Jeff Hickman loves Star Wars, you can tell by the Rebel/Empire tattoo on his arm and the way his eyes light up anytime someone mentions “Death Star trench runs”. All of this is a good thing, especially when Jeff happens to be the General Manager of Bioware Austin, the studio responsible for Star Wars: The Old Republic. After recently taking a trip up to EA’s office in San Francisco for our first hands-on with SWTOR’s upcoming free space expansion, Galactic Starfighter. Afterwards, we sat down with Hickman to see how the studio intends to use the expansion to open up opportunities for future space content in the MMO.
MMOBomb-Thanks for having us here today. What was your goal with the Galactic Starfighter expansion?
Jeff Hickman- We’ve been listening to the players, really since before we launched, as people were playing in beta and as they played the single player space game that we have currently. We were really listening to them about wanting that free flight space experience, a la X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. And sadly when we launched the game we had to choose between the things that we could do and the things we couldn’t do, and it was just something that didn’t make it in for launch.
So we went through the trials and tribulations of launch like you do with any MMO, stabilizing the product and making sure everything is good. And then about a year ago, we looked at it again really, really hard and at the time there was a lot of rumors in the community about the super secret space project, “what are you guys doing?”, and we tried to keep it on the down-low as much as we could.
But we really wanted to react to that player desire, with the first and foremost goal of meeting that desire for free flight space combat of some sort. And that’s really were this came out of. My goal from a player point of view is to make the subscribers, the free-to -play players, the almost one million people that are playing our game every month happy. Give them something that they go “Wow, this is really really cool.” It’s why, unlike Rise of the Hutt Cartel, we’re not selling this thing. We want everyone to be able to participate and feel that desire that they’ve had for 2 years now.
MMOBomb- Since this a free to play expansion, will that be the model going forward with future expansions, or is this the only F2P expansion?
Jeff Hickman- That’s a great question. Let me be very clear, because there’s always a lot of question about this. There’s the game update, the patch that we do every eight to nine weeks, those we will continue to do, just like we’ve always done…for free.
Then I look at expansions in two different ways. There’s an expansion that expands the story, the level cap, the top end of the game, like Rise of the Hutt Cartel. We will probably sell those always. They take a concerted effort across the entire team that end up being very big prospects for us. These types of expansions, Starfighter being the first one we’re doing, is really kind of a broadening of the game. Its not something that you have to be level 55 to do, you can be level 1 and play Starfighter. It’s not something that is required for playing the core game.
So we look at those types of games as broadening of the offer as something that is much too big to be just a game update, but is not something that we’re going to charge players for, mostly because its not the core of the game. And so I think you’ll see both in the future.
MMOBomb- I noticed that while playing my level 1 character went to level 3, so there is experience gains to be had?
Jeff Hickman- Absolutely
MMOBomb- Is it feasible to say that a player could, if they wanted to, play a large portion of the leveling experience through Starfighter, or are they going to lose out on pretty much everything they need?
Jeff Hickman- Yea, I think they’re going to lose out on so much not playing the core game, I would hate to see somebody do it, because the core game is so great, and everyone whose playing it really enjoys the experience. On the other hand, could you technically sit and play the space game and level up your ground character? Sure! Absolutely!
MMOBomb- So it acts more as a supplemental experience gain?
Jeff Hickman- Absolutely, and you’ll find as you get to higher and higher levels the experience gained from just playing space becomes less and less to the point where it becomes very hard to get all the way to 55 just by playing the space game.
MMOBomb- What kind of experience then, can a Free-to-Play player expect versus a subscriber with Galactic Starfighter?
Jeff Hickman- I think the biggest difference between the subscriber and the F2P player is in your requisition gain. As you pointed out, you gain ground game experience for playing the game, but you also get what we call requisition. Requisition is the currency that you earn specifically for Starfighter that you then spend on upgrading your ships.
So as a subscriber I get a 50% bonus to my requisition gain, while as a F2P player I get the standard requisition gain, and so a F2P player is going to level up his star fighter 50% slower than the subscriber who plays exactly the same way. There are some other things as far as subscribers getting special benefits that are cosmetic, a space suit, that kind of stuff, but that’s the core of the difference.
MMOBomb- Are there any ships or anything that P2P players are going to get that aren’t going to be accessed by F2P players?
Jeff Hickman- That’s a great question. There are premium ships that will be available that you can pay for, but they’re no more powerful than any of the ships that you can earn. The major difference between the ships that you can pay for in the cartel market and the ships that you get for free or by working or in game is their appearance. They look significantly different than the ones that you get in the regular game.
MMOBomb- Galatic Starfighter is going to launch with one PvP mode, Domination. Do you plan on expanding the new game type to include new modes in the future as well?
