The Firing Line Extra: Tribes' Todd Harris on class customization and base gameplay

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|02.02.12

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The Firing Line Extra: Tribes' Todd Harris on class customization and base gameplay
Tribes Ascend - Blood Eagle vs. Diamond Sword rock, paper, scissors
Today's a big day for fans of Tribes: Ascend, and it's also a big day for Hi-Rez Studios, the Atlanta-based indie firm behind the upcoming online shooter.

You see, today is patch day, and while that's not terribly unusual (Hi-Rez has updated the Tribes beta client early and often since the start of closed testing last November), the latest tweak is a bit of fan service that will likely bring smiles to the faces of franchise die-hards waiting in the wings to see what becomes of their baby.

Tribes: Ascend - Drydock map
In simplistic terms, earlier entries in the Tribes series were renowned for their customization options when it came to weapons, equipment, and the resulting player roles. Thus far in Ascend's short life, Hi-Rez has stuck to its guns in terms of channeling players through a class and loadout system that many veterans felt was too stifling in terms of recapturing (and expanding on) classic Tribes gameplay.

While the class system remains in place, Hi-Rez is adding more class customization options and the ability to unlock new weapons. The firm is also consolidating the class roster from 12 to nine and making three classes (including light, medium, and heavy variants) available from the start.

I had the opportunity to ask Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris about the nature of these changes as well as a few other burning questions, and he had some exciting things to say for fans of Tribes' past, present, and future.

Tribes Ascend - Modifying the Pathfinder
Massively: What was the impetus behind trimming three of the original 12 classes? Were the Ranger, Jumper, and Scrambler not played much relative to the surviving classes or is it more of a game balance thing? Will we be seeing any aspects of those three classes integrated into the remaining nine?

Todd Harris: Those were very popular classes, and we trimmed them only because their weapon options could be easily integrated into one of the other existing classes. So those loadouts have not actually been eliminated; they simply fall under a different named class now.

If you enjoyed the speed-focused flag-capping gameplay of the Jumper, you can now play Pathfinder and unlock a thrust pack as a belt option or a bolt launcher as a weapon (those used to be Jumper-only options). If you enjoyed the defense-wrecking gameplay of the Scramber, you can still unlock arx buster and jammer pack on a different existing class, the Raider. Any loadout that you enjoyed in the current beta you can basically recreate in the new system.

We want each Tribes: Ascend class to remain distinct while also supporting the weapon customization that players have requested.

Tribes: Ascend - Class selection screen
Weapon-swapping and class customization seemed to be a big sticking point for some of your vocal beta testers, and you guys are addressing that now (and you also responded to earlier concerns about the speed of the game/skiing/etc.). Is it possible that you'll flesh out base-related gameplay in a future patch, since more complex base attack/defense dynamics is also kind of a big deal to a segment of your users?

Definitely. For public play the current capture-the-flag dynamics work quite well. But for competitive play, we want to support a more hard-core CTF experience in which generators are more important. We are actively working on custom servers, and the idea with custom servers is that there are server-side configuration flags around game rules.

For example, a common request is for the generator to be up and active for your side to be able to spawn in the desired loadout. This is a rule that we'll support as part of our custom server feature. This rule plus others will definitely create a more complex base attack/defend experience.

So private servers are in the works, as we've talked about before, and admins will have the ability to invite/kick and choose game types, plus the generator options. Is there any possibility of mods and/or user-made maps on these private servers?

For custom servers, our initial priorities are server browsing, basic admin functions, and the custom rule settings. Any mod or map-making support would be much later.

Any plans for indoor maps? How about flags that are a little harder to reach (i.e., hidden behind/inside bunkers or bases instead of out in the open)?

We have a number of new maps planned as well as a few new game modes in early development. It is too early to talk about those but we are experimenting with a bunch of different modes.

Tribes: Ascend - weapon upgrade screen
Any plans for data-scraping or making in-game stats available to third-parties? If so, will this be something the dev team implements or will you guys just make the API available and let the community do something like AgendaStats?

Yes. We are already keeping detailed individual stats and using those toward game balance. We do plan to make stats available to the community through an API as we did with Global Agenda. However, there are a few features ahead of that on the roadmap, including custom servers.

Will there be any further classic tribes added to the game in addition to the current Diamond Sword and Blood Eagle teams (i.e., Starwolf, Children of the Phoenix, etc.)?

Yes. The conflict in Tribes: Ascend centers around Diamond Sword and Blood Eagle. That is why the default character models, as well as many of the maps, are themed around those two factions. But we will offer cosmetic skins from other classic tribes.

Can you give us any hints as to what's next in terms of patching? Are you working on anything major (like this patch's loadout customizability and class reduction), or will it be mainly smaller tweaks/refinements and seeing how your beta testers roll with the new setup?

What's immediately next is sleep for the dev team. This next patch is huge. The team has been working like crazy for the past three weeks. It includes loadout customization, 16 new weapons, and brand-new maps and changes to existing maps, and weapons, and perks AND an entirely new and more polished UI, plus a lot more. We're looking forward to getting this update out and squashing any of the inevitable bugs that come with such a big update and then continuing to add content on this framework.

Besides custom servers, another big roadmap item for us is ranked matches.

Can you give us a general idea of when the beta tag will come off and when TA will be ready for an official release? Q1? Q2?

Our next step is to transition from closed beta to open beta. Depending on the stability of this new version, that could happen in late February or March. As for official release, when it's ready, of course!

Awesome, thanks for keeping us up to date.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.
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