PAX East 2011: A Conversation With James Ohlen
Although it is no doubt a busy time for James Ohlen, Game Director for Star Wars™: The Old Republic, he still managed to fit a visit to PAX East into his schedule in order to spend time talking with fans about everyone’s favorite upcoming MMO.
We met James in a secret, undisclosed location deep within the bowels of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and he was nice enough to have a conversation with us about the game… some of the topics we covered:
- Guild System
- Guild Progression
- Possibility of Web/Mobile Tools
- Advanced Class Swapping
- Melee vs. Range Combat
- Guild Capital Ships
- User Interface & Customization
- Mac Support
- Crew Skills & “Critting” During Crafting
- … and more!
We just wanted to say thanks to James and wish him and the entire BioWare team good luck as they head into the home stretch toward release of The Old Republic later this year!
The general transcript is after the jump, but the listening to the audio is better for capturing the spirit of the conversation and some of the details!
Ask A Jedi: What are you showing here at PAX East for the first time?
James Ohlen: We’re showing off Taral V, one of our Flashpoints. Flashpoints are important for encouraging grouping as they can only be finished essentially in a group of four. They’re analogous to dungeons in World of Warcraft and other fantasy based MMOs. Because we have story elements though, we feel they play quite a bit differently. We’ve had a lot of good reaction to it, and people have a lot of fun doing multiplayer dialogue together.
Ask A Jedi: We have a few questions about the recently released Guild Headquarters if that’s ok? First, will the web be the interface for creating guilds going forward, or will you still be able to create them in-game?
James Ohlen: You’ll be using the in-game interface in the game for creating guilds. This was actually something that just came in with our latest build and its been interesting to see players trying to form up guilds. Its really making it a lot more social.
Ask A Jedi: So will the web tool continue after launch?
James Ohlen: No I’m pretty sure this is just for early entry. Once the game launches it will just be in-game. The thing is, we have lots of different features that we want to put in the game, some for launch, some for after, to make social aspects easier to use.
We do want to eventually have ways to access the game from outside, from online, the iPhone, things like that. Now I can’t describe what those are or when they’ll come in, but we definitely have a lot of ideas there.
There’s just so much we want to put in the game, it’s a matter of time and priority. The great thing about MMORPG is it continues to grow after launch. We do know that if you want to be successful you have to have that social glue to keep players coming back month after month. We’re very interested in making sure we continue to innovate in the social space and give players what they want.
Ask A Jedi: Will there be any guild mechanics beyond organization… such as a guild progression system or guild achievements?
James Ohlen: That’s something we’re very interested in. Guild progression is something that might make it in, might not. We have a backlog list of features we want to put in the game and its on there, and its a pretty high priority, so it might get in. But we have to launch the game at some point. I can tell you its on the list of things to do.
As are achievements. They’re a big part of MMOs. We are going to have achievements in the game, but the types will depend upon how many we can get in for launch.
Ask A Jedi: How does the pre-order system for guilds work (you need 4 folks who pre-ordered to transfer the guild into the game?)
James Ohlen: That would be a better question for… probably… not me :)
Ask A Jedi: Once your guild is transferred into the game, how will your forum account be attached to the character you create in the game? Is in the name/class from the forums, or are you prompted to create any type of character with any name you like to take into the guild?
James Ohlen: I think its going to be your first created character, but don’t quote me on that.
Ask A Jedi: We had some folks ask, will there be more than 3 in-game guild ranks? Will there be ways to customize that?
James Ohlen: We have the basic guild functionality in there, but the number of ranks is something that we can definitely change. One of our philosophies right now is we’re getting a lot of players testing the game and giving feedback on what features they want, which helps us prioritize things.
One message I give to my design group is we have to put aside our egos now, what we really have to do is listen to the testing feedback and listen to what is most important to us, and prioritize that way. There’s things we all want, but we also have to serve the fan base.
Ask A Jedi: What is the current stance on being able to switch your Advanced Class once you’ve made the choice?
James Ohlen: I know there are lots of debates on the boards about it, there are also lots of debates within the design group as well. I have my own personal view on it, which is different than that of some other senior designers.
We could start off so that you couldn’t change it at all. Or, have it be enormously expensive so that you have to grind a lot to afford to do it. Or we could make it cheaper and allow it multiple times.
I’m not going to reveal where I stand on it, but I think it shouldn’t be just determined by my guys, but also the players. I think its going to be something that changes as the game ages. I’m pretty sure at some point we will be allowing players to change between them. Technically its not hard. I’m pretty sure players are going to demand it at some point in the future. I know the argument about how it should be a real choice… I’m not saying that’s something we’re going to do at launch, but I just think that its something that eventually happens.
One argument FOR it allows players, if they’re getting tired of how they’re character plays, to try something out new for relatively cheap. It’s definitely something that’s debated both on the boards and in the building!
Ask A Jedi: In playing the Trooper this morning in Taral V, being a ranged tank, I noticed some enemies charge at you into close range. Will there be more melee abilities for ranged classes, as opposed to just pumping them full of blaster bolts at point-blank range?
James Ohlen: On the Trooper, there is Stock Strike. The Smuggler for example he can kick you in the nuts, pistol whip you, he has an uppercut. I call it the Indiana Jones path. You essentially get to kind of brawl it up, and get into a fist fight to finish him off.
