19/09/2016

Bioware Answers Some Questions About Flashpoints: An Interview With Michael Backus

A couple of months ago, a strange thought struck me. Star Wars: The Old Republic turns five at the end of this year and I've been maintaining this blog for just as long, but I've never approached anything from the point of view of a real fan site. But really... why not? For all intents and purposes, this is a fan site, and who else is going to ask questions about the nitty gritty details of gameplay or the everyday worries of a loyal player? Since I was still working on my Flashpoint Friday series at the time, I had flashpoints on the mind and decided to put together some questions to pose to Bioware via community manager Eric Musco. And he said this was fine! It took a while until I got my answers, but they did arrive eventually. So, without further ado - my first ever official interview!


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. 
Ultimately, I can tell you that we’re constantly looking at the situation and if player behavior or demand changes, we’ll revisit this decision and see if there is a better solution. For instance, if players have done their specific planet Star Fortresses and now just want to queue for them together, there may be a strong argument to add them to Group Finder as one entry.


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.

22 comments :

  1. Really fascinating responses, and it was excellent to get a better understanding of their thinking processes when it comes to Flashpoints. It is undoubtedly disheartening to read that even though they love CWG they couldn't really do anything 'with' it.

    I absolutely love it when they reveal what goes on behind-the-scenes. :D

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  2. Kaon and lost island were the best dps they ever made.

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  3. I feel like Flashpoints (and other older group content) would get a lot more replay if they'd just update the loot tables with some desireable items. Star Fortress at least had many decorations to farm for, but all the old flashpoints only got one deco item (in 3.0 I think?) and thee's little reason for veteran players to go back to them. It's a real shame that the item designers of this game are so cartel market driven. It really defeats the purpose of PLAYING the game.

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    1. sadly i agree. the loot drops in FPs are NOT REALLY driven by "smart AI". It's great to see when games have decent AI in their boss fights, but then you turn around and they have CRAPPY AI when it comes to determining which kind of loot should be dropped and why.... smh

      BTW they love improving the Cartel Market more than ANYTHING ELSE and it honestly shows way too much. I wish they'd take a break from their primary money maker and MAYBE empower OTHER areas of the game to ALSO make them money (which would then drive them to improve those areas INSTEAD Of ONLY the CM). sigh

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    2. Or even put back some of the armor designs that they removed from the game when they removed flashpoint specific gear.

      I still don't understand that change. It's like they don't want people to have reason to run flashpoints.

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  4. Wow, nice that you got someone to talk to from Bioware. You prepared very good questions, which I would really ask myself, too bad the answeres were as good as i would expect, but well, thats bioware. Thnx for the interview!

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    1. I'm glad that people are enjoying it! :)

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  5. Congrats on the interview :)

    I rather liked the answers, as there's only so much that they can share in public. (maybe I spend too much time with execs!?) I can infer that they are focused more on accessibility, which is a good thing, and that re-jigging mechanics rather than numbers is something they want to avoid. And that the balance between story and action is a factor in design as well.

    Pretty neat overall.

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    1. I understand the desire for accessibility, I just think with MMOs it can definitely happen that you shoot past a point where making the game more accessible gains you any more players and you start losing some that find it boring now instead. One wonders where that point is though.

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  6. That's fascinating that they consider Kaon Under Siege/Lost Island inappropriate for pugging. My wife and I did all the non-solo flashpoints as a pair (me tanking, her DPSing, my comp set to heal and hers to DPS), for the DvL checklist. (Plus Depths of Manaan in a pair, because I didn't get credited for it when I went through it as part of the SoR Prelude, and Directive 7 as a pair for grins and giggles). In Story Mode/Tactical difficulty, they were challenging, but not as hard as DoM, which is in GF.
    I honestly don't recall if either FP had Kolto stations, though, since we almost never needed them, and when we did, it was a little late to go looking.

    I guess it's because we did go in with a "trinity" squad, and made sure to have a human tank?

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    1. It's funny because from my point of view, tactical Blood Hunt as it is is much further out of their standard difficulty curve than I would have expected any of those others to be if converted. In fairness though, they are the only ones with actual metrics on completion rates and such.

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    2. Kaon Under Siege's "specialty mobs" are going to give the low end of the PuG skill curve fits, particularly the chainstunning Infected Mercs (I suspect those would have been a good deal tougher if my wife and I hadn't been sitting facing each other across our monitors and therefore I was able to just yell for help); and apparently our comps knew enough to focus fire on them when they nailed me.

      In Lost Island, Sav-Rak really isn't amenable to "Toss a couple of Kolto stations and call it a day." (Except we just brute force burned him down because we couldn't reliably reach the switches in time anyway).
      I would rate Tactical BH and DoM as much harder myself, and Directive 7 has at least as many goofy mechanics, IMO.

      Only thing I can think of is that they didn't do a good job on upconverting those two to the L65 level cap.

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    3. Come to think - a Inf 30 healing companion probably covers a multitude of sins, though.

