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Dev Tracker Fly-by (23-29 September)

Welcome to this week’s Dev Tracker Fly-by. A diverse range of topics were covered this week by the developers of our favourite upcoming MMO; let’s get into it.

Santa is bring me SWTOR!

Let’s start with the oddly anticlimactic announcement of the release date:

To all of our Old Republic fans:

In 2008, along with our partners at LucasArts, we took to the stage to announce the development of the long-rumored BioWare massively multiplayer game set in the Star Wars™ universe. Over the past few years, we’ve pulled back the curtain and shown you why Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ is the groundbreaking story-driven MMO you’ve always wanted, and how this game will change the MMO genre forever. We’ve given you a peek behind the scenes each week, showing you what it takes to create the largest MMO in development. Our team has traveled the world to give fans a chance to experience the game first-hand, and you’ve created an active pre-launch community larger than we’ve ever seen. Our Game Testing program has been a huge success, and thanks to you we have been able to achieve the BioWare level of quality our fans have come to expect in all of our games.

Today, the wait is truly over – for a release date, at least.

It is our pleasure to finally announce to you that Star Wars: The Old Republic will launch on December 20, 2011 in North America, and in Europe on December 22, 2011. This is an incredible moment for everyone at BioWare and our partners at LucasArts who have dedicated the past few years to build this extraordinary game. We appreciate the patience from the millions of fans who have been waiting for the game’s release. When we launch this groundbreaking MMO this holiday, we hope you agree that it will have been worth the wait.

May the Force be with you,
**Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk
**Co-founders, BioWare

So now we know: just before Christmas, thus meeting their stated goal of delivering within “Holiday 2011”, if only just. We had been told previously that there would always be a lead-up, that we would know in advance when the release date was coming, that they wouldn’t just drop it on us. Well, drop it on us they did; take that for what you will.

Now we have a date, the question remains about when Early Access will start. It’s been said that the duration of the Early Access will be days, not weeks, with its actual length yet to be determined. Allison Berryman posted the following on the subject:

We don’t have any new information regarding Early Game Access to share at this time. We know everyone is very excited about the release date announcement (we are, too!) and that you can’t wait to get in the game! The beginning of Early Game Access will depend on a number of factors, including results from our Game Testing Program and Pre-Orders, but there will be multiple days of access. Please make sure you’ve read the Pre-Order FAQ to stay up-to-date on Early Game Access information!

An article at Shacknews muddied the waters somewhat, prompting the following post from Stephen Reid:

Shacknews apparently got confused, and they’re confusing you, so allow me to clarify. Nothing has actually changed since we announced pre-order access in July.

Everyone who pre-orders Star Wars: The Old Republic and redeems their pre-order code will get Early Game Access. Those who do this will be able to download the game client and play the game ahead of the release date.

While we aren’t ready to talk about the exact timing of when Early Game Access starts (that depends on a number of factors including Game Testing and pre-order numbers), we’ll announce that before the start date. Our planning accounts for allowing people to download the client before the Early Game Access start date, too.

However, when you actually gain admittance to Early Game Access will be determined in a first-come, first-served manner dependent on when you redeemed your pre-order code.

While we understand all of you want to be in Early Game Access on Day One, part of the point of a head start program like this one is to allow us to gradually ramp up the population of our servers so that on launch day, the general play experience is as pleasant as possible. While we’re going to be allowing a lot of people into Early Game Access at regular intervals, we cannot allow everyone who pre-orders in at once. That would defeat the point of a gradual head start.

The next obvious question is “I pre-ordered on Day X, when do I get access?” While we cannot answer that for everyone, I will say (as I did in July) that those who pre-ordered early will be getting Early Game Access, well, earliest. At this point we still have pre-orders available and therefore, anyone who pre-orders will still gain Early Game Access, but as they’re redeeming their code later, they’ll get Early Game Access later. As I’ve said before the difference between ‘early’ and ‘later’ should be a matter of days, not weeks.

I hope this helps clear things up a bit. I’d encourage everyone to review the pre-order FAQ and specifically the section on Early Game Access, too.

This is indeed exactly what they’ve said all along, as far as how Early Access will work. The most interesting unanswered question (it’s not in the FAQ) is whether there is some guaranteed amount of time in Early Access for all pre-order customers. The alternative is that the last wave of players added to Early Access, who presumably were the last to enter their pre-order codes, only get to play for a few hours before launch. Let’s hope everyone gets at least 24 hours in the game before it’s open to all!

