Unfortunately for those in attendance, the panel opened with the announcement that Matt Miller was unable to attend due to illness, leaving the panel occupied by art designer Ryan Roth, producer Nate Birkholz, and community manager Tia Parahui. (Considering the fan rumbling in the line prior to the panel, some players were probably a bit happier with this news.)
As usual, the panel started with the recap of the events since the last major panel and a discussion of the content from Issue 19 onward. This included the first element of the Incarnate System, the start of the producer's letters, the Intrepid Informer features to keep players looking behind the scenes, and the announced loyalty bonus leading up to the game's seven-year anniversary. There was also a mention of the Animal Pack and the Weekly Strike Target, both of which are fairly recent additions that the team is happy with.
The first big announcement for the future, however, came soon thereafter with the declaration that the North American servers and the European servers would be merging into a single worldwide list, allowing all players access to everything. This also means European players will be able to start using the beta and test servers along with other players, thus keeping a wider community in the loop and in on the testing.
But the main centerpiece was naturally the previews of the upcoming content for Issue 20, starting with the new mid-range Hero and Villain task forces. The two of them are very different in focus, but both are designed to help inject more content into the aging mid-level band.
Heroes will be taking on the Admiral Sutter force, which includes the previously previewed flotilla map as well as a devastated Skyway City as heroes fight against the Sky Raiders and their new allies in the Imperial Defense Force of Praetoria. Villains, on the other hand, get a different sort of objective in the Mortimer Kal force, in which they attempt to get their hands on a powerful Incarnate artifact that reportedly will stay with the player after the force is completed. It was stated specifically that the artifact can be turned into Incarnate salvage at the higher levels, thus allowing characters to derive a new benefit from the earlier completion.
The other major feature being introduced in the next update is the new teaming system for the Incarnate trials. Both the featured and the Behavioral Adjustment Facility have been thoroughly explained, but some additional details on Lambda Sector were available. Players will be forced to split up into two teams as they assault the sector, a weapons research and storage facility overseen by Marauder. The team was also laughing about Marauder as a difficult fight, noting that he "really hates to stay in one place."
Issue 20 will naturally see an expansion to the Incarnate abilities, with four new trees being unveiled in full -- Judgment, Lore, Destiny, and Interface. Judgment is an AoE attack; Lore provides summoned allies; Destiny gives a party-wide buff; and Interface serves as a direct damage ability. The visuals were shown off, with ice bullets and flame jets accompanying massive electrical discharges in the attack category. As Roth put it, the art team wanted each Incarnate power to convey a sense of energy and movement and really feel powerful to those watching.
What's beyond Issue 20? We were shown previews of two Incarnate trials planned for later release: the Keyes Island Reactors and Underground Praetoria. The former sees players fighting against Anti-Matter and his Clockwork (including a couple that resembled the Seers) to try to shut down the reactors and cripple Praetoria's offensive abilities. Meanwhile, Underground Praetoria sees players exploring the deepest parts of the city, where it's becoming clear that Hamidon is coming back and creeping his way inward once again. The environmental design for these areas was very surreal and alien, with fungi and moss running rampant through tunnels.
As always, the panel was followed by fan questions. One of the most reassuring statements was that, while there are several Incarnate trials on deck, Task and Strike Force content isn't being abandoned -- it's just momentarily on pause. Similarly, the new grouping function for the trials is going to be adapted to other content over time, as it's obviously heavily in demand. Cross-server grouping is also a possibility, although it's something for the more distant future.
Naturally, it's not a CoH panel until someone asks about costumes. More enemy group pieces and street clothes are in the works -- the main thing keeping some pieces out of the creator is that the team doesn't want players to make a perfect duplicate of a generic enemy model. Backpacks are also on the list for potential future additions, as player demand for them is high. On a similar note, when asked about the walking animation for female characters, the staff members laughed and said that they would talk with the animation team.
Supergroup functionality -- especially bases -- is being looked at, albeit with no real timetable. The idea of having a personal base is a fantastic one, but the team realizes there are a lot of technical hurdles in place. Said hurdles also impede making power pools and Incarnate abilities customizable, although it's something the team would like to work on over time.
Content revamps are still on the table, with the Citadel task force on the list of things to be addressed and fixed. The team would very much like to fix some of the issues with older Hero content as well, but as it stands, a gentle hand is needed in figuring out what to revamp and where. Task forces are self-contained and a bit easier to rewrite, as there's no risk of someone's being stranded midway through content. That having been said, the team does want to continue running through older and less popular content and revising it, as there have been many points of improvement over the past seven years of development, and having weekly targets makes it easier to aggregate new feedback.
Last but not least, the team was asked whether players could ever re-choose powers at the most basic level (for instance, turning a Broadsword Scrapper into a Dual Blades Scrapper). The team has discussed it but wants to avoid facilitating regular respecs for the "optimal" build or flavors of the week. It is, however, still on the table and being discussed.
As always, the team from Paragon Studios put on a wonderful presentation and engaged the community in a very personable and polite manner. We can only hope that the devs will come back for the convention once again next year.
Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!