Jeff Hickman on Galactic Starfighter
Monday saw the answer to a question many fans of Star Wars: the Old Republic were having, which was, “We know you have the full-on Galactic Starfighter launch on Tuesday, but what's going on for the rest of the year?” Senior Producer Bruce Maclean published a letter on swtor.com on Monday that laid out a roadmap for the future of the game for much of the rest of 2014. To add further context to the information in the letter, MMORPG was given an exclusive phone interview with BioWare Austin's General Manager Jeff Hickman, along with Bruce himself, and Senior Marketing Director DebySue Wolfcale. We discussed the past year for Star Wars: the Old Republic, its present reality, and they teased us with some hints for the future of the game beyond the contents of Bruce's Producer's Letter.
They were proud of the fact that they kept to their amended promise to do updates every eight weeks, and Bruce made a point of noting how the entire team poured their hearts into the project and that it was the same team on board as last year. While Bruce and Jeff acknowledged that things hadn't gone according to plan with the game over the past two years and firmly latched onto the analogy I'd made of a ski jump, the overall impression I got is one of confidence that the BioWare team can and will stick the landing. They also noted that the community Cantina Tours had provided invaluable feedback and that they were certainly listening to the comments provided by players at those events.
We turned our attention to some of the recent updates to the game, such as the changes to address the viability of certain advanced classes in PVP, noting how bolster was an ongoing project. After mentioning the joint warzone and Galactic Starfighter queues on the Public Test Server, I asked if they could reveal more about plans to continue improving the overall PVP experience for both newer players and veterans. Bruce Maclean stated that both warzones and Galactic Starfighter would see updates, the latter of which will encompass new maps, new ship roles, and new ships themselves. Expanding on his comments about ground game PVP in his letter, both he and Jeff enthused about the new Huttball arena that's already been teased in previous releases. One thing they pointed out was that this new arena would have a vertical aspect to it, a more three-dimensional space to maneuver through, which should certainly make it more challenging for players. They also noted that the class combat team was very busy, which makes sense considering they're in the midst of going over all of the classes again to fine-tune balance.
After that, the main reason why they wished to offer an interview was discussed, my recent column regarding SWTOR's free-to-play experience, and there was much amusement over my Picard-facepalm moment when I'd found out they'd read it and wanted to respond to it. Both Jeff and Bruce had to offer disagreement with my conclusions that the messaging a player sees is perceived as being more negative than necessary. Jeff stated that he believed that the game was possibly the second-biggest MMO in the western world, but that they were always looking into the messaging, that it was the subject of internal discussions. He went on to say that there were no short-term plans to mitigate it. He added that subscribers were their priority, but they were always looking for opportunities for improvement for the free-to-play experience, looking at how other games are doing it and then deciding from there. One thing that surprised me was their firm declaration that most of the responses they've gotten from players who had absolutely no experience with SWTOR were characterized as being 'generally super-positive', and that they had metrics to support this statement.
Our next topic of discussion was one of my favorite SWTOR-related activities, and that was the face-to-face opportunities we've had with the community team and developers, particularly the Cantina Tour spearheaded by Community Manager Eric Musco. I mentioned that as a game journalist or even a player, sometimes the Tour stops seemed like cool events if all you want to do is hang out with the devs, but not really a huge opportunity to drop some revelations and make them super-special for the attendees. According to Bruce, the Tour stops were more about the developers being able to get out there and hear some feedback in person, with the revelations and nice party aspect of the events being secondary. However, they did note that this year's Tour stops are not ramping anything down, that they're expecting that more will come out of them this year than last year. In particular, DebySue Wolfcale remarked that the February Tour stop would be pretty awesome, and the one in March would be even bigger, so much so that she didn't even put an adjective to it. While they declined to give specifics, just the tone in their voices reminded me of someone who'd just made their kids something really epic for Christmas and was waiting for the unwrapping. Based on the contents of Bruce's Producer Letter, I suspect this will be the big reveal for the first of the two digital expansions he mentioned. For those wondering about April and PAX East like I was, a Boston Tour stop is currently on the plan, and BioWare intends to get the word out about dates further in advance so people can make arrangements to attend if they so desired.
Our next subject was regarding the future of the game after reading Lead Writer's Charles Boyd's recent tweet that he was in LA recording new dialogue, and a couple of voice actors such as David Hayter tweeting teases of their work. After pointing out that lore-happy players like myself were deeply interested in more class story and questing, I asked if they could shed any light on what these vaguetweets meant for the game's overall story. Bruce was the one to bring the immediate bad news: no new class story is being worked on right now. He added that it's not that they wouldn't love to do more, but that it's just a LOT to do. They went on to say that story is a pillar of the game, and that last year's additional story wasn't an overall linked arc. This year, they commented, would be a continuation of a cohesive story arc, that the work just done in LA was amazing and they couldn't wait for us to see it.
In a more behind-the-scenes turn of discussion, I asked Jeff Hickman if he thought that a subscription-only model was still viable in this industry and what words of advice he might give to industry colleagues coming out with subscription-based games this year and into the future. Jeff made a point of noting that this was his opinion, but he felt that there were lots of ways to run a business and generate revenue. He believed that subscriptions are still viable, but that the key points are to make it fun and to listen to players. He added that SWTOR's free-to-play and subscription revenue was great, a fact that we've seen is hard to determine from reading EA's financial reports. Jeff went on to say that he felt that lowering the barrier to entry is a better methodology, so a $60 USD box is a huge barrier to players getting in there and having fun. He said that going free-to-play without a box is a great idea and studios should let the players choose how much to pay. His final comment was to respect one's players.
Our final topic for the interview was their plans for the future, how BioWare intended to compete against such an extremely competitive year for MMOs. I pointed out to them how half a dozen other triple-A studios were either launching or releasing a large expansion with lots of press releases and events, and one even went to so far as to announce no expansion but general housecleaning for this year. So I put the question to them, how does BioWare intend to counteract the shinies that other games are dangling to try and win players away?
Bruce Maclean immediately pointed out that his team's plan goes out 15 months and we saw that some of this plan was revealed in his Producer's Letter published on Monday. The big nugget of information contained in that letter was that there would be two digital expansions this year. In the interview, Bruce said that they were roughly the same scope as Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Galactic Starfighter. Jeff Hickman went on to say that last year's expansions were both learning experiences and that the team was extremely excited over this new content to expand and change SWTOR. Just as Jeff was about to reveal the first word of the name of the first expansion, Bruce drowned him out with a very good impression of Vader's “Noooooooo!” from Episode III. I believe I also said one myself, although I will grant them points for the well-played trolling.
There you have it, more information about the current state of Star Wars: the Old Republic, and some juicy hints for things to come in the future. I'd like to thank the folks at BioWare: Jeff Hickman, DebySue Wolfcale, and the unexpected Bruce Maclean for giving us some of their time and providing our readers with some more information for discussions and speculations.