[SWTOR] How classes get designed these days

Anyone remember playing old MMOs where balance was an afterthought, and classes were designed based on what someone thought looked cool? And then of course the rapid nerfs after players figured out smart ways to game the system?

Times have changed, as SWTOR’s developer blog on class design shows. Georg Zoeller discusses how characters will gain skills in the game (which is a mixture of buying base skills from trainers and assigning talent points) and then goes through every class to discuss how player feedback from beta changed the design.

There’s also a super little map showing locations where members of one testing group moved and died in one sub area. This reminds me powerfully of techniques used by a friend of mine who helps plan out passenger terminals and train stations – they also model movement and behaviour before they throw a few million pounds into bricks and mortar.

My explorers heart also beats a little faster on reading:

We also use these heatmaps to <…> identify potential locations for special content such as datacrons or unique enemies, which are specifically designed to reward explorers that go off the beaten path.

But really, the big question is going to be whether a game that’s been so carefully, scientifically tuned is going to lose any of the fun factor. Or in other words, will it feel too slick? In a world where polish is so revered, is it the unpolished rough edges that prove the most memorable?

Only one way to find out and that’s to play the thing. I don’t think anyone really enjoys playing underpowered classes, especially if other classes can fill all the same roles, and it’s an interesting insight to how designers can try to make sure that doesn’t happen.

If you want to play around with the advanced classes, Bioware are also showing off parts of the skill trees and individual talents that will be available. A lot of the abilities shown seem to be passive, make of that what you will. Also, anyone want to see their E3 trailer for SWTOR? Of course you do.

Personally, I worry that after Cataclysm (which still has big issues with melee vs ranged balance) I’ve just been put off playing melee characters. Why pick a melee healer or dps if you could pick a ranged one instead? The smuggler/ scrapper reminds me a lot of the burglar in LOTRO which is good because melee utility classes are fun, and bad because omg the burglar is so incredibly disappointing in raids. (Still, a healer with stealth has always been one of my dream combos.)

I don’t think it’s really a good thing to be so influenced in class choice by how other games in the past have been balanced. Does anyone else find that they do that?

And ultimately, the biggest sell for SWTOR is going to be the storytelling for each class. No amount of advanced skill talent trees is going to give much information on that.

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To exploit or not to exploit?

Jamie Madigan@The Psychology of Video Games wrote a thoughtful post about how players respond to known glitches/ exploits in a game. He’s using a PvP game as a model, but a PvE game with a lot of competition (ie. between raid guilds) would follow the same flow.

His conclusions aren’t surprising, but they are worth stating.

The game is more fun for everyone if no one abuses the glitches, and all players know this at some level. They’d all privately prefer if no-one glitched, either because the option didn’t exist or because everyone was trustworthy. However, if they aren’t sure whether anyone else is glitching and don’t trust them, most people will decide to use the glitch.

He does also discuss the Prisoner’s Dilemma, zerg rushes in Starcraft,  and a whole slew of history  of thinking on this type of  social problem. So if you find  game theory interesting, give it a read. I am fascinated because it explains why players will sometimes deliberately select a less fun option, knowing full well that it will result in a less fun game.

Interestingly, not everyone in an MMO will use a known glitch or exploit. There’s a lot of social pressure not to do it, both from social players and from competitive raiders/ PvPers. It’s seen as a cheap option and devalued. Jamie’s model can break down under those circumstances.

But don’t feel too cocky yet because MMO players have other pressures on them to select less fun gaming options. A lot of players, especially raiders, feel pushed in MMOs to play more and more frequently, probably more than they would ideally want for a good game/life balance.  And much of the same game theory applies there too.

Still, this leaves a lot of open questions:

  • At the end of the day, whose fault is it really that players flock to less fun options?
  • The designer for allowing that option into the game, or the other players for not being able to agree that some options do not belong on the table?
  • Would we rather have less choice in games if the choices which WERE there guaranteed us fun gaming experiences, rather than pressuring us away from them?

And I wonder if it is a general trend in media at the moment — not just games — to move towards the on-rails guaranteed experience, because we know that players will gravitate towards less fun options if they can.