It’s also not been announced as to whether Early Access will start simultaneously for both US and EU players, given that there is a couple of days between their launch dates (20 Dec and 22 Dec). For the sake of our European friends, I’m hoping it is indeed simultaneous, which means they would end up getting two extra days of Early Access time for their later launch date.


Georg Zoeller, destroyer of worlds

Georg Zoeller, Principal Lead Combat Designer, was in his usual superb form this week. Let’s start with his response a thread claiming that 56% of players will choose a Force-user:

Without going into the validity of your numbers, if 56% of people play 50% of available classes, that’d be kind of awesome. After all, 50% of classes are force user classes.

The initial poll from which the conclusion was drawn had about 8000 responses. In a subsequent poll, with 6000 responses, about 60% of players chose Force-users. But Georg’s point is well made: half the classes are Force-users, so it’s hardly a surprise that so many will choose them to play. This is Star Wars, after all! Still, 60% is getting a little overbalanced, but there’s the obvious point that the sample data is based on a self-selected group who probably aren’t representative of the broad spectrum of people who were play. I suppose the question is whether this actually matters? All BioWare could do is make non-Force-users overpowered so that they become a more attractive choice, but that seems like a recipe for disaster. Best to leave the choices as they are, and if many choose Force-users initially, they may choose non-Force-users for their alts. It’ll probably all balance out in the end!

In another thread, a forum user stated that the in-combat stealth mechanic was lifted directly from Mythic’s Warhammer Online, and stated that this wasn’t a surprise as Georg came from Mythic. Not so fast:

Except I didn’t. I worked at BioWare Edmonton

Georg contributed to a thread that was started to let people know that SWTOR’s development time was actually pretty standard for the industry; if anything, by releasing at the end of 2011, they’re doing better than most.

I would say that it is not much different from other BioWare games. Dragon Age:Origins and Neverwinter Nights had similar development cycles, and they had a lot less content.

I’m curious as to whether this is due to having more developers working on SWTOR, or whether the tools used to develop SWTOR’s content allow its developers to be significantly more productive. Regardless, this bodes well for expansions appearing in a timely manner!

Some advice from Georg in response to a thread asking whether it was possible for a Force-user to push other players off cliffs:

You can totally do that, yes. As the movies taught you, don’t lose your higher ground against a Jedi, and, for the love of god, stay away with your back from that lava stream.

Finally, a thread was started that was complaining about a particular mechanic in warzones: apparently capturing an objective cannot be done if the player attempting to do so has a DoT (damage over time) effect on them. Such a capture requires a player to perform an action on an object, which usually has a long cast time. This can be interrupt by other players by doing any amount of damage. The specific issue here is that each tick of a DoT (which does damage) will also serve to interrupt the cast, thus preventing the objective from being captured.

Georg initially commented on the obvious tactic to take advantage of this mechanic:

Your ‘cast dot, run away’ scenario isn’t nearly as easy as you think it is

We’ve been testing with this for a long time now, and while a decent player definitely can delay the inevitable, it’s by no means an instant win (not lose) tactic.

Without full knowledge about how the game plays, it’s really hard to make any serious statement about whether something is crazy or not.

Someone subsequently stated that due to this mechanic, they wouldn’t be playing Huttball; Georg responded:

Except that there are no ‘objectives you interact with’ in Huttball. The ball is only dropped from your cold, dead hands or when you throw it.

This again serves as a helpful reminder of why getting upset about a game mechanic for a game you haven’t played yet is sometimes a waste of time.

Another poster then complained that Georg wasn’t taking their concerns seriously. His reply:

I’m not laughing off your concerns. I’m telling you that discussing a single mechanic in an incredibly complex game system on it’s stand alone merits or flaws is not a useful activity.

We absolutely have these kind of discussions with our testers, who are playing the game. But no, we’re not having them on the general forums, that’s like discussing global economic policy with local vendors based on the fluctuations of price of grain (certainly an important economic factor, but you get the idea).

Georg’s message, which should be only too obvious, is that jumping off the deep end without knowing the full picture is usually a bad idea. Trust BioWare and their game testing to get the mechanics right. If something (arguably) bad does make it into the live game, if enough players are unhappy with it, it’ll be changed. MMOs are ever-evolving, and SWTOR won’t be any different.

He made one more response in this thread to a poster who claimed that his 20 years of PvP experience allowed him to categorically state that DoTs shouldn’t interrupt captures:

I have almost 20 years experience driving cars in a PvP like setting (like Autobahns), but somehow my suggestion that automatic transmission is a terrible idea and will never work has yet to be taken seriously by BMW.


