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Dev Tracker Fly-by (10-16 June)

Welcome to this week’s Dev Tracker Fly-by. While we could have expected a lull in the week after E3, it’s clear that wasn’t the case!

Even though BioWare went out of their way to set the expectation that we were not going to get a release date for SWTOR at E3, a lot of people still thought we’d get one. A lot of this disappointment has been expressed on the official forums; the general sense is that they told the world about the game too early, and people are simply getting fatigued with the long, long wait. In response to this, Damion Schubert has candidly expressed their reasoning:

There are two philosophical ways to approach announcements. One way is to stay secretive until as late as possible, and then announce the game pretty much on top of its release. This has some advantages – it’s actually pretty time-consuming to do E3 demos and Forum postings, and believe me when I say part of me would love an excuse not to do them.

Announcing has its own benefits. To wit:

* We can involve players in the design of the game, react to feedback, gauge what’s important, etc, etc, etc. And yes, we do. A lot.

* I can tell people what I’m working on. Before we announced, they’d ask me, and then they’d watch me squirm. Usually with a big ol’ smirk on their face because, c’mon, everyone KNEW.

* It’s pretty handy when dealing with our partners (EA and LucasArts) that we have a nice, sizable community. Having a gazillion forum members is useful when trying to communicate how enthusiastic the rest of the world is for the game and ask for, say, resources to make the game better, or free breakfast tacos on Friday.

* It gave us an excuse to make awesome Blur movies.

Are there downsides? Sure there are. But overall, by a wide margin, talking to you guys about the game, showing you the game, and getting feedback from people about the game has resulted in a better game. So ultimately I think it was the right call.

What he says makes complete sense. Would we really have wanted them to run dark until close to release, by which time the community would have no real chance to provide them with any meaningful feedback before it ships? This way, the community is established, and has had a chance to contribute. If they do make 2011, it’s only for a few months more, anyway!

John Riccitiello, CEO of EA, gave a presentation at the William Blair & Company’s 31st Annual Growth Stock Conference. The intended audience was EA investors, but that didn’t stop SWTOR fans being intensely interested, especially when the game was explicitly mentioned. You can find the full audio here (duration is 32:09), though the SWTOR-related bits are only brief. It was enough to trigger a furor, as the originally posted transcript seemed to indicate that testing was ramping up, the end of June was mentioned, and a lot of forum posts followed.

It wasn’t long before Stephen Reid stepped in to calm things down.

Take a deep breath, everyone…

Game Testing is currently ongoing for Star Wars: The Old Republic. This isn’t news – it’s been ongoing for quite a while. At different points in the process, we have invited a number of people to test. Some of those people tested for short periods, some for longer periods.

We’ve recently transitioned into longer-term and larger-scale testing. We have more people testing the game now than ever before. We are allowing them to play for longer than ever before. We’re also continuing to invite people to test, so if you haven’t signed up for testing yet now is a good time.

We will be allowing more and more people to test The Old Republic before launch, and that means occasionally we’ll spike in our invite numbers. It doesn’t mean everyone who’s signed up for testing is going to be invited in one block.

What we’re doing now, essentially, is similar to a Closed Beta for other MMORPGs, but we call it Game Testing. It’s invite-only, and it’s limited in size. That gives us the most ‘bang for our buck’ in terms of getting meaningful, actionable feedback. However, we’re still ramping up, we’re getting more people in… and we’re still aiming to launch in 2011.

That wasn’t enough, of course, as the forum users continued to dissect Riccitiello’s wording. Stephen soon explained more, revealing that BioWare had been caught by surprise by the apparent revelations in Riccitiello’s words:

You may be surprised to know that the CEO of EA does not brief me on every word he’s going to say in every conference call he makes.

Today’s call was not on our radar, and was not part of a wider PR strategy to talk about the release date for The Old Republic. (We’ll make a slightly bigger announcement about that.)

As the call wasn’t on our radar, we didn’t hear it live. We’re looking at the same transcripts you guys are. Frankly, it’s not a good transcript. Parts of it make no grammatical sense. In fact, everyone assumes John said ‘high scale beta’ in one sentence, when according to the transcript, he said ‘high scale data’. That’s why I take the ‘six weeks’ sentence with a large pinch of salt.

