic series is The Lost Suns. Can you give us a brief introduction to it?

The Lost Suns is the story of Theron Shan - a Republic spy sent on a mission to learn what the Sith Empire has been up to since it signed a peace treaty with the Republic and why the Empire made certain mysterious demands in that treaty. For Theron, this means getting through closed borders without starting a war, working alongside a Jedi Master who may not be in his right mind and skirting the murk of the criminal underworld.

I like to describe The Lost Suns as our “ninth story” - every class in The Old Republic tells its own Star Wars epic, and Theron’s tale intersects with the other eight and pushes the greater game story forward, just as they do.

Q: When exactly is The Lost Suns set in relation to Star Wars™: The Old Republic™, and previous Old Republic comics?

The Lost Suns begins when the game starts, as the treaty between the Republic and the Empire is starting to fray. This places it about a decade after Threat of Peace and around forty years after Blood of the Empire.

As the issues progress, the events in the comic parallel the events of the game (except when they outright intersect...). Finding a story that took place concurrent with the game was one of our major goals going into the project - we'd done our share of prequels, but now we wanted to dive right into the game itself.

I get the impression that this comic won't be available as a free web comic like the previous two series. Even so it sounds like a nice comic.

Another big bit of news last week is the reveal of EA's new online store. Named "Origin" it is supposed to compete with Steam. And to manage that EA decided to make a few things exclusive to the service, including digital downloading of The Old Republic.

Yes, if you want to get The Old Republic digitally (as opposed to getting a boxed copy from a brick-and-mortar store) then the only place to get it is this new online store.

You can read the original Wall Street Journal report (which is now available to read without requiring a subscription). Here's an excerpt:

Another much-anticipated online project from EA is "Star Wars: The Old Republic," an online multiplayer game for PCs based on the George Lucas outer-space epic. EA will preview the product at next week's E3 games conference in Los Angeles. The game, the company's biggest development effort in years, is expected to go on sale sometime during the current fiscal year. EA hopes to give its new online store a boost by making Origin the only Internet-based service offering the "Star Wars" game, which will also be available in stores.
I must say that looking at the store I find it confusing. At least I'm confused because I don't see any place to sign up and/or log in and I don't see any applications to download (isn't it supposed to come with a social application). Maybe you need to buy something first before you get anything, but doesn't it make more sense to let people use the application for free, making them part of the community you're building, and at the same time offering them things to buy? So far, looking just at the website, it looks to me like a decidedly half-hearted effort banking its success solely on EA's library of games.

I'm also of two mind about having yet another online store. On the one hand I've already got more than enough places that I'm registered and whatnot and I'm getting sick of having so many different applications for all these different things. In many ways I'd be perfectly happy to let Steam have a monopoly on the online store business. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have a monopoly on their respective consoles, and nobody cries foul over that.

On the other hand the recent problems with PSN show how dangerous such things can be and I'm starting to feel that it's not smart putting all your eggs in one basket. If Steam would ever crumble then that means I'd lose access to pretty much my entire games library. Considering that most of that is single player games I'm unlikely to play again that's not that big of an issue (beyond there also being a number of games I haven't finished yet or haven't even started yet). But it would be more painful to lose access to an MMO. So I've already been considering looking somewhere other than Steam to download The Old Republic. might as well give Origin a shot for that (and then add it to my Steam library as a "non-Steam game" as I do with all my other games so I still get the benefits of Steam's community features; I serious, seriously doubt that I'll make use of Origin's community features).

It seems rather cheap of EA to restrict certain things to just their service. I'm not sure what I'm going to do if Mass Effect 3 is only going to be available through Origin for example. And I don't give a crap about store-specific bonuses so that's not going to sway me to go with one service over another. Honestly I'm rather hoping that Origin will fail so that EA will be forced to continue to offer their games through Steam or lose out on a lot of revenue. Having multiple services can be good for competition and it's always good to consumers to be offered choice, but what can only hurt matters is this whole "exclusive" nonsense. Gamers are better served if they can choose what platform to get a product on instead of being forced to a platform just because that's the only place to get the product in question. Just as I absolutely refuse to get a console (despite them having a number of titles that seem like a lot of fun and aren't available on PC) I refuse to go with a download service just because it's the only place to get something; I'd rather just miss out on the product altogether (noting that for SWTOR, and any other MMO, I was already considering going with a service other than Steam). And I really hope, but don't expect, that more people take that stance as we as consumers can only benefit from that in the long run.

