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BioWare’s Ben Irving on SWTOR’s 5th Anniversary and Future Plans

Michael Bitton Posted:
Interviews 0

MMORPG: This week marks SWTOR’s fifth anniversary. What are some of the big takeaways for you on building out and running not just an MMO, but a Star Wars MMO, for as long as you guys have?

Ben Irving: I think a lot of us have had different journeys on it. I know, for me, I kind of, six years ago, I was living in Australia and had the dream of moving to Austin, Texas to work on Star Wars: The Old Republic. My journey there is kind of a whole different story that, to talk about what I’ve learned or what I think about it, I just reflect back on that, I will say, naïve man, at the time.  To be here, to be able to represent the game five years on is very much an honor.

We really have learned so much, through the game’s inception, through the past five years, the way the landscape’s changed, the way the industry’s changed, the way people play games, the amount of entertainment out there, the options you have, has changed so much, so to kind of witness, or be part of, or run, the evolution of SWTOR, that time has certainly been a fascinating thing. We learned a throughout the years, it’s almost like where to begin on what we’ve learned? It’s just a really exciting time to have just shipped an expansion, just come up on our fifth anniversary, to still be relevant, and to still have so many passionate fans who love playing the game, is a great thing we’re so very proud of.

MMORPG: How are you celebrating the game’s five year anniversary this week? What do you have planned for players?

Ben Irving: I joke sometimes that when it’s my birthday, I have one day that’s my birthday. When it’s my wife’s birthday, she has like seven days that are her birthday. I feel like we’re basically doing my wife’s version of her birthday for our fifth anniversary, so we really started celebrating it back in June, when Star Wars Celebration came around, and we had a tribute video for five years of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and kind of since then we’ve been doing heaps of stuff. Every giveaway we’re doing is five of X for our fifth anniversary, or the fifth of every month we do Cartel Market sales, so there’s been a lot of that going on.

Just last week, a bunch of our five year anniversary rewards went live, so people in-game can get a whole bunch of stuff. It’s really cool. We gave away a special stronghold statue that’s really awesome to players who have been with us for that whole five years, who have remained subscribed that whole period, which is really great. And then of course, we’ve got Life Day going on at the same time to kind of celebrate that, plus just the whole expansion launched hype, so I think a lot of stuff happening in-game.

MMORPG: Shifting focus a bit to the latest expansion, what’s the reception been like for Knights of the Eternal Throne?

Ben Irving: I think it’s worth segmenting out to different parts of the expansion. The nine chapter story has been received universally positive across the board, I think. We’re hearing lots of great stuff, one of your quotes, I’ve been using quite a lot, which is, “Star Wars: The Old Republic got me to feel again.” Which is something that’s quite rare in a game these days. The story has been praised, both the story telling, the kind of closure you get at the end of the story, being able to rule the galaxy, choosing to rule it in a light or dark side manner. That’s been received really well.

All the combat and gameplay changes were received really well. People felt like the gameplay was more fun, the boss mechanics were more interesting in the chapters, the walker and the mouse droid were unique gameplay things that were added.  

I think if you move beyond the story, to things like Uprisings, we’ve got a really positive reaction. People feel like they enjoy the fast paced, action oriented nature of them. They’re something they can get in and do quickly with friends or with a few randoms.

Galactic Command has been the most controversial, I suppose. We really wanted to do something different with endgame progression and change how parts of the game were played. I think in many ways we did that, but we missed the mark for some of our core players. Things like, “Hey. I’m in an eight person Operation guild. It kind of sucks not having a specific goal where I can work towards the head piece or the belt or the braces or whatever.” I think’s probably been our biggest challenge, our biggest piece of feedback. Last week we went out there on our live stream with a whole bunch of changes that are all based on player feedback. We’ve said the whole time, “Hey look, we know, we see you guys have some concerns about the system, our goal is to be flexible. If we put it out there and things don’t pan out the way we think, and we need to make changes, we’ll do so.” And that’s kind of what happened.

We put it out there and we agreed to make some changes, so we’re making it a lot easier, or having different paths to gain gear for Operations players and PvP players. I think the core system of Galactic Command works great for the more casual player. The guy who comes in and says, “I just want to play the game and have fun.” You do that, you earn gear, you gain more power, and it’s much easier than it was before, and we hope that means people will stick around longer, and transition to more of the hardcore stuff. If you’re a hardcore guy, you now have your alternate way to gear, so all the crates you get in in Galactic Command will be worthwhile, but you have a way to chase this specific item. So far, the player feedback from that idea has been really positive. The gear change goes live in the next few weeks, on January 24, and we’ll continue to monitor that.  I’m sure we’ll make tweaks and changes to that for a long time to come, because it’s a very important system.  I think overall we’ve got a really great response to the expansion, and that once we make those tweaks to Galactic Command, we’ll resolve some of those things we didn’t get right the first time.

