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Columns: Cantina Tour at PAX South: A New Hope

By Jean Prior on January 29, 2015

Cantina Tour at PAX South: A New Hope

This past weekend, several members of BioWare Austin descended upon San Antonio for PAX South in the latest Star Wars: The Old Republic Cantina Tour stop.  In it, guests were treated to the usual Q&A interspersed with prizes for correctly answering trivia questions.  Unusually, the event was actually held on-site at PAX and required a badge although it wasn't a part of official programming.  Also, due to relatively close proximity to Austin, a few other members of the SWTOR team past and present made the journey to attend, including Studio Creative Director James Ohlen and Studio General Manager Jeff Hickman.


Officially running the event were Community Manager Eric Musco, Lead Community Coordinator Courtney Woods Ackland, Community Production Coordinator Tait Watson, Development Director Ben Irving, Lead Writer Charles Boyd, Creative Director Jesse Sky, and Flashpoints and Operations Designer Matt Pucevich.  Eric Musco immediately started by noting that they were planning on changing up the usual Cantina Tour formula this year by offering more actual new pieces of information at this and future events, an announcement that drew an excited cheer from the crowd.  Ben Irving then stepped up and mentioned Senior Producer Bruce Maclean's (in)famous Producer's Letters, noting that he thought it would be awesome if he filched a copy while Maclean was away from his desk.  He then proceeded to read the Letter with a passable impression of Maclean's speech patterns.  What was funniest about it is the fact that Maclean was initially unaware that his Letter got published early, but as I found out later, it was done with Jeff Hickman's approval.  Of course, it should be noted that the contents of the Letter are still subject to change.  Here's a full transcript.

Hi everyone,

For many, the start of the year is a time for setting goals and planning for the future. This is something we've been focusing on here at BioWare Austin. 2014 was an amazing year for the team. We delivered two expansions, an overhaul to the class system, and regular story updates through Flashpoints. I'm proud of what the team's accomplished, and we not have been able to do it without your support. Thank you.

I'm excited about what we have in store for you in 2015. Some of you might remember before launch, we talked about the four pillars of RPGs: combat, exploration, progression, and story. SWTOR is an MMO, but it's also a BioWare game. Three years ago, we set out to deliver a product that contained the best of two worlds: the immersive story experience of a single player RPG and the vast array of systems and social connections from an online multiplayer game. Since launch, we mainly focused on the latter, adding Galactic Stronghold, achievements, Legacy perks, reputation tracks, and Galactic Starfighter. But with the success of the Shadow of Revan expansion, we think it's time to return to our roots and what truly makes our game unique: story.

Shadow of Revan was just the beginning. In 2015, we are committed to bring you more character-driven adventures in the Old Republic universe. You're going to see a unified story with themes that unite our eight classes. Everyone is a veteran from the galactic civil war with a complicated past and uncertain future. You'll see a greater emphasis on your character's personal story and on the choices that you make. I don't want to say too much more since we're in the midst of development, but what we have planned really gets back to the Star Wars fantasy at the heart of our game.

Our plan is to deliver two major updates with this new story direction later this year: one in the summer and other by the end of the year. "But what's happening in the meantime?" you might ask. Below is a list of some of what you can expect in the first half of the year. As always, please keep in mind that all of this is subject to change. We reserve the right to adjust our plans if we feel it is necessary.

On February 10th, we'll have game update 3.1 which includes the following things: Hard Mode Flashpoint Blood Hunt, Hard Mode Flashpoint Battle of Rishi. as well as the start of PVP season four.  For April 28th, which is our current tentative date for game update 3.2, we have a new system called the outfit designer. Stay tuned for a blog on this awesome new feature coming soon!

A new story arc on the planet Ziost. So this story arc takes us to the Imperial homeworld of Ziost, where we answer many of the questions posed by the cliffhanger at the end of Shadow of Revan. It also has the end of PVP season four and the start of season five.

And beyond that, no date, all dates TBD, we would like to, this year, do a new Stronghold. In addition to that, also add a new playable race: the Togruta. I kind of let the cat out of the bag on this one last year at the New York cantina, but now it's in writing or on the interwebs via my voice.

There is still more to be revealed for SWTOR this year. This is just the start. When we are further along in development, we'll release more information that dives into the nitty gritty details of these new features.

I want to thank you, our galactic heroes, for continuing to support us. It's your feedback and enthusiasm that makes SWTOR a better game and drives us to be better. All of our hard work is for you. May the Force be with you.

Bruce Maclean

It must be stressed at no point did anyone say anything about an expansion, despite what some other sites have reported.  I clarified this fact later on with Eric Musco.  Maclean's Letter specifically says 'update', so I wouldn't expect any rebranding of the game, much like how they didn't truly rebrand the game except for Rise of the Hutt Cartel two years ago and now with Shadow of Revan.  When I spoke to Jeff Hickman and James Ohlen after the Q&A, Hickman said that their driving goal this year is to focus on more story, because they're BioWare and that's what BioWare fans expect. 

Much of the Q&A was the standard sort of questions about various features of the game, but of course someone had to ask the hot topic question: what was up with the Contraband Slot Machines?  For those who haven't followed the issue, BioWare introduced a new kind of slot machine into the game that promptly started rewarding players with crafting materials far in excess of what was intended and it threatened to ruin the game's economy, so BioWare nerfed them pretty harshly.  Players got in an uproar about things, and honestly, there was no real choice that BioWare could make to fix the problem that was going to make players happy, especially considering how riled up the community still is about the recent exploit drama.  Eric Musco gave a lengthy explanation about the slot machines and what happened with them.  He stated that their goal was to allow players to spend credits and not real money to acquire older reputation items but not to generate massive piles of instant crafting materials by spending a few credits here or there.  He admitted straight up that they had made a mistake and the size of the nerf showed just how big of a mistake it was.  He added that part of their response to lessen the impact of the nerf was to add an exclusive walker mount to the machine, a bit of kit that could only be obtained there. 

While there weren't many other new pieces of information discussed, Charles Boyd stated that the story we encounter on Ziost was of course just the first new chunk of content, that there was more to come.  Sadly, PVP was neglected through the event for the most part other than a single question during the Q&A about it, which led to Eric Musco asking the audience if they wanted another Huttball map (the attendees cheered).  As per usual, attendees also got a flashdrive to take home with images on it.  They were mostly stuff already in the game thanks to the Cartel Market, but this time, I discovered a text file on mine with a code for 2400 Cartel Coins on it, so that seemed like a pretty nice perk for showing up.  I'm sure someone like Bam from the Shadowlands' WOOK guild (who has attended most if not all the Cantina Tours – check out his lanyard of flashdrives sometime) could tell you when that started, but it was new to me this time around.

In all, this stop was better than previous ones I've attended in terms of content. While we didn't get the sort of open floodgates we wish BioWare would treat us to, there was more honesty in terms of admitting fault with the slot machines, and an actual willingness to treat attendees to an exclusive or two.  Sure, Reddit and sites like Dulfy had the news out there just as fast as I could live-tweet the Cliff's notes, but it was the first time they dished stuff that hadn't already been officially announced, and they also had the two head honchos of the studio hanging out – neither of them were at the Austin Cantina Tour in November 2013.  The next Cantina Tour stop hasn't been announced yet, but it's fairly likely that there will be one in or around PAX East in Boston the first weekend of March.  I also spoke to Eric Musco to ask if the April one would be in or around Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, a most sensible place to have one.  He said they were looking into it because they wanted to be there, but there are no definitive plans yet.  I do know at least two cosplayers who will be there in SWTOR-themed costumes.

So what's your take on the news out of the event?

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.