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Dev Tracker Fly-by (7-13 Oct)

Welcome to this week’s Dev Tracker Fly-by. In a week that included the second Beta Testing Weekend, GDC Online and New York Comic Con, it seems BioWare was a little busy to post much on the forums. Still, we do have a few things to talk about!

Let’s start with a few brief posts by Georg Zoeller, Principal Lead Combat Designer. Firstly, he confirmed that Jedi Knights (and presumably Sith Warriors) can leap up to 30 meters when they use their Force Charge ability, which some may remember from KOTOR.

In a German thread, he said that there are no current plans for any world-first or server-first titles or achievements. This is fortunate, given that those who pre-order would have an unfair advantage in such a race, given the head start gained in Early Access.

Responding to a comment that suggested that most would choose warzones over world PvP, based on the announcement that after launch SWTOR would be getting rated warzones (allowing full pre-made teams to participate) with an assortment of rewards, Georg said:

People will do what they like. If the majority likes to queue, then that’s what they want to do.

Honestly, this reads a lot like ‘OMG, there might be incentives for players to do what they like instead of what I like.’

If people prefer to do Warzones over open world PvP or vice versa, then that’s their prerogative and we won’t force them to do the other thing. As for where the best rewards are, you’ll earn rewards by doing either.

Given the sheer convenience of warzones, which you can queue for from anywhere while doing other activities, it seems to me that open world PvP will need something significant to encourage participation. In thinking about this, probably the easiest way to even things out would be to provide a similar kind of instant access to Ilum or a local open world PvP hotspot from anywhere, along with a way of being notified of something happening there.

Georg was probably mostly occupied this week with GDC Online, where he presented a session entitled “Rapid MMO Content Iteration and Validation with Spatial Analysis in Star Wars: The Old Republic”; Massively provided an excellent synopsis.

The endless fretting from some of those not yet in Game Testing continues, as they rail against cruel, cruel fate. Allison Berryman (yet again) assured forum users that the selection is done randomly:

Hey everyone, just to clear up any confusion there may be over this: you can find information about how invitations are selected (and lots of other great info about testing) in the Testing FAQ. We do randomly select participants for Game Testing!

If you haven’t read the Testing FAQ and are interested in testing, it’s very worthwhile. We also recommend checking out the new Official “invites have been sent” Thread to keep on top of when we send new invitations!

Stephen Reid got understandably irate with a forum user who was, it seems, stating as fact that those who have yet to pre-order have a higher probability of being selected for Game Testing. As he points out, whether you pre-order or not has nothing to do with it. Random really is random.

No, it’s not true, and it is not a ‘fact’. As your thread title is misleading, I’ll be changing it after I’m done replying here.

Random selection is just that – random. Despite any poll, headcount or anecdotal evidence you may encounter, we are not selecting people for testing based on whether they pre-order or not. There is no marketing conspiracy here.

Let’s all step back and think on something for a second: random selection is alien to human beings. We cannot believe things are random. We look for patterns, and we find them even when they’re not there. Therefore, I can understand why people want to believe there’s a pattern somewhere.

However, there is no pattern here. Whether you agree with it or not, our selection process is random based on our criteria for any given test.

Do not present opinions as ‘facts’ here, please – unless you have evidence to back it up.

It’s ironic that in a couple of months, none of this will matter, with Early Access commencing sometime around mid-December. There’s been no indication as yet regarding whether Game Testing will cease at some point before then, or whether it’ll run right up until Early Access, or even beyond.

Once the game is live, I suspect BioWare will provide a generally accessible (to subscribers) test server to allow players to test out patch content prior to its release. The other major MMOs do it, though as we know, BioWare does things its own way! It could once again be an invitation-only system, which will presumably be based on whether there are enough interested people to populate a test server when we’re all playing the game for real.

One of the hottest topics on the official forums was sparked by an interview conducted by the French gaming site jeuxvideo.com with Daniel Erickson. Daniel apparently said that aside from a couple of special cosmetic items with no stats, the only armor and weapons with mod slots would drop in operations.

Allison Berryman stepped in to explain:

It’s clear many of you are very interested in the Item Modification system (and understandably so!) and the various changes it has undergone. However, we’d like to remind you that it’s very difficult to get a good impression of an article’s meaning via Google translate – subtlety and context are often easily lost by automatic translations. Translating in general can be very difficult and can lead to confusion or misinterpretations.

