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Hyperspace Beacon: SWTOR's Gabe Amatangelo on 1.4 and free-to-play

Larry Everett , @Shaddoe
It's not usual for the Hyperspace Beacon to feature two interviews in a row, but Star Wars: The Old Republic has some major changes coming. Update 1.4 promises to give us new and exciting content like a new operation and a new warzone, and after the EA earnings call, we learned that SWTOR will tackle the free-to-play market. Readers and fans voiced both concerns and excitement over this move. I couldn't just let that stand; I had to pose some questions to the BioWare developers.

SWTOR's Principal Lead PvP Designer Gabe Amatangelo picked up the call. Our conversation focused on these two major changes to the game and the concerns fans have for the game's immediate future. Read on!

Hyperspace Beacon <em>SWTOR</em>'s Gabe Amatangelo on Update 14 and freetoplayMassively: So far, we know that game update 1.4 will bring us a new operation called Terror from Beyond, some changes to certain class skills, and maybe the new warzone, Ancient Hypergates. Is there anything else exciting that we should expect from 1.4? Maybe a seemingly small quality-of-life addition that fans will really enjoy?

Gabe Amatangelo: We have made a significant improvement to our group finder, so now after leaving a group finder instance, you are returned to the place you traveled from instead of the fleet. Players can now set their companions' gear to match color to chest and hide head slot, just like player characters. Also, as you mentioned, there will be class ability updates. We've done an audit of the stuns in our game and are making changes to address some problems. We're excited to see the first step of those changes in 1.4.

Crowd control is an important third dimension to health bar-based combat systems. However, the balance between deeper combat experience and frustration is a fine line. We agree that instant long-range stuns crossed that line. So we removed them from the game. Long-range stuns now have a short range, a set-up, or an activation time. With this change players can better anticipate incoming stuns, allowing for more proactive and reactive combat experiences.

Naturally, the classes that had long-range stuns changed received some other goodies to compensate. For examples Sages and Sorcerers now have a new self-heal ability and improved force speeds, and Commandos and Mercenaries now have a new long-range interrupt ability.

With each operation added to the game, the gear gets big, better, faster, and stronger to the point that certain content can become tedious. For instance, Eternity Vault, even on nightmare-mode, can be super easy once a player has campaign gear. Are there plans to help keep some "beginner" operations interesting to the veteran player? What measures are in place to help prevent power creep?

The target is to always have three levels of endgame content: the beginner level, which is composed of flashpoints and some story-mode ops; the intermediate level, which is composed of hard-modes from older updates; and the veteran level, which is composed of the latest and greatest hard-modes and nightmare-modes. Naturally, as these three levels continue to shift, some of the modes and content will become obsolete as far as gear progression goes. We have talked about potentially re-itemizing and updating one or more of their difficulty modes. We have also entertained the idea of introducing more challenge modes or achievement-driven unlocks similar to the timed runs in Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace Nightmare Modes. Nothing's been announced at the moment, though.

On a similar subject, level 50 PvP has a very linear progression: recruit to battlemaster to war hero. First, will update 1.4 introduce us to any new sets of armor for PvP? Second, what are the plans to help keep PvP fun for fresh level 50s as well as War Hero 50s?

As to PvP armor: Yes, though not a full, new, top-end set. We'll be introducing Recruit Mark II sets, which will help close that power gap between the entry level 50 player and the fully decked out War Hero. Because we must parallel the PvE power progression, we haven't been able to achieve the target level 50 entry to veteran power gap of 20%, even with Expertise normalization. Recruit Mark II will help close the gap more, but we are looking to introduce a level 50 bolster in a future update that will bootstrap players to within 20% of the top end without giving them a free set of gear that obsoletes some PvE content.

We have on the docket new warzones as well as new types of PvP content and game modes. The only one I'm at liberty to talk about at the moment is the upcoming Ancient Hypergates warzone, which includes the heavily requested death match game mode component. Specifically, it's a death match and two-point-objective hybrid with a fun objective reset mechanic that includes an explosion players are forced to outrun toward one small safe area on the map.

Hyperspace Beacon <em>SWTOR</em>'s Gabe Amatangelo on Update 14 and freetoplay
I'm excited for the opportunity to see what a free-to-play model will do for TOR. However, there have been some mixed reactions regarding F2P in general. What is your take on F2P, and what do you believe it will add to the player's experience in the game?

It will make galactic trade market entrepreneurs happy. Free-to-play members can buy but can't list, meaning more customers with less competition. Who wouldn't like that? My take is that what happened to the music industry is happening to online games. Free-to-play options are the future of most, if not all, online games. There are all types of players out there, and the ability to subscribe to a game -- or multiple games -- is a dividing characteristic. This will open the game up to more types of players to try or retry the game, which will be good for all players.

You've given us hints as to what types of things will be available in the Cartel Market, my favorite being the Kowakian monkey-lizard. What other types of items will we see, and which is your favorite so far?

Expect XP boosts, gear appearances, special mounts, certain content and feature access, etc. My favorite is either the XP boosts or rocket boosters. I have a few more advanced classes I need to max out on my live account. The XP boost and rocket boosters will help that quite a bit.

On a related note, what types of things will we not see on the Cartel Market? Specifically, what are items you will avoid to help prevent "buy-to-win?"

Top-end gear comes from ranked warzones and operations and is not in the Cartel Market.

"Online games are about bringing players together, and this free-to-play option makes Star Wars: The Old Republic all the more accessible to more players."

Let's talk about the existing SWTOR subscribers and their relationship to free-to-play. If they keep their standard subscription, they will have access to all content. What if some players really enjoy the raiding side of the game but aren't really into the PvP side -- will there be a system in place for those players to subscribe to just that part of the game, a la carte? If that's the case, at what point would it be more beneficial for a player to pay the full subscription cost?

Yes. Free-to-play members will be able to "unlock" or purchase access to content beyond that which is not included with the free-to-play option. The threshold as to when it is more cost effective to switch over to sub varies by content type. It really depends on each individual's playstyle.

What do you anticipate existing players doing when free-to-play goes live? Will it be mostly seamless, or do you think there will be some sort of waning or waxing of full subscriptions?

There will be some shift as that just comes with the territory when you offer new options to users. I imagine that for the most part, it will be seamless for existing subscribers, as there are numerous benefits to the subscription option, including monthly grants of Cartel Coins.

This might be a tough question to answer: When the game launched, BioWare's philosophy was all about making it worth the monthly subscription. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that SWTOR isn't a worthwhile game (I still log in nearly every day), but this move to free-to-play does make me wonder just what has changed philosophically at BioWare regarding the subscription model?

I can't say for sure as I was not privy to those conversations, but generally, the online video game market moves quickly. It always has. Some of what is true today won't be next year. Free-to-play options make sense for most online games these days. Online games are about bringing players together, and the free-to-play option makes Star Wars: The Old Republic all the more accessible to more players.

Lastly, do we have a launch date for update 1.4 or free-to-play?

Game update 1.4 is on the public test server today. Free-to-play option will be available to players this fall.

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!