Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Bioware? [AKA: Who am I interviewing? I didn't know in advance who this was going to be as I wasn't sure who would be responsible for flashpoints!]
My name is Michael Backus, and I’m the Lead Designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic. I joined the BioWare team over 8 years ago and have spent the majority of my time on SW:TOR. My job really has two main parts: The first is to manage the Design team on SW:TOR. The second is to work with leadership and bring the vision of the game to life at AAA-quality for our players. That means sharing the vision with team members, documenting designs, and working with the team to flesh out the details of designing new features and gameplay.
Currently all flashpoints are set up to be PUG-able through the group finder. Have you considered adding a higher difficulty option that would allow smaller groups of friends to challenge themselves similar to what you experience in hard or nightmare mode operations? Some of us have very fond memories of Lost Island HM at launch.
We have, but it’s always a balance between making Flashpoints accessible to more players versus building a custom experience to allow for a greater challenge but for a much more limited set of players. That being said, we are always looking at opportunities to deliver higher difficulty to players looking for that increased level of challenge.
At launch, flashpoints seemed to be set up to offer an alternate gear progression route to operations since they dropped the same set pieces, though one tier lower than you could get in raids. For a while there were even plans to have different difficulty tiers of flashpoints (Lost Island!), but all of this was soon scrapped. I can understand that the tiering system would likely have become unwieldy over time, but can you give us some insight into why set pieces were removed from flashpoints? I always thought that they made for great rewards.
You touched on it a bit in the question. The main idea was to streamline gear progression. Building and maintaining so many different stat combinations and tiers of gear added confusion to the gameplay experience for some players and made it a much more difficult system to grow and maintain. It is much easier to communicate that set pieces come from Operations. Flashpoint gear progression was designed to be a stepping stone into Operations, so reinforcing that opportunity in the gear progression sent a clearer message.
Over time, flashpoints seem to have served a couple of different purposes. For example Hammer Station is a relatively inconsequential story, just something fun to do with your friends. The Foundry or False Emperor on the other hand are important encounters that were clearly meant to feel even more epic by requiring a whole group of people. The newest flashpoints have mainly been used to drive the main narrative forward (Forged Alliances et al.), but with the inclusion of solo modes for many of these, the lines between regular quests and flashpoints have become somewhat blurred. What do you see as the main purpose of flashpoints going forward?
Going forward we want to expand the appeal by increasing the fun of playing these experiences. Early in the game’s history we leaned-in more on cinematic storytelling in group content, but since we have had such a strong response to the storytelling in Chapters we then looked at the value of making make group content like the Star Fortresses. More dynamic with a focus on the gameplay.
What's the most challenging aspect of creating new flashpoints? Are they very resource-intensive to make? If so, why?
That’s an interesting question, mainly because what’s the most challenging can also be some of the most fun for us as a development team.
For instance, if we look at creating a new level, the amount of effort is quite large. We come up with a critical path for both the level and the gameplay. Then, we have to have the area blocked out and scripted so we can playtest it and make sure we’re doing something fun. Then, you have the time we spend on building the environment art—we often create new environments so an area has unique features or a different look to it. Then we have our artists work on making the area beautiful, which requires texture, lighting, and propping work. And that’s without getting into the other Art work we do to create a quality experience: New creatures and bosses, their abilities, and any animation or VFX time to make the level come alive.
Although this sounds like a complex process, it is still a lot of fun. I mean, we’re creating something new for the Star Wars™ universe. That means our Writers, Designers, and Artists are working together to come up with something new and fun, while consulting with our partners at LucasFilm to make sure we capture the feel of Star Wars and The Old Republic. So although it can be a long process with a lot of moving parts, it’s very rewarding when we see these areas completed and enjoyed by our players.
Do you have a favourite and least favourite flashpoint? Maybe one you're particularly proud of and one that makes you think "yeah, we thought that was a good idea at the time but we wouldn't do it again"?
I really enjoy Colicoid War Game because we tried some very interesting things in that Flashpoint. It starts with a shooting gallery then contains some heavy group puzzle elements. In the spirit of ‘it was a good idea at the time’, we’ve found it’s a more difficult Flashpoint to communicate and isn’t terribly PUG friendly since it’s SO different from the others.