Ah well, that turned a bit rant-y. My apologies for that.

Before I start on the E3 stuff, and despite E3 not having started yet there's already a fair bit of it, there's another article I'd like to link first. Over on they've got an interview with Georg Zoeller about the advanced classes. Mostly it's just a bunch of "can you give us an example of the difference between the two advanced classes for class X", but it's a decent read with fairly lengthy responses from Georg. Here's an excerpt from one of his answers:

Advanced Classes are introduced once a player has reached level 10 and left the relative safety of their Origin World. Their class quest will lead them to the capital planet of their faction (Dromund Kaas for Imperial players, Coruscant for Republic players) where they can make their Advanced Class choice. This choice is not optional.

Once an Advanced Class is chosen, the character's gameplay options broaden dramatically, as do the choices for customization:

  • The character continues getting new active abilities through their base class at their class trainers.
  • Additionally, the trainers will now grant access to Advanced Class specific active and passive abilities upon leveling up.
  • Finally, by choosing an Advanced Class, the player unlocks two skill trees unique to their advanced class as well as a 'shared' tree available to both classes. The skills allow the player to define the role they want their character to play on the battlefield.
And then we get to E3.

The third update BioWare had for us on Friday was an overview of what we can expect from The Old Republic during E3. This includes EA's press conference on Monday, though note that the European times listed are wrong ("GMT" should be "BST" as GMT doesn't have daylight savings time and similarly "CET" should be "CEST" or "CEDT"... it makes an hour of difference and you don't want to log in an hour late).

For the rest they're listing showfloor booth hours, revealt hat they're going to have a third cinematic trailer, mention the "Eternity Vault" (later mentioned to be the Raid they'll show), talk abotu a new Warzone on Alderaan they'll show, talk about showing Tatooine and sand people, and mention a bunch of live broadcasts. It's looking to be a busy week. Here's the bit on the cinematic trailer:

You may recall the dramatic cinematic trailers we’ve released at previous E3 shows. First, “Deceived” showed the dark triumph the Sith Empire achieved by sacking Coruscant and destroying the Jedi Temple. Then “Hope” took us back a few years in Old Republic history to the courageous stand made by Republic heroes in the Battle of Alderaan. These are critical points in the history of The Old Republic, but there’s another moment that we’ve yet to share.

In anticipation of E3 it's not unusual for certain gaming sites to post an article of what games they expect to be at E3 and what they expect to see of certain games. One such article is about SWTOR and comes from IGN, appropriately titled "Road to E3: Star Wars: The Old Republic". Here's an excerpt:
At previous events and special "immersion days," the press has had extensive access to Star Wars: The Old Republic's introductory areas. At E3 the focus will be on high-level content such as raids. Any experienced MMO player will tell you that the level-cap is where the meat of an MMO begins, and a well-developed endgame is one of the most important parts of player retention. We want to see how BioWare plans to keep players hooked when story progression slows or comes to a halt, and raids, which put an emphasis on group cooperation and continued (though incremental) progression are an integral part of that. Oh, and we also want a release date.
As I'll get to in a moment BioWare has already revealed that they're talking about raids as well during E3, to I guess they'll get their endgame content.

More interesting than what some reporters hope/expect to see during E3 is some actual details. GameSpot has just that in an interview article and a video interview with Daniel Erickson as well, and an exclusive E3 preview trailer. let me start with embedding the video:

Cinematic Storytelling, Heroic Combat, Companion Characters, Personal Starships, Space Battles, A Galaxy of Worlds, Vehicles, Galactic Trade Network, Social Hubs, Crew Skills, Flashpoints, PvP Warzones, and Raids are the E3 gameplay features it lists. Slightly surprising that they linger longer on the first few, which we've known for a long, long time. I'd expect them to announce the new things more prominently. But ah well. Personally I'm most curious how a "social hub" is a feature instead of just a location (the way it is in pretty much every other MMO). Maybe it isn't. Somehow I expect the focus to be more on the other stuff, but we'll see.

