Anyone in the game industry or in PR work will tell you that the release of new content is a tricky monster at best. For years, game companies that held back their secrets often justified their decision by explaining their worry that a premature release of unfinished content would adversely taint their hype and thus cost them sales. Others would engage press in secret events a brief time before a release to carefully cultivate hype for that release, but there would still be NDAs for beta testers, embargoes for press, and players hungry for details on what's coming. It's a delicate balance, and many companies tend to be conservative in managing such things. It's only in the past year that other studios such as SOE or Carbine have thrown caution to the wind and grabbed their communities and practically signed them onto the payroll to help build their games.
When it comes to BioWare Austin and Star Wars: the Old Republic, we've long sighed about the paucity of information leading up to releases ever since launch, with players often wondering if things would get a proper beta test or assuming that their feedback in beta would have no real bearing on the release since it was so close to launch. We would get an all-too-brief announcement and then run rampant with speculation as to what it entails, how all the fiddly bits work, with the final release winding up as something of a letdown because so much time had passed between announcement and release with relatively little community engagement. I had the opportunity to express this concern to BioWare Austin's Senior Director of Marketing DebySue Wolfcale when I met her at PAX East, making suggestions on how to better connect with their passionate fanbase. As a game journalist, I found it curious and a bit counter-intuitive when they did their press junket for Galactic Starfighter in February of this year, when the subscribers had already the content NDA-free for two months previously, and everyone already had those two months of player-created livestreams and documents available to review. By the time it was rolled out to their remaining players, the full-on free-to-play accounts, it was old news.
I'm pleased to say that it seems they're learning from the example of other game studios and have begun a series of weekly livestreams on their official Twitch channel, where they will focus on one particular aspect of the upcoming Galactic Strongholds housing system every week and answer questions from their players about that specific feature. In their first stream, questions about other systems tend to be ignored as not being on topic, no matter how frequently someone spammed it, but that's fairly typical for any game who announces ahead of time that the topic of their stream is X and players were frequently asking about Y instead.
As of the time of this writing, they had yet to embark upon their second livestream. However, just from the example of the first stream last week, I was gratified at how open both Associate Designer Toby McCall and Producer Jack Wood were, the latter of whom I had interviewed at PAX East, when Jack could tell me extremely little about the expansion. Coupled with Lead Designer Jesse Sky's blog about the expansion published the same day that revealed the hook system and gave more details about things such as Legacy Storage, it made for an exciting day to be a SWTOR player.
Let's get down to brass tacks here and see what this is all about. The first thing to be aware of is that BioWare went with a hook system, designating several zones of varying sizes as small, medium, or large hooks. When I first heard this, I had my Picard-facepalm moment because this didn't seem to match what we'd already been told, that this would not be similar to Lord of the Rings Online's very limited housing system. However, after reviewing the blog and initial Twitch stream, the system is far more flexible than LotRO's. The only major themepark MMO whose system blows this one out of space is WildStar at this point. Comparing it to sandboxes like Landmark or ArcheAge is an apples/oranges conversation, so we have to leave them out of it. The versatility of the hook system is evident when you can rearrange what hooks you have and how many of them fall within a certain space. Have it set for four medium hooks but you want to plop down a large item instead? Just tell the editor so. Want to put a rug under your expensive casino table? There's a separate rug hook. Throughout the entire video, I was amazed at the huge number of hooks available in each room. There were hooks scattered all over most of the floor surfaces, along many walls, and even on the ceilings, all customizable into various layouts.
Granted, you're not going to get full-on free-place for your decorations like Landmark has for props in their beta, but again, apples/oranges. However, those of us who have played SOE's testbed for EverQuest Next will likely miss the ability to also resize items or rotate and raise/lower on the Z axis as well as the X and Y axis for the floor and ceiling hooks (opposite for wall hooks), but in terms of amount of space to monkey around with, Star Wars: the Old Republic has some surprisingly large rooms in each of its so-far-announced housing options. To be fair, they started with the Nar Shaddaa Sky Palace, which was described to me as being the mansion of the lot, but even the Tatooine Homestead was described in the livestream by Community Manager Eric Musco as being 'huge', with a subsequent teaser video giving that sense of a homestead where Aunt Beru's voice echoed off the walls for some distance when she was calling for Luke.
One of the quick facts they mentioned about the system in general caused a little bit of disappointment for me personally. As they were demonstrating the first, largest hook on the landing pad, they made it clear that even if you plopped a copy of your personal ship there, it wasn't functional. You couldn't run down to the pad, hop in your ship, and fly off like you can do in a hangar. While it kills a bit of immersion and gameplay, I can see why it wouldn't be possible, as currently all class ships are instanced content as it is, and a free and open landing pad wouldn't work with that mechanic, since the entire Stronghold itself is already instanced.
They made a point of noting how there would be some love for the crafters in the system, where each production craft would be able to create components you will need to then buy various decorations from a vendor. It should also be noted that one of the means to gain access to Legacy Storage is to have a specific decoration created by a crafter. Jesse Sky's blog also further noted a fact that was later overturned in the Twitch stream, which was whether you could visit your alt's cross-faction Stronghold. While the blog seemed to indicate only same-faction visitation rights were automatic, Jack Wood stated that there will be a mechanic for players to let their cross-faction alts visit each other's capital planets, but didn't provide any further details beyond that it would involve story in some fashion. At the tail end of the stream, someone in chat asked whether cross-faction visitors was possible, such as your friend's Imperial visiting your Republic character's Stronghold on Nar Shaddaa, and the answer was yes, that could happen.