A rare peek behind the Curtain – SWTOR Developer Interview by Bad Feeling Podcast

What follows is a loose summary and some paraphrasing of the interview with some commentary interjected (commentary is italicised). There is also a Further Comments section where I briefly discuss PvP topics not mentioned in the interview. 

Chuck and Brian from Bad Feeling Podcast recently had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of Star Wars The Old Republic Developers. Senior Designer David Demaree, Design Lead Brett Hoffman and Community Manager Eric Musco about PvP. I’d highly recommend listening to it in full which you can do from below (it starts around the 8-minute mark)!

The Interview

They started by discussing the recent 5.9.2 PTS. Overall, it was a very positive experience from their perspective. There was a lot more actionable feedback then they anticipated. This made the developers ‘very excited’.

But they were quick to note the scary, unrealistic expectations of the PTS. Normally by the time an update is on PTS the devs are already working on content for the next update and only really do a couple of fixes here and there. So the 5.9.2 PTS was unusual with the devs adding stuff to 5.9.2. They empathised the ‘very heroic efforts’ made. Developers worked weekends and worked crazy hours to get stuff into 5.9.2.

The prime example of this, according to Musco, was the Apartment highly requested to be added to the Rishi Stronghold by players. That kind of addition likely won’t happen in future PTS.

I was certainly very impressed with how the 5.9.2 PTS went despite the rocky start with communication. The effort they made to listen to player feedback, make changes based on feedback and even implement some of those major requests was very impressive and unprecedented. 

On PTS participation they noted the difficulty of getting a critical mass of players to test content. They didn’t get quite as much feedback on the PvP changes as they would’ve liked. But feedback on the Rishi Stronghold was more than adequate.

Future PTS updates will continue to focus and give some attention to updates when they’re on the PTS.

They briefly touched on why they needed another patch after 5.9.2 launched. The developers added extra stuff in an incredibly short space of time. Players have been overall understanding which is great. Engineers put switches in for last-minute additions in case things went bad. Particularly with LOS decorations.

The Decoration system (and the stronghold System overall) from the ground up was not built with PvP in mind. They had to retrofit a lot of systems to make it work.

Chuck asked the devs, why add PvP functionality to Strongholds? Their response essentially was PvP streamers run tournaments and Guilds do stuff in their Strongholds. The Dev Team decided it would be great to support that as a feature (in their drive to make more player made content).

‘If there is a random feature that gets into the game, it’s Keiths fault.’ – Musco

They want to give the player base the ability to do stuff on their own. They’re never going to be able to make enough content to make the player base satiated. There’s going to be downtime (between content releases). Giving players the ability to make their own content helps the devs and players. They want to continue doing this stuff. But the more interest players show for player made content, the more time devs will put into it.

They are looking into adding more player made content in other parts of the game. The example brought up was Conquest. Details will be announced in future.

It’s at this point the Brian brought up incentives. How do you keep players into that type of content? The Developers noted that if you add too many rewards, it makes it more likely to be exploitable. So their philosophy it to divorce rewards from that ‘player made’ content.

But ultimately the goal is to make players more social so they’ll be more likely to participate in that content. I honestly find this ‘incentive culture’ kind of sad. What happened to doing stuff for the fun of it or just to hang 8out? Unfortunately, most gamers it seems have been ingrained into thinking they need to get something out of doing anything in a game.

How do you spread the word? Put a listing of Stronghold’s that do PvP? They could do that. If it were requested enough, they would. Comes down to priorities.

As an aside, they can’t blame players for not going into the forums because if you read them… (insinuating the nastiness of the forums). I thought this was an amusing statement to make (as they were discussing where to put up info on players doing Stronghold PvP for everyone to see) and I agree 100% with it.

The conversation went back to PvP in Strongholds. When it came to implementing the Stronghold PvP features, their goal was to allow enough leeway room for players to make their own rules and do what they want.

Will they be adding more (PvP) features? As they get more tech online (not everything they wanted to get into 5.9.2 made it) they will be adding more functionality like a ‘Voidstar door’ but will more than likely integrate additional stuff like that into decorations. If they’re going to do this, they really need to add more hooks to the huttball area of the Rishi Stronghold.

But they noted that trap decorations, namely, fire traps, acid traps, electric walls etc. would be coming ‘in the relative near future’.

