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Massively Exclusive: The Force ghosts of past, present, and future with SWTOR's James Ohlen [Updated]


Fans have been sitting on pins and needles, waiting for their blessed early access emails for Star Wars: The Old Republic. What can you do while we wait to reserve your character names before the noobie rush on December 20th? You could check out the awesome guide Massively released on Monday to scout out which class you want to play before you play it. You could read the Hyperspace Beacon that came out yesterday; it may take the edge off the anticipation. Or maybe you could have a chat with SWTOR Creative Director James Ohlen about the current state of the game and what's coming down the bend.

We went with the last one.

After the break, find out what Ohlen had to say about SWTOR's legacy system, customizable ships, and other future content.

Massively: How is the launch going so far on your end?

James Ohlen: It is going pretty well. The populations are spreading evenly across all the different shards. There are a few shards that are little more popular than the others, but we have no queue lines whatsoever. That's pretty good considering that it's a work day and everyone should be at work or school.

It was a surprise to most of us that you started the early access period two days earlier than originally scheduled. What was the reason behind that?

We want to have a nice ramp up to make sure that everyone's experience is as good as possible. We are inviting people in chunks. I've been playing a lot right now; there are a lot of people in every zone I'm in, but it's not over-crowded. I don't have to wait. All the servers are like that right now. They are very evenly distributed. That was the strategy there. Also the guild system worked really well because it spread the guilds across at the the different servers -- that's really helped make sure that the population is spread all across the various shards.

I appreciate not having the hour-long queue lines like we had on the beta weekends! And speaking of beta, I want to ask: What did you find to be the most "sticky" with players? A lot of our readers are wondering what's going to make them want to play this game over and over again. What are your thoughts on that?

There are a whole bunch of things. Obviously, the thing we've been talking about over and over again is story. We get a lot of comments from players: Unlike any other online games they've played, they really feel attached to their characters' personal story. They care about their avatars a lot more. Unlike other games, SWTOR really immerses players more in the game world, and that makes them want to come back. The story is what's going to drive people to play levels 1 to 50.

We've also been finding that a lot of the other activities we've included -- warzones, the space game, the crafting game -- are becoming quite popular. The warzone PvP is very popular. It's more popular than we thought it was going to be. In fact, I've already been in a warzone that popped in the morning. As soon as people got to level 10, they started queuing up for it. I think there are going to be a lot of people who are attracted to PvP and the warzones.

The space game is getting more popular too. It's more of a minigame. The space missions are daily missions. You do them when you log in for fun or when you're about to log off. I think a lot of players are going to do that.

The crafting and economic game (the auction house, which we call the Galactic Trade Network) is another area. Some players are very attracted to playing the economic game. They want to become really good crafters or they want to sell and buy things at the Galactic Trade Network. That's another activity that's going to attract players.

One of the biggest activities that people are going to do is the flashpoints. A lot of people like to run the flashpoints over and over again. They really like that experience.

What we've done with the experience point curb is give out experience for almost all of your activities: questing, killing creatures, warzones, the space game, flashpoints, world quests. When you're playing through the game from level 1 to 50, you can actually decide what kind of game you want to play. Do you play a game where you're just focused on questing? You're doing your class story; you're doing the world quests. That's what you're focused on. Do you want to mix it up? You're doing your class quests, but you want to get a lot of your experience points through PvPing in warzones. You can do that, and then you don't have to do as many world quests if you don't want to. Or, for example, you can get a lot of your experience points from flashpoints. You can do your class arc and flashpoints and kind of ignore PvP. Or you can have a total mix. During my last playthrough, I was doing class quests, then heroic quests and the flashpoints, and I also did space when I logged off. This gave me enough experience points to level through the planets the way that I wanted to.

We don't really expect the players to play the game one way. There so many different ways you can tailor the game according to what you like.

Six months to a year down the line, what will hold people to the game?

In other MMOs, the team moves on to other games or gets downsized. We've actually kept our team, and we're not working on anything else. It's a little bit different for me. Basically, when I finished with Baldur's Gate, I went on to Baldur's Gate 2, then I immediately went to Neverwinter Nights, then I immediately went to Knights of the Old Republic. But here I'm finished with SWTOR, and it's just more SWTOR. The whole team is that way. We don't have a secret project. It's nothing but new content for The Old Republic. We have teams working on new flashpoints; we have teams working on new operations; we have teams working on new game systems and on new space missions.

One of the new game systems we are working on is giving you the ability to modify your user interface. That's something we've wanted to do for a long time. We have a team dedicated to that. We have a lot of people who are fans of color-matching to chestpiece too. We have people working on that. Guilds are a huge part of the game, so we have a team focused on adding guild functionality to the game. Right now we are working on guild banks. We are going to be working on guild functionality for the foreseeable future -- for years!

