Fully Operational: Hybrid Theory | Ask A Jedi

“Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!” — There is no better example of damage in the Star Wars galaxy than the scene attached to that quote. Each week in Fully Operational, join Kray as he takes a look at the damage dealing role in Star Wars: The Old Republic. And yes, we’ll blow up a planet if we get the chance.

I’m sorry, I really am — the title was just too perfect. Listening music for today is, unfortunately, not off of the Hybrid Theory album, but it’s close enough.

Back in August (I’ve been slacking!) we went over all the advanced classes in The Old Republic that you can choose from to deal your damage. Republic here, Empire here. The sharper tacks among you may be saying “… but Kray! Every class can deal damage! How does that make any sense?!” Aside from telling you to lay off the exclamation points, I would say you are indeed right. TOR is pretty unique in the fact that no matter what you choose, you have at least one skill tree available for damage dealing. And that’s what we’re talking about today.

(Almost) Everyone’s a Hybrid!

Flexibility is key when it comes to the advanced classes in TOR — nearly any character you create will have the ability to spec as either a tank or a healer from within their advanced class. To give a quick review, consult the hastily-constructed chart below.

As you can see, we have three tanks, three healers, and a ton of dps. The thing about it is, that chart doesn’t even take into account the fact that, in addition to the two specific roles that you can spec into, each class has a shared tree that can be accessed by either advanced class. Good Lord, that gets confusing fast!

What we really need to take away from this is the idea that you should stay open-minded. Sure, you may only want to deal damage or tank or heal or jump around wearing a dress, but BioWare is giving us OPTIONS and we should use them! Unfortunately, that flexibility will come at a cost, as BioWare has not confirmed a dual spec system for launch, meaning if your group needs you to switch roles or you want to alternate between PvE and PvP, you’re going to have to come up with the credits to do so every time. Personally, with a system as flexible as this, I think the absence of dual specs is a huge design flaw, but we’ll have to see how things go after launch.

If you’re a die-hard DPSer and want to have the most options available to you, you’ll either want to be a Sentinel/Marauder or Gunslinger/Sniper, depending on your range and faction preferences. Each of those advanced classes will have 3 dedicated DPS trees available to choose from. I’m no engineer (that’s a lie), but that’s at least 40 bajillion different ways to kill stuff.

The Hybrid Tax

One issue you’ll see people ranting and raving about all over the Internet is something that World of Warcraft dubbed the “hybrid tax”. For those not familiar, this is the concept that since Marauders can only fill a DPS role, they should be better at it than a Mercenary, who has the option of switching to heals if a group requires it. Being the best on paper supposedly ensures that the so-called “pure” damage classes will always have a spot available for them in groups. First off, this is a complete logical fallacy, as 99.9% of groups running flashpoints and operations will take many factors into account rather than raw dps, such as gear, skill, ranged versus melee, and the general likability of a person. On this note let’s switch over to a July quote from Georg Zoeller, Principle Lead Combat Designer for The Old Republic.

It’s simple. Let’s say you have a DPS-focused Jedi Guardian or Sith Juggernaut. You get to wear heavy armor. You get to do a small amount of damage less than, say, a Gunslinger who isn’t wearing heavy armor. Well, in reality it’s not really that simple at all.

This particular bit is referring to PvP, but you get the gist — the difference in damage between classes is negligible, and we should trust BioWare to ensure everything is balanced in the end. The people on the forums are incessant when it comes to this sort of thing, so Georg responded again just a few days ago:

The design for the game is that if you fully spec into a specific role (dps, tank, healer), you will be comparable in effectiveness to characters of all other classes in the same role. No second class healers, tanks, or dps.

A DPS Juggernaut is a pure DPS character, not a hybrid.

Yes, the hybrid tax exists. No, it is not going to affect your gameplay. On a long crazy fight, a Juggernaut might be able to survive longer than a Marauder due to having a few survivability buttons and heavy armor, thus doing more damage over the course of the fight! Don’t let naysayers fool you, pick what advanced class you want.

