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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Skynet fights back!

2 comments
1. Skynet: In the Terminator movies, an artificially intelligent system which became self-aware and revolted against its creators. Source: Wikipedia.

2. Skynet: a UK military communications system. Source: Wikipedia.

3. Skynet: A program created by the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic in order to obtain telemetry on everything players do in the Game Testing program. Source: James Ohlen, Game Director for SW:TOR.

*blinks* what was that last one?!

Read on to find out more about Bioware's evil plans!

I first came across the term Skynet in relation to Star Wars: The Old Republic when reading an interview with James Ohlen conducted during PAX East this year. You can read the full interview here, but the relevant part follows.

James Ohlen said:
The entire last year of the project we’ve been really focused on making sure the social aspects are there. We actually test it. We have telemetry for it. Georg (Zoeller) and a programmer from Edmonton created something called Skynet. It allows you to view all of the actions players are taking in the game… when they’re grouping, chatting, dying, inviting to friends list, etc. And it’s been a steady road up, more and more people playing in groups.
A seemingly innocuous comment at first glance I'm sure you'll agree. So they are monitoring what the players do in their Game Testing program in order to obtain useful feedback. I'm sure most MMO developers do similar.

Over the last few days however I've seen more references to the system, and the picture that is building up is one of an incredibly powerful tool that could change the way games like this are developed. This is because Skynet monitors everything the player does in the game. Let's look at what that means in practice.

It has already been stated that the developers can see how long players take over certain conversation points. Daniel Erickson (lead writer) described at the recent UK playtest event that they have observed some players taking up to 30 minutes to decide what to do when making big moral choices in the game. By using Skynet the developers can easily identify bottlenecks and build up the major story points.

Let's also have a think about what the system could be used for (apart from world domination of course!). For a start goldsellers and gold transfers could easily be traced and tracked (ok, so the term credit sellers sounds wrong!). Developers can see what equipment people equip, identifying the most popular choices and driving art direction for future items.

The developers can tell which skills are being used and when, identifying skills that are just filler and not used, focusing on popular ones. They can identify parts of the game that are too difficult, with a high level of deaths.

The real power of the system and its ability to enable the developers to quickly understand the flow of the gameplay became apparent in the latest developer blog from Georg Zoeller. In the blog Zoeller included a couple of pictures that really show the power and beauty of the Skynet system.

This first image is a 3-dimensional view of all player death locations on the planet of Ord Mantell (one of the starter zones). As well as being a very impressive image, this kind of information helps the developers really dig into where potential problems may lie, either in areas being too tough or too easy.


The second image is even more interesting. This one shows a small area on Ord Mantell and is a movement heat-map that also shows specific death sites for the Smuggler class only. This data apparently helped the developers quickly identify one particular area that was having an impact on Smuggler survivability during one of their major class quests, leading to a change in the quest.


These heat-maps are used to understand the flow of characters through an area and improve travel, as well as identifying less visited areas that might be good for encounters and rewards for those who like to explore off the beaten path.

Skynet seems like such a powerful and useful tool that it has the potential to create one of the most polished gameplay experiences seen for a newly launched MMO.

As long as it doesn't become sentient and try to start a nuclear war of course...

2 comments:

  1. Wow. What a great system. This is one time you really don't mind big brother checking out your actions as the game can only get better for it. I'm impressed.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yeah, looks interesting. Not sure if they will keep it for live as I imagine the processing and database overheads for the launch would be huge. Good to see them trying to do everything right though, lets hope it pays off!

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