It’s very important to keep in mind that we actually use our Game Testing Program to test the game. This means that sometimes we make radical changes to systems in order to gather the feedback we need. This testing allows us to find what works the best and is most fun for players. The Item Modification system is a system that has required some changes and testing as we feel out what players enjoy the most. In one build, items that can be modified may be rare. In another, they may be ubiquitous. Through testing, we’ll try several implementations, gather feedback, and make changes accordingly.

When Daniel spoke about Item Modifications, it is likely that what he spoke about reflected the implementation that was currently in testing – not necessarily the final intended state of the system (and we say “likely” because after talking with Daniel, he doesn’t have an exact recollection of what he said; he does do a LOT of interviews!). We haven’t delved deeply into discussing Item Modifications officially, and one reason for that is exactly what you’re seeing here: talking about things while they’re still in testing (and thus in flux) can be confusing to the community, so we do avoid it when we can while still trying to share information about the game.

We know you’re all interested in the specifics of how the system works, but please do keep in mind that quite a few things in the game are still subject to change as we continue with the test. Don’t panic! Though we’re close to launch, we aren’t done testing!

When someone reacted to her post indicating that since the game was so close to launch, it seemed disconcerting that they were testing variants of such a major system, she responded:

Keep in mind that our development process is highly iterative. Feedback is critical to us, and we use it to make changes.

There are several systems that are still undergoing changes meant to balance them and make them fun, and that will be a continuing process. Do we have an idea of where we’d like to be with a given system? Yes. Do we know exactly what changes to make to get there? We feel like testing (the feedback, telemetry, and other data we get from it) is an excellent way to help us make informed decisions and get feedback on a variety of changes so we can determine what works best. So, it isn’t that we don’t have a plan or any idea what the system should be, it’s more that we feel like testing is a critical component in making decisions about those systems and using feedback to tune them.

Sometimes we test big changes, sometimes just minor adjustments – whatever we think the system needs based on what we see in the test.

From comments that Georg has made previously, their development process is very dynamic and highly iterative. Its strength is that they can make major shifts like this—testing items which mostly don’t have mod slots, in this case–easily, but can as quickly try a different variant (e.g., every item has several mod slots).

So the bottom line is that this isn’t final. I remain extremely hopeful that as SWTOR won’t have cosmetic/appearance armour, we will instead be able to have the same kind of effect by choosing specific pieces that have the appearance we want, and then keep their stats up to date using mods. I want to find a look I like and stick with it, and change that look based on my own taste rather than being forced to by the necessity of upgrading my gear. Even World of Warcraft will shortly be offering a way of tailoring items to utilise an alternative item’s model. I believe SWTOR’s solution, if it makes it in for launch, is the most elegant.

David Bass provided some information about guild naming:

We allow for guilds with the same name to be created multiple times in the Guild Headquarters because we’ll have lots of servers available at launch. Guilds with the same name will automatically be placed on different servers, as guild names are unique per server.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would ask whether you could end up with more guilds with the same name than there are servers, thus causing the obvious problem when it came to assigning those guilds to different servers. BioWare has, of course, already thought of that, as David Bass tells us:

It’s not possible. There is a limit on same-named guilds.

While we’re talking about guilds, David Bass added the answer to a common question about Guild Testing:

If I receive a personal invitation to test the game, does this make my guild (or myself) ineligible for Guild Testing?

No, you and your guild are eligible for Guild Testing regardless of whether you have previously tested the game or not.

Simple enough! I’ve yet to come across anyone in a guild that had been invited to participate in the Guild Testing programme, but I’m sure they’re out there.

Stephen Reid responded once again to the question about whether those of us in the “red zone” (i.e., non-launch countries) would be allowed to participate in Game Testing:

It’s possible that we will invite people from countries that are not officially supported to testing before launch, but it’s not guaranteed.

However, we finally got some very welcome news later in the week, courtesy of Allison Berryman:

Update! We’re sending out some testing invites today. Here’s the information about them:

Sent Oct. 11: California Data Center Test

This test is a small, limited-time test including testers from New Zealand and Australia. Data from this test will be used to inform decisions about the launch of the game in Oceanic regions. We currently have no updates regarding the launch of the game in these or other territories, but will provide information as it becomes available.

