Star Wars: The Old Republic

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Simu’s Old Faces For New Paces

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It’s interesting how sometimes companies you might have interacted with on a daily basis in the past return to haunt your present – or in this case, my future.

Moon over Endor’s Ayane has an article up about developer Simutronics, who recently re-organized to deal with the demand for HeroEngine, an engine used by a variety of companies, and most recently and curiously, Bioware. Apparently, the engine will be used for Star Wars: The Old Republic, necessitating the need to expand offices and increase developer support.

Simutronics is not an unfamiliar name to me – but it isn’t because of the fact that I’ve been following SW:TOR for a while. No, Simu and I have a relationship that goes way back to my years in college (hey, it wasn’t THAT long ago, but I’m just saying) when hours and hours in a computer lab doing work was somewhat buoyed by a little-known pay-to-play MUD called Gemstone III. Gemstone, now Gemstone IV, was interesting in that it had dynamic events driven by GM-controlled characters, a system of customization that made getting an item designed unique, and roleplayers and stories galore. Even though the lure of graphical MMOs eventually cut deep into the playerbase, Gemstone retained a loyalty of a few thousand players that became a tight-knit community of folks from all walks of life. Among any of the old school developers out there, Simutronics seemed to me to have the most staying power.

All of this feeling has been proven with the fact that Simu’s HeroEngine is now good enough to be employed by a developer as credible and huge as Bioware. Simutronics has to re-organize teams in DC and in St. Louis to accommodate the new business, and the company is now making forays into iPhone development as well as cultivating their engine. I have to say, Simu has come a long way since I was grinding away at ice trolls in a black-and-white text-driven environment. If SWTOR is as much of a success as we think it might be, then Simutronics is going to have a whole hell of a lot more to celebrate about than just possessing some nostalgic memories of mine. I’ll be cheering for them.

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Star Wars Catches Up With Social Networking

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Wow – that cold, cold weather is really doing a number on my updates. You see, my computer is right next to one of our windows, and while the insulation is passable it’s not as good as it could be. I love being happy, but it’s hard to type that out when your fingers threaten to fall off.

Anyway, this one’s going to be a bit short as a result, but I think it honestly says it all for a service you provide when pop culture is catching up to you, just like Star Wars is with Facebook. This comes courtesy of CollegeHumor, who has emerged lately for me as a constant stream of lol-worthy nonsense to help get me through the day. For the rest, you can check out 5 Star Wars Status Updates for yourself, but this one, by far is the best:

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Star Wars: The Old Republic Rolls Out The Jump To Conclusions Mat

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331634958_387617c29fOne of the benefits of writing for more than one site is the birds-eye view you get of its community and those who observe the object of its content. By being able to read comments, digest information that others have posted about your articles, and submit your own feedback, you get a better sense of what people are thinking. Such as it is with my little minor gig at Darth Hater, where the December 3rd lifting of the embargo on new information on Star Wars: The Old Republic has led to a whole shitstorm of speculation and opinion.

Much of the opinion is centered around the Companion system, a way for players to augment their groups or go it alone if need be with an AI companion that fills a certain role. The reaction to this has been interesting, with quite a few notable folks hating on the idea so hard that they’ve written off SWTOR. Snarky tweets have also filled my “following” list, filled with folks who are creating 140-character long smartass comments about Bioware’s “newest single player game”. Such hate!

True believers and fellow writers, I know it’s hard to not judge something, especially an MMO mechanic, before it’s even out the door, but the whole notion of SWTOR suddenly becoming a solo MMO with multiplayer options is rather silly, right? First off, there’s the whole idea that we don’t really know much of anything about the Companion system aside from a couple of interviews, which for the most part, contain only a couple of real quotables. If MMO players should realize something, it’s that feedback, beta, and other factors can change game design for a title before it’s even out the door. Complaining or drawing conclusion about a system prior to knowing about it – it’s just, well, a little bit like using that famous Jump To Conclusions Mat from Office Space. If you could sell those to MMO bloggers and players, you’d make a fortune on all the wild and awfully conclusive-sounding notions people are making based upon very little information.