Jeff Hickman- Absolutely. We have been experimenting with several different modes. We’ve got a Deathmatch mode, we’ve got this mode we call Assault, we’ve got a bunch of different modes that we’re experimenting with right now.
By February we’re going to almost double the number of ships that we have available, and we hope that we’ll have a new mode also, but no promises. We’ve got to make sure the mode is just right. Same with new environments. You know right now there’s two environments, there’s the asteroid environment, and there’s the Kuat environment. So we’re also experimenting with different environments, we’ve got some pretty cool stuff in store.
MMOBomb- So any PvE modes in the future? Any plans to include those?
Jeff Hickman- I think we’re going to do exactly what we’ve always done, we’re going to listen to the players, get it in their hands, see what they have to say, and if we can we will. It’s fully possible for us to do PvE in space, I just don’t know if we’re going to yet.
There’s definitely a contingent of players out there who right now are going, “wait a minute where’s my PvE mode”, and so we’re hearing it, and we are listening, and we’ll continue to listen. We’re going to support this part of SWTOR as one of its core cool components for years to come. We’ve got a lot of opportunity to improve it.
MMOBomb- Don’t you feel that the new expansion won’t offer anything for players who don’t particularly enjoy PvP, but still want to freely pilot their ship in space?
Jeff Hickman- Yes, Absolutely. If you want a PvE free flight space experience this is not the expansion for you. I think that it’s enjoyable, and I think the people who haven’t tried it and don’t think they’ll like it, they should get in and give it a shot. But just like the ground game PvP war zones, its not for everybody. And again, it’s one of those things that we’ll look at, and we’ll see how many people are playing it, see what the outcry is for PvE and react to is as before
MMOBomb- What kind of progression should players expect to find in Galactic Starfighter?
Jeff Hickman- This is one of those things that it’s actually a hard question to answer because there’s so much. At launch in February, we’ll have 24 ships available, in 4 different roles, the Scout, the Strike Fighter, the Bomber, and the Gunship. Each one of those roles, and each one of the ships within those roles plays a different way in the game.
Then with any ship there are a lot of components, if I had to guess there’s probably 50 different components on each and every ship. Different guns, different secondary weapons, missiles, rail guns, that kind of stuff. Then there’s different types of torpedoes, shields, engines, and other types of components like energy sources, there’s all sorts of different components.
When you get your ship for the first time, it comes with the basic set of components, and your like, “ok this plays and it’s ok”, and then you start to earn requisition, and all of these other components pop up as opportunities for you, and your like, “huh, I think I want to play a ship that sits back and shoots from distance”, ok go buy a railgun. And then once you buy that railgun -it’s a very basic railgun- you then can upgrade that railgun to do more damage, shoot at more range, use less energy, all sorts of different upgrades, And this goes for each and every one of the components that you buy.
MMOBomb- They have skill trees?
Jeff Hickman- Basically, each one has a skill tree. And so the game is go play, have a great time, earn requisition, figure out the components that you real want, and buy them up to mastery. Once you master one component from each section, so one gun, one missile, one shield, one engine… One component from everyone of the component pieces, you master your entire ship, and then you get requisition bonus for playing that ship more and more. So this loop of playing and upgrading, and there’s a lot.. a lot lot…
MMOBomb- Will your battles in space have any effect on your ground characters progression outside of XP?
Jeff Hickman- Probably not…We talk about this a lot, the balance between what the ground player wants and what the space player wants. XP is the easiest way for us to reward the time spent for a player who likes to play the ground game and maybe feels torn between playing the ground game to progress his character or play the space game. That’s the easy answer, you know? We can always do that.
We talk a lot about things that you could do with your legacy…You can get titles for your ground character, lots of cosmetic things, you can go buy space outfits and earn different things like that, but actual advancement or anything like that, the only thing that we’re doing, currently, is awarding you with experience points.
MMOBomb- Looking towards the future, how do you see Galatic Starfighter influencing future SWTOR content?
Jeff Hickman- Boy…we have so many crazy ideas, and I don’t want to start any crazy rumors on the internets about this stuff… We have a lot of ideas, whether it be things we’ve talked about, could we do PvE type add-on to this, absolutely we could. So that’s maybe…and again I don’t want to start a rumor, we’re not working on that right now, but it’s definitely something we talk about.
We also talk about adding additional different types of ships. Could you go with bigger ships? Could you do something where it does affect the ground game? There’s a lot of things that we discuss, and I think what we want to do, we want to get through probably February or March, see how it’s going, see the reaction of the players, listen to what they’re saying, and then lean in step by step to the things that they want.
MMOBomb – Thank you for your time