Yes, I am going to try and clarify what that statement meant, but I’m afraid you’re not going to like the answer any more than today. Game Testing is ongoing. The number of people we’re bringing into Game Testing is increasing. That’s all that’s going on. The ‘six weeks’ timeframe doesn’t relate to anything that I’m aware of, and I’m aware of just about all significant dates for The Old Republic.

You can believe that I’m trying to ‘cover this up’ if you like, or you can accept that not every communication that comes out of EA is intended for a general audience – and that sometimes we play catch up, just like you.

Luckily for all concerned, forum user Gumstumdar did his own transcription, which highlighted at least one critical inaccuracy in the official transcript that commenters had been relying on:

From: 20:09

“We’re very confident in the title umm but we did give a range of potential ship dates. It depends really on the beta that we’re now in. We’re in mid-scale beta now, we’ve got a high scale beta at the end of June umm and umm only the foolish assume they know the outcome of beta in terms of uh umm you know whether it’s a six week hit or not. Uhm we intend to make sure that this is a very successful launch and while we’re very very confident umm the reason for range in guidance is to bracket around the possibilities is what we’ve done.”

Stephen agreed with this version.

From hearing the audio myself, and I’d say that this is an accurate transcription, it’s clear that John is talking about the outcome of Game Testing, and the ‘six week’ reference is to the potential success of the title.

As I said, the reference to six weeks has nothing to do with Game Testing, or any other moment on the calendar in particular.

So in summary, agreeing with comments that were made during E3 by Daniel Erickson, it seems SWTOR won’t be having a “traditional” open beta. There isn’t going to be a closed beta starting, either—instead, they’re just going to keep testing as they have been, drawing in more testers to ramp up their numbers to the levels required to really stress the game.

Following the revelation at E3 that an in-place resurrection had been recently added to the game, there has been a great deal of discussion on the forums, with Georg Zoeller commenting several times last week. The saga continues, with Georg explaining why the time between each use of the Medical Probe increases if used too frequently:

Gradually (not exponentially btw) increasing stakes balances blind rushing vs. experimentation.

In addition, it eases towards the ‘ok, what you are doing isn’t working, now it’s time to go to town, repair your stuff and come back when you are better equipped to handle this situation’ point.

We feel we have enough content in our game that we don’t need to artificially lengthen the game by forcing you to spend 15 minutes to travel and fight your way back to the location that you were before through the same content you just did.

As for ‘over inconvenienced’ – again, in our game return to Medcenter is a major inconvenience… We’re not talking about a 2 minute corpse walk. We’re talking about travelling for several minutes (due to our world size) along with potentially re-fighting significant amounts of content. It’s not a minor inconvenience, it’s a major time loss and much more punishing than other games.

Our testers were very clear about how much they disliked this system and they’re really not different from the rest of the guys on these forums (after all, they are selected from this community) – except that they have played the game and understand the amount of ‘inconvenience’ the pure medcenter option was causing.

They could have increased the number of Medical Centers—analogous to WoW adding more graveyards—to reduce the time needed to get back to where you were. Of course, that doesn’t make a lot of sense in for some worlds that are thinly populated, like Tatooine. And unlike WoW, since you’re not a ghost running back to your corpse, you have to navigate the same obstacles that were present going in, possibly including re-spawned mobs that you’d previous killed. The consequence is that returning to the Medical Center upon death is going to mean losing a lot of time.

Having the Medical Probe as an option is great, and will eliminate a lot of annoying repetition. Since it was introduced as a direct result of tester feedback, I suppose we can be assured that BioWare is listening!

While we’re talking about the Medical Probe, Georg confirmed “… that feature has never been available in any form of instanced content.” So it is only usable in the open world, and not in flashpoints, operations (raids) or warzones. Given the structured nature of instances, I can see why BioWare would prefer that you not be able to return to life anywhere, particularly with that 12 second unbreakable stealth.

During E3, we also found out that any surviving player could resurrect the rest of their party; all classes have some kind of resurrection ability. It was noted that if only a companion survived, they could not bring up anyone else—I’d assume this was because your companion despawns if you are killed.

