SWTOR Creative Director James Ohlen at Syndcon - SW:The Old Republic

SWTOR Creative Director James Ohlen at Syndcon
By Halfshell On 16 Aug, 2011 | 

With convention season in full swing Ten Ton Hammer has you covered. The annual meeting of The Syndicate Guild was held just this past weekend and our very own Reuben Waters was there.

Now in its 10th year, the conference is lower key than other conventions, but there was still some heavy hitters from the industry in attendance.

In fact, Waters got the chance to sit down and speak to the creative director for Star Wars: The Old Republic, James Ohlen himself. Topics discussed include the banking system, companion customization, and what the response has been like since the initial pre-order rush following the announcements during SDCC last month.



Ten Ton Hammer: Will companions have an advancement tree similar to what player characters have, or some other means of advancing and distinguishing them from those controlled by other players?

Creative Director James Ohlen: Once you get a companion character he has a set role, and he does level up and gets new abilities as he levels up, but that’s all set. The reason we went that direction is because we felt that companion characters are not you; you don’t really control them, and they are their own character. So we didn’t want you to decide which way they went. That’s the ‘story’ reason, but there are also a gameplay reasons.

Ten Ton Hammer: Outside of directly controlling their advancement path, will there be other way for players to customize them in some way? It’s logical to give those characters a distinct path to follow, but at the same time I know a lot of players will want their companions to feel like they are unique to their story, and not just a carbon copy of the person next to them.

James: The one big thing you can do is equip different weapons and armor to them just like you can on your main character. One of the ways I play is that if you have a companion character that’s similar to your main character you can give them hand-me-downs.

But a way to customize them is you can customize their appearance with kits. So for example, if you have a blue twi’lek maybe you want her to be green skinned, and you would like her to have a different-shaped face. You will actually have kits that will allow you to make her look different essentially.

They’ll still have the same name and personality, and everything else, but you will essentially be able to customize their look entirely. We wouldn’t do that in a single-player game, but the reason we’re doing that in a multiplayer game is that it presents an immersion issue. We don’t want people running around with identical looking companion characters.

Ten Ton Hammer: That brings up a very good point in terms of how things will work if I group with another player who opts to bring along the same companion character. Will there be some form of naming convention employed in those cases so you don’t have one companion named Vette in the group, and another named ‘Twi’lek Pirate #2002’ or even ‘Vette2’?

James: When you view them in the world, their name doesn’t show up. Instead it will be more like ‘James’ Companion’. We decided to do that because it’s less immersion breaking. That’s much better than having you both see Vette and thinking, “That’s kind of lame.” It’s amazing what kind of difference something as simple as a name can make though.

So instead it will be like, that’s Rich’s companion and she’s a red skinned Twi’lek, and mine is a blue skinned Twi’lek. That way I can totally get over the fact that I know he’s also playing a Sith Warrior, and that he’s also on the same story, and that he met the same character. We want to do enough hand-wavery to make it so that it’s not an issue for players.

Ten Ton Hammer: We are also curious about the banking system. Will players be able to share items between their own characters through the bank on the same server, or even across factions so long as it’s on the same account?

James: Currently no, you have to do it the old fashioned way through the mailbox, but only if they’re the same faction. There are multiple reasons why we don’t want the different factions to communicate with each other.

We had the big argument that this isn’t like Horde and Alliance, we all speak Galactic Standard so we should just allow it. So we actually did allow it for a little while. The argument against it was that, what happens is people start saying inappropriate things to the other side. That’s just the way it is when you’re on a different side and you gank each other, people tend to say inappropriate things.

So we thought that maybe it won’t be so bad, but then when we started doing testing with external people, and then we’d look at the chat logs and say, OK, that’s gone. And it wasn’t the swear words that were bad, let’s just say that lots of inappropriate things get said. Usually our testers are more mature, and if this is what was happening with them, imagine what will happen when we go out into the wild.

We just wanted to get rid of that, so that’s another reason why you can’t mail your incredibly dirty messages to members of the opposite faction. The unfortunate thing is that’s just human nature. Suddenly Empire players would start sending horrific messages – and I mean horrific – so that’s what we want to avoid.

Ten Ton Hammer: Maybe you could work that into some kind of system where you can gain dark side points based on how horrific your mail is…

James: *Laughter* I don’t think we want any systems connected to the things that would be said, that’s the thing.

Ten Ton Hammer: How does that translate to something like a PvP environment then? Is it a case where you’ll only see chat from other players of your own faction, and don’t see the other faction’s chat at all?

James: You won’t see the other faction’s chat at all, so they can’t chat with you and you can’t chat with them.

Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking of the mail system, will you be able to check your mail while on your ship along with things like storage?