Keep in mind this point doesn’t apply when you refer to where exactly you place your talent points. If you try to make a Vanguard build that’s half tank and half dps, you’re going to be subpar at both — there’s no getting around that. If you want to be doing the best damage possible, you’ll need to pick mostly damage talents!

How Companions Fit In

From a leveling or small groups perspective, none of this really matters too much. The fact of the matter is, BioWare’s companion system in TOR means that no matter what you pick, you can choose a companion to compliment your character. If you’re a Jedi Sage with healing and damage talents, grab a tanking companion and go to town. If you’re a Bounty Hunter Powertech focused on tanking, get yourself a dps character to help you mow things down. Each class has a full set of companions that will be able to fill any role you might need while flying through the galaxy fixing (or causing!) problems. The Old Republic is giving us a lot of options, and a lot of ways to use them.

If you liked this article, be sure to check back next Friday for another regularly scheduled episode of Fully Operational. Can’t get enough of me? Follow me on Twitter for more updates and musings.

Fully Operational: Hybrid Theory | Ask A Jedi.

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STAR WARS: The Old Republic Announced subscription fees !

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BioWare and LucasArts are pleased to announce that Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ will launch on December 20, 2011 in North America and on December 22, 2011 in the European Launch Territories! The announcement was first made by BioWare co-founders Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk during their keynote address at the 2011 Eurogamer Expo in London, England. Speaking to a packed room of press and fans alike, Dr. Muzyka acknowledged the weight of the moment and the patience of the fans.

“This is an incredible moment for everyone at BioWare and our partners at LucasArts who have dedicated their lives to build this extraordinary game. We appreciate the patience from the millions of fans who have been waiting for the game’s release.”

Each copy of Star Wars: The Old Republic will come with 30 days of subscription time, after which you have the option to continue playing with one of the following monthly subscription fees:

  • 1 Month Subscription: $14.99 (£8.99/€12.99)
  • 3 Month Subscription: $13.99 per month (one-time charge of $41.97/£25.17/€35.97)
  • 6 Month Subscription: $12.99 per month (one-time charge of $77.94/£46.14/€65.94)

Those who have pre-ordered the game and entered their pre-order code on StarWarsTheOldRepublic.com are eligible for Early Game Access. If you haven’t yet reserved your copy of the game, be sure to visit our Pre-Order page and secure your place in the Old Republic now!

We want to thank you for your continued passion, dedication and support. Though one part of this incredible journey is coming to an end, we are confident that you all share our excitement for this new beginning. Be sure to check back to StarWarsTheOldRepublic.com as well as our Twitter and Facebook pages for all the latest news and updates on Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Star Wars: The Old Republic | News, Updates, Developer Blogs.

Eurogamer Expo 2011: Interview with Stephen Reid – Darth Hater

Darth Hater spoke with Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Stephen Reid shortly after the doors opened to Eurogamer Expo in London, UK. We gleaned valuable intel during our interrogation of BioWare‘s Senior Online Community Manager regarding the status of future testing weekends, the team’s current focus, and details on what BioWare has in store for fans at the expo.

Hit the jump for the interview in full.

GDC Online Speaker Spotlight: BioWare’s Zoeller On Iterative MMO Content

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Image by man0riaX via Flickr

GDC Online Speaker Spotlight: BioWare's Zoeller On Iterative MMO Content

In the latest in a series of interviews with notable speakers from this October’s GDC Online, BioWare Austin’s Georg Zoeller speaks out on the processes and tools his team uses to generate and tune MMO content in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Originally hailing from Germany, Zoeller moved to Edmonton to join BioWare in 2003, and has since held a number of positions at the company, working on titles such as Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. In 2009, Zoeller moved to BioWare Austin to serve as principal designer on The Old Republic.

Here, Zoeller provides an in-depth look at the BioWare’s production processes in anticipation of his talk, “Rapid MMO Content Iteration and Validation with Spatial Analysis in Star Wars: The Old Republic,” which will outline the various techniques the studio uses to test and validate the game’s content.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing MMO content generation?

Achieving the required — and expected — volume of content without compromising quality. MMO players are pretty unforgiving when it comes to quality – you usually get one shot to get it right. Your launch sets the trajectory of where your game is headed and quality of content, even more than quantity is a major contributing factor to success of failure.

