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Massively's in-depth interview with SWTOR Community Manager Stephen Reid


Last Friday, Star Wars: The Old Republic finally revealed the Crew Skills crafting system. In a slightly less important announcement, BioWare also announced its new Community Manager, Stephen Reid. OK, I'm teasing. It is very important announcement. Since Sean Dahlberg stepped down, the community team has been without a face and voice to the community. Those left behind had to put in extra effort into providing the fans with the latest releases from the SWTOR news room, and for a while, the community was unsure who, if anyone, would be able to fill the shoes. Now, Stephen Reid has taken the helm of the massive community starship.

Now since we have a new voice of the SWTOR community team, Massively thought it would be interesting to get his thoughts on the game, on the community, and on how we, the fans, could best make Star Wars: The Old Republic the game it should be. Massively Senior Editor Brianna Royce sat down with Stephen at a recent LucasArts event for an in-depth interview -- join us past the break to see what he had to say!

Massively: Tell us where you've come from in the gaming industry.

Stephen Reid: Just previous to this job, I was at Gazillion. Previous to that, I was at Trion Worlds. Then previous to that, I was at NCsoft, over in Europe. Then I was at PlayStation before that... and I did work on the games part of Aol, way back in the day, but in terms of MMOs and online games and community specifically, it's kind of gone from NCsoft onwards.

What sorts of things do you plan to do similarly to and differently from your predecessor?

I didn't have to come in and do anything really radical. There are a lot of really talented people who work behind the scenes that you don't necessarily see who are working very hard already.

That said, there are some things that I hope to do more of, and there are some things that I hope to do that haven't been done yet. For me, it's the same job as always: to act as a conduit between the community and the development team and vice versa. It's just on a much larger scale than I've previously dealt with, but I'm looking forward to that challenge.

Honestly, my job is to kick it up a gear. We're heading towards launch. Now we need to really get our game face on, as they say.

We just had an article come out that was about whether or not the community should be agitating for the devs to change things to suit future players' desires. That's like the big community debate now... do you think it's a worthwhile effort?

This is kind of an eternal debate, especially for MMOs, which tend to have long development times, and especially for games like this one [that] have had a long announcement cycle, too. I absolutely think that healthy discussion and debate around a game's development is fine -- everyone's entitled to their opinion, and we want to hear it, as long as it's constructive.

Occasionally, though, that does mean there's negativity, and when that happens, I have to ask people to remember that generally, they haven't played the game yet. If you hear about [an announcement of a game system or a game feature], and you don't like what you hear, well that's fine -- you can voice that opinion, and most people will! But if you haven't played it, I don't think you should make a pre-emptive judgment. I know it's tempting and easy to do that -- but I just ask for people to bear with us and wait to play the finished product. Or at least, be constructive while they're waiting!

Ultimately, the developers, who have years of experience in making games, make their decisions for a reason. We can all debate that reasoning, but it doesn't mean they're going to change their decision.

"I absolutely think community should have an influence on developers, but that doesn't mean that everything you ask for is going to get done."

But they've undone some decisions before because of community outbursts.

We definitely listen to the community and have made new decisions based off of discussions/debate that we've seen the community having; however, if someone says, "I think leveling sucks, I think the entire concept of leveling sucks, you shouldn't have levels in your game, and therefore your game sucks." OK... but we're not going to change that. It's too big.

Everything's done with a reason in mind, and when we present things to you, generally that reasoning has been thoroughly thought out. In particular on this project, there has been a concerted effort to not talk about stuff until it's relatively set in stone, which I'm very grateful for. It makes my job a little easier. We are very careful to not talk about stuff which is undecided, although things do change in testing.

Speaking of testing, one pleasant thing for us regarding feedback is that we have an INSANE amount of metrics coming out of the game... we track everything. So we can look at what people like and don't like. For example we've got heat maps, which are based on things like player death. So we can go, "Right, there's a ton of people dying in this particular area." If we see something like that which seems off, we look at it more carefully and then figure out, does that need to be balanced? Are people not getting it? Is there something that we need to do to make them a little bit more powerful earlier or guide them to make sure they don't do that quest early? Should that quest be later on in the zone? Hopefully that means we can tweak things before we see players on the forums going, "This quest sucks because I keep dying all the time." That's obviously a legitimate thing for us to change.

My point is that community definitely has an effect. I think they have much more of an effect when we're in a testing phase. That's why we take testing very seriously. But there are times when decisions are made and decisions are stuck by. Good designers know what they're doing, right? Generally speaking, I trust designers, but part of my job is to go, "The players are unhappy about X." Jedi Wizard is a good example. A lot of people didn't like the name; we thought about it and said, "You know, we'll give people the option to change." If there was a significant number of people who were Jedi Wizard fans and they wanted to keep it, then --

I think it's just me!

No, there are some. There are definitely a few hundred votes saying we want to keep Wizard. But I'll admit, Sage is looking pretty strong.

How many beta-testers do you have right now?

I can't really speak about that. We have internal and external testing going on. As well as all those metrics we look at, we take qualitative feedback too. We're very focused in our testing.

The short version of all this is, I absolutely think community should have an influence on developers, but that doesn't mean that everything you ask for is going to get done.

What was your first impression of the game?