You could imagine that one party member uses the Medical Probe, and then brings up everyone else. This week, Georg let us know that “The ability to revive group mates does not work while in combat.”

This makes me wonder whether the cooldown between accepting resurrections that using the Medical Probe incurs is also shared with the resurrection by another player. I’d assume not (because that could get really annoying), though it does mean that a party could take it in turns to use the Medical Probe after a wipe, sharing the gradually increasing delay between them.

Of course, if a party is wiping that often, they probably need all the help they can get.

It appears that the quests intended for parties have undergone a name change; formerly known as “heroic quests”—a somewhat awkward name given the context—Georg tells us they shall now be known (far more appropriately) as “group quests”.

While the first Flashpoint is introduced after you finish the Origin World for your class, we do have a number of so called Group (formerly Heroic) Quests on those worlds.

Group Quests in SWTOR are dedicated to group play and come in two variations:

Group 2+ Players and Group 4 Players. The former variety is balanced to challenge two players playing together with their companions (although, especially in earlier worlds, a really skilled solo player with companion who is slightly above level sometimes has a shot at completing those as well), while Group Quests for 4 players are designed to challenge a group of 4.

Group Quests exist on every planet in the game in addition to your character’s class quests, World Arcs Quests and regular World Quests. (All of which can be played in a group as well, but may not offer the same level challenge a dedicated Group Quest does.)

Group Quests can be located in the open world or instances (or both), it depends on the quest.

As characters in The Old Republic slowly grow into their role after choosing an Advanced Class, 4 Player Group Quests on Origin Worlds and for a few planets after that will be comfortably do-able without having to worry too much about the traditional trinity. Over time, these configurations become more challenging of course.

So, if you want to start the game grouped right away with a buddy or a bunch of friends as a group, yes, we do have group content available for you right from the Origin Worlds.

The more interesting revelation is that two players with their companions are, it seems, going to be measurably less powerful and/or effective than four players, given that they appear to be designing their group quests in two difficulty tiers. Presumably four players could easily handle a 2+ group quest, while two players and their sidekicks wouldn’t have much chance of overcoming a quest for four players.

Not having to initially worry about the tank/healer/DPS trinity for the earlier group quests will certainly make arbitrary groups easier to put together, though I wonder whether it’s taking away from the possibility of teaching players how to play their role.

All this and more available right from the start! I wonder just what percentage of the available quest content (in terms of reward XP) could potentially come from group quests. Is a solo player who skips all the group quests going to be substantially behind someone playing through all the group content?

Finally, Georg reassures us that “The quest will clearly indicate the group requirement, as will the banner text that appears when you enter a group quest specific area.” As you would expect from a modern MMO!

A forum user was disappointed that a Force user may be spec’d in such a way that they only use their lightsaber for defence. He contrasted this was a WoW mage, who could at least beat on an opponent with their staff—a pretty weak example, given that while that’s true, you do effectively no damage, making it pointless.

In response, we have a detailed explanation of how this is going to work from Georg:

It’s a matter of preference and skills / Advanced Class on the Inquisitor or Consular.

It’s perfectly viable to spec in a way that your saber becomes a purely defensive / last resort weapon. It’s also possible to make your saber based abilities viable as part of your rotation, but as an Sith Sorcerer, you will only have a limited number of those. If you want a few more, you want to be an Assassin and if you want to have a ton more, you want to be a Marauder or Juggernaut instead.

In regards to Force vs. saber use, the scale is something like this (Consular Example)

|– more Force / less saber –> more saber / less Force — |

| — Telekinetics/Seer Sages –> Balance Sages –> Balance Shadow –> Infiltration Shadow –> Combat Shadow –> Sentinel / Guardian — |

There’s differentiation regarding the amount of Force powers and saber powers that are available to you in both classes, but ultimately gameplay requires you to make a choice.

You cannot be a Force user with a lot of long ranged abilities and excel at melee range with your saber. You can be one, the other, or a number of things in between, depending on Advanced Class choice (Consular for significantly more Force, Knight for significantly more saber) and skill selection.