Brian also asked will be PvP features be introduced to other Strongholds?  If there is enough interest they may add PvP features to Strongholds in the future. But more likely new ones over existing Stronghold’s.

They then joked around a fair bit about making a chair Huttball Map. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hooks in the Huttball area to make an engaging chair huttball map (in my view).

The conversation switched to the Warzone changes. Making Warzone’s shorter was to more comply with the current industry standard which now is 10-12 minutes a match as opposed to 15 mins a match when the game launched. Shorter queues and quicker WZ mean more people were likely to try them plus it’s a little less brutal on one-sided matches.

Chuck was curious what the catalyst for adding cross-faction queues? They were doing a PvP update, they budgeted the resources and it was a highly requested feature by players so they figured, why not? Let’s do it!

As for what inspired the rest of the update, they looked back at what players had been asking for and used that is their springboard. They had a larger list then what made it into 5.9.2. What made it was what they had time to implement.

I’m hoping that they’ll continue to introduce bits and pieces of the rest of the list here and there with each subsequent update that comes out. That way PvP can continue to get some attention!

Brian brought up 8v8 Ranked. It comes up all the time in dev discussions according to Musco. They’ve talked about endless ways of bringing it back in such as having it as a limited event (which I think would work great especially if you could earn ranked tokens from it). They added that 8v8 was indeed one of the things on the list that didn’t make it into 5.9.2.

But seriously I think bringing it back as a limited event, with a solo queue option (as well as group queue) and either make it so you could earn Ranked Comms and/or some special rewards would be perfect!

Musco, of course, made his usual comment that not many people played. But one of the devs pointed out, in the player’s defence, that it never had any seasons and that there were no rewards (except those titles) etc. I would like to point out to Musco that on my original little PvE Server Dalborra, we definitely had more than 24 people that did 8v8 Ranked. 

But they know people have an interest in it whether they participated or not even just for the nostalgia of it. It just wasn’t feasible with all the other stuff they wanted to do to get it into 5.9.2 to bring it back.

The Devs did bring up a Hypothetical question for us though, something for the players to think about. Would we be willing to give up solo ranked to get 8v8 ranked?

Personally, I can’t stand 4v4 deathmatch mode so I honestly wouldn’t have a problem with this. But for the sake of the established Ranked Community, it’s probably best to just do the limited Event thing. I am still mad that 4v4 replaced 8v8 in the first place though.

Speaking of 4v4…

Literally, the first thing that Brian brought up with solo ranked was to ask when Season 10 will it end? And they actually gave a ballpark. Roughly around February 2019. They’re aiming for 6 month seasons but the timing would depend on whether there was an update around that time. There is an update planned for around that time but it could end up being 5 months or 7 months (for season length).

Then Chuck brought up the obvious question, why is season length tied to updates? It turns out they are (thankfully) looking at making it so they wouldn’t need an update to end/start a season. But instead, have it scheduled it like an event. Unfortunately, that’s not how the system is set up so a fair bit of work needs to be done.

Musco then brought up Preseason. They are reintroducing Preseason purely because of wintraders. You don’t get rewards when the season ends but rather when the next seasons starts so it would give them time to double check and verify cheaters, exploiters etc.

Less focus on crazy big rewards for each season but rather intermittent rewards not tied to seasons will be an ongoing thing.

On the subject of bans in Ranked, Musco insisted that people get banned every week but they (people banned) don’t shout it from the rooftops.

Chuck asked why they don’t talk about the action they take for Ranked but do so for PvE exploits. Musco’s reasoning was that in PvE, exploits are widespread enough that you know someone who did it. So when they take broad actions for PvE, you know someone. There’s ‘tens of thousands’ of people affected.

Musco continued on this vein. When they take actions on wintraders it a much smaller number of people sub 100, usually a lot less.

‘That dude wintraded nothing happened to him’ well you don’t know that. He could have gotten a warning or been suspended for a week. The ongoing problem with taking action on a small scale its way too easy for players to believe that it didn’t happen. So ultimately, it’s easier to not have to fight people about the fact they are taking action and instead, just take the action.

Chuck wants a bounty list. But Musco was pretty quick to say that there would be no ‘name and shame’.