Content wise, these games are insanely large undertakings. For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Planet Alderaan, which is one of 17 planets in the game, holds more creatures than the entirety of Dragon Age: Origins, a game offering 60-80 hours in a single playthrough that took us almost than 5 years to create.

We have thousands of differently voiced characters in the game, all with dialogs and quests that not only need to be written, recorded, staged, scripted and animated, but also tested and validated — the most engaging quest isn’t going to keep a player around if it fails to work.

In order to make the creation and validation of that much content manageable, you not only need more people, you also need to be a lot smarter in your workflows and tools.

What are some techniques BioWare uses to create content for The Old Republic? Are there specific tools or processes your find particularly useful?

One of the interesting aspects of the game engine we are using is the fact that it is a large-scale collaborative environment. That means that most content creators work together on a single environment (i.e. server) and changes happen in real time. While an artist might sculpt a mountain in the background, a designer on the same map could be working on creating encounters or placing harvest nodes for crafting.

It’s safe to say that collaborative real time development creates significant challenges on larger teams and, especially earlier in the process, introduces rather stringent requirements regarding the quality of everyday work — after all, if you accidentally delete the terrain on a planet, everyone standing on it will plunge to their death, which isn’t great for productivity.

However, there are also some great benefits to this approach compared to the traditional “build” model, such as the ability for a team of designers and artists, co-located in the same room, to create and iterate on a quest hub together in-engine as well.

Can you discuss BioWare’s ‘HoloProjector’ toolkit? What does it do to aid content generation?

HoloProjector is a toolkit that provides a bird’s eye view on the game’s content, from static geometry, sound volumes, and triggers to creatures and vendors.

The initial goal for the tool was to improve awareness regarding the individual usage of the millions of individual game assets that make up Star Wars: The Old Republic.

HoloProjector reuses the highly detailed in-game map assets and auto generated terrain heightmaps to project and combine asset locations, test data, user interactions, performance metrics and other spatial data in 2D and 3D space into a single workspace where artists, designers and other groups can easily create and share custom data visualizations relevant to their needs on the project, from performance optimization to player behavior analysis.

For example, a technical artist can use the tool to generate a heatmap of a planet or sub-area on a planet where the number of budgeted draw calls visual effects is greatly exceeded, add any effect emitters to the map, inspect them for their properties, flag the ones most likely to cause the issue and forward the resulting map to the area artist with recommendations.

How does user feedback influence content creation for The Old Republic? How do you gather this data?

Testing and the use of data generated from testing has been an integral part of our workflow for more than a year now and has been critical for us in validating the game design, rooting out problems and improving the overall game.

Data is gathered via a broad set of methods, including automation, very high detail metrics about user interaction with the game, professional focus testing, in-game player feedback systems, private testing forums and direct contact with individual testers or entire groups via chat.

It’s possible for us to drill down into the game interactions of every single tester and correlate their feedback directly with issues encountered in-game. By using a several different data sources, we can eliminate a lot of the usual bias encountered in direct user feedback.

High detail user interaction metrics also help us analyze complex content issues, develop fixes and most importantly, validate the success of those fixes a few builds down the road.

What advice would you offer developers tasked with generating content for an MMO?

First: Continuously invest in your tools. Make sure you keep on top of which tools are actually used for content creation, how many people rely on them, how stable they are, and where time is going when users interact with those tools.

With good metrics about use and stability of mission critical tools on your project comes the ability to understand return of investment. For instance, “If we speed up the pathfinding generation, we can save 250 man hours over the next four months, but if we fix this crash, we’re avoiding 340 man hours of downtime over the next week.”

Second: Test early and extensively. Test with both external testers and with automation software.
We all understand the benefits of human beta testers — in addition to a great QA department — and how talented they can be in finding all the things you didn’t and how they keep surprising you by turning up the most obscure issues.

Additionally, automated testing and asset validation greatly complements those manual testing efforts by detecting subtle changes. For example, you might say, “The bot used to complete this quest in 2:20 minutes and only died here in 1/20 runs; now we’re up to 2:50 and a 1 in 10 death rate. Something changed, QA investigate!” These processes also guard against regression and repetition of previous mistakes.