There’s also the idea that, well, by definition, the game is being developed as an MMO, and while we’ve arguably lost sight of the RPG part of that acronym, the “MM” part of it is still very much alive – and my fellow blogger Ravious puts it best. There are certain types of players who play MMOs, and while there are vast and sometimes significant differences between them, being antisocial to the point of completely soloing one is not one of them. Soloers do play MMOs, sure, but they are a subsection of a grand majority of folks who, on some level, enjoy playing them because they get to play them with other people. While my ideas are as speculative as the ones declaring epic failure, I do think in the fundamental definition of an MMO, we’re not going to see a system that supercedes one of its core concepts. Companions in SWTOR will exist as a secondary support system for those of us with little time on our hands, and they’ll probably have nice storylines as is Bioware’s trademark, but make no mistake about it – they’re making an MMO, and MMOs need other players working with one another in ways no AI can.

Perhaps the reason why I’m giggling and shaking my head has nothing to do with the fact that I haven’t had enough coffee and everything to do with how premature, negative judgmental behavior hits against the core of why I write. I realize in the course of all this that it’s much easier to be a cynic than it is to be an optimist. This is because being wrong about being cynical is easier to cover up than being wrong about being optimistic. Honestly, I’ve always written with the notion that I will inevitably be wrong about something. No one is 100% right, ever, and that goes for any blogger whether you command a small, dedicated following like myself or the massive readership that most of us can only wish to aspire to.

In the realm of MMOs, where people have let their own judgments run away with them, becoming jaded, negative shells of themselves, I’m more than happy to be an idealist, even if those ideals don’t turn out correctly all the time. Why? Because an optimist is happy at least some of the time.

[Darth Hater] Jumping to Inquisitive Consular-clusions

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Over at Darth Hater, I’ve got a column up about the reaction to the reveal of the last two classes for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Is the mass hysteria and crazy reaction to Bioware’s decision to include two more Force classes justified? What about the fact that the forums have all sorts of threads hotly discussing the news? You’ll have to check out the article to find out:

http://darthhater.com/2009/12/01/a-jump-to-inquisitive-consular-clusions/

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Dragon Age: The SWTOR Preview Made Manifest

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dragonage_2These days Star Wars: The Old Republic fans are in a stage where they are looking forany piece of info they can get their hands on. With two class reveals (the Jedi Knight and Imperial Agent) the latest bits of discussion that has since died down, fans of Bioware‘s upcoming MMO effort are looking for any clue as to what will be in the gameplay.

Well, I’m here to tell you that one place that you could look is in the very excellent and well-rounded new hotness of Dragon Age: Origins. This single-player RPG from Bioware just came out a couple of weeks ago to huge fanfare and tons of praise from folks looking to get their latest Bioware fix. The deep story, multiple origins, and cast of characters have received a ton of posts from the blogosphere, and overall the reception has been largely positive. Hell, even my self-proclaimed nemesis enjoys it.

But within the decidedly independent experience of Dragon Age are hints and thoughts about how Star Wars: The Old Republic might actually work in terms of gameplay. You have a set of party characters that go with you – companions in SWTOR – and you have ways in which they may approve or disapprove of your actions. You have a moral choices system where you make difficult decisions about dilemmas in the game, just as they say SWTOR is going to have. The voice acting, featuring prominent actors such as Tim Curry and Claudia Black, is a huge part of the experience, and the fully-voiced environment reflects hours upon hours of recording time. And last but not least, the story, which has many threads, sidesteps, intrigue, and twists, serves as the backbone, a pillar which makes Dragon Age not just another rollicking RPG adventure, but one that has a unique stamp on its genre – just as SWTOR’s core marketing element has put forth.

Now, you may say “but Frank, we’ve seen this all before already – in KOTOR, or in Mass Effect – so what’s different here that points to SWTOR?”. Well, what’s different is that Dragon Age: Origins is the latest refinement of those core elements and systems, a way of playing an RPG that started in KOTOR and carried over into Dragon Age, over the span of years. Dragon Age: Origins highlights the latest and greatest in some of Bioware’s storytelling and RPG-style design docs, so to see Dragon Age as a way to preview Star Wars: The Old Republic’s gameplay is not that far of a stretch.

Bioware is well aware that this experience is just one element of the overall MMO experience, and that the multiplayer aspect is something to be integrated. So those concerned that SWTOR will be nothing more than a glorified single-player experience should rest easy – the feedback coming from Dragon Age’s experiences will no doubt be taken into account, but it won’t be the whole of the picture. Bioware’s drawing on the history of previous MMO releases for making a great online multiplayer experience – but you can rest assured that the single player feedback is going to be melded into it based upon the reception of games like Dragon Age: Origins.