I haven't played nearly as much as I've wanted to, yet. Playing the game could be a full-time job! The first character I played was a Smuggler, and my first impression was that it feels very comfortable. It feels very much like a familiar MMO play style, it's very easy to get to grips with. Then you have the BioWare story elements, which also blend very nicely with everything else. So my first impression was really good. Also -- and it's not really surprising in this stage of development -- it feels really polished and very well presented.

What in SWTOR makes you feel immersed in the Star Wars Universe, and why?

Basically, the storytelling is the thing that immerses you. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that that's what gets you involved. I'm actually playing KOTOR again right now. It's quite jarring to go from that, which has no dialogue for your character, to SWTOR. That's a key thing -- the fact that your character is fully voiced, that you can make dialogue choices for them, that the dialogue reacts to the choices you make. That absolutely immerses you in a different way than the standard MMO experience.

There's obviously other stuff in the game like music, the graphics, and everything to bring you the feeling of being in that Star Wars world. The most exciting thing, though, is I can actually tell you the story of my Jedi Knight's time on Tython, whereas I couldn't tell you the story of the first 10 levels of another MMO. Even though I'm someone who reads quest text, there's a big difference.

Nobody reads quest text!

No, I really do! I try to appreciate the writing... but there is a world of difference between that and a fully voiced dialogue scene.

Oh yeah, you have to pay attention. You can't pull your eyes away. You can't pull your headphones off without missing everything.

I should also point out that it's not as if we just hired a bunch of voice-over actors and got them to read scripts. All the characters are animated as well; they're lip synched. They give performances, and you get to watch that.

I know there will be some people who say, "I don't want to see cutscenes all the time." But they're never incredibly long. [In SWTOR] your dialogue doesn't take that long, but you get to make real choices in it. That really drives the gameplay. It makes the act of taking a quest an active choice. You can engage a lot more, which for me is approaching the Holy Grail of MMOs, which is that feeling of roleplaying.

What would you say to the fans who suggest SWTOR is putting too much focus on dialogue?

You do not spend the majority of your time in dialogue. You do not spend the majority of your time watching dialogue unfold and hitting keys. You spend the majority of your time playing an exciting MMO, experiencing the Star Wars universe. The dialogue is there to tell you the story and to bring you further into that world. It was a very big investment to do, but having played it now, I can see that every penny was worth it. You might not believe me, but when you play it, you understand that it changes the way MMOs are made. It genuinely changes that experience. It pulls you into a story, which I don't feel has ever been done before to this level.

Could we have spent all of our time on trying to reinvent system X or system Y? Sure, we could, but BioWare's strength and Lucasfilm's strength is in story and in storytelling, and that is what they chose to emphasize and bring to the MMO genre. I think that was a smart choice.

You don't think it's going to be a single-player MMO?

No, because we have specific systems in there for multiplayer experiences. The multiplayer dialogue system is super exciting, actually. That changes your gameplay experience in a fun way. You'll get into situations where you'll argue with your group over dialogue choices, you know, "Why did you say that? Why were you mean to him? You should have been nice!" It's more fun than arguing over loot.

And you know what's amazing? While you can certainly choose to play the game any way you like, you can also actually choose to roleplay, and I mean the real meaning of the word, not just tweaking stats. I'll give you an example. One of the quests, early on in the Jedi Knight arc, is about romance. When I got the quest, I suddenly realized: this is a roleplay moment. I can decide to play this based on my own personality, or I could roleplay this the other way and go light or dark depending what I think my character would do. My temptation was to go dark, because I don't agree with what I'm being told to do. Is dark what I really want to do or do I want to play this character as more of a light side character which might go against my personal choices? That is exciting.

I can't think of another MMO that's done that, period. So really, you're putting the RPG back into MMORPGs.

I think that's part of it. It's really about allowing you to experience real choice in a great story. It is not a series of cutscenes. It isn't like we want you to play for two minutes then watch 10 minutes of a cutscene. "Oh, isn't this clever. Look at this brilliant cutscene we did." Then cut back to two minutes of gameplay. This advances the story, which is the point of your playing in the first place.

I think it's awesome, and I think most people will agree when they play it. I wouldn't trade it away. Not even for a minute would I think we should go back in time and do things differently. I think it's a genuine -- this is a terrible, pretentious term to use, I know -- but I think it's a paradigm shift for MMOs. I think when you've played this, you won't want to go back. You'll play other games and think, this doesn't seem as engaging. It's not like we don't have traditional elements. We still have leveling and all that... but we wanted to engage you with the story.

How can the community help make the game better?

I guess the best thing to say is, be constructive. We do pay attention to feedback. We listen to podcasts. We read fansites. We are very receptive to what people have to say. Having said that, you're going to have to have a bit of patience. Not everything is revealed yet.

People have said to me that it is a tough community. The truth is that it isn't really, it's just magnified. So where you may get one in a hundred people who hate something with an absolute passion, we have a thousand people who hate it with an absolute passion, because we have a community that is a thousand times the size of many others.

The same way we have to grasp that we have a massive community, players have to grasp that they are a part of a massive community themselves, who are extremely passionate and interested. But just because "a million voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced" doesn't mean -- to extend the metaphor -- that Alderaan is going to be reformed from galactic space dust . Although of course, you can play on Alderaan in The Old Republic!

I think The Old Republic is going to bring a lot to the MMO experience. It's going to make people ask "Why didn't anyone do MMOs like this before?" The good news is, BioWare is doing it.

Thanks for your time, Stephen!

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