Every time we discover a problematic asset on Star Wars: The Old Republic, we investigate if a so-called “speed trap” should be created, an automated test of game assets that detects the condition — exposing all problems of the same type — and prevents it from happening in the future.

How will your GDC Online talk address MMO content creation, and what do you expect people to take away from it?

My talk will focus on the visualization tools and processes we use to combine metrics generated from large-scale game testing with game asset data to understand how users interact with our content, debug perceived issues, and test the implemented solutions.

Attendees should be able to take home a decent view of how exposing easily digestible metrics and asset data to artists and designers in the trenches can greatly improve speed of content iteration and validation as well as some tips and tricks on how to get started in building similar applications — or reusing existing solutions.

Additional Info

In the weeks leading up to GDC Online, show organizers will continue to debut new interviews with some of the event’s most notable speakers, in addition to new lectures and panels from the event’s numerous tracks and Summits.

Taking place Monday, October 10 through Thursday, October 13, 2011 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, GDC Online continues as the leading worldwide event dedicated solely to discussing the development and business trends surrounding connected games — including casual titles, MMOs, virtual worlds, and social networking games.

For more information on GDC Online as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC Online website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC Online is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb, as is this website.

Gamasutra

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Companion Characters Update – Part 1

From Minsc and Boo to Urdnot Wrex, companion characters play an integral role in all BioWare stories. The same is true for Star Wars™. From Chewie to R2-D2, the heroes in the movies are often accompanied by a trusted partner.

Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ is no different. Each character class unlocks unique companions throughout their storyline; companions that fight alongside players in battle against AI and other players in Open World PvP, aid in crafting and non-combat missions through Crew Skills, and provide commentary on environments and engage in conversations.

As you advance your story in Star Wars: The Old Republic, you build relationships with your companion characters based on the decisions you make throughout the game. How you treat each companion and how you act when they are in your presence determines how your relationship with them evolves. The writing team has done a fantastic job of bringing these companions to life with compelling stories and backgrounds. They add an emotional layer to the experience in the same way that such memorable characters as Bastila Shan and HK-47 did in Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic®.

From a combat and systems perspective, though, which is what my team is tasked with, bringing BioWare-style companion characters into a massively multiplayer setting is a daunting task with many hurdles:

  • How do you make each player’s companions unique in a world where other people are experiencing the same story with the same companions?
  • How do you make companions a critical part of the player’s combat without stepping on the usefulness of other players?
  • How can you make a companion character that is easy to control for players who don’t want to micromanage abilities, while also offering complex options for players who enjoy that style of gameplay?

These are just some of the questions that needed to be answered to make the companion feature feel truly integrated with the game. We have been through several rounds of iteration and testing on companions to make sure we deliver the kind of experience you expect in a BioWare game. In making these changes, we believe we have also made the most advanced companions in any MMO to date.

In this, the first of two blogs, we’ll take you through some of the changes and improvements to companion characters. First we’ll focus on customization and companion classes. Next time, we’ll talk about the artificial intelligence (or AI) of companion characters, along with their role in a group.

Customization

Players should feel like their companion is unique. Since your companions have a full set of armor and weapon slots, you’ll see a lot of variety in their appearances over time as you equip them with new weapons and armor that you acquire throughout your journey. After months of testing and evaluating feedback, we decided that equipment customization alone wasn’t enough to create the visual contrast that our players expected. So we decided to incorporate an additional layer of personalization to the game.

Players will be allowed to override the starting appearance of the companion, granting them different looks by modifying hair, skin tone, eyes and other previously unchangeable physical features.

Humanoid companions get a tremendous amount of variety from armor sets alone, but certain alien or Droid companions may not, so giving the player control of their companion’s appearance was especially important to us. One of the more frequent requests we heard from our testers involved giving additional attire for the more fashion-aware Inquisitors who were offended by Khem Val’s sparse clothing options.