At the very beginning of the project, it was a challenge we had to address… the whole melee vs. blaster. I have the experience from Knights Of The Old Republic where we also had that problem.
Here’s a little tidbit of knowledge. The whole development of Cortosis and vibroblades is entirely because we wanted to make melee combat not look stupid. It was mainly to address the melee combat and made the game look a lot better.
Ask A Jedi: Sort of a followup to that, was there ever discussion about making a “cover” system available to all classes in some way?
James Ohlen: Oh yeah. That was a hotly debated topic, and actually still is. But we’re kind of at the point of no return. One reason we decided to give some classes for cover was differentiation. We wanted the Smuggler and Imperial Agent to have their own thing. And if you look at Stormtroopers, they never take cover – their armor is supposed to deflect the blaster bolts, even though in fact you can kill a Stormtrooper with a slingshot (haha!) So that’s another reason.
Another reason was to give them more mobility. Once you’re in cover you lose some of that. The last part is that cover works differently in an MMO vs a first-person shooter. For example if you don’t take cover in Gears of War, you die. But an MMO is not game that kills you as often. MMO players don’t want to be killed as often. If you made the gamely so that you had to stay in cover then whenever there wasn’t cover, it would be very difficult to get that across in an MMO.
Cover has been one of those “not easy to add to an MMO features”… we knew it was going to be tough from the beginning, but not has tough as it turned out to be.
Ask A Jedi: At gamescom last year, you dropped a little hint about the possibility of guild capital ships. Is there any update you can give us on that?
James Ohlen: That’s definitely on the wish list! Every single one of my senior designers loves that idea. All the way back in 2006 that was brought up in design. I was the mean design manager who was like “we have to finish a game here, we can’t have ridiculous features like guild capital ships for launch!” and they would say “we can get it in!”
The community can know that almost every one of my senior designers is on the side of doing it. I’m pretty sure its eventually going to get in the game, because they’ll beat me up until I promote it to the next feature. If it’s not in for ship, it will definitely be a patch down the road.
Ask A Jedi: Is the current UI we’re seeing considered final, or is it still under iteration?
James Ohlen: Oh yes. Very much so. You’re going to see some big changes coming in the future.
Ask A Jedi: What about player customization, such as scripting or macros?
James Ohlen: That’s something that is pretty important for MMOs. It’s another feature we want to get in for ship, but its definitely a lot of work. So we’re trying to figure out how to get it in for ship. We might have to have a limited version at first. It’s a competitive feature, if we want to be competitive against a lot of the other MMOs, we eventually have to have it. I’ll just say its very high up on our list. It’s something that a lot of people want to see in our game, not just fans but even high up EA execs mention that its important.
The thing is, almost every feature that someone brings up, is on our list somewhere. And for the most part we’ve got almost all of them. They might be later on in the schedule. Its just about every project, even an expensive project like ours has a limited budget and limited amount of time, and we have to make decisions on what our players really need to enjoy the game.
Plus you have to avoid what a lot of games have done which is put in a bunch of features and don’t polish them, and then you have an unpolished and un-fun game. So we have to make sure that when we put in features, we have the time to polish them and make sure its actually a good feature.
Ask A Jedi: Is there anything you can say to give hope for Mac users in the future, other than running through Boot Camp?
James Ohlen: I can’t comment on that right now… but I do like Macs… I have a Mac!
Ask A Jedi: Is there anything that you’d like to talk about that no one every asks you?
James Ohlen: Well, because we started promoting the game being story-based, there has been a lot of fear in the community that we’re not going to be a real MMO. That has never been the case. Our design vision has always been a massively multiplayer game with BioWare type storytelling on top of it. But we’re never going to sacrifice the basics of an MMO.
I tell this message over and over again, but it seems like I need to get it out more. We’re building an MMO. It feels more like a big wide-open MMO than a lot of the MMOs that have been released that people weren’t worried about! It blows my mind! If you play our game, you’d know that we have wide open spaces, we spent a lot of effort on social systems in the game. We have Warzones, raids, Flashpoints. We have so much… and we’ve innovated on some of them, and some of them are a little more standard, but we tried to innovate wherever we can, especially to fit the fiction of Star Wars.
For example crafting is going to I think really impress people because it uses your companion characters and allows you to send them on missions and craft your items for you. And plus the fact that you can get “critical hits” on crafting items so you can actually craft an item that is as good as you can get in a raid.
Also, all of the people in the building are MMO fans and they play them all the time. So if there are problems with the social aspects or “MMO-ness” of the game, I hear about it all the time from my own guys. They’re all MMO players.
The entire last year of the project we’ve been really focused on making sure the social aspects are there. We actually test it. We have telemetry for it. Georg (Zoeller) and a programmer from Edmonton created something called Skynet. It allows you to view all of the actions players are taking in the game… when they’re grouping, chatting, dying, inviting to friends list, etc. And it’s been a steady road up, more and more people playing in groups.
One of my jobs is making sure that people don’t all go berserk with fear that we’re not making a true MMO. All of the pieces have to be in place and then polish it. But from the very start its been a core of the vision.
Trust me, EA is not going to give us tons of money to make a non-MMO game, because you need those social systems to make it sticky.
Ask A Jedi: Ok, final question, but I gotta ask… is the game still on track for release this year, 2011?
James Ohlen: Yep, we’re aiming 2011!