MMORPG.com:  Do you have any plans to work in a catch up mechanic for Galactic Command?

Ben Irving: I think we’ll definitely do that.  I don’t know exactly what way we’ll do it. I think the changes we announced last week, there’s a portion of that, the new tokens you get from crates that will facilitate that. Crafting facilitates that. If you earn a lot of materials on your main character, you could get a cool crafting set for an alt, and kind of catch them up right away.  But we’re talking about other things, and this is just ideas, but things like some Legacy perks, if on one character you’re command rank 200, you can get X percentage boost to any of your characters. You’d still have to go through all the command ranks, but it would just take less time. Things like that we’ve been talking about.

We really wanted to monitor it a bit more and understand if players are solving it with crafting, then maybe we don’t need to do this, then crafting becomes more relevant, which is I think an important thing, a thing that’s been underutilized for a few years. If the new tokens we’re adding in January help at all, then maybe we don’t need to do the Legacy things, or maybe we should do them, but the percentages can be higher or lower depending on what pans out. We’re certainly hearing that feedback, but we felt it more important for us to deal with the gear concerns first. Once we’re back in the first week of January, we’ll look into that Legacy stuff, and probably the most simplest answer is that the designers have a bunch of ideas, we just need to see, when we collect more telemetry, to see which one makes the most amount of sense to address the problem.

MMORPG.com: With the release of Knights of the Eternal Throne, you guys have signaled a renewed focus on multiplayer content. I understand you probably can’t get into specifics, but can you talk about the scope of new content players can expect over the next year? More Uprisings? Operations? Warzones? Flashpoints? Also, have you settled on a cadence for these content updates? Can players look forward to something new every month? Every three months?

Ben Irving: I can answer part of that.  We’ve got five new Uprisings coming in January, so that will be out on January 24th. We’ll have five brand new Uprisings and then we’ll have the Master mode chapters coming out. The Master mode chapters are more geared towards solo players, but this would be like the hardest challenge, you really need some of the best gear in the game, and high influence level companions. All 25 chapters will come in Master mode in January. But the five new Uprisings is the start of group content. From there, we do have plans, we have a bunch of things in the works, but we just again want to see, which is being received well. Are Uprisings working out like we thought? Do people like Flashpoints more? Do people like Operations more? What are people actually playing in game? Then we’ll work out all of our plans for beyond January.

We’ve talked pretty openly on streams, that by the end of January, we want to do a stream and say, “Hey guys. This is kind of what we’re thinking for February and March.” And give more information on what that group content is. But I think it could be some part of any of those things you mentioned. I think we just gotta really understand what people are doing. Sometimes there’s difference between what people say they want and what they actually do in game and I think that’s the tricky part for us. We’re listening to our players giving us feedback, but also correlating it to the data of what people are actually doing in the game, to make sure we’re building the right type of things.

We’ve discussed that four player content is pretty good, but there are a whole lot of people asking for eight player content, so what form should that content take? I don’t have the answer for you today, but we plan to have the answer by the end of January.

MMORPG.com: Is Walker PvP a possibility?

Ben Irving: That technology that we’ve added and once we feel confident in doing it just beyond the story environment, certainly our goal is to use that in more content types than we currently do. I don’t know the timing of that or whatever yet, but that’s a conversation that we’ve had here. I think it would be interesting to see if we could have it work and the performance and all that kind of stuff. But we definitely want to use that kind of technology more, the idea that you can transform into something different, and having that change gameplay experiences both in PvE or PvP. There’s a lot of cool stuff to explore there.

I think if we did stuff, we’d probably start with like maybe it’s a power up in a warzone, and then one person can become a whatever, more so than you’d do eight on eight, but I think all those things are on the table, we just need to work out what makes sense, and what’s going to work properly.

MMORPG.com: That’s all I had. Was there anything you’d like to add?

Ben Irving: I’ve been doing a couple of interviews and the thing to me that I think is worth mentioning is that we have the five year anniversary and I think a lot of us here have spent a huge part of our lives working on this game, but then all the players who’ve played the game, have dedicated so much of their time and their lives, as well.

So, to me, the thing I’d want to add is just a thank you, to anyone who’s played the game over the last five years, especially those who are playing the game right now. I mean, it’s because of all of our players that we get to come to work every day and build cool Star Wars stories and Star Wars adventures, and without those players we wouldn’t be able to do anything, and it’d all be for nothing. I think from all of us here in Austin, just a heartfelt thank you to all of our fans who continue to support the game.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB