Friday, January 11, 2013

A Reaction: Star Wars State of the Game 2013

A Reaction: Star Wars State of the Game 2013

SW:TOR's executive Producer, Jeff Hickman, published on the Developer Blog his assessment of the game as of January 2013.  (Star Wars: The Old Republic – State of the Game #2.)  The game has come through a lot in the last three months, successfully navigating the transition to free to play and completing what was, in effect, a complete re-launch of the game.

Loyal subscribers have taken a beating over things like the brutal server mergers and the failed expectations of the Life Day celebration, but with the influx of new free players, loyalists can see the necessity behind some of these decisions.  Players are now in the mood to forgive old wounds and start looking forward to what The Old Republic can offer in the future.  This was Jeff's opportunity to lay it out for them:  Where is the new, re-launched Star Wars MMO heading?

The Road Ahead

Let's pull apart the specific things Jeff brings up:
  • "We have two excellent updates coming your way"  He specifically mentions Game Update 1.7 and the expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel.  Take away: we're not getting any other major updates for the next six months.  Those are significant pieces of game content, but I'm not sure how they fit into the six week content cycle.
  • The Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion is scheduled for "later in the spring."  To me, that feels like a late May target date, perhaps over the Memorial Day weekend.  This is roughly six months from the launch of Free to Play in mid-November.  MMO gaming traditionally experiences a lull during the summer months, so a major expansion just as the summer begins is an interesting scheduling move. That might tend to push the release date sooner, perhaps early May.
  • Working backward from RotHC, we have to fit in Game Update 1.7 before May.  It seems reasonable to expect something in early March.  Any later than that and the impact of the update will be lost amid the general hoopla preceding the expansion.
  • Between these three month milestones, we should continue to expect pulses of content infusion from the "6-week cycle" of patches.  They have made no statement that they aren't continuing it, and if they do we'll see minor updates in late January and mid April.
As an aside here, I firmly believe that the next three months will be a make or break period for the game.  A year ago, at the first launch of SWTOR, players burned out or used up all the game content in the first three months.  Then, they hung around for the next three to see if anything else was on the horizon, before clearing off entirely.

The free to play launch was really a second lease on life.  If the game wants to avoid repeating the past, these next months will be critical for retaining their new influx of players.  If SWTOR sees the same dwindling pattern in player numbers, the resulting blow to the game's reputation will likely be one it can never recover from. I don't think they will close the servers, but TOR would never be the premier, full featured, industry-leading MMO that the developers and Star Wars fans want it to be.  Bioware must do everything in its power to sustain the game's interest and popularity over the next six months. 

Bioware is gambling that players are going to stick around at least until they see the announced expansion.  A late May release of Hutt Cartel seems perfectly placed to squeeze in just under that 6-month from f2p-launch threshold.   But players are going to need to see a lot of new content to keep their interest, released on a regular basis, and not just in a single game update.  Many players are returning from a previous try at the game last year.  To them, this is old content. And with the new free/sub models, Bioware has to offer reasons why game hoppers should stick around instead of just coming back in the spring.

Overall assessment: The developers have carved out a six-month window in which they can get the train back on the rails, a period of time that should be stuffed with major and minor game updates, and with the prospect of a major expansion at the end.  

So let's throw down a marker.  If Bioware can keep to this schedule, it will be a signal that the game is on the right track.   If Bioware misses either of these two rather generous release windows, if you as a player find that it's been two months since your last spark of interest in the game, it will be an indication of trouble.

Game Update 1.7

Update 1.7 will include changes to "a special PvP area".  This is thought to be a reference to Ilum.  Later, under Topic #2, Jeff addresses Ilum directly, stating that changes will be coming "fairly soon".  That sounds more like the upcoming patch rather than the expansion.  In fact, it is possible that we'll some changes to PvP as soon as the end of January.  The six-week cycle suggests that's the appropriate time for our next infusion, given some time off for the holidays.

Update 1.7 will also include "a visit from some old friends, The Gree Enclave".  Jeff throws in the teaser to say "though maybe not in a way you would expect."  This can only be a good thing.

The Rakghoul Pandemic event began on April 15th of last year so it's possible that we might see a Gree Enclave event in April this year - a delayed release from the 1.7 Update a month or so earlier.  Again, note that this would neatly fit the six-week content cycle.

The Republic meets the Gree Enclave back on Coruscant, and they are fertile ground for further story development.  Just speculation, but how would one expect to meet the Gree Enclave?  Probably along the lines of the way the Republic met them before, through their protocol droids.  That line, "not in a way you would expect" suggest that we're not meeting them through droid diplomats this time, but perhaps more directly.

I would love to see a future in-game event involving the Gree and maybe a future storyline where the Gree face off against the Chevin in a behind-the-scenes power struggle in which the characters are very potent pawns.

Elder Game Content

Topic #1 is titled "Elder Game Content- what is our intent for keeping level 50's occupied?"  I'm pleased that Jeff led off with this topic, because I think this is the single most important question in the game's future.  He states that it is a "top priority in the coming year."  Bioware only remains viable in the long term by offering something for people who have completed the leveling portion of the game.

I'm guardedly optimistic about his answer.  Off the top he mentions new operations, flashpoints and PvP areas.  I continue to maintain that a large portion of the playerbase doesn't engage in operations or PvP regularly, which is the reason why my optimism is guarded.  Those are important components of the game, but not something that most of the players do most of the time.  The first version of this game failed to thrive because they had nothing for these players.

Jeff's mandate is to "Keep the elder game fresh and interesting for players of all types."  That mandate has to include players who don't raid and aren't interested in PvP.  These are the story-gamers that Bioware so widely appealed to at launch.  Now, he seems to be appealing to them again.

I would call this a Jeff Hickman promise.  In the past, the philosophy seemed to be that the story gamers were engaged through leveling, but when they reached 50 they had to turn to warzones or operations to keep busy.  The Hickman Promise seems to be a direct challenge to the old-style MMO.

Also, the developer blog provided us with a Christmas list of future goodies.
  • "New difficulty modes":  I speculate that this is talking about nightmare and other modes for flashpoints as well as operations.  It might also involve re-tuning lower level dungeons for level 50-55.  Both of these would be excellent ideas.
  • "More stuff to do with your Companion":  I'm excited by the potential in this phrase, as well.   I think it refers to more Companion generated conversations and quests, which I would heartily welcome.  It could also mean companion-related daily quests or more heroic-2 missions, which allow grouping while keeping your companion with you, something not possible in flashpoints, for example.
  • "More challenges to tackle with groups":  World bosses exist as a guild activity that's not related to operations.  Recently, they introduced a world boss with escalating difficulty.  I'd like to see something more along these lines.  I'd like to see the introduction of Heroic-8 quests, which can be tackled with 4 players with companions.
  • "More reasons for guilds to recruit":  possible guild leveling, guild perks
  • "Improving our itemization"
  • "Introducing new incentives to revisit existing areas." I find this last comment rife with possibilities.  
      • I think it likely that they are adding areas or mobs tuned for max level. So in the middle of Tatooine, you might come across a level 55 Elite mob surrounded by some level 50s  They'd be deadly for anyone leveling through the planet.  However, a level 55 quest picked up on Corellia might specifically direct you to Tatooine to eliminate this threat. 
      • Of course, the HK-51 series where you collect parts neatly falls into this category as well, as does the Chevin and Rakghoul events, so there's lots of potential 
      • My own personal preference would be to suggest that they are re-tuning heroics and releasing them as level 50-55 dailies.  This would get you back onto old planets.


    1. I agree that the key to success for Bioware is releasing enough new content to keep players occupied.

      This raises two important questions.

      How soon will Makeb be released?

      Will the release of Makeb and the rise of the level cap to 55 render all current level 50 content obsolete?

      1. Makeb is the planet on which the new expansion will take place. The expansion is announced for "late spring," which I suggest means near the end of May.

        I think that gear and challenge levels of the new release will be handled in a much different manner from the way that WoW dealt with it.