Did someone order beefcake?

While male players apparently have nothing to complain about with respect to the attractiveness of the female companions that are available, it would appear that the other side of the gender divide believe they aren’t being catered to. In other words, the girls want some eye candy, too. Presumably the existing selection of male companions just aren’t sufficiently attractive. However, Daniel Erickson was there to allay their fears:

There are a number of unannounced handsome leading men as companions in the game and with the newly announced ability to change their looks, anyone should be able to find something to their specific taste.


There’s an Irish joke in this somewhere

BioWare is opening a studio in Galway, a city in the Republic of Ireland, which will house its European support organisation. However, the SWTOR servers for Europe, while still in Ireland, will be in its capital, Dublin. The apparent concern from a forum user was that this was a terrible thing, as it appears that Ireland is in the process of upgrading its internet infrastructure, with the implication that it wasn’t done yet. Stephen Reid responded:

I’m not a technical person and I’m not in charge of said servers, but from what I understand, the required upgrades and improvements in Ireland have been in motion for quite a while. Obviously, we’ve known the game is coming for a long time and those discussions and work have been ongoing. We’re not digging up roads or laying fibre at this point. (And I’m sure, indeed, that Ireland as a whole has been working on this process for even longer than we’ve been in the picture.)

Something else I’d also like to point out – generally speaking The Old Republic is fairly latency-tolerant. We’ve run the game in market research testing and at quite a few European shows and haven’t seen a lot of issues with latency. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect – hence EU servers and EU testing, to ensure we feel comfortable – but my point is even across the Atlantic, the game is still very playable.

Server location is obviously a key decision. We examined every option carefully, and feel confident we made the right choice.

As usual, much ado about nothing. The fact that it appears that SWTOR is indeed tolerant of a higher latency connection is a very good thing for those of us in countries like Australia. The latency between Europe and the US is roughly the same as what we experience (around 200ms); if it plays well enough, then we should be fine (or at least as fine as we are playing other MMOs now, like WoW and RIFT).


Who says the Europeans never get nice things?

All those present at the Eurogamer announcement of SWTOR’s release date received an invitation to game testing. Apparently at least some of those in the room didn’t have SWTOR accounts, and so were asked to sign up so they could be added to testing. Stephen Reid used Twitter to request that those who hadn’t signed up do so. This caused at least some European forum users to go up in flames, with the complaint that while European players still hadn’t received their invitation to game testing, BioWare were handing them out at a conference. Stephen Reid’s response:

Again, it only seems fair, to me, to make sure those who were invited – as a ‘thank you for being fans’ gesture – actually get that invite. To do that, I have to try and ensure they signed up for the site. I did tell every single one of the hundreds of people I processed during Eurogamer to go home and do just that – but you never know.

If people then choose to interpret that as code for something else, then I have to step in and try to correct. I selected Twitter as the medium for that mention because many people who aren’t on the Forums may well be looking at my account. It was essentially aimed at the non-Forum population.

Apologies if anything came off as terse. It’d be nice to get the benefit of the doubt occasionally, mind you.

While everyone’s definition of ‘major’ is probably going to vary, I assure you there is plenty of feedback still desired, especially on the latest build, and anyone who gets in will be asked to give it.

It didn’t end there (of course); the concern subsequently expressed was that people were sore that such a coveted prize (admittance to game testing) was given out at Eurogamer, compared to “lesser” rewards for those attending events that BioWare presented at in the past. Stephen again tried to explain:

No, I do understand, but I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about it. We gave a pre-order code to everyone in the room during San Diego Comic-Con. We gave t-shirts to everyone who played the game at many different events. We gave unique concept art to some people who turned up to our meet ‘n’ greet during PAX East.

While I totally understand that testing access is arguably the most ‘prized’ thing of all of these, all I can say is… come see us at a show if you can. You never know what surprises we might have in store.

Everyone who pre-orders the game and redeems their code will get to play it early. Many, many people will also get to play during testing in some form. Others may be lucky enough to get testing access in some other way. We’ll get as many into testing as we can, in as many ways as we can.

I had a few thousand followers before I took this job, so I’d guess your guess is a little inaccurate.

That said – why use Twitter? Well, Twitter’s an excellent tool (along with many others) for communication. I can send a tweet just about anywhere I have 3G access (most of the world). I can respond quickly and directly to people and also send general messages that can then be re-tweeted to an even larger population. Perhaps for me, most important of all, I can do this quickly. It’s impossible for one person to read all of our Forums every day. That’s why we have a group of Community Support Representatives… and, er, Georg.