Who was invited: Testers from the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia

What was sent: California Data Center testing invites

Server locations: West Coast USA

Invite status: All invites in this batch are now sent

And there was much rejoicing in the land down under. What’s particularly interesting is that it appears that there are (as was previously suspected) no plans to have any servers located in our region. Instead, as most other MMOs already do, their Oceanic servers will instead be in the US, sited in a west coast data center. Given this arrangement works just fine for WoW and the rest, this testing will confirm that SWTOR will be okay to follow suit. Given our latency is equivalent to that of Europeans playing on US servers, and that until recently EU players had been testing on US servers, I’m guessing that all will be well.

In response to a question about companion customisation, Georg provided the following explanation:

At the same quest step where you get your companion, you get to chose from several alternate appearance options. These are ‘customization kits’ that can be equipped on your companion’s character sheet.

Since you meet most of the companions earlier in the story, you already know their default appearance, so there’s no sense in ‘hiding’ that you’re changing something here. Think of it like a forced reconstructive surgery on your companion

Simple enough! You can either keep each companion the way they come, or you can use an item to customise their appearance.

Later in the same thread, Charles Boyd, a writer on SWTOR, provides a bit of additional detail about Tanno Vik, a Weequay and one of the Trooper’s companions:

If I may offer a correction on Vik, referencing the biographies section: “Criminal accusations were registered against him throughout his short service career, until he was finally convicted for masterminding a protection racket while defending a Republic outpost on Talay.”

Vik is a self-interested, amoral sociopath who happens to be an incredibly skilled demolitionist; not a mad-bomber psychopath. Hopefully this will not cool anyone’s anticipation for him.

I won’t speak to the other companion rumors and speculations in the thread, but I will remind everyone that out-of-context information delivered second- or third-hand from an unofficial source is often less than 100% accurate.

Stephen Reid provided an extensive explanation about the Early Access program. It’s really nothing new, but it seems that repetition is required on the official forums, whose participants for the most part seem to have limited reading comprehension skills:

Everyone who pre-orders the game will get Early Game Access; the amount will vary depending on when you redeem your pre-order code. There are a limited number of pre-orders available.

Despite what others may say (or want to believe), this is absolutely true and necessary for us to have a smooth, managed launch. We cannot allow every single person who pre-orders the game to attempt to login at the same time on Day One. It would be… bad.

Instead, we’re staging access, while planning on allowing a large number of people in at every stage. That means that for most people who pre-ordered early, they’ll be in either right at the start of Early Game Access or very close to it. For those who pre-order now and later, they’ll get access later.

We’re not talking about the specifics of how long Early Game Access will last yet, because that number depends on how many pre-orders we receive and how many people we allow into the game per stage, which itself depends on the results of testing. We’ll have more news on this before Early Game Access begins.

As always, I do urge people to read the Pre-Order FAQ which we spent so much time writing, and which contains answers to many… frequently asked… questions.

BioWare have described the staging process many times already. As I’ve previously commented, it is an innovative and perhaps unique approach to dealing with the inevitably enormous population that will hit the servers when they become available. Using the Early Access program, they can introduce players in controlled waves, thus ensuring that no one server’s starter zone is overwhelmed. This is presumably to avoid using (more than necessary) the “layering” technology that they have available, which allows the same server’s population to be spread across multiple physical servers.

The reality is that they probably have a limited amount of hardware, enough to deal with normal peak load; the initial rush of new players—as has been seen in most other MMO launches—is far, far larger than anything seen during normal operation. If BioWare did not use this approach, we would be faced with many players facing hours-long queues.

So get your pre-order and enter your pre-order code at SWTOR.com now, if you haven’t already!

As launch looms every closer, the question is being asked as to when the NDA currently in effect for those in Game Testing will be lifted. Allison Berryman provides an update:

For those asking about the status of the NDA: At this time, the Game Testing Agreement remains in place, and all testers remain bound by it. We know everyone is eager to share their experiences and learn more about the game, but we ask that all testers continue to observe the terms of the agreement. Keep in mind that posting confidential information here on the official forums is against the rules and can lead to moderation actions. Thank you all for your understanding and patience – we’ll definitely let you know if this changes!

It was reported by Darth Hater that during the SWTOR main panel at New York Comic Con that BioWare do have a specific date in mind for lifting the NDA. It may be that they are withholding the date because the lifting of the NDA is contingent on something happening in the development process, and thus may shift if things don’t go as planned. Still, sooner or later, we will finally be able to hear about the experiences of those in Game Testing—probably only a few days or weeks before we’re all playing ourselves.

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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