BioWare published a Behind-the-scenes article for SWTOR’s System Design talking about the studio’s goals and how they reflect on new content!
The article (you can read it in full at the bottom of this post) didn’t give us much in terms of actual new information, the only thing we really learned is that they intend to provide better information on how to obtain specific items like decorations and special rewards.
That said, it did give us some interesting insights into their design philosophy, which places a great emphasis on having short, medium, and long-term goals for players to work towards with appropriate rewards each time you complete one of those goals.
Leveling and Skills Progression from a Systems Design Perspective
In the article, Bryan gave us a lens with which we can view game systems. I would like to examine the leveling and skills progression system from this systems design perspective since it’s arguably the most important system in the game and is getting revamped for the new Legacy of the Sith expansion.
The leveling and skills progression system is essentially responsible for defining the playstyle and capabilities of your character at any given time for different types of content with different demands. This system is so important because it really defines your playstyle in combat, which makes up the majority of most players’ time in the game. All content is balanced around the capabilities of your character.
The current leveling and skills progression system encompasses your discipline / spec, role, and utilities; with 7.0 will be expanded to include Combat Styles (the new word for Advanced Class) as well since you’ll be able to choose a second one for each of your characters and switch between them at will (with a few restrictions of course). You directly interact with this system primarily through the Combat Proficiencies window.
The leveling and skills progression system is also responsible for teaching players how their spec works as they level. This aspect has almost always taken a back seat in SWTOR. Honestly, it’s received so little attention, you could probably argue it’s been tied up, blindfolded, and shoved in the trunk rather than being allowed to take a seat in the car. This may happen because teaching has different goals to accomplish than a completely rewards-focused systems design philosophy that Bryan Wood presented in the article.
In the context of the new leveling and skills progression system, the short, medium, and long-term goals and rewards are the following:
- Short: New choices. These are given every 5 or 10 levels where you’re getting a small passive or (semi-)situational ability and ensure you have something new to play around with for every planet in the story.
- Medium: New rotational ability or discipline passive. These are given every 10 or 15 levels.
- Long: Your character is fully leveled and can participate in endgame content.
I don’t want to get into a debate about whether it’s more important to focus on an effective learning experience as you level or have good endgame play. The fact of the matter is that there is no debate to be had. A great leveling and skills progression system needs to be exceptional at both teaching and gameplay . SWTOR has repeatedly sacrificed teaching players how to play their class in favor of perfecting this short-medium-long-term goals and rewards system.
I believe this lack of focus on teaching is one of the biggest reasons that so many players have complained that the game is too challenging, resulting in story content being made easier. This has made it harder for new players to participate in endgame content since they aren’t used to the difficulty jump, resulting in that content being made easier as well.
Most HM Operations now seem to be about as difficult as SM was back in the day and SM operations have become glorified Flashpoints. NiM has remained a bit more consistent (outside of specific time periods), but the difficulty gap between HM and NiM is now a massive chasm.
Ranked PvP is the same way. You’re gonna get absolutely annihilated unless you have mastered your spec and have significant endgame PvP experience. Very few players queue because it’s so challenging and nothing else does a very good job of preparing you for it. This creates a feedback loop where less skilled players are in the same match with some of the server’s best.
It’s not good for the health of the game to have story content be clearable solely by your companion, but the responsibility largely rests with BioWare to actually teach players the fundamentals of how to play SWTOR so players don’t feel like they have to rely so heavily on their companion.
A lot of this can be fixed by just giving more attention to the actual order in which abilities, passives, and procs are granted and prioritizing that above strict adherence to the short-medium-long-term goal and rewards structure.
Improving the Leveling and Skills Progression System
The earliest parts of the game should be dedicated to presenting players with only the abilities that they will be using all the time in that spec. Players should have access to their full core rotation by the end of Act 1 (ends after Alderaan) in the story.
