Interviewing BioWare’s Daniel Erickson at E3 is becoming an annual tradition of sorts around here. As Star Wars: The Old Republic hits its six month milestone, we decided to question him on some of the recent discussions ruminating around the community as well as further explanation of the upcoming content revealed this week. We gained an insight on what is in store on Makeb, how we attain our new sidekick to our meatbag-ness, an extremely broad hint at the future of space combat, and what is going on behind the scenes with Nightmare mode Operations.
Out of all the stuff we just heard about, what is the one thing you really want to talk about?
Daniel Erickson: Makeb.
Alright, let’s talk about Makeb.
One of the first things we talked about way back in the day was that we wanted to make the eternal RPG. As soon as we started wrapping up any of the core content, we started making plans for the future. We then realized that people were burning through a lot of the core content. People were playing six or seven hour game sessions, and we were like, “We have to plan out all of our Ops and all of that stuff for the next year at least.” So we did that. All of that stuff for the next few Ops that people are going to see — you know we still have to build things, but all the core writing and the dialogue and the recording — all of that was written a long time ago. Then we started saying “What’s the next planet?” We looked back at everything we did well and not as well, and we realized that the best moments of our games from a storytelling perspective were definitely the early ones when it was more focused. You had fewer quests at one time, and they were much higher quality stuff, big high quality cinematics, really deep storytelling, big choices, stuff that you really, really were involved in, were excited about, and really could keep track of what you were doing. That is Makeb. Makeb is a return to full on AAA BioWare storytelling.
On that note, what’s happening on Makeb? Is that just world arcs or is it new class story?
We’re not talking about what form all the story stuff takes. We’re taking a while to roll it all out, but there is a ton of new story content there.
You went through a recent restructuring. How did you restructure the writing team and how did these changes revitalize them?
So we’ve still got a giant team in all concepts of an MMO team. We don’t want to talk too much about what happened with that, but we are well structured for doing all the stuff we need to do going forward, and we already had a huge forward jump because we have to see so far forward on all the content that is coming. Nothing will affect the content you guys will see for a really long time.
HK-51 — you talked about how he’s coming with new missions, etc. and you’re basically unlocking him?
HK-51 is actually part of the Legacy system. He is a very hard companion to get, and there is an incredible amount of work that you’ll have to do. I will say right now that if you do not have people on both sides of the war, you probably need to go roll somebody on the other side. There is great, great new types of gameplay, new types of quests. There is a whole section of it that’s old school adventure gamey survival horror where you’re really not doing combat stuff; you’re following puzzles and solving stuff instead. Makeb has a lot of the same experimentation. We developed so many new tools and new tech that we can do so much more with our quests now than we could before. We were chasing tech for so long that now the designers really just get to go in and be crazy creative.
When you have a companion that’s going to all eight classes, is the dialogue going to differ at all?
It has to, right? So how you get him, the quest to get him, his dialogue, when he’s with you… all of that is obviously very different if you just decided that you have an assassin droid as a Jedi Knight, which I will say is a bit startling to him, versus getting it as a Sith Warrior. So yeah, there are completely different forks because it is a 100% developed companion character. You’re going to need some really high level stuff to actually be able to unlock him because of how complicated his quest is. But after that, he is a Legacy unlock so you can then go and get him much earlier with other characters.
We talked a lot about Legacy — what are the team’s current thoughts about Legacy? Is it something that people are enjoying? Are you thinking of making it account wide versus server wide?
There’s probably not going to be moves any time soon to account wide, particularly because server wide to account wide is massive from a tech undertaking, and the percentage of folks that have people spread around like that is not really high enough to make that a priority. What we are doing is of course bringing in the free character transfers so hopefully people can get their people all on one place. And we are very generous with what it means to combine Legacies, so you can take all the best parts of all the Legacy stuff you may have unlocked and bring it all together in one place.
Will we see new story, new missions, and conversations for companions with the new level cap?
Not with this first one, no.
Of that level cap expansion, can you tell us what the number is?
Nope, we’re sitting on that. It is new powers and new stuff. There’s a whole new sort of approach to combat, pacing, everything as we’re going into Makeb. I’ll say the short version is: even if you’re still leveling up, 50 is still the endgame. So you need to be able to play your character, and that’s where we’re focusing our leveling efforts.