We have a lot of content and game systems that we are still working on, and we're going to continue working on them, releasing them on a regular cadence. All of these things are going to be available as part of the subscription, so you don't have to pay extra, too. We are going to be releasing new game systems and content for players. A lot of it is going to be aimed at the elder gameplay. So if you want to continue to play that character instead of an alt, you're going to have access to the new space missions, new flashpoints, operations, and warzones or other PvP activities.

For the legacy system, we have the basics of it at launch, but the rest of it is coming out soon. That's a system that's really build to benefit people who like to play alts and who like to restart characters. You restart a character, and that character gets to be part of your legacy family. The character can be a husband, a father, a son, a daughter, a family friend, or family henchman; he doesn't have to be blood-related. Obviously you're going to want to have different races within your family tree. It's hard to have a Zabrak be the brother of your human. The legacy system is really going to benefit players who like to roleplay multiple characters.

Besides the story elements, what other kinds of benefits will be coming from the legacy system that you can talk about?

It's a system by which all the characters that are a part of your legacy family gain the benefits of that family. As you level up that legacy family, you're going to have to choose. It's going to be something you're going to have to tailor to the kind of legacy you want. Some of those benefits will involve the itemization system. Some of those benefits will involve the combat system abilities. Some of the benefits will change how character creation works. That's just some of them. I believe people will be very excited when more information comes out about that.

I've got some quick questions about ideas that at you guys have said could eventually be in the game. How soon will we see these? First: grey morality and associated benefits.

That should be coming pretty soon. We already have plans in for that. We have a system for it. The system had some issues, so we had to delay it. On a scale of, let's say, very soon, soon, sometime, and really late, I'd say soon. Not very soon, but soon.

How about sitting in your chairs other than your ship?

It's hard to say on that one. That one may be an easier one. That may be one we can do soon or very soon. It involves content changes but pretty safe content changes. That's another thing -- a lot of this stuff that we do will be based on the feedback that we will be getting from people. If people are demanding more chairs, then we will up the priority on that one. The chairs on the ship was kind of our prototype, but it came in late. I know chair-sitting should be complex, but we didn't wanna go around and touch every level.

Ship customization?

Ship customization (being able to add things to the interior of your ship) probably falls between soon and sometime. It's something that's pretty important. Let's say not as soon as the grey morality thing because it's a little bit of a bigger feature, and we want to introduce it properly.

Here's a fun one: What about guild ships?

That's probably later. That's kind of like the dream for the guild team to get to work on guild ships. But first they have to get the basics: the stuff that guilds are clamoring for, such as guild banks and leveling. That's the dream. There are a lot of fans of it. It's not going to be very soon or soon because when we introduce it, we want it to be really cool. We want it to easily fit into the game. We have to be careful when we unveil the system to make sure that it complements the current socializing in the game rather than detract from it.

How about advanced class respecs?

[Ten-second pause] Well, that's an interesting one. I would say, "I can't answer that one."

UI customization?

I'd say that's soon. It's very important. We have a team working on it. We know that it's something that people really want.

Last one: redesigning your character (maybe via a barber shop)?

That's not going to be soon or very soon; that will be later on. That's more of a feature for players who have been playing the game for a long time and have their level 50s. It's not high-prioity. If a lot of players start demanding it, then we will put it in.

Lastly, what do MMO players have to look forward to most in Star Wars: The Old Republic?

The BioWare values. The BioWare values are storytelling, companion characters, quality, and polish. I think quality and polish are huge and something that a lot of MMOs lack. Then combine that with the Star Wars license. I think being able to play in the Star Wars universe is huge. Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to fulfill the dream of playing the Star Wars universe more than any game you can imagine. It's fulfilling a dream. I played with the action figures as a kid; this is the ultimate realization of that.

For MMO players, the things that they want we treat very seriously. We have a lot of experience building MMOs thanks to the Mythic studio. It's helped build the PvP systems, the auction house systems, and the socialization systems that are so important to MMO players. I think MMO players are going to be suprised at how many features we have at launch compared to a lot of other launches.

Both of those things combine to create an experience that is really unique in terms of other online games out there.

Last question: What was the first character that you rolled today?

Sith Warrior. Darth Vader's my favorite character.

Thanks for talking with us, James!

[Update: Some launch figures mentioned in this interview have been removed at BioWare's request]

Star Wars: The Old Republic is finally here, and the Force is with Massively! We've prepared a Hutt-sized feast of class introductions, gameplay guides, lore roundups, and hands-on previews to help you navigate the launch period and beyond. And don't forget our weekly SWTOR column, the Hyperspace Beacon!

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