Monday, 23 January 2012

Teaching Elephants To Do Ballet

That was too good a title to pass up. The Old Republic is a very, very big game and creating it was a very, very big project with lots of moving part. And apparently what Greg Zeschuk said about that was that: “Coordinating it all is like teaching elephants to do ballet.” There's a bit on that, some stock yo-yo-ing that happened last week, some reviews and interviews, and some barking dogs. But all that after the break, first there's a note on the Community Blog by Jeff Hickman on the Ilum situation:

After Game Update 1.1 went live, we discovered that the Open World PvP area on Ilum was not working as our PvP design team intended. As many of you know, large groups of players began capturing the Ilum control points, then 'camping' at the enemy's base. This led to a very frustrating experience for a number of players who were unable to leave their base and fight back against their attackers. It was not a fair gameplay experience. In addition, some players on the attacking side gained more Valor points than designed for the time they spent in PvP.

The amount of Valor granted from these activities was significantly more than intended and we are now carefully investigating players who were on Ilum during this period, and present at some of these 'camping' events. I can reassure you that those who were involved and who gained an unfair advantage over other players inappropriately will be carefully reviewed and action will be taken to restore game balance. This could include Valor adjustments or account actions in accordance with the severity of the issue.

We have made the decision not to enact a mass 'rollback' of Valor points for all players in the game, or even on Ilum. This would unfairly penalize some players who may not have been present during this event. Rest assured though, anyone and everyone who is found to have exploited the situation to an unreasonable degree will be investigated and actions taken as needed. Our in-game metrics are able to give us precise details on where players were, what they were doing and what rewards they gained.

We take any sort of situation where one group of players gains an unexpected or unintended advantage over other players very seriously and will act to ensure that all players can have a fair and fun game experience.

Thanks for your patience while we worked to resolve this issue. Our team worked diligently to get a patch ready to address this and other issues, and we're already seeing the results in improved battles on Ilum. As always we welcome your feedback and will continue to improve moving forward!

Jeff Hickman,
Executive Producer – Live Services

I'm not sure if this will appease those who ran into the troubles on Ilum. And from what I understand (I don't really PvP and haven't been to Ilum yet) things still aren't quite right there. One of the biggest problems seems to be the faction imbalance where there's apparently (and not altogether surprisingly) a lot more Empire players than Republic ones. So BioWare has a lot of work ahead of them to make Ilum the PvP experience that it should be. Still, at least it sounds like they're trying.

After the list a second Community Blog post, this one by Georg Zoeller about the ability delay some people have been suffering from. Also the aforementioned laundry list of other posts.

As I mentioned, the second Community Blog post is by Georg Zoeller and discusses the ability delay issue:

Hi everyone; I wanted to give you all an update on the ability delay situation.

Thanks to constructive feedback from the community, including some great videos, we were able to identify an issue that could cause abilities on global cooldown to appear available to the player, resulting in unresponsive/ignored player input. A fix for the issue is currently scheduled to go to the public test server with our next update.

Additionally, we have located an issue that would cause player input for certain instant abilities to fail in frantic combat situations, resulting in unpredictable and frustrating gameplay issues for the affected player. A fix for the issue is currently scheduled to go to the public test server with our next update.

Finally, our engineers have identified an issue introducing a significant delay between player input and ability execution in certain game situations, most notably (but not limited to) fast paced PvP. The magnitude of the delay varies with a number of factors, including processor hardware, but can, especially on dual core CPUs, result in a very perceivable reduction in game responsiveness. We are in the later stages of testing a fix for the problem and hope to be able to roll it out to the servers very soon.

We're still investigating a number of additional issues, along with some usability and quality of life improvements for responsiveness regarding player input, but the above mentioned developments should provide a very measurable improvement in combat responsiveness.

Thanks again for your patience and support and we hope to see you on the public test server to help us validate these improvements before pushing them to the live servers.

Georg Zoeller
Principal Lead Combat Designer

I can't say that I've had any ability delay issues myself. But then as I understand the problem is worst in PvP and I simply don't play that much (if at all). Either way it sounds like a complex issue to fix and it's good news that they're working on fixing several (if not all) parts of it.

