Archive for December, 2009


On Companions

BioWare has recently revealed some information about Companion Characters and it’s generated some strong opinions and heated discussion across forums and blogs.

What exactly are Companion Characters?

We certainly don’t know how companions will look and function fully until we play the game, but BioWare is being pretty up front about their use — that you can develop “relationships” with them perhaps even ‘romance’ them, that they can be summoned, that they aren’t necessary but fully optional, and they can fill in for a party role (or the entire party) if one wishes. They’ve also stated the rule that you can only have one Companion out at a time. The others stay in a central location that you can change out from time to time. Details are still fuzzy.

If it works like other BW games, the companion will be a character you meet along your story arc who will choose to join your party. They will react to your actions in game. A ‘good’ companion may comment if you do an ‘evil’ deed. They may even leave your party. Companions add a depth the story that would be missing without them.

One of the examples we’ve seen so far is a ‘Tank’ type companion for a Sith Inquisitor. The Companion helps the Inquisitor stay at range, and takes some of the beating that the Inquisitor would have a hard time coping with.

I think Companions will help with two major complaints I’ve seen in other games: leveling a group oriented character (tank/heal) is difficult, and that you never really get to practice and hone your group skill (tank/heal) while leveling.

Now when I talk in the next section about Classes, I’m using the term very loosely. It could refer to a ‘class’ in the traditional sense, but for some games, the concept is expressed as a Specialization or Talent Tree. For example, the way I’m using the word Class, the World of Warcraft Protection Warrior is a Class, distinct from the Fury Warrior Class.

One of the reasons cited for why people don’t level Tanks/Healers is that those classes are typically more difficult to level with. To balance their ability to tank or heal, those classes do less damage. Since the main activity of leveling usually involves combat, these classes find it more difficult or at least slower to complete those combats.

The Companion Character helps to address that. A Tank type character could use a Healer companion. A Ranged character like the Inquisitor could use a Tank type companion. Instead of having to heal things to death, the Healer player heals his DPS companion who kills things for him. This will help those classes level faster and hopefully mean there will be more Tanks and Healers at End Game.

These Companion Characters also help the Tank and Healer learn to use their group oriented skills. A Healer class can sometimes level all the way to end game without ever healing anyone other than themselves. A Tank class may get to the level cap without having to use some of his Tank spells. With Companions, players will have a need to use their group skills for their Companion.

Much of the strong negative reaction to Companions centers on people’s concerns that Companions are a move to over-mollify soloers and steer the game away from grouping. Basically, the detractors believe this will remove some of the massively from the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game and fundamentally change the genre.

This is a sensitive issue for BioWare since many are concerned that TOR is just a single player game with an MMO price model of a monthly subscription.

To a certain extent the people expressing those concerns are exactly right. When interviewed, BioWare representatives have said that part of their goal with Companions was to let you play through the game solo. They want to ease the transition of a guy who loves BioWare games, like KotOR or Mass Effect, but hasn’t played an MMO. Bioware specifically related the MMO part to there being ‘other people in the world’.

BioWare also wants Companions to be able to fulfill roles you are having trouble filling. Most MMO veterans know of the experience of waiting for find that one class or one role to fill out a party. (LF1M Healer then good to go!) BioWare’s intention is that instead of waiting around for a healer, someone in the party could offer to use their Companion to heal.

This will make balancing of instances/dungeons/flashpoints interesting. Do the Developers balance them around people using Companions, in which case groups not using Companions will find them more difficult, or do they balance around not using Companions, in which case groups using Companions will find them much easier. Perhaps BioWare has designed some sort of on the fly balancing based on how many players/Companions you have in the instance. We just don’t know yet.

Personally, I’m pretty excited about Companions. They add a level of immersion and depth to the game. Plus, with my real life schedule, sometimes being able to have a short ‘solo’ session is attractive. No one wants to wait 10 minutes while I run upstairs because my daughter woke up with a nightmare. My Companion character won’t care. Of course, I don’t want to always be soloing and I thoroughly enjoy the virtual friendships I’ve formed over the course of other MMOs I’ve played. It’s my hope that the people concerned over Companions are overstating the issue and that in the end Companions will be good addition to TOR and a well received feature.


But Everyone Will Play a Jedi?

I decided to do a little experiment to see if I could gauge the popularity of the various classes in Star Wars The Old Republic. Since the game isn’t out yet, no one has rolled their class, but many people already have an idea of what they want to be. I know I do.

BioWare already has class specific forums on their site for people interested in that particular class to discuss it. I wondered if there might be a correlation between the activity of a Class Board relative to another Class Board and the popularity of that class in the game.