One of the main points of contention when pugging flashpoints is the matter of "space-barring"/skipping the cut scenes, as some people really enjoy them while others just want to get to the end as quickly as possible because they've seen it all before. Sometimes people can even get kicked from the group over this. Have you ever considered trying to implement anything to alleviate this conflict of interests?
It’s a difficult balance. We did extensive testing to try and minimize this problem pre-launch. We have a ‘decision timer’ that was tweaked to try and get the balance right, but it’s never perfect. At the same time, in a sense, we pioneered multiplayer dialog in the MMO space, so these were problems that hadn’t really been identified before. I think one thing that’s helped recently is minimizing cutscenes in the middle of Flashpoints such as Star Fortress to try and keep the action moving.
In 4.0 all existing flashpoints were revamped to be tactical. This has been great for levelling as it's easy and fast to get into groups for them now. However, in some places the difficulty still seems a little off for the new paradigm, for example there are no kolto stations around the bonus boss in Maelstrom Prison, and Jos and Valk from Blood Hunt are known pug killers since they have so many abilities that are hard to survive when you're low level. How happy are you with the way this revamp has turned out? Are you still monitoring people's performance in different flashpoints and making adjustments where needed?
I would say we’re happy with how the revamp turned out. As you mentioned, there’s always additional balance we need to tune and we’re constantly assessing those issues and opportunities. One important thing to mention is how much we value when players report the issues they find, so please keep those reports coming! We definitely want to make these experiences as fun as possible.
Another minor downside of the 4.0 changes is that narrative cohesion is lost for new players since it's not obvious at which point in the levelling process each flashpoint is supposed to take place. Do you have any plans to address this, perhaps by having the group finder interface provide additional information about each flashpoint?
In general, we want our class stories and world arcs to lead you to these experiences. There are definitely exceptions to this and we agree that’s not ideal. Right now, since this content is found in Group Finder we’re not looking to address this issue. That being said, it’s a great idea to give more information to the player, especially when it gives backstory or context to their experience.
Why were Colicoid War Game and story mode Kaon Under Siege/Lost Island not included in the 4.0 revamp? Are there any plans to make these more accessible/relevant again?
These were part of the ‘good idea at the time, but’ world. As I said earlier, Colicoid War Game is very difficult to communicate to a new player in a manner that facilitates understanding of what you are supposed to do. It facilitates a bad experience because of how different the mechanics are compared to similar instances. Kaon and Lost Island leaned very far outside of our standard difficulty curve, and there isn’t really a simple fix to bring them more in-line with existing Flashpoints. We felt it was better to avoid funneling players into these experiences.
How come the heroic Star Fortresses weren't included in the group finder on release? Any plans to change this and/or to open them up to a wider range of levels?
This was an oft-debated topic and we erred on the side of making the experience cleaner for as many players as possible at launch, while acknowledging the solution didn’t solve all possibilities.
We were faced with problems like:
- There are many Star Fortresses—each having their own location and not just being one entity. This means each location would be in Group Finder. If there are now 6+ options instead of 1, players are spread out, potentially impacting queue times for players.
- We also assumed players would want the ability to go to a specific Star Fortress in order to progress specific content. We were very sensitive of creating a situation where players would have their queue pop and one or more group members didn’t get the Star Fortress location they wanted. This would force those players to leave the group and re-queue, creating a situation that everyone would dislike.
Have you considered how the new flashpoint system will deal with new additions to the game yet? E.g. next time the level cap goes up, will they all just level with it? Would new flashpoints also be accessible from level 15 onwards?
We’ve absolutely considered this and our goal is to continue to make all our previous gameplay areas relevant each time we increase the level cap. There is still considerable work involved in that process, not to mention testing time, but it’s something we feel is important for our players.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions!
While I didn't necessarily like everything I heard (R.I.P. Colicoid War Game), I certainly enjoyed some of the insights Michael gave into their thought processes here, even if there was still a good dose of "Bioware vagueness"™ in some of the answers. While I made a point of avoiding explicit questions about future content (you know they wouldn't have been able/willing to answer those), I also think he made it quite clear that going forward we can look forward to more content similar to the Star Fortresses in style. And yes, I know there have been rumours spawned by datamined info along those lines as well.
I hope everyone enjoyed this departure from the usual fare here! As usual, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.