Star Wars: The Old Republic [Interview] – How to balance & test an…

Star Wars: The Old Republic has been out long enough for most of us to form an impression of how well it’s playing, and how well it’s evolving.
However, what goes into that evolution process? 
In part one of our two part interview with SWTOR lead designer, Daniel Erickson, we talk about the task and difficulty of balancing and testing such a large game and how BioWare approach their first real foray into the genre.
Stay tuned for part two later this week in which we discuss the recent 1.2 game update.
IncGamers: So how happy have you guys been with the response to SWTOR thus far, both from critics and from the public?
Daniel Erickson: Very happy, actually. The core message definitely got through; the critical acclaim was very clear in that, hey, we’ve brought story to MMO space, and the story is good. There’s been a ton of passionate, passionate feedback.
We just got back from doing PAX East and there were people people storming the booth, just wanting to talk and just wanting to hang out! For an MMO that’s already been released, it’s a rare and fantastic thing. We’re building a fanbase that’s passionate and very excited, and connected to the game.
IG: This is the first real MMO BioWare on the whole has done. Have you been surprised with the continued iteration that you have to do with MMOs, in terms of constant class balancing and constantly designing and developing new content, or do you think you were prepared for this?
DE: We were definitely prepared for the class balancing and the new content, and having to do those pieces. I think probably the biggest surprise for people who’d not done an online game before is the whack-a-mole bug-fixing aspect of it. It’s sort of this huge, complicated system, and when you push down a bug somewhere, it will often push one up somewhere else. So you’ll see phantom bugs; you’ll see something you were totally sure had been addressed a few weeks back, and… yeah.
I try to spend a good amount of time in the game, either at night or early in the morning, every day, to see what the players are seeing and to see what’s going on in the general chat. I’ll jump around to different servers and check it out. Then, every once in a while, somebody will bring something up and I’ll be flabbergasted.
I’ll just be like “That cannot be true!” and I’ll go over and I’ll check. Our live team is really good about running over really quick and checking out problems. You just kind of throw your hands up and go “Okay, well, I guess we’ve gotta fix it.” That’s life on a live service.

IG: Related to that, what were the biggest challenges that you ended up facing once SWTOR got into the hands of the public?
DE: I think one of the biggest issues coming right out of it was that we had a team that had been pushing incredibly hard, as you do to launch any game. We got the game out the door and… well, I’m going to go ahead and argue that we had the most stable, most successful launch for a major MMO in history. Right? Servers stayed up, we didn’t have any big issues, no people were getting locked out, none of that stuff.
But there were definitely bugs and things that we wanted to jump on right away… but we had a really, really tired team by that point! So, really, keeping the team energised and walking forward. We often say that you feel like you’ve passed the finish line when you get to the launch of an MMO, but really, what you did is you just started the race.
IG: I know that this is one of the issues that everyone has an opinion on – anyone who’s ever played an MMO will have their own thoughts on this – but how do you feel the class balance is holding up, so far?
DE: So far, class balance is actually something we’ve been very proud of. The team that works on it is extremely diligent about chasing up leads, about running mass simulations, and then – honestly – about just getting in the game and seeing how it’s actually working, each and every day. So there’s continual balance.
The reason MMO class balance is such an interesting one is that no one guy, two guys, or ten guys are ever going to be as smart as the amalgamated cloud of the munchkin-loving MMO sect who love to dissect the classes! Right? [Laughs] There are literally thousands and thousands and thousands of guys out there, all putting their brainpower together, to break your class balance in interesting ways.
So it continually gets revised, but so far it’s stood up really well. We’ve had a couple of bugs that threw it way, way out for some brief periods of time, but as far as things working as designed it’s been pretty solid.

IG: Inevitably, whenever I see MMO patch notes I’ll flick through the changes made to classes, and wonder why the hell at least one particular change was made because it seems – to my mind – to go in the wrong direction. So since you touched on this then, how do you actually go about balancing the classes?
DE: Part of it is making sure they’re actually fulfilling the roles they need to fulfil, and that’s not just in PvP. PvP, in some ways, is a more straightforward problem. You can say “Hey, we can try all the different classes against each other, and in groups and things against each other” and get the general idea. PvE, especially when you’re talking about Operations and things that are extremely tightly tuned, can present a more complicated problem.
You don’t want to build a boss fight or a combat encounter using a template, because then it’s going to be extremely boring for the players when they get there. So instead, you have a lot of very talented scripters who are doing these incredibly intricate boss fights, and they’re coming up with these really cool abilities and systems for them. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll find out that because of how this ability interacts with one class’s ability to do DPS and what they need to do it, it gives a clear advantage to this other class.
And people will find that and exploit it very quickly. And exploits? That’s one thing. Turns out that hey, this one guy can do something we didn’t intend. We’re going to fix that, but we’re not as worried about that. The one we’re worried about is when somebody sends out “I’m putting a group together. This class is not invited.” That’s an alarm that goes off very quickly! [Laughs] Because they’ve discovered that a particular class is less effective at healing, at DPS, at whatever, in a certain encounter. Sometimes we fix the encounter, and sometimes we fix the class, because what it’s actually done is expose a combination of abilities.
Well, they do say there are no better testers than the entire player-base on the whole…
Yes! [Laughs]

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