It’s now clear that a Force-user will have to make a very real game-affecting choice in terms of which Advanced Class and how they spec: if I want to get up close and personal with my lightsaber, I’m going to have limited access to Force powers; at the other end of the spectrum, if I wanted to be able to blow things up using the Force, my lightsaber becomes more of an ornament that I can’t do much more than wave threateningly.

Cross-faction communication was mentioned by Daniel Erickson in a video interview with Gamespot (see here for an overview); the gist was that it was currently enabled, but it was still to be decided as to whether this would make it to live.

A certain amount of discussion on the official forum inevitably followed. Stephen Reid has stepped in to clarify things:

There’s a certain amount of confusion over this.

Currently as part of Game Testing, cross-faction communication is enabled. However, it’s there precisely because we want to test it. It’s looking likely that complete, unfettered cross-faction communication will not be part of the final, launched game.

There may be some form of communication between factions, but that is being tested and refined right now, so no final decision has been made.

While in the Star Wars universe it should be possible for everyone to communicate—it appears that Galactic Standard Basic was used in the era of KOTOR as well as that of the movies. However, it seems they’re going to severely limit what Empire and Republic players can say to each other, if not prevent it entirely. It’s a shame, really, though in a family-friendly game, it may be for the best: the kind of exchanges between ganker and gankee on a PvP server could easily get out of control.

We already have people making sure that they can skip through the voice over. Inevitable, I suppose! SWTOR certainly will support this—just hit spacebar to skip to the next line of dialog. Damion Schubert tells us that:

Subtitles are off by default, except for Aliens, R2 units and other non-English speakers.

So if you’re one of those in a hurry (or on fourth alt, and really don’t want to sit through the full conversation again), make sure you’ve enabled subtitles for everything, so you can see what’s being said without having to listen to it. Not quite as good as instant quest text, but the closest we’re going to get in SWTOR!

At E3, we’d learned that each character could have up to five companions, and that those five were unique to a given class. Daniel Erickson has elaborated on that:

There will be, at launch, five unique companion characters per class. Plus your resident butler/crafting/welcome home droid on the ship which is different per faction.

That means over forty CCs in the game with more than a dozen romances, intricate plotlines and hundreds of hours of development. Plus some surprises including a character with 100% different story content and skills depending on how you brought them into your party, one with drastically different forms, etc.

That’s as specific as I can be without spoilers but they’re deep, fun, and you can do a great deal with them. There is no limit to how many CCs you can possibly have in the long run and there is a reason you have far more slots than there are revealed CCs.

The most interesting revelation is that while we have access to five at launch, it seems there’s plenty more companion slots to fill. As has been hinted at previously, they already seem to be planning story-driven expansions that, it seems, will include introducing us to new companions.

A brief post in German from Georg Zoeller nails down how character progression will work, confirming that had been revealed during E3 interviews.


Tython || Ord Mantell > Coruscant > [Dein Schiff, freier Flug zu allen Planeten]


Hutta || Korriban > Dromund Kaas > [Dein Schiff, freier Flug zu allen Planeten]

This says that Republic players will start their characters on their origin worlds: Tython (Jedi Knights and Jedi Consulars) and Ord Mantell (Troopers and Smugglers). They will all then progress to their faction’s capital world (Coruscant). They will then receive their personal starship, after which they are free to travel to any available world in the known galaxy.

Similarly for Empire players, they will start off on Hutta (Imperial Agents and Bounty Hunters) or Korriban (Sith Warriors and Sith Inquisitors), progress to the Imperial capital world (Dromund Kaas), then get their personal starship.

All ye who click, look away! Damion Schubert wrote:

Keybinding with modifier keys (SHIFT+1, ALT+Z) is in.

Keybinding abilities on your second, third and fourth action slot bar is in.

Being able to use modifier keys is extremely useful; I’d quickly run out of easily-reachable keys if I couldn’t do alternate versions using SHIFT and CTRL.