What I found was interesting.

The Jedi Consular and Sith Inquisitor have the least number of postings, but these forums just opened so it’s obvious they will lag behind the other forums a bit. Both the Consular and Inquisitor forums show about the same number of threads in then.

The most popular forum isn’t a Jedi forum at all; it’s the Bounty Hunter forum. After the Bounty Hunter the next most popular forum is the Sith Warrior followed by the Republic Trooper. Even the Smuggler forum is more popular than the Jedi Knight. So maybe not EVERYBODY is going to roll a Jedi after all.

I think what would concern me if I was BioWare is the relative quietness of the Imperial Agent forum. The Consular and Inquisitor forums already have nearly half as many threads despite being opened for only a short period of time.

Now of course this is far from scientific and people can post in multiple forums but I do think the general level of activity in the Class Forum may provide an insight into its overall popularity.


Will Jedi Knights Be Tanks?

Will Jedi Knights Be Tanks?

First a little background on me. The only MMO I have played to date is World of Warcraft. In WoW, I play a Tanking class called the Protection Paladin. I love Tanking. It’s the most fun role there is in a party.

So as I look at my chosen class for SWTOR, I wonder if Jedi Knights will be a tanking class.

I realize this presupposes that SWTOR will use Tanks, but I believe I make this assumption on solid grounds. Now I know many things can change during the development of an MMO, but we have to go with the knowledge we have at this time.

We got the first hint of how The Old Republic will use the Trinity (Tank, Healer, DPS) in an interview done by MMO Gamer with Daniel Erickson, Lead Writer on Star Wars: The Old Republic and Jame Ohlen, Studio Creative Director, and Lead Designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic. While discussing combat mechanics James Ohlen said: “we want to appeal to MMO fans who like the strategy and tactics involved in MMO combat, where you have the different character types, the guy who’s a tank that jumps into battle and everyone focuses on him while you have your ranged DPS guys. We still want to have that.” (emphasis added)

Okay, so let’s say you’re feeling generous and you are willing to accept that SWTOR will have Tanks. Why then do I think the Jedi Knight class will be a Tanking class? Why not the Trooper, or Smuggler or Consular? I’m not saying those other classes won’t be tanks, they very well might have tanking builds or templates or whatever the terminology will be for SWTOR. But I think Jedi Knights definitely will be Tanks.

Let me direct your attention to an interview done by Gamespot with BioWare’s director of production Dallas Dickinson and senior game designer William Wallace on the Jedi Knight class.

During the interview William Wallace discussed the Jedi Knight in combat. “[The Jedi Knight] has a number of strong single and double lightsaber attacks to damage his enemies and keep them from damaging him. In group combat, the Jedi knight excels at staying at the forefront of the fight and has a number of ways to keep the battle focused on him, letting his allies concentrate on what they do best and also keeping any Sith lightsabers away from unarmored targets.”

As one of the more elegant forum posters once said, Tanking is ticking them off good and then taking it like a man. Tanks maintain threat to keep the Enemy attacking them and then absorb those blows through various skills, spells, and talents.

Look how both of those elements are encompassed in the answer provided by BioWare. The Jedi Knight “has a number of ways to keep the battle focused on him”. That is the first element of tanking. All the damage mitigation in the world isn’t going to help you if the Enemy isn’t attacking you. You might be a brick wall, but the Enemy might choose to beat down the wooden wall instead. So you have to keep the Enemies attention.

The next thing he says is that the Jedi will protect their allies by “also keeping any Sith lightsabers away from unarmored targets.” Specifically now we see the example of keeping the Enemy Sith away from the more squishy members of our party.

Threat is all well and good and necessary, but just as important is the need to stay alive once you have threat. Anyone’s whose played a DPS class in WoW can tell you getting threat isn’t that hard, surviving a couple of attacks from the Boss is much more difficult. In the interview, we can see the second element of Tanking.

The Jedi will have combat maneuver that “keep them [his Enemies] from damaging him.” So the Jedi keeps the attention of the Enemy and then keeps the Enemy from doing damage to him. Perhaps by parrying the blow? Parry is a major skill in WoW that every Tanking class except Feral Druids possesses.

In the interview Mr. Wallace describes the Jedi Knight as leading the group. Typically the Tank is seen as the leader of your party. He directs the pace and the pulls and keeps the party together. The Tank will often be the one to set the strategy as the strategy generally is heavily influenced by his abilities.