On to the rest of the posts then. We've got a couple of late reviews in over the last week. The first is a surprisingly positive one (considering the source) from Kotaku. Here's an excerpt:

At the center of Star Wars: The Old Republic lies the beating heart of BioWare's best single-player role-playing games. In fact it's quite easy to imagine the game as eight separate single-player adventures bound together by massively multiplayer trappings. Each of the game's eight player classes (four for each faction) features a distinct self-contained story easily enjoyable enough to have carried a standalone title. Had BioWare been less ambitious we might be playing through The Old Republic: Smuggler's Revenge right now, eagerly awaiting the release of The Old Republic: The Great Hunt for a chance to step into the boots of a Bounty Hunter.

Instead these eight stories form the basis for the game's single-player experience, helping to define the player's character through a combination of expertly-acted dialog, well-developed companion characters, and tough moral choices.

This unique single-player experience is satisfying enough that it's served as the basis for me recommending the game to other fans of the franchise. Even if you completely despise playing with other people you've still got eight excellent single-player BioWare role-playing games for the price of entry. You might only have a month to play them before you'll need to subscribe, but still.

I don't quite understand his last sentence there. For the boxed price you get one month of gameplay, which is more than pretty much all single-player games offer at the same price. And then if you continue to have fun, still want to see more of the stories, you can pay $15 or so extra per month, which is way, way less than buying a new single-player game and giving more gameplay time than most to boot. Overall, MMOs offer way better value for money.

But I think that the thing that people need to get over is seeing it as some sort of dedication. People need to stop seeing playing a game as investing for later return. As long as you're enjoying yourself, as long as you feel that you're getting value for your money, keep paying and keep paying for it. But as soon as you don't feel free to stop. There's no shame in that. It's not up to you to assure the health of the multiplayer game; that's up to the developers.

Either way, Kotaku's review is overall quite positive I thought, calling it "one of the most unique, highly-polished products [he's] come across". For all that some people claim that The Old Republic is just "World of Warcraft with a Star Wars skin" Kotaku is calling it "unique". I think that people would do well to remember that, for it is unique and thus shouldn't be seen similar to something else. Leave your preconceived notions at the door.

The Escapist Magazine also has a review up. Next to the text article it includes the following video review:

The review is very positive. But I also don't agree with a fair bit of it. The review slacks off space combat and while I agree that the minigame feels disconnected from the rest of the game I still think that it's a lot of fun for what it is. It talks about making decisions with real consequences which, despite being well on my way to 50, I have yet to actually notice any of. But most of all I strongly disagree with him calling the dialog choices in TOR "real roleplaying". I'm sorry, but it's not (and I've said as much in their comment section). You're not playing a role, you're making suggestions. The animators and voice actors are playing the role for you. You don't even know exactly what your character is going to say or do. And the choices that you make barely have any consequences beyond a comment here or there or the occasional email.

That is not to diminish the value of the conversation system. It's still very powerful and very valid, very fun, to offer those choices and have players make decisions. It gives the illusion of participation (and yes I willfully succumb to that illusion too when I play). It is a very strong way to engage the player (if they were just cutscenes to watch with no participation then you'd very quickly get bored of them; the cinematics aren't that good). Just because something isn't roleplaying doesn't mean that it isn't enjoyable (and just because something is enjoyable and engaging doesn't mean that it's roleplaying).

Last week the fansite Republic Trooper posted an interview with Jeff Dobson. Here's an excerpt:

Republic Trooper: What can you tell us about the art process behind what we see in Star Wars: The Old Republic? How does the team bring the world to life artistically?

Jeff Dobson: The stories we want to tell in the game all start with the writing team. Sometimes the artists will collaborate with them at the earliest stages to develop that vision, but that group does the heavy lifting on new ideas. We then go through the concept artists to start visually developing an area to tell the story with pictures and to drive the overall artistic feel and color of an area or character. For world art, World Designers use what concept art delivers to help get the area blocked in for gameplay. 3D artists then jump on board and make it pretty. Finally, we iterate as much as necessary to make sure the area is fun and beautiful. That is all an over-simplification of the actual number of steps, of course, but hopefully that gives you a general idea of the number of people and amount of collaboration that goes into what you see on the screen with The Old Republic.

I think that the main thing to take away from the interview is probably what a massive undertaking even just the art of the game is. Just consider how many different people are involved, how many different disciplines and skillsets, how many different teams. And yet, despite the massive size of the game, despite the wide variety of locales players can and do visit in the Star Wars universe, they've been able to provide a unified visual experience that's constantly of the highest quality. I might not always agree with the style chosen, but that doesn't take away from the achievement the artists (and everyone else of course) put forward.

