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PAX 2009: Massively interviews BioWare and LucasArts on SWTOR

Kyle Horner

PAX 2009 played host to the first North American public demo for Star Wars: The Old Republic and by the cheering and applause of a packed theater at Sunday's stage demo, we'd say it went exceedingly well. Luckily for us, we had the opportunity to sit down and chat with LucasArts producer Jake Neri and BioWare producer Blaine Christine.

Read more below for the inside scoop on what's new for the game at PAX and what we were able to pry from the lips of BioWare and LucasArts.

So before we got into the interview, Blaine and Chris chatted up some of the new stuff being shown at PAX. We've heard plenty of male voice acting but this event marked the first time a female player character voice has been heard, revealing a little more of how insanely deep this game's production values run.

Coruscant was revealed as a playable planet during the Saturday stage demo, but what does that mean exactly? Well as it turns out, it means Coruscant will act as not only another playable zone, but as a place for Republic players to gather and interact socially. BioWare wants to be very clear that while Star Wars: The Old Republic brings several new ideas and features to the table, it won't be forgetting all the other key aspects of the genre.

Now onto the meaty, delicious interview itself.

Massively: Obviously Star Wars represents a setting where both ranged and melee combat are viable options. What were some of the goals for your combat experience and would you consider some of your classes to be more difficult to play than others?

Blaine Christine: The key thing was it's about archetypes, we want to take archetypes from the movies and so that's where a lot of our classes are based off of -- both in combat and story-wise. But if we look at the Smuggler, he's an interesting one because he's got this cover dynamic and that's different than the other classes that we've shown. So combat has to be fun and look and feel like Star Wars.

Jake Neri: In general, we're focusing on each class being unique. So each one will have its own challenge. We're constantly playtesting and balancing the game, but we're still implementing in new powers. Once we have a fully fleshed out character from top to bottom, it seems natural that some of those classes might be a little more challenging [to play], but each one of them has a unique mechanic.

Like Blaine is talking about with the Smuggler. Well, we have our Sith Warrior which is sort of an action point class where you're building up points and then you're able to trigger other abilities. We have others that are more traditional, like force powered -- or mana powered, for lack of a better word -- characters. So each one has its own challenge, it's own unique deal, but we're certainly trying to make sure that there's no overly difficult class and we don't want the "I Win!" class either.

At the core of all this, balance is tremendously important to us. Our process says that we iterate on these classes constantly. We're endlessly tuning them, refining them, trying to make sure that they're fun and that's a tenant that we'll take all the way up to when the game is live and into ten years from now.

"-but ultimately we know that with hardcore MMO players, you don't want to keep it too simple."

Blaine: Also, we're very sensitive to all the current MMOs out there and different people's style of play. I think, personally, the goal of any game is to have a very easy barrier to entry but ultimately we know that, with hardcore MMO players, you don't want to keep it too simple. So it's always a fine balance of making sure that we cater to casual players as well as hardcore players, but it's something we take very seriously. We want to engage all of those groups.

Jake: And one note on our combat. So, to date, I'm not sure we've shown anything beyond level eight, and I think a lot of those abilities are really exciting. They're pretty interesting, they're cinematic and unique. We're really trying to push that fun early. It doesn't mean any of the classes will be easier or harder, it just means that one of our key goals with combat is to make it as visceral, exciting and action-packed as possible from the beginning of your experience to the end. We don't want you to have to feel like you've gotta play up until you hit the level cap until you have the fun. We want that combat fun there from the beginning; to be tuned and to be awesome.

Especially since you've got such a strong singleplayer element in the story and choice features, how important is grouping to Star Wars: The Old Republic?

Blaine: I think it's a very important message we want to get out right now, because there's a lot of questions out there. People are saying, "Okay, we see it, we get it. It looks like a BioWare game and that looks like a singleplayer experience." We really want to make sure that it's clear that it's not [a singleplayer game]. Obviously what we've shown so far are the new things we're trying to bring to the MMO space, but grouping is going to be very important.

The closest demonstration we've had so far is where we show the flashpoint where we've got the the Sith Warrior grouped up with the Bounty Hunter. That's a grouping experience, and that includes your story experience, which is something we want to be sure people are clear on. When you're grouped, it doesn't impede the story whatsoever, so you can still progress the story as a group. It's not a singleplayer experience in any way, shape or form.

That said, if you want to do solo play that's something that you can do as well. It's a goal of ours to make sure that we cater to all those play styles. It someone is like, "I don't wanna group, I wanna play a BioWare game. I wanna go through the story and do things on my own." you can do that. You're gonna see other people running around the world, as you would in any other MMO. On the other hand, if you want to group you're gonna be able to go through the game that way as well.

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