They then commented on wintrading. There was a pretty big uptick in people complaining about wintraders throughout Season 9 and overall reports coming in. They didn’t realise until towards the end of the season what was happening (it wasn’t being picked up in their metrics, they didn’t go into specifics). Which is why so much action is happening at the end of the season. But now they have a bunch more metrics for tracking stuff. They’ll keep continuing to track them as players find new, inventive ways of circumnavigating their systems.

Brian’s suggestion for cheaters, wintraders etc. was a non-removable character flair a ‘scarlet letter’.  Musco recalled how an engineer (in discussions on how to punish exploiters) said ‘How about we make it so they can’t queue for the rest of the season? Cause we can probably do that’.

Musco added that players would legitimately be surprised the number of reports they get of cheating where the player definitely wasn’t cheating. The example he used was Operatives Holotraverse.

Honestly, given the quality of the players in PvP at times, it doesn’t surprise me at all.

Brian asked the Devs ‘who should be playing ranked’? Their response was anyone who likes 4v4 deathmatch should play.

This is where we disagree with the players. Players on the forums would say that only good players should do ranked.  If you like that game type, play it.

I feel like the mindset of only good players should do PvP has been so ingrained into the community that a lot of people don’t even try or if they do, they don’t last long cause they think they’re not good enough.

The developer’s advice, do some practice in unranked first and get some gear.

Ranked can be for everyone but it’s up to the community and they police it themselves and drive people away. Hopefully, they can be more welcoming and realise that people don’t want to suck so hopefully they can help them to get better. And then, it’ll be better for everyone involved cause you don’t want to be playing the same 5 people over and over again cause you drove everyone else off.

They bring up some excellent points! It’s not like they’re not asking ranked players to take the time to individually mentor people just a helpful tip or pointer rather than an insult or unfounded rage would be a step in helping to improve the community. But then there is the other side of that where people refuse to take advice and will hurl insults at you even if you are right and mean well. 

The developers also stressed to know your capabilities and not everyone is cut out for Gold tier. But also if your team loses and you think the rest of your team sucks and there are 4 people in your team, 1/4 of that is you so start with the 25% that’s you.

They again emphasised that it’s for everyone. If you’re playing and you’re 900 ranking you’ll play against other 900 players. The more people that play the better. Otherwise, you get the 900 guy against the 2000 ranked guy which isn’t fun for either of them.

Brian brought up the mindset, that players have, that only skilled players should get the rewards. The developers indicated that when it comes to the rewards they’re balanced with time requirement in mind. They don’t factor in skill.

On the subject of people doing stuff just for the rewards and making little effort to properly participate in the content, the developers noted that they, of course, don’t want people to go in and lose 20 matches just for rewards. A solution could be that they require you to win but then that causes other issues such as people leaving when they think they’re gonna lose. So then they could introduce a deserter penalty but players don’t want that (really?). They seemed unsure of how to solve that issue.

Ideally, they want to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour.

I haven’t done 4v4 in years. I did it in the earlier Seasons (1-3) but I never really enjoyed it. I felt I had to do it to get the rewards to show that I’m a PvPer but I got over that mindset and sick of driving myself through content I hated. I’m not the biggest fan of deathmatch mode especially on a small scale and as a healer. Larger scale deathmatches though can be a lot of fun.

They then switched gears and discussed a fair bit about GSF (which I won’t go much into).

The prominent things they did discuss (at least that stuck out to me) was participation and the learning curve. GSF has a very dedicated community but it’s very small. It has a very steep learning curve. There isn’t a safe area where you can learn the ropes (unlike for ground-based content). The Devs have always wanted to address this but it has never come to the forefront due to the small population.

I personally did play a fair bit of GSF when it first came out but lost interest after a while, I don’t really know why. Haven’t played it for years. But I have become highly prone to motion sickness over the last couple of years which is the main reason why I hesitate to try it again.

The conversation did return to ground-based PvP where they discussed participation and whether there were spikes with new content releases.

Notably, there was a huge spike in Warzone participation after the introduction of Unassembled Components to the Dailies and Weekly.

There is a hardcore element that’s always there. They have to continually update rewards to get more players in for the hardcore people to play with/against.

They even gave a rough number. There’s a ton of people who like 8 v 8 regs, easily 10 times the number that plays Ranked according to the devs. Two factors could contribute to these numbers according to the devs. Players preferring Objective gameplay over deathmatch or they’re simply avoiding the toxicity of Ranked.