GamesRadar reports that the Miraluka with the red lightsaber seen in the Coming Up video is indeed a Sith (strongly suggesting that one of the things the Legacy System will do is unlock the Miraluka, and probably other races too, on the faction that they're not available in now). Here's the important bit:

Turns out we were right. After checking with BioWare's Daniel Erickson, we received confirmation that the guy in question was "definitely a Miraluka Sith." While that's not confirmation that it's tied into the Legacy system (and Erickson wasn't able to go into additional details), the fact that it showed up during that section of the video essentially confirms it anyway.

As usual speculation is running wild and though there are those who are happy for it there's equally those that really wanted to see something new. I can understand that as it seems little more than removing a technically fairly arbitrary restriction in the first place. And though it seems like that more of the existing races will be available for more of the classes, there's no guarantee that they will all be available to all. Some of the combinations really don't make sense. But then again is sense really that important? Wouldn't it be enough to limit it by first having to unlock it with your legacy? Or is lifting the restriction only going to cause more people to taste the 'forbidden fruit' than they otherwise would have?

These are all grave questions. So to lighten the mood here's a video of dogs barking the Imperial March:

As The Escapist put it: never underestimate the power of the Bark Side. What exactly is "Back. And better than ever." remains to be seen, but I've got a feeling that it has to do with their earlier Darth Vader kid commercial.

Over the last week there have been a fair bit of talk from analysts about the future of The Old Republic. To begin with MarketWatch reported that after one analyst voiced concerns with TOR EA's shares fell a few percent:

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Shares of Electronic Arts Inc. fell nearly 3% to $17.75 on Thursday morning after an analyst with Brean Murray Carret & Co. cut his price target on the stock to $22 from $28, citing concerns about the recently released online multi-player game "Star Wars: The Old Republic." In a note to clients, analyst Todd Mitchell wrote that "creeping concerns" about the performance of "Star Wars" -- which was released in late December -- is causing him to trim his earnings estimates for the 2013 fiscal year. "Specifically, initial sales appear to be below expectations, and casual observation of early play is causing us to rethink our churn assumptions," Mitchell wrote.

Honestly, I don't get analysts. The Old Republic sold over a million copies in a few days, BioWare/EA are expecting a fairly high retention, and as SWTORFace reported, looks to have more concurrent users than WoW at the moment:

Year on year stats from  show that World of Warcraft has a total of 266, 435 players per week on average, logged on during peak hours in the US and EU regions combined. ( Note: this is just peak numbers)

According to SWTOR has 350, 000 peak concurrent users and BioWare have confirmed that there are now over 1 million accounts.

Of course, as the article notes, one has to take a few caveats with that. Not least of which that TOR is new, still in its free month for a lot of people, and thus drawing players just out of interest to see if the game is any good. It will be more interesting to compare the numbers a few months from now. But either way at the moment it's looking like TOR is actually doing really well for itself.

So what are these analysts really expecting? Are they expecting TOR to start with the same numbers as WoW has right now? Are they expecting the millions to start rolling in the moment the game launches or something? What does it need for these analysts to show a little bit of confidence?

Maybe the article at Los Angeles Times provides some answers (that's the article with the dancing elephants). It looks at what a big risk TOR really is, how big of a project it really was having cost nearly $200 million. Here's an excerpt:

It may be the largest entertainment production in history. More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being written. Nearly 1,000 actors have recorded dialogue for 4,000 characters in three languages.

The narrative is so huge that writers created a 1,000-page “bible” to keep the details straight, and the director recently asked a colleague not to spoil moments he hadn’t yet seen.

It’s not a movie or a TV series. It’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, the most expensive, ambitious and riskiest video game ever produced.

From that perspective it makes more sense. It was a really big project, it was really expensive, and thus needs really big returns. Though considering that TOR is doing quite well at the moment as far as I understand, I'm not sure how it's not expecting to make those returns. Other analysts seem to agree; here's an excerpt:

Schachter notes that many of the issues which are being brought up are based on conjecture -- for example, the fact that EA has not yet given sales figures for the game does not automatically mean that numbers must be bad.

He also explained that, while retail sales of the title, as tracked by NPD, were weak, he expects that the majority of initial sales occurred through the Origin digital distribution service, and therefore have not been accounted for.

In light of this, the company has stuck with its "Outperform" rating, and believes that the game may achieve initial sell-in sales of 1.5 million -- although Schachter was quick to note that long-term sustainability of subscribers to the game is currently unclear.

