It’s late in the year, and that means a new expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Everyone loves new stuff, though the opinions regarding changes to existing stuff is generally a little more mixed. While players ooh and aah over shiny story trailers, they also grumble and kvetch over changes to core systems – in this case, the Galactic Command system and how it will affect loot acquisition – and not without some validity.
We scored some time to chat with two of BioWare’s finest, Creative Director Charles Boyd and Producer Ben Irving, about the additions and changes coming to SWTOR on Dec. 2 when Knights of the Eternal Throne goes live. In a way, Charles got the easy part of the job, talking about stories and creativity, while poor Ben had to deal with the tough questions about Galactic Command’s more controversial aspects, which he handled with considerable grace and aplomb. Will it be enough to convince disgruntled players that it’s a good system after all? We’ll see…
MMOBomb: For Knights of the Fallen Empire, you gave players a big chunk of story and then individual chapters month by month. For Knights of the Eternal Throne, it’s just the “big chunk” and you’re not planning to do the later individual chapters. Why did you decide to change things up this time around?
Charles Boyd: After doing both the month-to-month and “chunk” or “binge” play, we really felt like one of them worked a lot better than the other and seemed to be what the players really enjoyed the most. Partly it’s just how people consume media now in general, to go at their own pace, whatever that pace is. This kind of release plan just supports that better. It just works better for the players and it’s going to make the overall story presentation better as a result.
MMOBomb: I think the last time we talked about creating stories, it was for the Shadow of Revan content. While that was cool, Revan is, essentially, someone else’s character that you built upon. How different is it starting from scratch with characters like Senya, Valkorin, Vaylin, and so on, that are completely your creations?
CB: It’s a lot of fun, obviously, as a creative endeavor, to really put your own stamp on it. Even in Shadow of Revan, we had characters like Lana Beniko that we got to create, and there are just a few more [laughs] that we got to do than last time. But yeah, you’re right, you get to make the story central to these characters and develop it with them fully in mind, with the ability to shape both the character and the story to a greater degree. That definitely gives you a lot of freedom.
Obviously, working with established characters is never a bad thing, especially when they’re awesome like Revan, so you really can’t complain about that either!
MMOBomb: I was wondering, how big of a bookshelf do you have of reference materials… novels, role-playing game manuals, and what not?
CB: I brought in all my old West End Games books that I had as a kid. We got all the Ultimate Guides to all the planets, alien species, and all that stuff. We’re frequent users of Wookiepedia, which is the wiki for Star Wars stuff… there are just so many great resources out there, and we’re also fortunate that we get to work with Lucasfilm and their story group directly on everything we create. If we ever have a question or we see conflicting information, we can always get in touch with them. So far, that has not gotten us any scoops on the movies – no matter how tricky we get about it!
MMOBomb: When creating a new character, I assume that some basic characterizations are made – a brief text description, like you see for TV shows and the like – but have you ever changed or tweaked something about a character based on the art? Like has an artist come back with something in a concept drawing that made you go, “Oh hey, I didn’t think of him/her like that, maybe we should add this element or that element to the character”?
CB: Yeah, definitely. We do give our artists the little write-ups that we do and the personality traits and whatever background details they want to bring through. For example, with Fallen Empire and Eternal Throne, there’s a character, Koth, that we wanted to show that he was in the military but he’s not now, so they gave him this really cool jacket, but it’s got some little uniform-like pieces on it, a little rank and some other stuff. So it kind of tells the story with their look, and it definitely goes the other way as well.
Not only in the writing is it a factor, but also in the recording booth. It’s so much help when we can pull up that concept art of what the character looks like and show it to the actor. It’ll inform their performance and change things a little bit in really interesting ways. It brings the character to life, not only for the players but also for the writing team. Once we see it performed, it always impacts how we write the character moving forward.
MMOBomb: Especially for the “evil” characters, it’s probably hard not to fall into the trap of “generic, arrogant bad guy who goes on forever saying you’ll never defeat him and oh look, you defeated him.” How do you differentiate these characters from the run-of-the-mill, moustache-twirling villain?
“Aside from the occasional murderous psychopath, which we’ll have every once in a while, most people are doing what they believe they should be doing.”
CB: It kind of comes down to a quote I heard once, from an interview with Willem Dafoe. They were asking him, “Do you prefer to play a villain or a hero?” And he said, “There’s no difference. Everybody believes they’re righteous.” To me, that was a really meaningful thing, and it’s something I try to keep in mind when we’re writing characters. Aside from the occasional murderous psychopath, which we’ll have every once in a while, most people are doing what they believe they should be doing. A lot of the time, people will do things they know are wrong, but they believe they’re justified in the end. We look for that motivation: What is it they are ultimately trying to accomplish, and why is it that they are taking these extreme measures? What is it about their personality or their background?
