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Columns: PAX Weekend Roundup

By Jean Prior on September 04, 2014

PAX Weekend Roundup

In the latest news roundup for Star Wars: the Old Republic, we have some information on upcoming content, but never enough to satiate ardent fans of the game, and there have also been some insights into the game's past construction.  It still leaves so many questions and we're more than happy to speculate as necessary. 

As per usual procedure, BioWare Austin sent some community team members and a few devs to the same city as a big gaming/nerdy convention, but didn't have an official event on-site like the BioWare Montreal and Edmonton folks did.  This time, it was PAX Prime in Seattle.  However, what many folks might not realize is that there was also an unofficial fan gathering as part of the Video Gaming track at DragonCon two days previously, which featured panelists Cameron Harris (former Managing Editor on SWTOR, now Senior Editor at BioWare Montreal) and Randy Begel (Bounty Hunter writer, now at Riot Games).

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First, let's go over what was learned at the official event.  Unfortunately, not even Reddit really provided a full transcription of what was said, although the most easily-located report with more than one or two bullet points of info was found on swtorstrategies.com.  The next expansion of SWTOR is due out before the end of the year, keeping the promise made by Jeff Hickman back in February in my interview with him and Bruce Maclean that there would be two expansions this year.  A name and date wasn't given.  The usual flashdrive that was given out has had its contents duly uploaded to dulfy.net, and it points to the next Flashpoint in the Forged Alliances series being set on Rakata Prime.  Folks going to the Cantina Tour events expecting big reveals invariably remain disappointed, so I'll merely remind people yet again that the events are more for BioWare to gather focused feedback than it is for us to hear about new goodies.  This hasn't changed since the first tour stop, and I don't foresee it changing anytime soon. 

Right now, one of the biggest concerns for the game is the fact that larger/more active guilds are roflstomping the smaller guilds in the new Conquest system.  On my own server, the leading guild had over 7 million points on the leaderboard for the first week, while the second-place guild had less than half that figure.  It's something that BioWare is actively assessing, but we don't know any sort of firmed-up plan or timeline as to when something will change or how it might change to help smaller guilds.  More guild requests came in the form of wanting to have more characters in a guild, but as has been said before, server performance could be at risk, so other than being discussed there's no news on this issue. 

So far, I'm not seeing much evidence of the statements (I'm not saying 'promises') of increased transparency that have been part of the Shadow Realms messaging, despite the fact that SWTOR and SR share the same Community Team.  It's been a going concern on the SWTOR forums and on fansites about the new BioWare IP how so many familiar names are working on Shadow Realms and what it means for SWTOR.  They've been working on it for months, if not a full year, it's just that the public now knows about Shadow Realms.  I asked Community Manager Eric Musco whether SWTOR would get a new Community Team and he replied that they would be doing both, adding that we're stuck with him, with a little smiley face.  I suspect that the Shadow Realms forums will find some emoticon to be the equivalent to his favored rakghoul emoticon from the SWTOR forums. 

Turning to the Q&A from the DragonCon, as you can see there was a great deal of interest in meeting up and talking about the game.  Randy Begel was asked about writing the Bounty Hunter class story, whether references to other classes, the movies, and other Star Wars lore was deliberate or not.  He replied that he did a lot of research on Wookieepedia and also via Karen Traviss' Mandalorian novels. There was a lot of laughter in the room when both Harris and Begel were asked why a certain traitorous companion couldn't be killed.  We were told that it was part of game development, last-minute design changes necessitated the requirement that companions couldn't be killed off to prevent players from potentially not being able to play without that companion's combat skills to help them through questing. 

Unfortunately, there were several questions asked about current content that neither Harris nor Begel could answer, as they hadn't been on the team in well over a year each, plus one surmises that they're still under NDA for certain pieces of information.  However, they were asked about continuity in writing and whether it presented editing challenges.  They answered that there was no perfect system, but they checked versus the folks at Lucasfilm, particularly Leland Chee (@HolocronKeeper), and they also checked versus fansites such as Wookieepedia.  It was also pointed out that while Wookieepedia was used as a reference, they continually fact-checked against more official sources.  To give an example, Cameron Harris pointed out that she had a hand in the editing of the Ewok companion character Treek, and former SWTOR Lead Writer Hall Hood did all the research to find out what canon could support having an Ewok in the larger universe, why she would leave the forest moon of Endor, and the feasibility of having an Ewok mercenary in the Old Republic era.  She added that if it was necessary, you can vague things up.  Notice how they don't actually call Treek an Ewok or mention the name Endor in-game. 

Both former SWTOR developers were asked if they still played the game.  Harris replied that she has one of every class including three Agents, but that she loved the occasional bit of Force lightning.  Begel answered that due to his current gig at Riot, he didn't have a lot of time to play, but when he did, he played Imperials on the Bastion.  Naturally, neither revealed character names, which is standard.