There isn’t usually a large spike in participation when new Warzone introduced. But that is not metric that matters. Long-term engagement is far more important.

They don’t make new content to get more people to play. It’s more about consistency to satisfy existing players. They used the terminology ‘steady roll’ when describing how they release content again emphasising that it’s not about the metrics. It’s about providing content for regulars and it’s a way to keep players excited. It does matter or a business perspective.

There was a small spike in Warzone participation even in the low-level bracket for 5.9.2. Level 70 not as much. But Solo ranked is a lot more popular at the moment then group ranked but they believe it is highly likely that those numbers will even out in time.

Going back to content and players, Musco emphasised that it’s a constantly revolving door. Everyday people leave and every day new people come in. A minority of the player base stay. You have to make content to keep them happy.

I heard Musco use the revolving door analogy at the Bad Feeling Podcast meetup back in March when we were discussing all the ‘game is dead’ talk that was more popular than normal at that time.

They then revealed some tidbits about what’s coming next.

The next update will be Game Update 5.9.3 and that its primary feature would be a new Huttball Map set on Vanden (from KOTFE Chapter 13). The name of the map is ‘The Skyshredder‘. This update will be much smaller than 5.9.2. PTS for the Vanden Huttball Map should be in early September with PvP sessions with the developers planned.

Curious, Brian asked what it was like playing with the populace incognito?

Musco said it was great cause he doesn’t get killed constantly. They were playing on their actual live accounts.

Another funny Keith story came up. They were playtesting some content internally recently and Keith was playing a healer and named his character ‘Cover Me’ and he started yelling before they even started why don’t I have ‘cover’ on? Who’s covering me? Who are the tanks?

Playtests with Keith are fun because he gets mad.

Back to PTS and incentives. It certainly helps to have devs on even incognito as an incentive to get more players onto the PTS. But they do want to implement PTS rewards at some point. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to implement,

There was a bunch of devs in the studio playing during the sessions. But they would like to possibly do a Bioware flair or something so players know there are devs without knowing who they are. Or have one person on a Bioware account to communicate stuff, issues etc. due to Voidstar issues during the first 5.9.2 playtest. Employees were fixing it but couldn’t say anything cause they were on live characters and aren’t allowed to say anything.

To conclude, when asked what the Vanden map was like, their response was, ‘How do you feel about traps?’ Musco remarked that it’s crazy.

Further Comments

That just about sums up the parts of the interview that stood out for me. There were some things PvP related that unfortunately were not brought up which I feel warrant discussion:

  • D-sync
  • PvP Gear
  • Open World PvP

D-sync is a pretty major ongoing issue and probably the primary issue with PvP that was not addressed in 5.9.2. I’m honestly surprised Chuck or Brian didn’t bring it up. It would at least be (a little) comforting to know that they are aware of this issue and are looking into ways of fixing it.

When it comes to PvP Gear, I will concede that Keith said in a previous interview with Chuck and Brian that any changes to PvP gearing would be an ‘expansion level’ change. So it’s not that surprising that it wasn’t discussed this time. But I think a discussion about this among PvPers would be interesting to have! Would PvPers like to see the return of PvP gear (think 4.0 gearing, for example)? What are the pros of cons of separating PvP and PvE gear again?

As for Open World PvP, well this is a subject near and dear to me personally. I can honestly say that the most fun I have had playing this game was participating in various Open World scenarios, planned and unplanned, over the years (despite the lag). I would like to see more done to ‘bring back’ Open World PvP. I yearn for the days of Oricon where spontaneous Open World encounters were a near daily occurrence while doing dailies.

Make up some badass titles (like the Oricon ones) and add them to existing and upcoming PvP kill achievements and watch the player-base organise events. What a great and easy way to generate player-made content! I want to discuss this more in-depth when I have the chance.

But overall I have to say that I enjoyed this interview immensely. It was very refreshing to listen to actual devs talk about the fame and to hear their thought processes about various things. Something of a rarity from Bioware Austin. I commend them for being this open and I hope we get to see more of this in the future!

Note: While I am familiar with Musco, Chuck and Brian’s voices, I had a difficult time differentiating David and Brett so I referred to them generally as devs. My apologies to them both.

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