Exclusive: James Ohlen Q&A
After spending a full, glorious 60 minutes hands-on with Star Wars: The Old Republic and getting a chance to view the newly released “Hope” trailer in beautiful High Definition, I was led to a quiet meeting room where I had a chance to speak with James Ohlen, Senior Creative Director and Lead Designer at BioWare, Austin.
Before diving into the Q&A, we chatted for a few minutes about my time spent with the game in the demo room (Editor’s Note: Matt’s hands-on impressions will be coming soon!) I admitted to James that his fantastic new game had taken my MMO virginity, and how excited I was to jump on board my own starship and blast across the galaxy to explore hostile worlds and battle the Sith for control of the galaxy. He smiled, thanked me for my enthusiasm, and told me (without ego) that this game is the perfect game for him. It allowed him to have the Star Wars experience he’s always wanted, and that it was his goal to bring the same style of adventure to all Star Wars fans out there. I could tell by his excitement that this was a man who was truly proud of his work.
Matt Jarbo: How has the fan reaction been to the new trailer?
James Ohlen: So far the fan reaction has been great. A lot of people think that it’s better than the trailer we had at the last E3, which was amazing in itself. Personally I love the trailer.
MJ: In this new trailer, can you tell us why you chose to make it a prequel to “Deceived”?
JO: We wanted to have one of the same characters appear in this, as well as the ‘Sacking of Coruscant’, which was Darth Malgus. The ‘Sacking of Coruscant’ is, kind of, the last act of war between the Republic and the Sith, before a cold war shuts it down. This, of course, becomes a hot war in our game. Also, we didn’t have an epic setting to go along with the first trailer, so we decided to show the ‘Battle of Alderaan’, which happens before the trailer we showed last year.
MJ: During the EA keynote yesterday, there was mention of “Warzones” for TOR. Can you elaborate?
JO: Warzones are a chance for players to engage in player versus player combat. If you are playing as the Republic, then your team will face the Empire, and vice-versa. You get to see all the abilities being used simultaneously, and it gets very hectic, very quick. You have Bounty Hunters with flame-throwers and rocket launchers, and you have Troopers with huge blaster-cannons who can call in airstrikes. Jedi will be leaping through the air, using their Force powers to throw people against walls. All the while, the Sith are using Force Lighting and Force Choke. It’s like no Star Wars combat you’ve ever seen before.
MJ: Is the Advanced Class choice that a player makes a permanent one? Or can they switch back and forth with another class at will?
JO: We did intend for it to be a permanent choice, but massive multiplayer games often change as they get older. With other MMOs there were certain aspects that were permanent at first, but after months and years of testing, those choices were unlocked and you were allowed to change them. Right now the choice is permanent, but after play testing, we might allow players to change this at a high cost. But the great thing about an MMO is that it’s constantly evolving.
MJ: How integral are the companions to the overall combat output of the character? Are characters who decide to not use their companions at a disadvantage against those who use them? Will this affect the character in player versus player, or player versus the environment?
JO: Right now we are assuming that you are using your companion character. If you don’t use your companion you will be at a big disadvantage because all the DPS that your companion would be doing isn’t going to be there. So there is no point to not bring your companion character, unless you want to challenge yourself by not bringing him around. There is no tactical reason to not have him around. We do recognize that not everyone wants to control two characters at once, so we’ve been careful to create a companion, that if you don’t want to use him, you can just leave him alone and he’ll help make battles more interesting. If you are into your companion character, you can give them new abilities that will change the outcome of combat, and you can customize your companion character. These characters are a big part of the game.
MJ: Can companions replace player characters 1-for-1 in a group situation?
JO: No. If you’re in a four-man group, then each of those players has their own companion.
MJ: Will companions be limited to specific parts of the game such as the open world, instances, Warzones, or can they be used at any time?
JO: Currently we have them being able to be used at any time.
MJ: Ok, back to the single-player story… will the different playable species have stories that tie into their origin/home world?
JO: We do have a lot of playable species, however the way we’ve been building the story is that it is more about your class and your faction, rather than about your species. There will be mention of your species, but it won’t be integral to the story.
MJ: How will you reconcile “choices” in TOR? Is it possible that one person will see a different version of Coruscant than another?
