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Monday, June 13, 2011

The Final Release

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There are a couple of comments and thoughts about recent SWTOR news I'd like to share. First of all there have been some recent developer comments regarding the death penalty and challenge of the game that follow on quite nicely from the post I made last week. The other thing I wanted to comment on was the lack of a release date given at E3 this year and the uproar on the forums about it.

Let's deal with the easy bit first!

In a post last week I discussed challenge and death penalties in MMOs, with a view as to how they may work in Star Wars The Old Republic. Well it seems as though my thoughts weren't a million miles away from the route they have decided to go - a low death penalty due to a more challenging game that will see a higher number of defeats than the MMO average.

The discussion arose following the revelation that every character will have a self-resurrection ability called Medical Probe. This is an unusual feature for MMOs in general and consequently a discussion arose on the official forums about the viability of giving everyone a self-rezz. Would it make the game too easy? is SWTOR being aimed at carebears (whatever that means!)? That kind of thing.

Georg Zoeller, Lead Designer on the game, made several posts addressing these issues over a few days and they definitely make for an interesting read.

Georg Zoeller wrote:
Let's give you some details, since it's E3 and we're being generous

The reason we added this system is that the worlds in The Old Republic are huge and a travel death penalty turned out to be much more punishing than initially planned. Our testers were quite vocal about that.

Our testers also commented that they liked the more challenging content compared to other MMOs (no, Daniel's demo wasn't showing that, since running harder content and talking and answering interview questions is a bit much to ask of a writer ).

Since we wanted to retain the latter, but also fix the death issue, we decided to go with this solution.This system was just added. Currently, in testing, it works like this:

The first time you die, you have the option to summon the probe almost immediately or return to a med center. If a friend tries to restore you instead, the probe option is replaced by the 'accept help' button.

The second time you die (within 30 minutes), the timer to call the probe is 20 seconds.

From there on, the time increases so you'll probably want to go to a medical center instead (which will restore the initial timer).

As said, we just added this system and there's quite a bit of tuning left. We may decide to attach a service fee to the droids. We may make it so you have to purchase insurance in order to call the droids. We may take them out completely. Details like how it works in World PvP are still being tuned as well.

He then clarified a few points following further questions.

Georg Zoeller wrote:
We will likely put a limit on this ability when you are killed in PvP / by another player, even disallow it completely.

Originally Posted by ManuDragonne:
Amazing how all the insta-rez proponents fail to recognize how the top writer for the game is talking on the film about using 2 people to take on a 4 person instance. Running around dieing (over and over) and kiting MOB's to basically cheat his way through it.
Hehe, Daniel will be disappointed when those holes he's exploiting are gradually shut down. As mentioned, we just added this system in testing, so there some rough edges.

That said, we're also not terribly concerned with people being creative about some of the heroic content. We're pretty pragmatic about it - if people have fun doing a one off heroic quest in a very creative way (like, let's say luring a bunch of enemies to a cliff and then pushing them over with a force push) and they're having fun, that's something we're potentially fine with. In fact, we find that a lot of the 'creative' ways people find around more challenging content seems to take more time than doing it the planned way anyway.

As long as there's a reasonable effort vs. reward ratio here, who am I to say that you and your friend can't have fun figuring out a way to get past that 4 man heroic?

This obviously doesn't apply to Operations or Flashpoints (Did I mention that you can't order a probe in instanced content like a Flashpoint or Warzone?), but for world heroics, we're definitely taking a relaxed view on these things.

Originally Posted by BDreason:
And the response from Georg is ridiculous as well. You took away corpse runs because beat testers didn't like it? Of course the beta testers didn't like corpse running... nobody does. That's why it's called a PENALTY for death.

Honestly, they may as well rename this game Carebears in Space if they plan on caving to every players request.
No. I'm a bit amazed (just kidding, this is the internet) that you think we would operate like that. But yes - if 95% of testers tell you that you have a problem, you listen. You don't shut your ears and sing to yourself 'they're carebears, they hate any penalty'.

We added this option because the impact of the 'walk back from medcenter' penalty, in our game, is huge - worse than in comparable MMOs. Here's why:

The distances in a world that is built to scale, on planets like Tatooine, are vast.

A lot of the content is not instanced and is open world and you don't enjoy fighting your way back deep into the objective areas when you die. We're not talking about 1-3 minutes of walking. In some cases, we're talking about 10-15 minutes of repeating content. That's not fun.

As Daniel explained, we're not shy of making challenging content that is interesting to overcome.

But content does not get more challenging by giving it a harsh, repetitive death penalty - penalties just happen after the fact and do not, in any way or form, make the content more challenging, fun or even difficult.

The only challenge a really harsh death penalty adds is to player's patience or tolerance to repeating the same content over and over. Most people don't find that fun, and we don't either.

By adding this system, we are able to create content that kills the player once or twice until they figure out how to overcome it. We can create challenges and players are given a chance to overcome them. They can afford to fail, regroup and try again instead of spending 15 minutes sitting around while some player tries to make his way back to the group.

If you are looking for hardcore and punishing death penalties that weed out the weak players (e.g. the ones that don't have infinite patience and time), The Old Republic will not be your game. That does not mean we're attempting to make an extremely easy game with no challenge.

