ZAM @ PAX East: Interviewing SWTOR's James Ohlen

At PAX East 2012, we sat down with SWTOR Game Director James Ohlen to talk about 1.2, 1.3, and the development philosophy driving The Old Republic.

ZAM is also having a small twitter contest to give away three Tauntaun Fawn mini-pet codes! Just tweet / follow @ZAMOfficial or @Pwyff with a Star Wars: The Old Republic themed haiku, and we'll select three lucky winners by 5pm EST! You may enter one haiku per twitter account for a total of two entries! Be sure to follow us, or we can't directly message you with your winning code!

Yesterday was an exciting day for Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), as its long-awaited game update 1.2 launched, albeit without ranked warzones. Still, there's a lot of content - UI customization, a new warzone, a new operation, the entire legacy system - to be explored, so there don't appear to be too many complaints. At PAX East last week, we got the opportunity to sit down with SWTOR's Game Director, James Ohlen, to discuss some of the philosophical changes coming in 1.2, as well as some of the newly planned content for Update 1.3. Read on!

ZAM: I'm here with James Ohlen, Game Director at Star Wars: The Old Republic. Let's talk 1.2! You've already released a lot of dev blogs on new features coming. Any key themes?

James Ohlen: Well, the name of 1.2 is Legacy, but we have a lot of other stuff coming as well. I think people will be excited by UI customization - that was a big request from our player base. UI customization wasn't originally planned for Update 1.2 but the UI team really put in extra hours and made it happen, so that's going to be really cool. We also have a lot of new content; a new operation, a new warzone, and the end of the Rise of the Rakghoul storyline and flashpoint. We also have some single-player content at the highest levels. There's also the number of tweaks and bug fixes that we've done through the level up game. Our content team essentially got to spend several weeks going through and polishing every world they wanted to get, but didn't have the chance to before shipping. That's pretty incredible, because our level-up game was already very polished in comparison to other MMOs, and now it's even more so.

ZAM: You very rarely hear of a team having enough resources that they can do something like that [going back to fix everything they wanted to fix]. A lot of the time it's about getting new content out the door and jumping from new feature to new feature. Do you think that's been a big advantage retaining a lot of the original development team?

James: Yeah. I think what's really helped us out is that we've been able to keep the team focused on this single project. We don't have a secret project we're working on right now, so we're entirely focused on Star Wars: The Old Republic. We're focused on game Updates 3, and 4, and 5, and we're focused on future stuff in 2013. So we have a lot of things that we're working on right now, and while I can't talk about it, I can say there's a lot coming.

ZAM: Each patch you have a "system upgrade" in addition to introducing new content, where you work on implementing, fixing, or upgrading a system, like Legacy, already in the game. Do you have any hints of key system focuses in addition to content for Update 1.3?

James: Well, I can say that the biggest focuses of 1.3 are the things that our fans have been demanding and that we think are very important to get out. One is group finder. Our fans really think that's needed, and we think that's needed. Players really want to group up easier to do their operations and flashpoints. We would have loved to get that in Update 2, but now it's kind of the focus in Update 3. We also want to do character transfers. That's something that players have been asking for, so we want to get that out as quickly as possible. If we can get it out before Update 3, we will!

ZAM: Would transfers be by microtransaction fees, or one-time costs?

James: I can't talk about that right now, but it's probably something we'll adjust and we'll talk about more in the future.

ZAM: Let's talk about story! You've been releasing a lot of story advancement through instanced content like Rise of the Rakghouls. I'm curious about extending the personal stories. That's going to be really difficult to do, given that every class ended on Ilum with an interlude. How do you plan to expand on all these classes and their varying stories in the future?

James: Well, we plan to continue to build new chapters for the game! We have writers and world designers and artists working on content for all sorts of new story content, and that includes class stories and world arcs and stuff like that. You'll see that in the future.

ZAM: You probably won't be able to answer this, but will a level cap increase accompany each personal story addition we get, or will we see new chapters with unique item rewards?

James: I can't talk about that right now [laughs] but extending the level cap is definitely not out of bounds.

ZAM: All right, we'll move beyond that! How about the difficulty curve in 1.2? I know you're making things much more difficult at endgame for 1.2. Any lessons you learned from previous content regarding the difficulty curve? I know people say that the leveling curve in itself for Star Wars: The Old Republic is very good - I really enjoyed it - but when I hit endgame, it didn't take too long to get to the highest tiers of content. How do you plan to demonstrate these lessons you've learned with 1.2?

James: We are making the operations much more challenging. Actually, the feedback we've gotten on the public test server is that our new operation is ridiculously challenging, and it's very popular because of that. So I guess that's what the fan community wanted. As for our launch endgame content, yeah, it was a little easy. I think we erred a little too far on that side, but now we're trying to move over to give players something they'll be really proud of when they complete.

ZAM: I was speaking to your principal lead systems designer, Damien Schubert, about some changes to your itemization philosophy from launch to now. How does that change reflect in 1.2 and beyond?

James: Well, I don't know exactly what he was referring to, but one of the things we really wanted to give to players - and this is coming in update 1.2 - is to let players look the way they want, to wear whatever they want. So if you wanted to look like Boba Fett, but the operation armor didn't look the way you wanted it to, you could change out the mods to get the look you want. That's something we're doing that will give players much more customization in their look, more so than what you see in mainstream MMOs. 

ZAM: Let's end this with a ridiculous question. Why does my Bounty Hunter PvP armor set look so ridiculous? It has knobs everywhere and...

James: [Laughs] I actually got asked this question a little while ago. Basically, we have this concept team and, because we have so many armor sets in the game, they have to one-up themselves every single time. So they have to come up with some crazy stuff. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. We had some backlash on the latest Jedi Knight and Jedi Consular equipment, but that's okay, because we listen to the feedback, and the concept team just says, "Oh okay, failed experiment." We have another tier of gear that we're working on right now, and we can use that feedback. But at the same time we have to let the concept team kind of go crazy. 

ZAM: You'd rather pull them back then have to push them forward.

James: Exactly. Just to try again. Sometimes their concepts are a little too off from the Star Wars theme, but they're really good with coming up with crazy stuff. It's just the way things are.

ZAM: Actually, one very quick last question. With these gear customization changes, there are a lot of players who like to modify their gear to look completely different, so you have things like Bounty Hunters looking like Sith Warriors, or Jedi Knights who look like Troopers. Any plans to implement class-restricted equipment, or do you actually like giving players that option?

James: Well, there are two different schools of thought on that one, and we're going to see what we need to do. Really we don't care that much if players get to make themselves look how they want to. The only problem is in PvP, when it becomes more difficult to identify who you're fighting against. So we're looking at systems to introduce where it will become easier to identify someone's role or class no matter what he looks like. We know it's an issue with PvP players, and it's something we're well aware of.

ZAM: All right, that's about it for me! Thanks for the chat!

James: Thanks!

Chris "Pwyff" Tom, Editor-in-Chief


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