GameSpot also has two interviews, one in text and the other a video interview with Daniel Erickson. Here's an excerpt from the two-page text interview:

GameSpot: Give us an in-depth overview of what's planned for Star Wars: The Old Republic at E3 2011. What new content will be shown?

Daniel Erickson: We have a ton of new content at E3. We will have stations on the show floor for the first time, giving everyone hands-on [time] with Tatooine, a planet we've never shown. We'll have a first look at some boss fights and will be taking the wraps off our end-game content. We are also going to be debuting the grand conclusion to Blur's amazing CG trilogy and will have a few more surprises thrown in as well. It's going to be a big show!

While the text interview covers all topics for E3 the video talks mostly about story and a bit about Raids. here's the video interview:

Of course all of that is only the start as E3 hasn't even begun yet. I expect loads more articles and videos and such over the course of next week (and probably continuing for a week or so after). All of this starting tomorrow when E3 kicks off, including EA's press conference where I fully expect the third cinematic trailer to debut.

For now though all there's left is the developer quotes.

Developer Quotes

  • [link] to Stephen Reid on forum spammers.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on (no) gear swapping during combat.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on switching weapons.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on switching weapons, part 2.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on boss mechanics.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on choreographed combat.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on alien voice overs.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on timeline videos.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on hitting in combat.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on attacking from behind.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on Advanced Class story impact.
  • [link] to Georg Zoeller on heroic start.
  • [link] to David Bass on E3 Meet and Greet.
  • [link] to David Bass on E3 Meet and Greet, part 2.
  • [link] to Damion Schubert on story pillar.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on EA Origin Service.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on announcing release date.
  • [link] to Stephen Reid on marketing hype.
I've got more quotes this week than last week, most of them by Georg Zoeller though there's one by Stephen Reid on the Origin Service as well.

The first post by Georg talks about switching weapons during combat:

It's pretty much impossible to not have a weapon equipped. You'd have to work for that. Sure, you can unequip a weapon and not equip a new one, but there's no compelling reason to do so .. even less outside in the wilderness where you're likely to get jumped.

If you find a new weapon, you can just swap it out, never leaving you at a point where you don't have a weapon.

Switching weapons to maximize stats is not the kind of gameplay we want to encourage. It's tedious and not fun for the overwhelming majority of players, and since some players would feel compelled to engage in the behavior if it offered a benefit, regardless how tedious and unfun it was, we just disallow it, period.

I can't say that I have a problem with that. The way most MMOs work is that there's usually only one weapon you want to use at a time anyway, only switching when you get one with better stats.

The second post talks about choreographed combat, stemming from whether the impale move is an ability or not:

[The 'impale move' is an] Ability. These kinds of abilities have multiple segments, each of which can hit or miss (which may give the target a window to escape...). That said, some of these abilities can be upgraded to root or stun, or the player can use other abilities before hand to set up the kill and make sure the target is not going anywhere.

The whole system is rather complex and we've spend significant amounts of resources and time to balance visuals and gameplay - we don't want to lock the player in place or stop them from moving, but we do want the choreographed combat / blaster bolt deflection / over the top abilities. Naturally, there are situations where we have to trade off the visuals for the player's ability to act smoothly and freely - but most of the time, there's ways to make both work that play well - at least our testers are pretty positive about it so far.

No other MMO has done something like this, so I can understand it's confusing / hard to understand.

Sounds good to me, though I can definitely understand how it would be a pretty complex system.

In a third post Georg talks about attacking from behind:

It depends.

Attacking a Force user from behind doesn't give you any advantage. Their superior awareness and Lightsaber training gives them 360 degree melee and blaster bolt deflection capability.

For standard creatures, you're not going to do more damage (unless you use a positional ability), but you may reduce their chance to defend a bit.

To some degree it's a pity that positional combat sounds a bit limited, then again things are likely going to be complex enough as it is. I'm not convinced that the side you attack an enemy from really adds that much to gameplay to begin with it's entirely built for it (where gameplay consists much more of getting into the right position than picking skills to use).

And in Georg's last post I'll quote here he talks about starting out heroic:

That's not our design. For this game, we specifically do not want the player to start off as an 'untrained newb' when they create their character.