You talked yesterday about new species that are playable…
The Cathar is the first one, and what we’re going to start doing is really looking at how much interest there is in species. The Cathar will be the first we’re rolling out as they’ve always been popular. We have the stuff, and we know we wanted to do them. After that the hope is if people say “Oh yeah, this is really exciting here. We want to do this.” Then it becomes open to the community and we’ll say, “Hey, ok folks, what do you really want?” I think it’ll be an interesting plan. I think it’ll be really interesting to put the negatives right out there for people to see. Understand that if you demand a species that does not speak English and is made out of Jello, these are going to be the problems that it brings to you. And if people say “that’s what we want more than anything else,” then at this point it is community power.
In the future content trailer we saw the addition of a new space combat mission named “Space Station Assault.” Was this the secret space development you were talking about?
Yeah. It’s a very exciting space mission; it really feels different from the other ones. The flavor of the feel is very different when you’re trying to race through the middle of a space station and all that stuff. But it is at the core an evolution above the space game as it is.
What we’re talking about in the future is revolutionary. We’re talking about a completely different pixel space.
A different twist. Is that something we’ll see this year or next year?
Here or there.
Somewhere around. Stay tuned.
The future is always in motion.
What is the background of the new Operation?
This is the one I’ve been most excited about from all of it. This one is on the planet Asation, and it’s called Terror from Beyond. We wanted to bring in the Gree forever. Love them or hate those airport droids. The Gree have always been this fascinating species out there, plus we really really knew the animators would hate us for asking. They are squid legged, crazy complicated wierdo things. So the Gree came back and broken their sort of self-imposed exile, and deigned to actually deal with the rest of civilization because the Gree are the keepers of the Hypergates, which are these large sort of inter-dimensional ancient portals from the sort of Infinite Empire time period that are supposed to be keeping things out. But we’ve been having some problems with the Dread Masters stomping through the galaxy, and they’ve been playing with the portals. So all of a sudden we’re getting hellish things coming through these portals. We’ve got new art tech that makes the level just amazing. There are lighting effects, structural things we can do. It is 100% new art, new area, we’ve got an amazing new end boss for it, and we brought in the Gree for it. It is such a beautiful piece. It is really everything that that team has been working towards this entire time.
This is the next tier?
So are we going to start seeing in this new Operation the classic Star Wars, little groups forming to perform different tasks and we’re cutting back and forth?
Not in this one.
Later maybe? Are you going to take it over a gradual process?
A lot of it is play-testing. We have a new Warzone coming, and Warzones are playtest, playtest, playtest, playtest. Every time you add a new piece. So the Operation is the same thing. The multipath Operation is something we’ve talked about for a long time, and we’re still testing it and we’re still playing with it. (Multipath) is still sitting there waiting until another group fails to do what they need to do, and it’s still aggravating. We’ve gone back to the drawing board a few times on sort of different approaches, different ideas, how should we clean it, how you can connect things, whether you can do a larger group than you could have normally done — those sort of iterations.
What was the driver to revamp and redo these Nightmare Modes of the current Operations?
They weren’t hard. I mean, they were hard for normal human folk, but they weren’t hard for the “elite” of TOR. Nightmare mode was you know, people would just come in and bash through it, and there weren’t really very good rewards around it. Nightmare mode was basically just a “you can go do this if you want.” You’ll get an extra item, you’ll get a title or you’ll get something for it. And at the same time, I really wanted to help the team have a more complete piece for it. When we went to Story mode, it was saying “hey we’re going to take these two tiers that are really about gear and movement, and we’re going to move those up.” So if you’re after the top tier stuff, if you’re trying to be the crazy gear god, then you’re not going after Story Mode. You can just forget it. But if you just want to see the content, if you want to say “hey I want to see the whole mission, the whole storyline here, the Dread Masters, everything that’s happening with them. I want to get to experience this,” then we have Story Mode.
Now Hard Mode needs to get tougher than it already was, and we’ve done that. We were much happier with Denova; the new level, how long it took, what people were doing with it, the complexity of all the stuff. Nightmare mode has to be better than that. Nightmare mode needs to be the best of the best, spending a really inordinate amount of time to try to run it and take this down. And it’s a challenge, right? So we’re putting the gauntlet down and we’re going to go “we made Nightmare mode hard”, but then someone will make us look silly. Then the next level we’re going to try again. That is the goal. This is really us trying to challenge the most elite groups of our PvE players.
