The panel began with a brief viewing of the game's cinematic trailer to kick things off, followed by an explanation of the game's core design philosophy. As the team from Carbine Studios (Jeremy Gaffney, Eric DeMilt, and Mike Donatelli) put it, most games are built with a basic set of design assumptions that push players in a fixed direction determined by the designers. WildStar was built from the ground up to let players enjoy the game when they want to, with whomever they want, and most importantly however they want. The paths are the key to that system -- multiple overlaid playstyles that ensure you have your own play experience no matter what class or race you pick.
The game's structure will be somewhat layered, with about 70% of your experience in a zone being shared with every path and another 30% focused on one of the four major paths picked at character creation. The result is that you get a taste of all the different paths, but for each individual player, the game will feel focused around his individual path, with parts popping in or out based upon phasing or instancing.
Why the split? Because the development team wanted to make a point of letting players enjoy the game on their own terms while at the same time providing rewards for doing stuff that was actually fun. EverQuest was mentioned as an example of a game that did the opposite -- while it might have been fun to move through a dungeon and slaughter its inhabitants, the most rewarding way to play was to find a campsite and grind monsters to level. WildStar is trying to use the different paths to give players rewards for the fun parts while de-emphasizing the parts that each player is less interested in.
It was also stressed that the paths themselves are not limited to a certain class or race. You can be a combat-oriented class while still being an Explorer. Paths aren't centered around abilities; they're centered around what each individual player finds fun and enjoys doing in a given game.
Before the devs dived into the four paths proper, they explained more of the lore behind the setting. The short version is that the game is set on a planet that had long been the home of the most powerful race in the galaxy, the Eldan, until the entire race just vanished without warning and the planet's automated defenses kicked in. After several hundred years, adventurers are coming to the planet -- and everyone has different motivations for arriving. Some want to build a colony on the planet. Some want to study what's left behind. Some want to explore and map the surface. And of course, some are just in it for big fights and glorious rewards. The game's four paths -- Soldier, Explorer, Scientist, and Settler -- directly tie into those motivations.
The first path explained in detail was the Explorer, representing the players who love breaking zone boundaries, finding inaccessible points, and generally traveling off the beaten path. Like each path, Explorers have a unique mechanic in the form a locator beacon that helps players find difficult-to-reach areas. It's also a mechanic that has required a great deal of balancing, since the team wants to give players a chance to see what they find interesting without holding their hands (something Explorers really tend to dislike).
Examples were shown of the Explorer overcoming environmental obstacles such as avalanches and obscure paths in order to reach a designated location and claim the reward. It was also made clear, as with all the paths, that an Explorer can certainly bring allies along with him as he reaches obscure areas of the map. It may be his specific focus, but there's nothing preventing other players from following and getting some of the flavor of the path.
Soldiers were next up, highlighting a rather classic motivation for MMOs as a whole: You're playing to kill anything that moves without giving you a quest. There's always the one guy who rushes in without regard for a large-scale strategy and just wants to smash everything, and this is the path for him. The Soldier's unique mechanic is, in fact, a direct reflection of that, allowing someone on the path to take part in public quests via what's called a holdout beacon.
The details vary a bit from instance to instance, but in essence, finding a holdout location allows Soldiers to summon a big drag-out fight with several enemies, culminating in a large-scale battle against a boss creature. As with the other mechanics, other players can join in (or not), but the experience is central to playing a Soldier. Earlier instances are simply waves of enemies, but later holdouts can involve saving targets, taking part in sabotage, or even essentially playing a game of tower defense against hordes of incoming foes.
Scientists, meanwhile, are the players who don't want to rush in and kill everything; they want to learn more about the setting and the lore behind it. They're closer to players who like to chase after achievements or lore, learning everything about the game and the world that it's set in. It's reflected in one of their earliest mechanics, the scanbot that allows players to unlock benefits as well as detailed lore information about a scanned target.
Scan a plant, and you can unlock a buff beacon for yourself and other players with you. Scan a decayed group of Eldan robots and you can employ one as a pet. Scan creatures and you can size up their weaknesses for more effective fighting. It's all about knowledge for a Scientist, and as you progress further in the game you develop more abilities for learning about the world around you and the creatures in it.
Last but not least were Settlers, the most social of the paths. Settlers are focused almost entirely around social concerns, building relationships with other players, so it makes sense that their gameplay focus would be building as well. Settlers construct fortifications, help build and repair structures in towns, and generally allow players to help congregate in certain areas by making those areas safe and encouraging for others.
The actions aren't constrained; arriving in a run-down settlement gives Settlers the option to build however they wish, making medical centers to heal adventurers in the area, banking areas for players to use, or defensive structures to help deal with local wildlife. Buildings do slowly decay, which gives Settlers something to do throughout gameplay (a comparison was made to Ultima Online, which had great housing until all of the available space was used up). There are no quests forcing players to build or repair certain structures, just the emphasis of creating a shared space and making a mark on the immediate game world.
Each path is loosely built to appeal to a different part of the Bartle player types (Killers, Explorers, Socializers, and Achievers), but each one is also meant to work with the other paths as well as independently. For example, consider a space marauder hideout that players are tasked with assaulting -- Soldiers would be able to draw out reinforcements to weaken the forces within, Scientists could attempt to scan and take over the technology in the hideout, Settlers could build exterior fortifications to help support the group, and Explorers could find hidden paths in or high perches for sniping. Paths are meant to cross regularly and interact with one another, not divide players into given camps.
Overall, the thrust of the game looks more and more interesting each time Carbine Studios shares new details about the gameplay. But the big question is whether or not all of these promises come through in the end -- and to find that out, you'll have to wait for our hands-on impressions coming later in the weekend.
Massively's on the ground in Seattle during the weekend of August 26-28, bringing you all the best news from PAX Prime 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR, Guild Wars 2, City of Heroes, or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!