They were also asked what they felt about the game being relegated to the non-canon Legends brand, and unsurprisingly, they were both firm in the notion that it doesn't change the game experience for anyone and that it will never take away from our memories of the game or our history with it.  They felt the designation for a time period over 3000 years before the movies was arbitrary at best, so it didn't really matter.

In a specific question asked of Begel, an audience member wanted to know if a Force ghost encountered by the Sith Warrior during a particular part of the storyline was Kreia.  While Neil Pollner was the primary author of the Sith Warrior, Begel answered that he believed that it was her.  Both developers were asked what their favorite sequences of the game were.  Begel answered that he was partial to Alderaan and punching nobles in the face, and he wanted to give a round of applause to the cinematics teams for making it look awesome.  Harris replied that her favorite bit was getting to kill Skavak with the Smuggler skill Dirty Kick. [Author's note: I did that too. He totally deserved it, that scumbag.]

Back to continuity questions, the audience wanted to know where was lining up the continuity hardest and how did it get resolved?  We were told that Revan was the hardest bit of continuity to sort out, but they got past it by getting Drew Karpyshyn and James Ohlen in to help figure it out, and also brought in information from Knights of the Old Republic 2 without having direct access to the Obsidian devs. 

A member of the audience asked about Alderaan's squabbling Houses, stating that it was all Tolkien-esque, a bit like Game of Thrones.  Begel answered that Lucasfilm asked if the BioWare devs liked Game of Thrones and added that the first book in the series was mandatory for new writer training.  He felt that nobility and intrigue was a natural fit.  Another guy in the audience stated that the writing in the game was phenomenal, but didn't it ever occur to the devs that in the 3000+-year timespan between the game and the original movies, the technology and societies would be vastly different?  Unsurprisingly, he was told that the level of tech was a Lucasfilm rule, and of course, it's their intellectual property.

A group of cosplayers showed up as a team of Rotworm Huttball players, members of the guild Wanted on The Shadowlands (please stop killing my guildies in PVP, thanks!), and they were asked why dress up as a Huttball team?  They replied that they liked to PVP and kill people.  Good answer!

In terms of gameplay, the devs were asked about blaster classes and why roleplayers were limited in terms of which weapons they could wield.  The answer was an itemization design.  BioWare wanted to ensure that each class's weapon was recognizable.  Also, it helps when designing loot tables, so it ensures that if a certain kind of weapon dropped, only certain classes should be rolling on it. 

Audience members then wanted to know about the game's first (and currently only) story expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, and what the two devs were most proud of on their work on Makeb.  Cameron Harris said that as an editor, she didn't get to put stuff into the game, but she was proud of working on the Republic story and cited meeting the Hutts as one of her favorite pieces of editing because it involved checking the branching dialogue throughout the entire game so far, so what people had done in the past would affect what dialogue they'd get in the scene.  Begel replied that he hadn't had much of a hand in the expansion, that it was mostly Hall Hood and Alexander Freed's work.

The conversation then turned to Lucasfilm and whether they had had any of their work rejected by the IP owner.  Harris said none of her work got rejected, and Begel said he couldn't recall any instances.  Harris went on to say that Lucasfilm didn't even give them script notes, and both developers gave the impression that the game's oversight was a pretty light-handed affair. 

One player asked whether they considered allowing each faction's capital city to be raidable by the opposing faction, and we were told that there was some talk of it, but not much.  We then asked the pair of developers to give us some stories.  Harris told us of the time one of her friends took a screenshot of her name in the game credits and she cried to see her name in Star Wars blue in the official font.  Begel said his reaction to seeing his name in the credits was similar, then went on to tell us a funny story about voice acting and the casting of voice actors.  He spoke of a character that a casting director thought should sound very French, but that they wound up turning the performance down. 

Finally, the pair was asked about the difference between working at BioWare and working at other companies, and why BioWare characters are so easy to get attached to.  Harris stated that BioWare prioritized characters.  They drive the plot, not the other way around, and so BioWare starts with story, not gameplay.  Begel added that it depended on the company's priorities.  His current company Riot puts more emphasis on characters being emotionally engaging in some fashion.  In SWTOR, they had to make even small NPCs interesting. 

In all, the DragonCon panel was interesting from a game design standpoint, and of course, DragonCon is a prime cosplaying convention (you really have no idea unless you've been there and seen the Marriott's Atrium level around 9pm on Saturday night), so we had all the cool kids in their gear.  From the standpoint of wanting more information about the current status and future of the game, PAX Prime was the place to be, but the dribble of info that came out of the Cantina Tour can't beat excellent cosplay.  DragonCon wins!

Jean Prior / Jean has been writing about MMOs on her blog and via fansites for several years now, taking over the MMORPG duty of writing the SWTOR column in 2014, as well as reviewing other games from time to time. She got into MMOs because of a song. Follow her on twitter @druidsfire. Watch out for horrible puns.