The only other abilities that should be granted during this time should be other essentials with clear and distinct purposes, like a DCD or two, a spammable AoE, a gap closer / movement ability, and the interrupt. It is utterly ridiculous that players are still receiving core components of their rotation at level 55 and beyond as is currently the case on the PTS while extremely situational abilities are given much earlier.
During Act 2, the focus should remain on the core rotation. Players shouldn’t receive too many distractions. At this point, players should receive less-essential discipline passives that help to reinforce a correct rotation along with a couple of abilities that slightly expand the player’s toolkit with clear use cases.
Perhaps they get another movement ability, a single CC ability, another DCD with a relatively short cooldown if they have one, and maybe a flashier AoE with a cooldown. This gives players a chance to actually practice the full rotation while still expanding their arsenal.
During Act 3 (beginning with Belsavis) and the early expansion content, players should begin to have access to more situational abilities, like the rest of their CC abilities, their strongest DCDs with the longest cooldowns, and maybe an offensive cooldown or two towards the end. This is also when discipline passives should become rarer and players begin choosing between the new “pick 1 of 3 passives” instead.
I think it’s okay that these choices happen later, even if each of the choices affect the same ability in a specific, distinct way. Players should feel comfortable enough with their rotation at this point that it won’t be disorienting.
Once the origin story ends and players have gotten through some of the early expansion content, the focus of new abilities and effects shift once again. This is when players should exclusively receive endgame-focused abilities like the remainder of their offensive cooldowns, raid buffs and other group utility, and any other highly situational abilities they have yet to receive.
The “pick 1 of 3 passives” would shift to being more utility oriented and less discipline-specific effects. The only discipline-specific passives that should be given at this point are random bonus effects that don’t have any bearing on the rotation or are focused on endgame content. For example, this is when each discipline should receive its two discipline-specific debuffs (or buffs in the case of healers).
This shift to endgame-oriented abilities has always been mostly present in the game, and this is good. The key difference I am suggesting is that players should definitely not still be receiving abilities, procs, and passives related to their core rotation so late into the leveling process.
I don’t think that everything needs to be so clearly divided between the levels associated with different story acts either, it just serves as a helpful framework. The game just needs to start by giving players only what they will be using all the time and then as they level, the abilities and effects they receive should become more and more situational.
In conjunction with these changes, it’s also important that the Class Trainers and Combat Proficiencies window be merged together in some way. It’s confusing and unnecessary to have two different sources for gaining new abilities and passives.
It made more sense back in the early days of the game when there were a greater number of shared abilities between disciplines and Advanced Classes, but now each spec feels quite distinct. This would also allow BioWare greater control over when each spec receives a previously shared ability. For example, tank specs need their taunt very early, but DPS really shouldn’t receive it until very late in the leveling process when they’re getting other group utility abilities.
BioWare does have a good track record of improving game systems over time. Think about the initial forms of Conquest and Galactic Command (now Renown) systems compared to what they are now.
The Disciplines and Utilities system did prevent players from creating hybrid specs, but what ended up being optimal didn’t change much, so the freedom was kind of an illusion. Meanwhile, it ensured that players always had access to all the tools they needed to succeed and facilitated a more balanced experience while being less cumbersome when respeccing.
The new leveling and skills progression system that will replace it seems to be an improvement on almost all fronts. The new passives will be interesting to play around with and I’m excited about the new opportunities that come alongside it as well.
I don’t have a lot of faith that there will be improvements to teaching players how to play their spec as they level since BioWare has never put too much thought into that, but at least it won’t be a step backward. Honestly the only real regression seems to be how they’ll be forcing us to choose between abilities we currently have access to, and I am a bit more hopeful that BioWare will change their minds about that.
Behind the Scenes Look at SWTOR: System Design (full article)
Here is the entire article as published originally on swtor.com.
Heya SWTOR Community! I’m Bryant Wood, a Systems Designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic. With our 10th anniversary coming up, I wanted to join the fun and offer you a tour of Systems Design along with my love for the best kept secret in gaming.