If you start as a Smuggler, you know how to use a blaster quite well, you're the captain of a ship with a reputation, etc.

If you start as a Jedi Padawan, you've had weapon training already and are trained in the offensive and non offensive use of the Force. In conversations, you can 'persuade' weak minded individuals about the droids they are not looking for right off the start, and in combat you are trained to deflect blaster bolts and parry attacks coming from all directions. Think Luke Skywalker in Episode VI, not IV.

We're definitely shooting for a different experience from your standard MMO game start where you barely can hold a weapon and have to 'earn' pretty much any mundane ability by slaughtering peaceful animals of ever increasing size.

This is part of the whole 'heroic' thing we talk about all the time

This I'm not sure I'm really all that happy about. I think this comes down to my whole problem with BioWare's approach where you start out looking heroic, being heroic. I think that diminishes the whole experience. It's not that special being heroic if you were made to be heroic and never had a choice to be anything but be heroic, when your very appearance screams that you're heroic. it is, in my opinion, much more valuable to start out as a nobody and then become heroic through your actions.Something you work for is much more valuable than something you're just handed. And it sounds like we're just handed being heroes instead of having to work for it.

It's the same problem some of BioWare's other games are starting to show (Dragon Age 2 in particular) and I fear that they're losing track of how players experience things. Just because a story is always set to end up with you as a hero doesn't mean that the game shouldn't take advantage of the player not knowing this to give them the sense that they're achieving it on their own merit. And I honestly fear that because of things like this players won't feel as much of a connection to their SWTOR characters as other games (and thus have less qualms about leaving them behind). But maybe I'm wrong in that.

Anyway, the last quote is from Stephen Reid on EA's Origin Service:

Hey everyone – well, apparently once again the online world trumps newsprint, as a story that was supposed to pop tomorrow popped up tonight! Let me give you a couple of notes on Origin.

First off: Origin is a fantastic new digital initiative from EA, and we're pleased to confirm that Star Wars: The Old Republic will be available exclusively for digital download from Origin.

However, even though you'll only be able to buy and download The Old Republic digitally via Origin, you will still be able to buy a retail, boxed copy of the game from your favorite retailer (and that includes online retailers who’ll ship the box to you). BioWare and EA know the value many gamers place on a cool boxed product... and we’re producing a cool boxed product. (Or maybe I should say 'boxed products'. )

Second: it's easy to hear an announcement like this and assume it means that we're about to drop another bombshell or two, especially with E3 around the corner. The reality is, this sort of pre-show announcement is pretty standard PR work, so that the story can 'breathe' a bit before E3 news obliterates everything else.

While I will say we have some super-cool stuff coming out of E3 – some of which you’re actually going to see before E3 starts – I don't want you to jump to conclusions just yet. Instead I'd suggest you just strap in and enjoy the ride. We know every single one of you wants to know when The Old Republic is going to launch, and I assure you, when we are ready to give you a date we'll broadcast it loud and clear.

As I'm sure you know, we’re 100% committed to making Star Wars: The Old Republic the best quality game (and service) it can be, as you'd expect from a BioWare MMORPG set in the Star Wars universe.

I've said before that an announcement as big as release date will be so big, it'll come thundering towards us and we'll all hear it long before it arrives. That train's coming... but so far, I'd just say we've laid down some early track.

You have questions, no doubt, and all of them will be answered in time. For now, sit back and enjoy E3 next week.

So no release date at E3 then. For the rest I think I've said about Origin all I'm going to above, so I'll just keep it to saying that I don't see how any developer can be 'pleased' that their product is only going to be sold in a single store, making Stephen's statement sound like so much marketing BS. "We're very pleased to confirm that all those people who only buy games through Steam will never be able to buy our game, nyah nyah". Yeah sure, Stephen, I bet.

Anyway, that's it for Friday's news. I'm sure that there'll be more tomorrow after the E3 conference. I'm also probably going to start a post to keep track of all E3 links later today as well. So see you then.

[link] to EA Origin Service.
[link] to Origin news at the Wall Street Journal.
[link] to interview with Georg Zoeller at MMORPG.
[link] to Road to E3 article at IGN.
[link] to E3 preview video at GameSpot.
[link] to interview article at GameSpot.
[link] to video interview with Daniel Erickson at GameSpot.

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