Now that sounds a lot more reasonable. There are definitely risks, but then analysts are in the business of risks. Overall The Old Republic looks like it will do quite decently. Which is, in the end, no more than anyone could have expected. The result of this was that EA stock bounced back a few points again as MarketWatch reports; here's an excerpt:

Electronic Arts saw its shares rise more than 2% Friday, gaining back some of the ground lost in the previous session after an analyst questioned the health of its highest profile videogame launch of late – “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”

The bounce-back came after three other brokers issued notes Friday morning disputing the concerns, saying in essence that the online multi-player game that hit the market on Dec. 20 is performing in line with expectations. The game is a big deal for EA, representing its effort to go after some of the lucrative massive-multiplayer, or MMO, segment that is currently ruled by the “World of Warcraft” franchise of rival publisher Activision Blizzard.

I also love the final sentence in that article, so I'll quote that too:

“Admittedly, we set our expectations as if Star Wars was to be a good, not great, MMO,” he wrote. “Fortunately, we think the company did too.”

In the end they're all just guessing. But it seems to me that Evan Wilson here had the right idea.

On more pleasant news it turns out that The AbleGamers Foundation has awarded The Old Republic with their annual Accessible Mainstream Game of the Year award. This foundation looks particularly towards things that make the game easier to play for people with a variety of disabilities, so the award should be considered a big plume in BioWare's cap. Here's the full report:

Star Wars: the Old Republic earns the annual award for extreme accessibility in any mainstream game for BioWare and LucasArts.

Harpers Ferry, WV - January 20, 2012 - The AbleGamers Foundation is proud to announce BioWare’s Star Wars: the Old Republic is the winner of this year's Accessible Mainstream Game of the Year award.  Each year, the AbleGamers Foundation looks at all of the mainstream video game titles released in a given year for the best use of accessibility in a game. Recipients must demonstrate excellence in accessibility by including options that allow for gamers with a wide range of disabilities to fully enjoy the game.

Many of the larger releases cut accessibility or place it on the list of things to be patched in later on down the road, but SWTOR took the time to add things like colorblind friendly options, full subtitles, and control options to let those with mobility impairments play the game as easy as possible.

“It's very rare to see a game of this caliber initially released with so many accessibility options,” said Mark Barlet, president of the AbleGamers Foundation. “BioWare did a wonderful job including a large number of options right at launch with the promise of including more as soon as possible.”

“We were absolutely inundated with requests to review Star Wars: the Old Republic before the game was even released,” said Steven Spohn, editor-in-chief of “Thousands of gamers regardless of their disability wanted to know if they would be able to play this highly anticipated game. Fortunately, we were able to report the majority of disabled gamers will be able to play SWTOR.”

Congratulations to BioWare and in particular all those who helped make the award happen. And a thank-you to AbleGamers for continuing to look out for those with disabilities, encouraging developers to make their games such that more people can enjoy them.

Finally, the blog Inquisitor's Roadhouse has a Q&A with Damion Schubert about vanity pets. Here's an excerpt:

IR: Right now, the pets we are seeing are all purchasable, some with light/dark side alignment requirements. Any intentions of having some that are drops in the future?

DS: Absolutely!  In fact, some of these should show up in our next major patch!  I don’t want to give out too big a hint, but they smell kinda bad on the outside.

He also says that they're interested in doing more of the exploration-type content like the datacrons (just, please, no more 40-minute balloon rides and no more pipe-hopping) and the Magenta Adegan crystal. I like that. Though I'll never discover any of these myself and usually just end up looking at a wiki for the instructions, I do like that there's these steps to go through without having a quest log guiding you through them. It gives the world a sense of there being more out there, if you know what I mean. A sense of discovery (even if I'm not the one doing the discovering).

And that's all that I have time for right now. Which makes it a good thing that that's all that I had anyway. I didn't have any dev quotes this time around because there didn't really seem to be interesting ones.

[link] to review at Kotaku.
[link] to review at The Escapist.
[link] to interview with Jeff Dobson at Republic Trooper.
[link] to Miraluka Sith report at GamesRadar.
[link] to VW commercial at YouTube.
[link] to falling shares news at MarketWatch.
[link] to logging numbers report at SWTORFace.
[link] to gamble article at Los Angeles Times.
[link] to concerns overdone news at Gamasutra.
[link] to shares bounce back news at MarketWatch.
[link] to Accessibility Award at AbleGamers.
[link] to Q&A with Damion Schubert at Inquisitor's Roadhouse.

No comments: