PAX East: James Ohlen Interview
The last time we spoke to James Ohlen, Star Wars: The Old Republic Creative Director, it was back at last summer's Gamescom in Germany. He granted us an opportunity to catch up with him at PAX East, and we discussed a bunch of topics ranging from Game Testing and Space Combat to Advanced Classes... and blowing up Alderaan.
Hit the jump for more.
In the Taral V Flashpoint, we're seeing a lot of multiplayer combat and the multiplayer dialog system, which is kind of a hallmark that you are trying to do. What is the focus on Taral V at PAX specifically this year?
James Ohlen: We wanted to show the community that we are going to have multiplayer dungeon-like content. We're calling them Flashpoints, but they're basically the equivalent to what you would call dungeons in other MMOs. They are repeatable four-mans that are about an hour long and require teamwork to be able to beat. The one thing that we're bringing to them that no other game has is the story component. As you saw, there are a lot of story moments in the game that really make it more immersive. They make it feel more like Star Wars. I think you get into the story and your character more than you would in a dungeon from another game.
One of the unique things about the setup is that it is a Republic Flashpoint and you have it set up so the Smuggler is the main healer for the group, and the Consular is throwing rocks and beating things up with telekinesis. Making sure that all the healers are viable is something that you are showing here. We also heard that because of game testing the Bounty Hunter and the Trooper are now getting healing trees. Are all these trees comparable? Could a Bounty Hunter come in and do the same thing the Smuggler is doing in Taral V in regards to being the main healer in a Flashpoint?
Yeah. We are always adjusting the game with play test feedback. We want people to easily be able to get a healer into their group because one of the problems with forming a group is making sure you have the right balance and if there aren't enough healers, then you're going to wait a long time before you can get into a Flashpoint. And that is not very fun.
We wanted to make sure that you get that healer as soon as you want to. We're looking at making the Trooper and Bounty Hunter to be able to spec into a healer. It will probably stay that way until ship, but you never know. We're doing lots of balance changes and modifications as we continue to balance the game and get feedback, which will probably continue until after we launch the game. We probably won't make any big changes like taking a class from being a healer to not being a healer. But yeah, we're always tweaking things.
Another one of those tweaks is with the single lightsaber for DPS for the Sith Warrior and the Jedi Knight, making viable DPS roles with the single lightsabers for those who are doing it. Are there any other things from testing that you didn't see coming, or things that fans are crying out for?
In terms of combat balance? Not really. We get lots of feedback but usually it is a bug; particularly with game balance around certain areas, or the game being too difficult or too easy. Like one of our last cohorts were finding the game was just not challenging enough so we had to do a significant balance change across the whole game and it made a big impact.
Now our origin worlds are far too difficult, which isn't good for the beginner player so we're going to make modifications there. We actually have a lot of telemetry we're able to track. We're able to track what all of our players are doing, when they die, when they quit the game, where they're killing, and where they're earning experience points. We're able to look at that data and make adjustments really quickly, so it is super useful.
We also heard that in your dialogue system, you are tracking metrics on when people are pausing to see how long they're taking to make decisions and things like that to really work on the dialogue. So you are getting ton of information from the testers?
We keep on getting more and more information as the testing groups get larger. We had two groups of a thousand players on a shard and that got us a lot of information because it was a lot more people playing together. We were able to see a population that was not indicative of the final game, but it was closer to it because the populations were so much bigger than just a couple hundred. We're able to use that to make a lot of adjustments; it also validated a lot design decisions we made months earlier. The game really gets a lot better every single month. It is pretty impressive. The developer teams are getting faster at making changes and making adjustments to feedback. Two years ago it would take so long to see a change in the game, but now you see changes every month.
One of the changes we saw was a new video for the space combat. They actually demoed it for us here at PAX yesterday and they're going to do it again today. They told us about the big graphic overhauls and you can totally see really good graphic passes on it. Is there anything about space combat or the changes in space that you'd like to mention or talk about?
Space is obviously a big part of the game; it is called Star Wars. Here is another part where player feedback came in useful. Space is getting a lot of good feedback, but actually getting onto your starship wasn't getting as good feedback as we wanted. It was really just visual; it didn't feel like you were in space when you were getting into your starship.
We put a lot of work behind that: put a lot more cinematic work into it, a lot more visual effects, and sound effects. This latest cohort really impressed people. They are blown away by the changes. Now when you get your starship, you really feel like you got a starship and you're traveling through space. It was polish issues, but the player feedback allowed us to really target what changes we were going to make. And that is what we'll continue to do: get player feedback and make targeted changes to the game
Part of the space demo was the holographic display that the character walks up to and chooses destinations. We were able to see that yesterday with all the different regions mapped out. You click on a region and they've got combat instances and things like that. We actually had people on our Ventrilo server that were bringing out atlases to figure all that out. What went into choosing a graphic overlay like the holographic system to determine where you're going?
We wanted something that was really visually interesting -- that was kind of the core. We didn't want to have a map system that was just a list of planets you picked from. We wanted something that felt very sci-fi and was just pretty to look at. That is what drove having the holographic display. The good thing is we're part of BioWare and we're able to share and learn from the other project teams. Mass Effect is also a sci-fi game. They had a galaxy map that was really cool so we made sure to take lessons from that, and that helped us out. We were able to talk to the guys that built that galaxy map.
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- Interview Part 2