Lead Designer Daniel Erickson on the Past and Future of SWTOR
GF: What makes the planet attractive to the Hutts?
DE: That we’re not talking about.
GF: You mentioned the level cap. What are your priorities when your designing those new abilities? Is it different for each class? Are you looking to balance? Are you looking to incorporate cool ideas that got left on the cutting room floor?
DE: A little of all of it. But mainly we want to make sure that players who’ve been doing the same thing for a long time add something to their arsenal, and get to learn something.
One of the things we talk about is that the end-game starts at 50. No matter where we put the level cap. So if you’re playing the levelling game after that, you need to know your character. It is not going to be the normal cakewalk out in the open world. Combat gets serious at 50.
GF: So in general, would it be fair to say that characters get a little bit more well-rounded, when you extend their abilities, rather than becoming more specialized?
DE: Not necessarily. Some advanced classes and specs yes, some no. Some of them will get different routes to the same sort of specialization. There are still lots of places we can have it go on, that people would like to see, that are natural extensions of the character classes.
GF: Are you happy with the build diversity as it exists now? That’s something that’s afflicted other MMOs, that people get wedded to archetypes. Are you seeing a good spread?
DE: We are seeing a good spread, and we’re seeing that more and more people are starting to innovate some of the build systems in ways that we didn’t expect, which is always the most gratifying. If somebody comes out and says “SActually, if you make this cross-spec, and you do it exactly this way in this order…” we’re like “Whoa! Nice!
GF: Is that one of the most satisfying things about working on a game like this, that you can see how the players innovate?
DE: Oh yeah! The first time somebody called me in our guild, in the server I was on and said “Hey, go log into Outlaw’s Den, see what’s going on. Both sides were there. Everyone had met up. There had to be 50-60 people there, running a series of one-man elimination tournaments. Somebody was keeping score, and over to one side, people were telling stories, and entertaining. They were having a late-night party and having a giant UFC party, basically. That kind of stuff always makes you smile, and it makes you realize that there’s a society.
GF: Do you have favorite ability for the level-cap raise?
DE: Nothing we can talk about.
GF: Moving on to the 8-on-8 Warzone. They were saying downstairs [at the SWTOR demo] that it would be radically different…
DE: The biggest difference is that its the first one that involves both player kills and grabbing different parts of what the thing is. Both goals and player kills count as score. It goes in waves –- you see it sort of break out into mass battle, and then people say “They’re distracted, let’s go and grab the objectives.” So it gives it a very different feel.
GF: Getting into some of the numbers. There was a report in early May that subscriber numbers dipped by 400,000. Which of the new features in this upcoming patch do you think will be most effective in bringing people back?
DE: It’s really not the way we focus it. We had the biggest launch in history. Right now we are not only the second-biggest game in MMO history, but we are still the highest subscriber base six months out of any game in history.
The fact that yeah, we had a giant jump at the beginning, means we’re very well built up. We’re staying on the course of what we’re doing. That said, there are things like Groupfinder that are obvious quality-of-life pieces that the game needed additions to. Those were things that we knew right from the start that we needed to get in just a fast as possible.
GF: Not to belabor the point –- that’s all very well taken –- but in some ways I think more dangerous than the reality of losing subscriptions is the perception that the game is shrinking. Is the way to combat that to just ignore it, or to take it head on?
DE: I think you take it head on. We’ve got over a million subscribers who are passionate about the game, and what we’re actually seeing is that people who actually play the game like the game. We get way higher than predicted blips from people who come in on the free weekend, or people who come in on their friends’ accounts. So we say, “How can we get the game in front of as many people as we can?” In July, we’re going free-to-play to [level] 15. We redid the tutorial system, because we watched very humbling focus tests of people who are not MMO players but were excited about Star Wars trying to play our game. We said “Oh! Our tutorials still think that you understand the basics of what’s happening. Let’s redo those.”
Really now, it’s about: a. let’s make it easy to get into as fast as possible, and b. we’ve got a lot of stuff coming in the future to make the download size smaller and so forth. What we’ve learned undisputably is that people who play it like it, now we’ve got to get their hands on it.