Epic in scope: SWTOR's James Ohlen explains plans for the future

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Epic in scope: SWTOR's James Ohlen explains plans for the future
James Ohlen
As the Star Wars: The Old Republic guild leaders lined up to get a taste of the Lost Island flashpoint, I was at BioWare studios getting my hands dirty with deeper PvE and PvP content as well as speaking with developers like Combat Designer Georg Zoeller, Lead Writer Daniel Erickson, Art Director Jeff Dobson, and Lead Designer Emmanuel Lusinchi. However, the best part was at the end of the day when I was able to speak one-on-one with Creative Director James Ohlen.

Ohlen touches nearly every aspect of the game's development. It was important to me to find out why this game is as popular as it is and what BioWare was going to do to retain its current playerbase. The first stop was the latest game update, which should hit test servers really soon.

How epic is it?

As Update 1.2 information started rolling out of BioWare studios, I began to realize that this patch might be the patch many players were hoping for. Some have gone so far as to say that this patch should have been in at launch. Ohlen was also surprised to find out how big the patch was. He said, "I didn't realize the scope until I saw the video for it. I saw the first cut of the video. They had the screens flash with all the features, then I realized we do have a lot of stuff in this game update. I would go so far as to say that I don't think I've ever seen any game with an update that is this epic in scope.

"The QA team," he commented later, "was quite scared when they got the list of things they were going to have to attack and address. That's one of the reasons we moved it back. We are going to have it on the live testing servers longer."


Of course, with all this new content comes testing. Specifically, I was interested in player testing. The public test server for SWTOR is pretty barren, even when there is a new update to the game. Ohlen agreed. "We want to get a lot of players over there," he said, "but right now we don't have a lot of encouragement for people to go over there. Of course, there are high-level guilds who want to find out all the secrets before anyone else. For the future, we are looking at way to make [playing on] the public test server something valuable to do."

Testing and feedback have been a big part of BioWare's focus since before launch. I asked what what he had learned between this patch and last one. "Public testing is a bigger part of our plan," he explained. "We started it in 1.1, but we started it late. I think that getting people to test the content earlier is good because they are going to find things that we will not find here internally. They know how to break them better than anyone else." Ohlen and his crew all believe that guild testing is essential for making things right at the endgame.

Level-50 content

Ohlens admits that after the game launched, BioWare changed "what we are focusing on over the course of the year based on the feedback the fans have been giving us." He put forward the level-50 content and tools as being the greatest example:
"The number of level 50s is a lot higher than we thought it was going to be. Therefore, our group finder has become a much higher priority. It's essentially our highest-priority feature that is not going in 1.2. If there is one feature that 1.3 will have, it will be the group finder.

"A lot of our feedback from the level 50s revolves around the dungeon finder. We have two operations, four level 50 flashpoints, and the hardmodes for all of them. We have a ton of PvE high-level content, but our metrics show that a lot of it hasn't been consumed by level 50s. Dungeon finder is the key there. That's one of the reasons that PvP is so popular because PvP is so much easier to get into than PvE. Once I started getting that data I was like, 'Oh, OK.' I knew that group finder was important. When leveling up, like we found during beta, you don't really need the group finder, but when you reach the max level, it becomes very important."
Novare Coast warzonePvP and e-sports

Just like kids playing in little league, many competitive MMO PvPers dream that their arenas of choice will become an e-sport. Ohlen called PvP in SWTOR a surprise hit. He admitted that he was was disappointed in Ilum not just because it did not work as it was intended but also because it "over-shadowed the fact that we had such an amazing level-up experience with the warzones. The warzone experience is very compelling. [Players] want more features. We really want to turn the PvP game almost into an e-sport."

He opened the door; I had to step through. I wanted to hear about BioWare's plans to create that e-sports feel out of SWTOR's warzones. Suggestions like spectator mode and stat tracking were well-received. "PvP has become one of those things that retains players. Doing things like spectator mode and obviously stat-tracking are things that players want to see. I'm not promising that stuff right away, but we do have a PvP team. And they are devoted to providing new features throughout the year."

Final thoughts

When considering the future for Star Wars: The Old Republic, I don't think I could have said it better than Ohlen did:
We are really going balls to the wall in 2012. We want to prove to our fans that their subscription is worth it. That's what makes an online game successful. We want to make the ultimate Star Wars experience. There are a lot of fantasies for Star Wars fans that we have yet to provide but are on the horizon.
Well said.
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