The second statement is a little concerning to me: I’d hoped that you could bind keys to abilities directly, rather than indirectly. That is, I could bind my ALT-J key to “Force Charge”, and not have that ability cluttering up my action bar. It sounds like that’s not the way it will work: instead, I’ll have to have “Force Charge” somewhere on my action bars (perhaps a bar that’s configured not to be visible), and bind that slot on my action bar to ALT-J.

I’m still wondering how ability targeting is going to work. Without macros, presumably an ability will always affect whatever you have targeted, and will fail if you don’t have anyone targeted. No mouseover capability, in other words. I vaguely recall smart targeting being mentioned (e.g., if I’m targeting a mob, a healing ability will affect the player the mob is targeting).

If I have to select a player before using a healing ability, raid healing is going to be a real pain.

For those who fear the monstrous behemoth which is the newly reborn EA Origin, we have some welcome relief for you. Stephen Reid wrote:

Yes, you will be able to buy a boxed copy of The Old Republic at retail, and you will add the key for the game here on the official website.

So you can go into your local [insert country-specific gaming shop here], grab SWTOR off the shelf, and enter the key on swtor.com, all without ever sullying your PC with Origin’s demonic presence.

I guess this implies that SWTOR will have its own patching system, independent of Origin.

(Personally, I’ve got nothing against Origin; it’s just like Steam, just more orange.)

Stephen Reid provided a bit more clarification, in response to a forum user asking whether they’ll have to have Origin installed to play SWTOR.

No, you won’t.

While Origin will be the exclusive digital retailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic (in other words, if you want to buy it online and download it, you’ll do so through Origin) that does not mean that Origin is required for you to access or play The Old Republic.

Origin is a digital storefront, and the desktop application is there to give you quick access to Origin exclusives and deals.

However, you won’t need to launch the Origin application to run The Old Republic, nor will you patch the game via Origin. Once the game is on your hard disk, you’ll be connecting to our servers to patch and launch the game, and Origin does not have to be running to do that.

To answer another question – boxed versions of the game will include the client on DVD(s).

So you choose to buy SWTOR via Origin, but you don’t need Origin to play or update SWTOR.

Stephen subsequently reiterated that SWTOR is exclusive to Origin for digital purchase.

The Origin desktop application does not need to be launched to play The Old Republic.

However, if you want to purchase and download the game digitally, you’ll need to do that via Origin. As you can see if you visit Origin today, purchasing a title there doesn’t require you to download the Origin desktop application. You might also notice if you look hard enough that Origin ships physical products (ie boxes) as well as digital ones.

(Yes, you’ll still be able to purchase SWTOR at a local retailer.)

I will caution everyone with follow-up questions that it’s a little early to be talking about this. When we announce pre-orders we’ll have an extensive FAQ on pre-orders, Origin and so on.

Finally, a forum user was wondering whether it mattered for SWTOR’s Pre-Launch Guild Program whether you pre-ordered via a retail outlet versus; Stephen was able to confirm that it doesn’t:

When you pre-order, you’ll get a pre-order key. Once that key is redeemed, that’s what counts for your guild pre-order number.

Let’s finish this week with a massive forum post from Damion Schubert. It’s a good read, building on his Community: The Third Element blog post from April last year. Rather than reproducing the entire post, here’s Damion’s own summary:

TLDR Version: What is going to be good for any particular MMO’s community is going to be wildly divergent between MMOs, depending on each MMO’s focus and feature set. We’re continually keeping an eye on our community to be sure that they remain healthy, but for the most part, there are some really neat interactions going on.

It boils down to SWTOR’s take on what makes an MMO being truly unique, with their story/RPG focus. It is not exactly the same as other popular MMOs, and doesn’t try to be; instead, the game they’re creating is an attempt to evolve the genre in a particular direction that BioWare perceives as being interesting, entertaining and playable over the long-term. SWTOR will have a single-player experience that will rival its other single-player RPGs; in that way, it really will be KOTOR 3, 4, 5, etc. But it is also an MMO—we’re all playing in a shared world, there’s many ways we can play together, and (it seems) many things for us to do. Whether the gamers of the world accept and embrace this approach remains to be seen!

That concludes this week’s Dev Tracker Fly-by. For corrections and direct feedback, please PM on the Torocast forums via user Trey. I’m also on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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