We can clearly see from this interview that the Jedi Knight has been designed with the two major elements of Tanking in mind. This doesn’t preclude other classes from being Tanks nor does it mean that Jedi Knights are only going to be able to fulfill the Tanking role. Mr. Wallace specifically mentions the Jedi Knight still being an asset “Even if the Jedi knight isn’t leading the group.”

This is really a smart move by BioWare. Going by my WoW experience, Tanks are the most difficult role to fill in any group, followed by Healers. Many expect the Jedi Knight to be the most popular class in Star Wars The Old Republic. So right off the bat, you will have a large supply of Tank capable players ready for whatever type of End Game content BioWare is designing.


Primary Colors

In the United States, our first school experience is called Kindergarten. One of the lessons we learn in Kindergarten is about Primary colors.

The primary colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. They are called the Primary Colors because every other color in the world is made by combining those 3 primary colors. We learn those combinations as secondary colors. Yellow and Blue make Green. Red and Yellow make Orange. Red and Blue make Purple. It’s an epic combination.

Class based RPGs have their primary colors as well. I’m fortunate enough, or just old enough, depending on how you want to look at it, to have played many RPGs going all the way back to the PnP (Pen and Paper) Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition.

In that time I’ve observed that the RPG world has primary colors or more correctly, primary classes. Rather than the 3 you learn about with Art, there are 4 in RPGs. These four are Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Magic User. The Fighter had a huge hit point pool and his main focus was on dealing damage with his weapon. The Cleric had limited weapons skill but was greatly valued for his ability to heal his team mates. The thief was weaker than the Fighter, but had a deadly attack that required special positioning to use. The Magic User had a tiny hit point pool, but could do more damage with his spells than even the best fighter could with his sword.

As games matured secondary colors were added, usually combining elements of the Fighter with elements of the Magic User. You even saw attempts at Jack of All Trades classes like the DnD Bard.

These primary colors would evolve into the primary roles we see in modern MMORPGs. The Fighter, with his huge hit point total evolved into the Tank role. The Cleric evolved into the Healer role. The Thief would become Melee DPS while the Magic User would become Ranged DPS. Again Developers gave us the Oranges and Purples of Tank/DPS, and Heal/DPS.

Just as understanding the relationship of primary colors and secondary colors helps us understand the world of art, the understanding of primary classes helps us understand the world of RPGs and MMORPGs.

First let’s apply this understand to the well known MMORPG, World of Warcraft.

WoW has 10 classes. 4 of those classes are primary colors and 6 are secondary colors. The Rogue is your classic Thief. The Hunter, Warlock and Mage are shades of the Magic User. The other classes are more of a template that is built upon in WoW with Talent trees. Paladins can end up more like a Fighter or more like a Cleric. Druids can wind up in just about any color and are the closest to the DnD Bard as a Class that tries to do a bit of everything.

Tension exists between the Primary Colors and the Secondary Colors, and as the game has matured the Developers continue to address this tension.

Originally, they gave the Secondary Colors penalties, the so called Hybrid Tax, to offset this tension. Now the penalties have been reduced, but the trade off is that the Secondary Colors are made to choose which Primary color they will emulate. Green that is so blue, one might as well call it blue. A Fighter / Magic User who spells are so weak, and weapons so strong you might as well call him a Fighter.

Next, let’s apply this understanding to a new game like Star Wars the Old Republic.

SWTOR has revealed all 8 of its classes, but as we analyze these 8 classes we quickly see not 8 classes, but 4 pairs. These are Smuggler/Sith Agent, the Jedi Knight/Sith Warrior, the Jedi Consular/Sith Inquisitor, and the Trooper/Bounty Hunter.

The Thief here is probably the easiest to see. The Smuggler/Sith Agent use the trademark sneaking and with the Sith Agent, we even have stealth. While the Jedi Knight/Sith Warrior will have Force powers that might seem Magic User like, their preference for dealing with the situations with their swords paints them more as the Fighter. The Magic User appears to be more easily seen in the Trooper/Bounty Hunter. The spells of these classes may be unlike the typical Magic User, but the archtype of high damaging attacks from a distance seems to fit very well with these two classes. This leaves the Jedi Consular/Sith Inquistior there to take up the Cleric. This is probably the biggest stretch as the Inquisitor has been described as throwing around Lightning Bolts which certainly seems to be more Magic User like. But I have to wonder if we won’t see these two classes falling more into the Cleric role as more information comes out about them.

Whereas WoW seems to be dabbling mostly in the palette of secondary colors, the Developers of The Old Republic seem to be leaning more to primary colors. It will be interesting to watch what ramifications both good and bad come from these formative choices of which color palette to use when designing the class structure.

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