Especially this year, exploring Vaylin’s backstory with the “Betrayed” trailer and a lot of the stuff that’s in the chapters of Eternal Throne, that was something we really wanted to do. She definitely comes off as the most crazy and brutal of the Eternal Family, so we really wanted to spend some time explaining how she got to that point. Is she really just a bloodthirsty monster? Where does that come from? Why is she so obsessed with doing whatever she wants? And it’s because she was so locked down as a child that she never got to do anything she wanted to do because her power was so great that no one ever trusted her.
MMOBomb: One of the things I liked about the old Knights of the Old Republic games was the ability to choose your ending, based on what path you took, Dark or Light. While there were choices to be made along the way in Fallen Empire, they seemed fairly cosmetic. Now the thrust and the title of one of the promo videos is “Rule the Galaxy.” What if I feel like my character is humble and I don’t want to rule the galaxy? Not that I’m expecting you to spoil the entire plot, but are there going to be options that allow you to have a very different path depending on your choices?
CB: Keeping away from spoilers, yeah, there’s going to be a very big difference based on the choices you make this year. To your point, the feedback that you gave is something we got a lot of and took seriously. We try to be critical of ourselves, if not more so than our fans are, and we look for every opportunity to improve.
There definitely are more choices that I think have more significance and more impact, both immediately and also long-term. It was something that we really wanted to deliver this year to give players what they were looking for out of the story. Again, not to get into things too much, but I think if you’re looking for something different, you won’t be disappointed.
MMOBomb: Changing gears, the Galactic Command System has gotten its share of… shall we say, vociferous commentary… since being announced last month. A lot of it revolves around the RNG aspect of rewards, which was less than popular in the days of Battlemaster and Champion Bags. I know that you can “recycle” gear you don’t need for Command XP, but are you concerned simply about how a person will feel when he gets a pair of boots for the fourth time? Or DPS gear for his healer?
Ben Irving: I think the biggest thing for us is that they’re all things we can monitor and change as we move forward. Like, let’s say there’s a hypothetical world where someone doesn’t get that one piece that they really, desperately, need. We have all the telemetry and metrics that show us that, and if it turns out to be a problem, we’ll create a way that once you meet a certain criteria, you’ll be able to get a hold of that specific piece that you couldn’t get. The way we went forward was, that we believe this will work, we believe that you won’t be in that situation, but the way we’ve structured the expansion is that if it turns out that we’re not correct about that, we can easily make a change to give people that out.
[Writer’s note: Just to avoid potential confusion, this type of feature will not be in the game when KotET launches, but was put out there as a hypothetical new feature that could be added at a later date.]
I think the more exciting part about it all is that you can now play the game the way you want. You’re not forced into having to do operations to get the best gear. That might be the fastest way to get it, but you’re not forced to do that. If you want to play by yourself or you want to play with a small group, you can play the game any way and get rewards. Our belief is that’s so much more powerful, with the small downside of maybe some people won’t get the gear they want, but we can fix that problem fairly easily. We’ve heard that feedback, and we don’t ignore it. We just want to see how it plays out, because it’s fairly straightforward to put something in.
MMOBomb: Speaking of the “play any way you want to get whatever gear you want” idea, how do you plan to avoid making it ridiculously easy to farm loot crates by just repeatedly doing the easiest content, like a flashpoint that can be done in 15 minutes, over and over? Games like Guild Wars 2 have had this problem for a while and never really adequately dealt with it.
“I think it’s fair to accept that we’ll have to make some adjustments [to the Galactic Command loot system].”
BI: Right, you need to have the balance of how you earn points be really spot-on, and we’ve put a lot of energy into that. Again, that’s something we have all kinds of data and telemetry we’ve been monitoring very closely, and if it turns out something is too good, then we can bump it down, and if it turns out that something’s not good enough, we can bump it up. These are fairly straightforward changes to make and I think it’s fair to accept that we’ll have to make some adjustments.
MMOBomb: Along those lines, some people have suggested a token system instead of random rewards. I know that’s a hot topic in MMO circles, do you have any research or data that seems to support people favoring one versus the other?
BI: I think the high-level goal is that we want the game to feel enjoyable. About every hour you get a loot crate, and a loot crate gives you powerful gear, and I think that kind of frequency is way better than the frequency we have in the game right now. I think the hypothesis we have is that’s going to ultimately be more enjoyable, more “sticky,” and feel more rewarding to players. But again, that’s one of those things that, if it turns out that it takes a bit too long to get the gear you want, we can just make that adjustment and we can speed it up. If it’s not taking long enough, we can change that – nobody would ever complain about that! [laughs] Our plan is to just listen to that feedback and communicate openly about it.
Thanks to Charles and Ben for their time! Knights of the Eternal Throne goes live on Dec. 2 and is included with your Star Wars: The Old Republic subscription.