On that note, are you going to be putting Nightmare Mode on the public test server?
Yeah, we have to.
I managed to get one thing that never went on the public test server, which was the Rakghoul plague, and that was so nerve-wracking. I think it was the right approach. That team did a brilliant job with that, but we had to do so many internal tests and so much QA watching. Just saying we’re going to have something like that that’s that big and that complicated, and not use the power of the community, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
That was exactly one of the issues we had with Ranked Warzones rolling out in 1.3; we were going to roll it out before, and we didn’t get enough people on the PTS to look at it until way too late. And when they looked at it, they were like “Oh, your game is broken. Look at how we broke your game.” Right? It’s incredibly important that we get that feedback. We’re just "hey, without group persistence, doing another ranked Warzone is very irritating, folks.” So for the new Ranked Warzones we have group persistence, we have dual queueing, which is incredibly hard to pull off. This was the biggest tech challenge in the entire thing. I’m queuing for a ranked Warzone while I’m queuing for normal Warzones. So when my normal Warzone goes and it pops, and then we get enough people for the ranked Warzones, we have 16 people for ranked Warzones. It’s now reserving us and waiting for us to come out. So anyone that is out will not pop the new Warzone because they know we’re waiting for the ranked people. Once the people who were in the Warzone come out, boom they go into that one. So two different queues working structurally is all fantastic, but now we all just queued for group finder, right?
These are the sort of things that as we got public test for 1.3 we’re going to be very excited to make sure that people are pounding on this from every direction and finding that “hey we’ve got one guy who was queued for this pop for this, we dropped a guy, we had to backfill another guy.” Does it work? Does it all hold up? To make it so, we did a ton of internal testing now. Basically, the secret inside route has been we finally just said “look, we’re shutting the studio down for these things. It is mandatory — everybody in the studio, you’re playing ranked Warzones. That’s all you’re doing.” And that helped us a ton. Still, internal teams are never going to play it the same way that some interested players will. You can tell somebody “hey try to break this,” but that’s not the motivation for people trying to break it. They’re trying to do something clever and that’s where you see the holes.
There are a lot of guilds out there right now who cleared Hard Mode. They log in their day, they get all their stuff, they say “I’m here and I’m ready for Explosive Conflict Nightmare mode.” What do you say to those guys?
Like everything else, we needed to make Nightmare mode into a real thing. We needed to do the back-end support, make sure that the portalling worked correctly — that part of your guild wasn’t going into a different Op because they popped out to rez. All that stuff. Again and again we made the decision to pull something if it’s not right, and delay it if it has to.
We’re aware that there are people who are impatient, and there are people who are saying, “Hey!” But if we go the other route — if we go speed over consistency – then all we’re doing is laying land mines for every new feature we do on top of the one we just put in. And when we got back there building group finder, we found a whole lot of places in the game that were kind of held together with twine and tape that we had to gut and redo to make sure they worked correctly because everything is as good as the foundation. Which means every time we bring a new piece in, 8v8 ranked Warzones has to work and do everything it needs to do in pre-season before we even contemplate a real competitive season.
In that same similar vein, how are you looking at other systems in the game, like Crew Skills? Is there anything we can look forward to there?
Crew Skills is ever-evolving with every single piece you see come through. Obviously, the addition of the augment tables makes a huge difference in the entire Crew Skills system. I won’t go into all the tiny details, but now that you can actually augment any outfit in the game above basically green quality, through an augment kit gotten by the crafters. Now the sort of balance of gets shifted around and we’re looking at these numbers all the time. We have all the data that is not adding up, like how many people are doing what, here’s what the actual power of this crew skill is, here’s what it costs to create, here’s how many people are actually involved in it, here’s what they’re getting for their stuff on the auction house. We’re looking at all of the data as we are continually sort of tweaking each of the skills, and it’s always going to be an evolving process because every new thing we introduce anywhere in itemization affects Crew Skills in some way. Even if it’s just that it changes demand for a particular section of something that is now more redundant or less useful.
As for my last question, I know this subject is very near and dear to your heart: the Emperor. Are we going to start seeing, or get a feeling of more of his involvement directly in the story?
Not on Makeb. Makeb is about what happens to the galaxy when there’s a power vacuum, and is related to some of the hints that we laid in the early Dread Masters plot line.
Thank you Daniel. As always, it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you much.