Story has to drive choice, and choice has to drive action. - BioWare's Dallas Dickinson to Gamasutra
In a previous article, we presented a chart showing the depth of customization players might expect after making the path choice in Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare's RPG signature usually includes foreshadowing an important decision with prior experiences and choices made during one's personal story, so the major decision of path choice shouldn't result in a surprise. Although we expressed our opinion of the depth and variety of customization that should exist after making this permanent decision, we didn't detail how we suspect you will initially acquire and progressively improve skills in what we call the "core class." Therefore, we here at Darth Hater decided to elaborate on our prior class combat speculations and delve deeper into what we feel "core class" really means.
Many MMOs contain systems of personal progression in the form of talent trees that you can immediately put talent points into as you level to strengthen or differentiate your character. In the early stages of character development, you typically know little about your class' combat and have few abilities at your disposal, so you might make a few mistakes allocating these talent points. You may also prefer a particular spec for leveling, but then maybe opt for a completely different one at endgame. While single player RPGs address this issue with a "save button," traditional MMOs typically give you a method of altering your point allocation. However, these "respecs" have a tendency to reduce -- and sometimes trivialize -- the impact, continuity, and the importance of personal choice.
Since we observed BioWare's consistent message of Story intertwined with pillars of Combat, Progression, and Exploration, we think Star Wars: The Old Republic will tactically avoid this common MMO problem by moving away from traditional leveling systems. Therefore, we contend the traditional talent tree system will not exist for the core class, as it is too impersonal and lacks continuity in character development. Instead, we see BioWare presenting you with story-driven choices in early levels to acquire and improve abilities using more heroic methods. This sets the stage for you to gradually learn about and customize your combat abilities in a personal manner, and you are sufficiently educated at a point in your class story to choose the path that compliments your play style of damage or group support.
In 2008, BioWare's Rich Vogel told Massively:
Our leveling system... it is a leveling system. There are experience points. There are some innovations we're doing, but we can't really get into them. Companion characters are going to be a big element, you can customize your companion characters in a number of different ways. Your companion characters can get their own equipment, that'll be an easy way to differentiate yourself and your companion character.
The Dark Side and the Light Side are also important to the experience. You're going to be making decisions that will affect the story, bringing you more to one side or the other. You can also try to go for more of a grey path like Qui-Gon Jin, a more balanced path. All those paths are acceptable, that will give you a different route for how you level up your character. Your character will develop along a different path depending on what choices you make. That is something that's different and I don't think has been done in an MMO.
We believe this concept might mean at one point in your story -- instead of visiting a centrally-located trainer NPC to either learn new abilities or to customize them -- you may need to utilize the Exploration pillar to discover new abilities, or make a critical, permanent choice to strengthen one ability over another. In this approach, completed missions and your dialogue choices all matter to your character "core class" abilities as you level up, and this implementation of ability customization would not be as trivial as a simple talent tree you can change on a whim or with little penalty.
To visually represent this concept, we created a chart using some familiar assumptions regarding permanent path choice level and approximate time played to level cap. It also includes a differentiation of some of the choices you'll make at various stages in your character's progression:
We speculated level 60 as the maximum level due to a few factors: the amount of class outfits shown for the Sith Warrior (58-60) and the level 50+ shown in the "Designing The Dark Side" video, plus it was a widely-used and therefore familiar level cap in both MMOs and RPGs around the time development for TOR began. Of course, we have to caveat all of the numerical representations we used with the fact that the game is still in development, and the pace of level-based experience gains are most likely undergoing constant tweaking as a result of testing feedback.
Evidence of what we think is level 20 to 40 decision-making was also seen in "Designing The Dark Side," as it revealed new Sith Inquisitor abilities featuring a restriction to usage with a double-bladed lightsaber. Therefore, we speculate this particular Sith Inquisitor made definitive choices regarding which abilities he sought out to acquire, and if he continued on this path of decision-making, he would eventually select the damage path for his character. We also have to note that the typical icon used to access a character's talent trees was distinctly missing from the user interface at level 30. Although this might seem a far-reaching conclusion, and the possibility definitely exists that such an icon wasn't implemented in the build used for the video for other reasons, we still need to keep in mind that we are shown (or in this case, not shown) such things for a purpose:
From official videos, we noticed at lower levels the experience (XP) gain was fast-paced, which should be a familiar leveling mechanic for experienced MMO players:
As we illustrated in our diagram above, we think the resulting branches of player choice will eventually diverge towards one path over another. The impact of the choices in relation to eventual path will also grow progressively stronger the closer in level you get to the point of actual path decision. We can then logically conclude the permanent choice of damage or group support is made at the approximate halfway point in terms of hours played, which is roughly two thirds of total numerical levels.