That said, I’ve been taking more care to ensure that larger and more important messages are conveyed here on the Forums before Twitter.

Regardless of your views on any social network or website, the Forums are just part of the broad spectrum of community and our communications. That’s not going to change.

There was finally some good news for the Europeans from Chris Collins:

Today, we’re excited to announce that we are sending out a batch of invites! In particular, this initial batch marks the start of a series of invites to our larger European player base, who get the chance to join the Star Wars: The Old Republic Game Testing program and provide feedback during the months up until launch.

In other exciting news, we’ll be making further announcements in the coming days and weeks, as we update you on Game Testing on the European service. On top of that, we’ll also be announcing details around the upcoming Beta Testing Weekends!

With the launch drawing ever-closer, we’re more excited than ever to receive your feedback on the game to help make the launch as smooth as possible.

I guess a few weeks is better than nothing!

However, it’s worth noting that as of now, all of us who pre-ordered will be playing in Early Access sometime around mid-December, which is only ten weeks away. Is it really worth getting into game testing at this point, to work on a throwaway character? The light is visible at the end of the tunnel; just a little more patience, and we’ll all be playing for real.


An example of how wrong someone can be

Stephen Reid responded to a forum poster who somehow got the wrong end of the stick, concluding that there will be at least fifty (yes, fifty) Flashpoints for max level players.

Each faction has faction specific Flashpoints, but there are no class-specific Flashpoints. The closest would be class story instances, but they are much smaller than Flashpoints.

While we haven’t revealed the final number of Flashpoints in the game at launch, it’s not 50, that much I’ll say. It’s in double figures though.

The poster apparently confused the phased areas used for player-specific story quests with full-blown instanced Flashpoints.

Stephen does confirm that we’ll have more than 10 Flashpoints. As BioWare has stated, all Flashpoints that are available while levelling will also have “heroic” versions in the endgame.


SWTOR will arrive in Australia and other red-zone countries… sometime…

Fret not, fellow Aussies (and others outside the launch regions)! Stephen Reid reminds us that SWTOR is still coming eventually.

We haven’t forgotten about anyone outside of our initial launch territories, in fact far from it. Work is progressing on a number of fronts, with the continuing intention to launch The Old Republic as soon as possible in as many territories as possible. You can call that a ‘non-answer’ if you wish but like it or not, that’s where we stand and that’s all I can tell you.

I’m sorry if that doesn’t sate your desire for information, but until we do have some solid news, there isn’t much point in telling you ‘no news yet’ every day or two. When we have news, we’ll share it.

While it is indeed a non-answer, we can’t really expect more at this point. In the meantime, those of us keen to play have our Amazon pre-orders made, and will be there along with everyone else in Early Access. Even when it releases here, will there be servers located in our region? Would there be sufficient players to justify it?

Speaking for myself, even if there were servers located in Australia, I’d still play on a US server. My friends who I want to play SWTOR with are located in the US, Europe and Australia, and so I’ll go where we can play together. A low ping isn’t worth breaking up a good community.


Oops

Late this week, a pair of emails were sent by BioWare. The “Tell us what you think” email asked the recipient to take a survey regarding how they were finding their experience in the game testing program; the “Don’t let your adventure end” email appeared to be reminding game testers who’d had a chance to experience SWTOR that they should pre-order.

The problem is that these emails were received by a vast number of people who were not in game testing. I received two copies of both emails, one to my active SWTOR account with which I pre-ordered, the other to an email address that I must have used to set up an account many years ago.

Allison Berryman explained what happened:

Earlier today, two e-mails were sent to members of the Star Wars: The Old Republic community. These e-mails were sent to a larger group than intended, and have caused some confusion in the community. We can confirm that these e-mails were from EA and BioWare and apologize for any confusion they have caused. Please note that receiving these e-mails does not affect your chances to be invited to test the game. Thank you all for your understanding!

Oh, the outrage. The general feeling was that it was rubbing salt into the wounds of all those players who’d yet to be invited to game testing. An understandable reaction. However, the distribution of the emails was clearly a mistake, and apparently is unrelated to one’s chances of getting into game testing in the few weeks remaining. Remember, mid-December will be hear soon enough!


That concludes this week’s Dev Tracker Fly-by. For corrections and direct feedback, please email me using jason@torocast.com. I’m also on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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