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The New Discipline System Primer

By Pete Schwab on December 02, 2014 | Columns | 0

The latest expansion pack for Star Wars: The Old Republic has arrived, and with it the game is graduating to version number 3.0. One of the banner features of the upgrade, although not specifically tied to the expansion pack, is the new method for dealing with skills: Disciplines. This post will serve as a quick primer to some of the changes, but will include links to blog posts on the official SWTOR site for folks who want to get a little more in depth with the new system or the changes for their individual classes.

In broad strokes, the discipline system is a recognition from Bioware Austin that the skill trees for each advanced class have become unwieldy. With the raised level cap in the Shadow of Revan expansion to 60, the developers grabbed the opportunity to re-think the way players chose their particular skill specializations. The discipline system begins when choosing an advanced class, around level 10. The selection is made in the new Combat Proficiencies window, which then becomes the main place to go for dealing with discipline and utility skill selection.

Previously, once an advanced class was selected then the player was presented with three skill trees, which provided passive and active skills ordered from less powerful to more powerful. Players could freely spend points (earned through levelling up) in any of the skill trees, but spreading too many points out across the three trees would mean that players would never access the more powerful spells at the top of the tree.

The discipline system avoids that problem, but takes away some of the advantages of the old system as well. Once an advanced class is selected, the player chooses a discipline, which is more or less the equivalent of one of the specialized skill trees in the old system.

As the player levels up, their level progression unlocks a set path of core skills each discipline will need to represent what makes that particular specialization unique. As an example, a Sith Inquisitor who chooses the Sorcerer advanced class will have the opportunity to choose the Lightning discipline. This discipline focuses on delivering quick, powerful lightning-based attacks in rapid succession with a higher chance of hitting for critical damage.

Over the past few weeks, the official SWTOR site has been hosting blog posts that go into depth for each pair (Imperial/Republic) of advanced classes. For current players, these are very good, quick reads for specific details on how each discipline will break down and what powers Bioware is adding and adjusting to define each choice.

Along with unlocking specific abilities, the player also unlocks nodes which grant utility points. Utilities are abilities which are shared by all three disciplines across a given advanced class. They are divided into three tiers, and selecting a set number of abilities on the lower tier unlocks selections on the higher tiers. They provide a pool of various skills which can be combined with the selected discipline to customize and personalize how the character plays in combat.

The new system looks great in terms of making player choices clear and simple. Every once in a while, with the skill tree system, Bioware would make a balance adjustment and all of the points spent would be reset. At level 55, that would mean having to reassign 46 skill points which can be a tedious and discouraging process. However, it gave players a lot of agency and flexibility when creating a character they were interested in playing, or experimenting with a strange hybrid build. The new system makes things more accessible to new players, and makes skill resets less tedious but takes away the deep customization and experimentation that a lot of MMORPG players love.

In a recent dev stream video community manager Eric Musco and combat and classes designer David Demaree talked a bit about why some of the changes were made. One thing they pointed out was that it was impossible for Bioware Austin to test and balance every possible hybrid combination that players could come up with in the old skill tree system before they released changes. With the streamlined discipline system, they are able to make sure everything is relatively balanced which will hopefully allow them to iterate more quickly when problems do arise.

One very important note regarding the discipline system: this is a fundamental change to the game that will affect all players. Whether you are a subscriber, premium, or free-to-play player, and whether or not you spend the twenty dollars to buy the expansion pack, this system will be the way you customize your character’s skills from launch day on. BioWare’s site states that the skill system upgrade will coincide with the early access period for people who have pre-paid for the Shadow of Revan expansion.

The ultimate goal of skill system based RPG games is to give players a toolset with which they can build a character that fits the play style they enjoy. If you enjoy playing a charismatic trickster who uses dirty tricks while fighting, you should be able to build that with a Smuggler. If you enjoy muscling your way through the front lines with raw power, you should be able to build that with a Sith Warrior. Finding the right balance between giving players the tools they need to create something unique and fun and giving them so much power that they can create niche builds which break the game is very tricky.

Bioware Austin’s efforts here seem to be laying a strong foundation for future changes, but people have a hard time letting go of what they’re used to. What do you think? Have they gone too far in taking away player agency in favor of making things accessible and manageable from the developer’s perspective? Or have they opened the doors a little more and extended a welcoming hand to players who may have felt overwhelmed with choices and intimidated under an avalanche of skill trees? Let us know what you think in the comments below, and look for ongoing coverage of the SWTOR expansion!


Pete Schwab