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  7. Nice job Shintar! Happy to see BioWare answered your questions. And you really put some great ones together! It’s always nice to see a studio reveal a little more of the inner workings. Like many other people are saying, this is the type of communication we need from Bioware.

    And now for the negative part.

    Unfortunately, it’s generally not “good” information being communicated.

    I don’t see how class stories and world arcs lead to flashpoints – all the breadcrumb quest givers were removed in 4.0! Plus, with 4.0’s new levelling curve, you have to do about 8 quests on a planet before you’re done. It’s like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing!

    I’m really sad to see the reply about harder content. I’d be ecstatic if true story mode (read: trinity) FPs came back. Even if just at level 50+ like HMs. Tactical FPs are just awful. And there’s no learning curve. I have little to no idea how to play a Shadow or Assassin tank and I want to learn. I started back in 3.x and got as far as Athiss before the late summer. I really don’t know where I can learn these days besides just reading a guide, which I don’t want to do. The game should provide opportunities to learn that aren’t labelled “Hard Mode”. There’s just too big of a gap now. Tacticals are (for the most part) too easy and don’t require a tank or healer, and Hard Modes are a real step up, and you shouldn’t just charge into them without knowing your class.

    The “it’s not PUG friendly” argument also doesn’t work with me. People have been PUG'ing these since 1.3. I’ve PUG'ed almost every FP I have ever run in story mode or hard mode, and now (reluctantly) tactical. I don’t have 25 runs of all of them but I’m most of the way there. This attitude (and several of the other answers above) just helps confirm my opinions (maybe lots of people’s) about BioWare’s direction for the game – faceroll (mostly solo) content outside of HM FPs and HM Ops. It really seems like they thought KOTFE would bring in scores of players and then making the game super easy and removing challenging group-oriented content would keep people who were just there for story. I think bad players shouldn’t be coddled and led through the game without chance of failure – everyone should have to make an investment in their character(s). If that attitude makes me an elitist, so be it.

    And please, no more star fortresses – Kuat all over again. It’s just BORING. These are not quality repeatable content.

    And if people are thinking “if you don’t like the content, then leave”, well…I likely will. Or I’ll at least stop giving BioWare money to not develop good group content which is what I want. At this point, I’m pretty much only in the game to finish a few planets and class stories and to hang out with my guild. And I can do that as a free to play player.

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    1. Ugh...that seems a little too "rant-like". Feel free to delete it Shintar if you don't want it on your page (I hope you can).

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    2. I have to disagree that tacticals don't teach anything. They are only easy if you have multiple 65s in the group. Otherwise they can be quite challenging! And while they don't teach you about trinity gameplay, you definitely learn about things like aggro control (don't want all those mobs on me or I'll die) and cooldown use.

      Only the other day I ended up in Mandalorian Raiders with a full dps group where everyone was between 30 and 40. After repeated deaths on those hound packs people started whinging that it was too hard/impossible without a healer, but I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to stun the mobs and rotating my cooldowns. Nothing like surviving a pull with literally 2 hitpoints!

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    3. Oh, and ranting is perfectly fine. :P The only things I delete are spam, duplicate comments and anything rude or outright slanderous (not sure I've even had that on this blog yet).

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    4. The flashpoint couriers are still on-planet in the various planetary quest hubs, and on fleet. The ones for the "solo mode available" even are flagged purple.

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    5. True Shintar, they do teach some things, just not necessarily what they used to. Maybe I just want (or am used to) the safety net of a healer when I'm learning to tank. My groups for tacticals are also very slanted to mostly 65s for some reason (and I'm not declining all lowbie groups), and I didn't think about that, so perhaps that's coloring my opinion of them.

      I think most of the fleet questgivers are gone. There are a couple left, like Kaon (why?), Taral V, Boarding Party, and Directive 7, but the droids for Hammer Station, Mando Raiders, etc are gone.

      Maybe I didn't hunt enough on planets, but I know that the Cademimu droid on Alderaan doesn't have a quest anymore. There was a thread on the official forums shortly after 4.0 came out with some information that people tracked down. Maybe it's bugged for me, or maybe things were sorted out in a patch since I have looked.

      Here is the thread I was talking about:
      http://www.swtor.com/community/showthread.php?t=856430

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    6. I'll have to go look planet by planet to be sure of all of them, but I can confirm that the courier for Taral V is on Pub Balmorra, and the one for The Foundry is on Imp Taris after 4.0, and that there's a FP courier in a couple of the Pub quest hubs on Belsavis. And the Ilum storyline still tells you to end it with Battle of Ilum and The False Emperor.
      I'm reasonably sure the FP courier by The Wall on DK to take you to Hammer Station is still there, but not totally sure, likewise the one at the taxi stand between the Senate Tower and the spaceport on Coruscant.

      If I remember, I'll make a survey

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  8. Really cool that you did this. I love how it really fuelled the discussion on flashpoints in the community. A great end to your Flashpoint Friday series. :)

    I abstained from commenting here earlier because I wrote a whole blog post in response instead! For future reference: http://ravalation.blogspot.com/2016/09/flashpoint-thoughts.html

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