When attempting to solve common MMO problems such as stale character progression, faction or class imbalances, BioWare must use the Star Wars universe itself to creatively consolidate their design innovations. We think BioWares fourth pillar of Story actually has to permeate even further into the other pillars of Combat, Progression, and Exploration and these pillars are intertwined in such a way that they seem to solve these issues from the outset.
BioWare co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka alluded to this when he spoke to IncGamers:
Well, we always look at things from a customer-centric perspective, so if the customers are enjoying the features then we try and implement them. If there's areas for innovation or improvement, then well generally go for it and try our best to innovate and improve on the systems. But any genre will have conventions that players are used to and are comfortable with, and I think its wise to consider those, at least, even if you're choosing to innovate or radically depart from them, its still wise to consider why the players enjoy those kinds of conventions and is there a way to approach them and evolve them, maybe, or innovate within the constraints that the players are comfortable with, as opposed to trying to start from first principles, so its a mix of both sometimes. You want to understand why the players enjoy playing a certain kind of system, and the mechanics you describe there are reasons why those are fun in some ways. Could they be improved? Well, yeah, I think they can, and to the extent that we think they can, well try and innovate on those in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
An obvious example of the principle driving BioWares design innovation is tackling an indigenous MMO problem: creating one size fits all character progression with maybe some differences in starting zone and class quests thrown in. World of Warcraft tried to address this problem of people wanting to get through this repeated, same content as quickly as possible by increasing experience gains and introducing heirloom items, among other methods. BioWares insistence that all the classes are unique and therefore have class-specific stories means they completely avoid this problem, and possibly extend the life of the game to those who want to roll multiple characters. In the same context, it makes sense to the Star Wars universe itself that a Bounty Hunter wouldn't have the same character progression via story as the Sith Warrior. Therefore, BioWare addressed this particular issue right from the beginning.
We also realized BioWare took a significantly different approach to designing them: instead of building up the classes to suit very specific roles like Everquest, World of Warcraft, Warhammer, Aion, etc., BioWare appears to be taking more of a bottom-up approach. In our view, this means that instead of saying okay, we have these roles of tank, healer, and damage-dealer, so we now have to make classes that can fulfill those roles, BioWare possibly inversed the typical MMO combat design principle to build classes that may echo what Brian Green outlines in his latest Gamasutra article:
This design (eliminating specialized roles) isnt just about having each class able to fill any trinity role. MMO combat would feel more dynamic in this system. Every player would have to react to combat events and defend against attacks. Some characters might be able to protect others, but it wouldnt always be the heavily armored character trying to draw a majority of the enemys attention. Healing would be more of an emergency thing done at a cost in combat to help a character that has not been defending well.
Obviously good class design is important in order to provide tradeoffs between the classes. A heavily armored fighter with a big sword might not be able to defend against magic attacks, whereas the magic slinger might fall prey to sneak attacks if not paying attention. Each class would still have strengths, weaknesses, and individual flavor, but they wouldn't fall into the precisely defined roles that the trinity design encourages.
This doesnt necessarily eliminate the trinity of core roles from the game, however. A player could decide to focus on being able to take repeated, punishing hits while protecting other players and therefore fulfill a Tank role. However, eliminating explicit roles means that players are not forced into a specific combat role through class choices or game design requirements.
When we deciphered the Holonet class outfitting sections to discover that all eight classes must logically have both a support and damage path, we also discovered that there must be enough variety of customization built into these path choices that could completely avoid the common MMO problem of forcibly pigeonholing players into pre-determined roles via cookie-cutter specialization. BioWares resolute insistence of not forcing you to play the game against your true enjoyment is becoming a mantra or battle standard to highlight their avoidance of this particular problem within their class design. If we interpreted this message correctly, then BioWare might very well avoid some of the common pitfalls such as class imbalance for PvP and PvE, the majority of the constant nerf/buff cycle, lack of customization, itemization problems, grouping, and poor integration of various game play types, etc.
Without deducing BioWares approach to class design, it would be impossible for us to logically speculate how the other major areas of the game would be implemented specifically itemization, PvP, PvE, and possibly space combat because we believe this approach should permeate in a similar manner throughout the entire game. In the coming weeks and months, we will apply and test this theory through additional speculation articles focusing on these very areas. We might successfully assemble the complete puzzle from pieces of BioWares public marketing alone because, as our faithful readers and community consistently point out, the entire game is hidden in the Holonet.