Originally Posted by Andrew_Waltfeld:
My suggestion is first time is 10 second wait time or whatever. Every time after that is 1 minute, 3 minutes, 6 minutes, 9 minutes, 10 minutes cap. Much more giving system that can't be exploited by groups easily.
Well, the first time is 10 seconds for all options, including return to medical center.

We found that necessary to prevent people from quickly clicking something they later regret (e.g. go to med-center). A 10 second grace period allows players to cool down, assess the situation and gives their allies time to run over and offer a revival before people hit the button.

Having some 'think about what you've just done' time built into the system isn't bad either, it avoids adrenaline rushing a medical probe without taking a good look at the surroundings and where you want to go - the time you have to move while in stealth isn't a lot, so you need to have a pretty good idea where a safe spot is when you press that button.

I've said this before on this topic.

The harshness of a death penalty has little impact on how challenging contents. The penalty kicks in AFTER the content has challenged the player and all it does is challenge the player's patience, the available spare time in their life to spend on repeating the same content and their repetition tolerance at that point.

Our goal is to provide challenging content that allows players to fail, adjust and hopefully overcome the challenge. We want players to try and fail, not fail and stop trying.

The system we're using still forces you to take a break if you continue failing (due to equipment damage and quickly increasing medical probe timers) and it does not work in instanced content (where defeated enemies generally don't respawn and don't have to be killed over and over again). But punishing the player for trying? Nope.

It's generally accepted as outdated design to provide badly placed 'checkpoints' in games. Single player games get marked down if they place auto-saves badly (e.g. in a way where you have to clean an entire dungeon just to die at a boss fight and then redo the entire dungeon).

Why should MMO's be exempted from that rule? Why should people rerun large swath of mundane content because they died at a boss battle? Just because other MMOs did it?

Well, SWTOR is not other MMOs. I know some people want death to be super punishing, but short of creating a meta game where you strip your character naked and taser yourself when you die, this game won't provide a punishing death experience for you.
So, to summarise, Star Wars The Old Republic has a less hard death penalty than many traditional MMOs. There is some cost associated with dying due to item wear and tear, but all characters get a self-resurrection ability. The softness of the death penalty allows them to design content that is more challenging than that seen in most other MMOs.

All in all that sounds like a pretty good solution to me, as long as they get it right in testing. Such changes from the accepted norm of the genre are abound to raise some controversy however.

And controversy brings me nicely on to my next topic of discussion, the release date of the game. There has been a feeling for quite some time that Bioware have dropped the ball in not announcing a release date for the game yet. The lack of a release date given at this years E3 raised the issue again, with many on the official forums unhappy that it hasn't been announced yet.

My thoughts on this are as follows.

First of all they need to actually finish the game! It is still in closed testing and I think they are doing the right thing in not committing to a date until they are sure they can meet it with a polished and stable experience.

Secondly they have announced a release window - 2011. We therefore know that the game will release within the next six months anyway.

Finally it seems odd to me that this issue is becoming so large amongst the community. Of course we all want to get our hands on the game and play it, but the fact is that release dates for MMOs are normally given very close to the actual release. This is because the complexity of the genre can lead to slippages, early release can damage the long term stability of the game and the market is so competitive that they do not want to give their major competitors time to respond.

Let's look at some facts. Here is a list of major MMO titles and their release dates compared to the release announcement, along with the difference between the two.
  • Age of Conan: release announced January 21st 2008 (after several slippages); released May 20th 2008 - 120 days
  • Aion: release announced June 23rd 2009; released September 22nd 2009 - 91 days
  • Anarchy Online: release announced May 3rd 2001; released June 27th 2001 - 55 days
  • Champions Online: release announced 16th May 2009 (after original date slippage); released September 1st 2009 - 108 days
  • City of Heroes: release announced March 15th 2004; released April 28th 2004 - 44 days
  • Dark Age of Camelot: release announced September 28th 2001; released October 10th 2001 - 12 days
  • DC Universe Online: release announced December 21st 2010; released January 11th 2011 - 21 days
  • Dungeons and Dragons Online: release announced January 4th 2006; released February 28th 2006 - 55 days
  • EVE: release announced March 5th 2003; released May 6th 2003 - 62 days
  • Everquest 2: release announced October 25th 2004; released November 8th 2004 - 14 days
  • Lord of the Rings Online: release announced January 21st 2007; released April 24th 2007 - 93 days
  • Rift: release announced January 4th; released March 1st 2011 - 56 days
  • Star Trek Online: release announced November 9th 2009; released February 2nd 2010 - 85 days
  • Vanguard: release announced January 11th 2007; released January 30th 2007 - 19 days
  • Warhammer Online: release announced August 6th 2008; released September 18th 2008 - 43 days
  • World of Warcraft: release announced November 4th 2004; released November 23rd 2004 - 19 days
On average the release dates for these games were announced 56 days before the game's actual release (and in many cases much less). That's only 8 weeks, a much shorter period than for the vast majority of non-MMO PC games.

I don't think we should expect a firm release date until Bioware are certain they can meet it, and probably only a couple of months before release at most. If the game is to be launched in September or October I think we'll see an announcement in July or August, either at Comic Con or more likely at PAX.

I just cannot understand the anger and vitriol levelled against Bioware over their refusal to issue a release date now, but hey, I guess that's the internet for you!

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