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Thursday, October 20, 2011

SWTOR @ GDC 2011

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GDC Online, the Game Developers Conference, took place in San Francisco last week. Unlike other gaming conventions and conferences this one is not about revealing new features, marketing your game or PR; it's a serious conference for games developers to discuss a whole host of subjects from game design philosophy to game creation tools to marketing techniques.

This year there were a few presentations given by developers from Bioware that gave a great insight into how Star Wars The Old Republic is being made and tested. There are two of the presentations in particular that I want to highlight and discuss, but the following is a list of all the presentations given by Bioware personnel along with links to summaries courtesy of Darth Hater.


So, the two presentations I wanted to discuss are the ones by Damion Schubert (Principal Lead Systems Designer) and Georg Zoeller (Lead Designer), as I found both of them fascinating for different reasons.

Schubert's presentation (no link available yet, though I'm sure it will eventually show up on his excellent Zen of Design website) focused on game design theory with a special focus on how to use double coding to appeal to two completely different target audiences (casual and hardcore MMO players). Double coding is content designed to reach two different groups at the same time (the example he gave was Looney Tunes cartoons that contain jokes that both adults and kids will find amusing for different reasons).

The interesting part is his assertion that the existing MMO model (he refers to it as a donut) which uses a soft casual outer ring with a hardcore center, one leading to the other, is outdated as a design concept. He goes on to explain his theory that casual and hardcore are actually misnomers in themselves; for example we can all be hardcore about some things and casual about others (I've known many hardcore roleplayers in my time for example; take that as you will!).

It's an interesting point, and I do see the next generation of MMOs doing one of two things. Either they will begin to focus very heavily on one aspect, drawing in the hardcore for that playstyle, or they will diversify and offer a lot of content for all tastes.

Schubert maintains that developers should try to encourage hardcore behaviour, as hardcore players tend to evangelise about the game and draw new players in. There are many ways to achieve this, but for SWTOR the team has decided that the way to make people hardcore about the game is to ensure that everything they do is fun. Once a player becomes a hardcore player they are more likely to stick with the game when things start to become painful.

He also asserts that pain can be good, and the natural reaction to reduce it by making content easier should be avoided. Instead the ramp up to that point should be made as smooth as possible.

His summary is that there is not really any such thing as a casual and hardcore player, but that all players are somewhere on a road between the two, and that design choices can encourage them in either direction.

My own thoughts are that if the designers can deliver systems that will encourage more casual players to attempt more challenging content, and do it in a way that rewards success without punishing failure too harshly, then they will create a more hardcore fanbase for the game.

Interesting stuff.

Georg Zoeller's presentation was all about how Bioware are using their metrics system to manage feedback from their beta testing programme. I really found this an absolutely fascinating presentation (I'm a sucker for this kind of thing). Georg has been good enough to put copies of his presentation for download on his website, and if you are interested in how games are built (especially MMOs) it's definitely worth a look.

I've written about Bioware's Skynet system before, but until I looked at Zoeller's presentation I hadn't fully appreciated just how powerful and clever it is. The problem Bioware have is the size of the game (for example, just one section of the planet Tatooine, one of 17 planets in the game, contains more creatures than the whole of Dragon Age: Origins). So, they designed a system that would allow them to not only measure what every single player is doing and where at any time, but to sort, prioritise and display that data in a meaningful manner.

An average beta testing weekend apparently generates over 100,000 pieces of feedback in various forms (bug reports, screenshots, customer service tickets, crash reports, in-game feedback, etc), which has to be sorted and prioritised so that real actions can be taken to resolve issues.

The system can be called upon to plot feedback points on 2D or 3D maps showing, for example, points at which all level 12 Smugglers have died, or where certain pull spots will generate too many adds, or areas where there are too many polygons for their target machines to render efficiently.

3D map showing all death locations
He gave some examples which were really eye opening, such as player feedback on one world highlighting a problem with too many deaths, but the feedback being too broad in identifying the problem. The visualization system quickly showed that the issue was related to one specific area due to patrolling mob paths, which could then be altered.

Another way they analyse feedback is to automatically monitor the chat logs for phrases such as "How do I...?" or "bug" or "How does...?". They can show just where and how often these phrases appear using a cloud overlay on the zone map, allowing them to identify areas where the tutorial needs improving or quests need redesigning to better explain things.

Chat log analysis showing map overlay of "How do I...?" questions
Behavioural analysis is also possible with the system (they have discovered that faced with a symmetrical T-junction, 68% of players will turn right!). For example, the system has shown them how adding a fog of war to the maps encouraged players to explore off the beaten track more. Heat maps showing player activity before the fog was added showed them focused along well determined pathways, but once the fog was added these heat maps spread out.

Player movement heatmaps before and after fog-of-war added
It's an absolutely fascinating insight into the tools Bioware are using to allow them to quickly and efficiently optimise, polish and iterate the game in testing. I must admit however that I was glad to read Zoeller's assertion that whilst all these metrics are very useful tools, it is still essential to talk to testers and to play the game yourself.

In an off themselves these presentations didn't tell us anything new about SWTOR, but they do show the philosophy and tools Bioware are using to build the game, and it all sounds very comforting!

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