JO: The vast majority of our worlds are public spaces. So basically, when you arrive at Coruscant it is a public space for everyone to be running around in. The players will run around and complete the world quests (which aren’t specific to your class, and are doable by anybody of that faction.) With Coruscant, and any other world for that matter, there will be certain instances that you can go into where you see your class storytelling. And in those areas you’ll be able to see differences and changes depending on your choices. Such as, if you have killed someone, or if you’re romantic with someone, those choices will be reflected when you enter those areas. You could have two Bounty Hunters where one has killed someone, and the other spared the same character. Each instance would be different for that player.
MJ: Once you’ve achieved the level cap, what is the progression like? Will the end-game have repeatable content? And will the Republic and the Empire share end-game content such as battling a common foe?
JO: The end-game is a very important part of MMOs, and we have put a lot of thought into it. Right now we have several choices that a player can do when he gets to the end-game, but I can’t go into detail about that now. What I can say, is that we know that it is important, and we are putting a lot of thought into it.
MJ: Will there be a need for “Special Purpose” gear, such as cold-weather outfitting on Hoth, or clothing for surviving the sandstorms of Tattooine?
JO: Not currently, no.
MJ: Can you give any information about the crafting or harvesting systems, such as what type of natural resources might be in the game to be used by crafters?
JO: We are not talking about crafting right now. I can say that we are having crafting, and there will be harvesting. I can’t go into too much detail, other than to say, that when we did the design for these systems, we tried to make them feel like they belonged in the Star Wars universe. We made them so that you, as a hero, or like Darth Vader or Han Solo, wouldn’t feel out of place by using the crafting game.
MJ: Are there any plans for Guild Progression systems, as opposed to just individual progression?
JO: I can’t go into much detail about this, but I can say that we are working on all the classic and needed systems that are required in an MMO, such as social systems like grouping, friends, and guilds.
MJ: It seems like each class shares a starting area with one other class, how easy will it be to group up with your friends right from the start, if they are playing as other classes?
JO: If you’re playing as a Sith Warrior, and your friend is playing as a Sith Inquisitor, then it is very easy because you both are on the same planet. But if you’re playing as a Sith Warrior, and your friend is a Bounty Hunter, then it will be more difficult because you are both on different planets. While it takes a little effort, it is easier to meet up with friends in TOR than in similar games.
MJ: Now that personal ships have been revealed, what can you tell us about space? Will be there space combat, or perhaps space exploration?
JO: Each character will get their own starship that will be their home base where they can store items, and other companion characters… and other things that we will be talking about later. Space ships are a big part of the Star Wars universe, and we have several exciting things planned.
MJ: In games like Mass Effect and KOTOR, morality plays a big role in the story. Does TOR use the same structure, or will there be a middle ground?
JO: There are advantages to playing the game in the middle as well as the good and bad. We want players to feel that they can play the grey character and not feel like they are playing the game wrong.
MJ: Will there be an API allowing access to in-game data?
JO: Right now I am not able to talk about that.
MJ: Any plans for mobile or web apps that interface into the game allowing players to stay “connected” on some level while not actively playing, such as Twitter or Facebook?
JO: That’s stuff we’ve definitely been looking at, but we can’t talk about it until later on.
MJ: Will TOR have an achievement system like other MMO’s?
JO: Achievement systems are a big part of other MMO’s, and we are very interested in them, but that is all I can say at the moment.
MJ: A lot of players enjoy spending hours creating their character like they could with Dragon Age, will you be releasing a creation tool before the release of TOR, so players can have their character already created?
JO: We very much liked what Dragon Age did with that, and our marketing guys like it too. But I can’t comment on that at this time.
MJ: What are your plans to support TOR on the Mac?
JO: Um, currently I can’t talk about Mac… can’t talk about that. The only thing I can say is we’re coming out on the PC. Click for Audio: James Ohlen – Mac
MJ: Will TOR be supporting in-game voice chat, or would you leave that to third-party tools?
JO: We really want people to use third-party tools, we support that, but I can’t go into any detail beyond that.
MJ: When will the beta testing begin?
JO: You can go to the website (www.swtor.com) and sign up for the beta, but beyond that there are no announcements.
MJ: Are you still on track to release the game in Spring 2011?
MJ: Thank you very much for your time, and we look forward to getting more updates on this amazing game.
JO: You’re welcome and thank you.