Systems Design on SWTOR is the connective tissue between the amazing parts of the game. We develop what are known as game loops. You can think of game loops as repeating tours through parts of the game; like a Daily Area, your Weekly Conquest, or the path to item rating 306. These loops allow players to create and complete goals, engage and interact with other members of the community, and experience the cool things the team has made! The Systems team works to ensure invested effort and time surrounding the player experience are appropriately balanced.
A key component of these loops are goals. When you log into SWTOR, there is something that players are hoping to accomplish. For some players it’s to experience an epic story, with them at the center. Others want to flex their creative muscles in decorating. Or they might want to show your skill against other players, testing how well you can compete. All of these are great player goals, and we try to accommodate as many goals as possible when making systems.
To help with this process we often look at 3 kinds of goals; short, medium, and long term. Short term goals are things that will give players an immediate reward. They might be as quick as killing an enemy and getting a nice item or they may take you a few days. Either way, short term goals allow you to always have an accomplishment around the corner. Medium term goals give players something on the horizon, something that can be finished next week. These require commitment but bring a bigger sense of accomplishment. Long term goals are why you’ll be playing all month. They allow players to really invest in their character, hopefully for a reward they can be proud of!
Using Galactic Seasons as an example, short term goals are driven by Priority Objectives, medium term goals are driven by Weekly POs and the ability to see your next few levels, and long term goals are driven by Level 100, the rewards surrounding it, and the Galactic Seasons Token Vendor. By using all 3 goal types, we can create experiences that players find fun and engaging for years to come.
A goal without a plan is just a wish, so how do we make sure players aren’t just dreamers? We use systems to guide their journey! Any goal we present should be visible and accessible, like a path through the forest. Let’s look at a current existing feature in SWTOR that we would like to improve in the future as an example of this journey philosophy. We have a large catalog of great looking items, but do you know where to get them all? If my goal is to get a specific decoration, how do I go about doing that?
One step of the plan is to look at the Source on the item, which can be found in the description on its tooltip. The Source briefly tells you where the item comes from which is great, but there could be more details provided. Players could be asking the following questions: What mode do I play on? Does it come only from a certain boss? Do I have to do something special to get it? We don’t want to answer all the questions (solving puzzles can be fun!) but we never want to leave a player without the information they need. As SWTOR grows we want to turn our collection of items into a collection of achievable goals for our players, with solid paths on how to complete them.
When working towards a goal we want to do things that progress us the furthest. This collection of the best things to do is something we call the optimal path. This can bring players through various parts of a game and show off fresh and exciting content. It can also tell a player to do one activity over and over again. On the Systems team we review these optimal paths and work to adjust them to reduce negative player experiences such as boredom or burnout. We always want players to experience the fun of SWTOR without having to choose between fun and making good progress toward their goals.This is why examining optimal paths is essential. We can use these paths to guide players into different content and this level of player experience touches on one of our philosophies for our 10th anniversary. SWTOR has released a lot of content in its life and we want to encourage players to experience the full breadth of the game without taking them away from parts they love most.
In full celebration of our 10th anniversary I’d like to step away from my role as a System Designer and speak as a Game Developer. I want to let you in on an industry secret, the best part of making games.
It’s you. Seriously.
Working in a creative medium like games, I believe game developers put a piece of our souls into our work. Players then take these souls and breathe their own life into it through play, transforming the game into something entirely different. There’s no better feeling than seeing the amazing things players create using our designs. The excitement when we announce a new expansion. The effort you put in to clear new content or achieve new rewards. The expression on your faces when you can’t believe we did that. These reactions are my goals being achieved and make the work even better than I could imagine.
You, the player, put the true life into SWTOR and make the game what it is and that motivates me to improve and build better systems for you to enjoy. I look forward to creating more memories with you all and experiencing the world of SWTOR!