But don’t let me diminish Dragon Age for you too much. Regardless of whether you want to play it to see how SWTOR might be or not, it’s a solid title and one worthy of a pickup – if for nothing else to hear Claudia Black mock you about saving kittens in trees.

[Darth Hater] Secret (Imperial) Agent Man

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Over at Darth Hater I’ve dropped in a new article about the most recent Imperial Agent class reveal, talking about some thoughts on the class and how the lack of strong lore is actually a positive, not a negative.

You can check it out here – be sure to comment there!

http://darthhater.com/2009/11/08/secret-imperial-agent-man/

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Bioware’s Balance And TOR Careers

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gemini42Bioware’s been on a bit of a tear lately with Star Wars: The ¬†Old Republic, as the RPG developer revealed the latest class for TOR, the Imperial Agent, a week after their announcement of the Jedi Knight. With this reveal, there now only remain two more classes to show off to complete their picture of TOR careers.

While there was some initial cloudiness regarding Bioware’s philosophy on balancing two sides, now that most of the careers have been shown we’re starting to see a bit more of that come to light. The picture that I’m seeing so far, honestly, is uplifting to me as a player. Here’s some of the key points:

  • Two sides of the same coin – While it seems that Bioware is not taking a stance where they are creating the exact same abilities for both Empire and Republic, they do seem to be taking a mirrored approach. This reflects the overall lore of the Star Wars universe in the “good vs. evil” sense. For example, the Smuggler and recently revealed Agent are both covert and stealthy in different ways, they will be using cunning rather than brute strength, and they’ll be reliant on the element of surprise. The Bounty Hunter and Trooper are both resourceful warriors with a variety of tools at their disposal and are both frontline fighters. The Jedi and Sith are painfully obvious. All of this points to a “similar but different” idea that Bioware has been known to refine with their previous titles.
  • Non-Archetypal – The KOTOR games had loosely based archetypes around which you would customize your character with skill upgrades and stat point distribution. This appears to be making the transition to TOR , because as much discussion has been had about which class is the “tank” and which is the “dps”, none of those archetypes appear obvious in the classes themselves. Instead Bioware appears to be concentrating on making each individual class provide its own flavor to the universe, and with exclusive skills based on the moral choice system, another layer is added that combats the whole “role pigeonholing” we’ve seen in MMOs.
  • Iconic and Epic - While it’s true that gameplay and mechanics make a class work, there is something to be said about how Bioware is treating these careers. They’re not just general roles in a Star Wars world, but heroes as well. They’re based upon well-known Star Wars universe characters (or ones easily referenced, as in the case with the Imperial Agent) and they are meant to evoke a sense of being that character when you are playing them. It might seem like fluff to some, but to Bioware, they consider it an essential lynchpin to playing the class, something which falls in line with their promotion of TOR as one that uses story.

While I’m sure some people are feeling a bit fearful that Bioware isn’t traveling a path that is well-trodden when it comes to their careers, I’m personally feeling excited for the potential class dynamic that will be occurring as a result of these philosophies. I’m a traditional support class player, but with two classes left I can’t help but wonder if Bioware is going to force me out of my healing shell and make all the careers healing self-sufficient, meaning I’ll be making my choices based on what feels right to play rather than what is practical. I can’t say that’s a bad thing, and I’m looking forward to what Bioware will be doing in the future to flesh out their chosen careers.

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The Excellently Expected SWTOR Jedi Knight

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episode_2_jedi_knightBy now, folks keeping tabs on Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic know that the latest class reveal is the Jedi Knight, the second in the line of Force users revealed for the upcoming game. While there’s the usual buzz of excitement surrounding any major information chatter for this anticipated MMO, there’s also an undercurrent of “exactly as we expected” among the TOR faithful. Moon Over Endor’s Ayane even expresses a bit of disappointment over reading the description and Q&A and seeing, well, exactly what was supposed to be there.

While I can agree that of all the TOR classes, the Jedi Knight was the biggest “duh” out there, I don’t know that seeing exactly what we expected is necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, if there’s one huge pressure that’s on Bioware, it’s to get the IP of the Star Wars universe correct for those that are expecting an authentic experience (not to mention for Lucasarts).