James: You can definitely use your ship for storage. The thing about ship functionality is that we’ve actually been adjusting it throughout game testing. For example, the ship was a ‘rest zone’ for a little while, then it was not one, and right now we’re considering turning it into a rest zone in-game again. But that’s based off of feedback we get from players.

There are lots of different reasons to do it either way. Fictionally it makes sense, but one of the things you want to do in massively multiplayer games is to create areas where players are likely to gather. So the thing about player ships that we’re always struggling against is that if we make everything available in the player ships, everyone will become anti-social. Players will just stay in their ships and do everything there. At the same time, the player ship has to be really cool.

So there are things that you’ll only be able to do on a player ship. So accessing the galaxy map, play space battles, talk to your companion characters and advance their stories. Then we also have the banks there and the ability to do crafting table stuff. So there’s a lot of stuff that you can do on your ships right now.

Currently though, I’m pretty sure that mail is not on the ships. But, again, that’s something that’s not technically unfeasible; it’s a game design decision.

Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking of the ships, are there any updates on whether we’ll see pazaak or holo-chess in-game?

James: Unfortunately we’re currently not talking about that.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you maybe tell us a little bit about other mini-game activities that players can find in-game?

James: We have the most advanced mini-game of any BioWare game which is the space mini-game. So that’s our ‘big’ mini-game, and it is our most in-depth and interesting mini-game we’ve ever done. There’s the whole upgrade mechanic on your ship, the actual space game itself has a lot of tactics within it, and there are a bunch of different space levels and they look really beautiful.

Out of all the mini-games we’ve done, I think it’s the one players will enjoy the most. However, we have looked at all of the other possible mini-games, like in KotOR there was pazaak but currently we’re not planning on having that for ships. Not because we don’t want it; we can’t put everything in the game since we don’t have unlimited resources.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will players be able to shift alignment from light side to dark side or vice versa even once you’ve reached the level cap?

James: Yep, you will be able to shift your alignment even at the level cap. That was a design question where we don’t want players to reach level 50 and realize they’re gimped because maybe they didn’t end up with as many dark side points as they thought they would by that point. So yes, you’ll be able to make those adjustments even at the highest level.

Ten Ton Hammer: What kind of content will players be able to play through that would allow them to make that shift at the level cap?

James: We’re going to have Flashpoints, Operations, and Heroic Quests, and those are all things that have conversations which allow for dark side / light side choices.

Ten Ton Hammer: Kind of paired with that, just to clarify, say I prefer to walk the middle path and remain as neutral as possible rather than shifting to either the light or dark side. Would I still have access to the same kind of rewards that you’d get for shifting fully in one direction or the other?

James: In the light side / dark side system you can either go all the way light or dark, or you can stay in the center. We’re doing some changes to the item system now, including how some of the light side / dark side systems work, but you’ll get different artifacts that will only work if you’re light side or dark side, or the same thing if you’re gray. Then we also have items as well. So you might have a specific lightsaber crafted that’s just for the Sith, that you’ll have to be dark side to be able to use.

Ten Ton Hammer: I was lucky enough to be able to attend the SWTOR panel during Comic-Con last month, and even though it was only a few hours after the initial pre-order announcement, there was obviously an incredibly positive response from fans. In the weeks since the announcement, has the response continued to meet or exceed expectations?

James: We’ve shattered all of the previous EA records by like a factor of 10. So it did very well, but then expectations were also very high. This game has been under development for a long time, and there’s obviously a lot of hype so we knew that we were going to get a lot of interest.

We’re at a stage right now where we know there are a lot of people interested in the game and a lot of people who are going to try it out, so we don’t want to end up launching a game that falls down. Otherwise it would be a wasted opportunity for us personally, and for EA.

Ten Ton Hammer: It seems like you’ve also paid pretty close attention to what has and hasn’t worked for major MMO launches while developing SWTOR. Things like massive queue times or even unstable servers due to concurrent user counts have certainly marred the launch day experience for some gamers. Did those things directly influence the concept of staggering early access?

James: The early access is based on when you redeem your code, so the earlier you redeem your code the earlier you get in. We’re not talking about specific timing for that, but that is the goal; to roll them in slowly so they don’t overwhelm the server by letting everyone in at once.

When I went online I saw that there are a lot of people who were like, BioWare is just trying to create artificial demand. The thing is, we’re already trying to fit in more players in a shorter period of time than has ever been done in the history of not just online games, but anything online because we have so much interest. So this isn’t about trying to create artificial demand. So that’s why we’re doing it, because there’s never been this kind of technical challenge before.

It’s a huge challenge and we want it to be smooth. We’re going to pull it off and when we do pull it off it’s going to be pretty amazing. The guys who are responsible for that, we’re going to be very proud of them.

Update: Georg Zoeller has just clarified Jame’s Ohlens statement regarding cross-faction chat. You will be able to communicate with another faction via /s(local chat), it is the planet wide general chat channels that are restricted. See the full post Here.