Even small changes help your companion stand out in a crowd. When we first started testing, clicking on another player’s companion would show their full name. This resulted in screens full of identical nameplates. Now, companions for other players appear anonymous to the player so that rather than seeing a bunch of identical nameplates, you now see “[Player Name]’s Companion.” Of course, for your own companion, you’ll still see the correct name.

Companion Classes

Another critical component we’ve focused on relates to the combat abilities of the companion characters. When we first started testing The Old Republic, companion characters had one innate special ability as well as an ability that was given to them by the player. While players liked the mechanic, we felt it was too shallow and made the companions feel stale over time. We wanted to make sure that companions had the same depth of gameplay that BioWare fans have grown used to.

To that end we redesigned companions to give them each a specific class/role: ranged damage, melee damage, ranged tank, melee tank and support, each with a broad set of abilities that are unlocked as they level up alongside your character. Over time, your companion will feel more like a fully-featured character and less like a drone with one or two extra combat abilities.

Let’s take a deeper dive into one of the Smuggler’s companions, Corso Riggs, a heavily armored blaster specialist.

When first acquired around level 7, Corso already has the tools necessary to be an effective tank. His abilities include a Guard Stance that boosts his defensive capabilities and threat signature towards the enemy, a strong carbine attack that fires off a series of Charged Shots and a special distraction ability to taunt enemies into attacking him.

A while later, around level 25, Corso has picked up some new abilities that players can incorporate into his AI, including a powerful Fragmentation Grenade that can damage multiple targets, an EMP Blast that weakens nearby enemies and provides area threat generation, and a Grappling Line for pulling distant attackers in close.

By the time the player reaches the high 30s, Corso has a full bar of abilities at his disposal that allow him to fulfill the role of the traditional MMO tank in both solo and group play, along with a selection of special attacks for damage duty. This includes a mode that makes him an effective ranged damage dealer, and a Flare Gun that will draw the attention of all nearby enemies as well as new shields and support abilities to aid the player in tough fights.

Just as Corso gets the tools necessary to be both an effective tank and damage dealer, your other companions will get the tools needed to make them effective in multiple situations.

Healing/Support focused companions get a suite of medical abilities like Field Dress and Kolto Pack to keep their allies alive and fighting. They also unlock control abilities, such as Carbonized Stream, which requires the companion to focus entirely on keeping the enemy locked down and out of the fight. And, of course, they also get some attacks that can contribute to the fight when healing isn’t necessary.

Ranged damage companions can take one of two stances; a Sniper Mode that emphasizes their gun attacks and makes them deadly one-on-one combatants, or an Assault Mode that enables powerful explosive attacks more suited for in-group combat situations.

Melee damage companions focus on close range attacks; for some companions, this means a Lightsaber, vibroblade, or electrostaff. For others, this means Flamethrowers, Oil Slicks, and other forms of wrist-mounted firepower.

Melee tank companions, like their ranged counterparts, have multiple ways of drawing fire from enemies and are also given powerful close range attacks that allow them to function as both a tank and a damage dealer as necessary.

We believe with these recent updates to companion abilities, we add another dimension to companion characters, really making them come alive in combat as well as conversations. In my next blog, I’ll explain how companion AI works, as well as giving more details on their roles in a group.

William Wallace
Senior Game Designer

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Guild Alignment Begins

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Back in March we initiated our Pre-Launch Guild Program, where members of the Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ community could search for already established guilds or register one of their very own through the Guild Headquarters page. We are thrilled to announce that we have begun the second phase of our Pre-Launch Guild Program!

With Phase 2: Alignment, we are introducing new features which allow guilds to set their allegiance with other guilds in The Old Republic. Now a guild leader, along with members who have the proper permissions, can select up to three guilds as either Allies or Adversaries, depending on their faction affiliation. Qualifying guilds that are marked as Allies and Adversaries of other guilds will have the highest chance of being placed in the game together, allowing these guilds to coexist on the same server.

Another feature being implemented with Phase 2 is the ability for guild leaders and members with the proper permissions to invite friends to join their guild via email. You can start recruiting new members today!

To learn more about guilds in The Old Republic, check out the Guilds Game System page for details, and to search for or join a guild, visit the Guild HQ now! Also be sure to visit the Guilds FAQ for answers to commonly asked questions.