There’s certain tried and true ideas behind a Jedi that everyone is familiar with – the sense of justice, the idea of fighting for the greater good, adventure and excitement not being craved, and all that jazz. If we didn’t have these core concepts behind the Jedi Knight, I’d say it’d be difficult to sell on those who’ve been at the lore longer than some of you have been alive.

This kind of stuff needs to translate into gameplay as well. Defensive techniques, finesse rather than brutality, and the overall heroic aura are apparently the Jedi Knight’s stock in trade, making them the obvious mirror counterpart to TOR’s Sith Warrior. TOR class balance in this sense is extremely important, lest one lightsaber wielding ninja-monk be more powerful than another. If this means creating a bit of predictability in the two classes’ abilities, skills, and gameplay, then that will be a necessary evil. Besides, expected gameplay for the Jedi Knight and Sith Warrior may translate into more people trying other classes to avoid the rush of lightsaber-y goodness on the battlefield.

All that being said, I also would hold out a bit more sunny hope for some alternative playstyles as well. I go into this in more detail over at Darth Hater when I write about the possibility of a morally grey Jedi Knight, but the morality and choice system creates some very interesting directions that a Jedi Knight could go. With exclusive abilities unlocked through aligning with one or the other side of the moral compass, there might still be a possibility that the Jedi Knight is not as straightforward as he or she may seem.

Regardless of all this, we’re now more than halfway done with the unveiling of the TOR classes, so there’s still more possibilities on the horizon that aren’t as expected as blue lightsabers. Keep the faith, TOR fans!

 

The Dread of TOR Non-Delivery

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addyThe longer a game is out in the public eye, the more hype and buzz starts to surround it like a palpable bubble of anticipation. With this comes great exposure, and that is both good and bad. This is because while you get a lot of people really excited about a title, you also run the risk of having your anticipation bubble popped by a needle of dread and fear that the game won’t deliver on its promises.

Such as it is with Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which recently passed the one-year anniversary of its announcement to the public and is basically chugging right along at a marked pace. Understandably, Bioware’s been a bit tight-lipped about many of the details of the game, but what has been released has done nothing but whet the appetite of the people that are raring to play it. But aside from that are forum threads and posts that are beginning to pop up from players with furrowed brows about various segments of the game and whether they’ll be able to deliver properly. With the small level of real and detailed information that has been released by TOR, the threads have become all manner of worry and even stress over what might not work.

Not surprisingly, I’m pretty non-plussed about all the agony that is felt with regards to TOR’s ability to deliver. Whipping yourself into a frenzy over the fact that the voiceovers might be tedious or unnecessary, the PvP could be imbalanced, the graphics won’t get a good pass, or that game-breaking bugs will appear isn’t worth it to me. While speculation is all well and good, especially when it comes to what Bioware will be doing with their first MMO, anticipating or fearing that the game won’t deliver just isn’t healthy for your gaming experience. I like to take TOR’s promises with a grain of salt – part of it is the necessary hype needed from marketing, and the other is the simple reality that all MMOs, no matter how good they sound on paper, will probably have growing pains. It’s been true ever since I was ganking poor little newbies for their cash and cackling maniacally in Ultima Online, and it’ll continue to be true as long as the MMO paradigm doesn’t shift severely.

Really, part of the anxiety Star Wars: The Old Republic’s potential players are feeling is partially due to the waiting. With TOR so far out from release, it’s plenty of time for people to go through a cyclical phase of devour-discuss-dread when it comes to every bit of new info. Imaginations run wild and sometimes they can get away from people. To be perfectly honest, people will either be satisfied or not when TOR finally hits the shelves. Worrying about the latter, especially this far out from the TOR release date, is just bad for you. If, ultimately, TOR doesn’t deliver for folks that are reading this, it should be based on the direct gameplay experience you have playing it, not from what might happen based upon a few nuggets of info. Do what I do, and enjoy yourself on the hype train. You’ll be less stressed out.

[Darth Hater] The Massive World Of The Old Republic

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Over at Darth Hater I have a brand new article up about the issue of SW:TOR’s massive world in light of the new Coruscant Developer Dispatch. I talk about how Bioware’s reveal details a lot of good things, but uncovers a possible issue with making the setting a bit too large and segmenting the population as a result. Be sure to check it out!

http://darthhater.com/2009/10/13/the-massive-world-of-the-old-republic/

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