We reached out to BioWare with a bunch of SWTOR Class Balance questions and some of the hot topics surrounding the current Combat Style Balance and Group Content in the game. We interviewed Gameplay Design Director George Smith and Gameplay Designer Chris Durel.
A few months ago, shortly before 7.0 launched, we had a chance to interview Gameplay Designer Chris Durel. You can read his previous interview. Back then we talked about the upcoming changes with The Legacy of the Sith to gameplay, content, and classes. He has also been the primary dev at BioWare to communicate balance changes on the forums.
Now, months after the release of 7.0 (and 7.1), we sat down with the new Gameplay Design Director George Smith to talk about the current state of the game, Combat Style balance, and the state of group content – how it affects class balance and what the devs plan for the future of Flashpoints and Operations, among other things. Chris Durel joined in to provide additional insights on some of the questions.
Please, share a few words about yourself and your work on SWTOR and BioWare.
George Smith: Hi! I’m George Smith and I’m the Gameplay Design Director on SWTOR! I started working on SWTOR before launch, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to still be a part of it today.
I also want to thank Gameplay Designer, Chris Durel, for joining me on some of these answers.
We can see there are some patterns with the Discipline ability tree choices. Can you describe the types of builds you were trying to enable players to create?
Chris Durel: The philosophy behind the Discipline Ability Tree choices is to give players some build variety without compromising class identity or dipping too far into things other classes do well.
Our goal with the choices typically was of two types: Increasing the effectiveness of your chosen discipline in certain ways and adding certain utility and playstyle adjustments to disciplines to allow players to customize their discipline to their liking or experiment with builds.
An example of the former would be a DPS discipline that would be able to improve their DPS in terms of burst, sustain or AOE damage types via various choices.
The mindset behind the Discipline Ability Tree choices is “what is the intent of this choice row?” However, we didn’t want to get too far into a single “optimal” choice at all times.
We are constantly looking to improve the Ability Tree to give an impactful amount of player choice to every discipline while keeping the spirit of the discipline intact. Allowing players to have things such as an “AOE build” or a “hybrid damage build” was our intent, and it’s fun to see what unique builds players are coming up with.
Another aspect of this design was giving each class a “key ability”, which they gain access to along with their first discipline choice at level 15. Although this ability is shared amongst the disciplines, its effect is different for each. This ability interacts with a lot of their tree choices and gives players an anchor point on how
to build their class.
Finally, we typically saved a row for interesting passive choices so players could try out some unique build variety that changed their playstyle or synergized in interesting ways with some of their other choices.
The reasoning behind creating the ability trees was twofold: streamline the classes and leveling experience and onboard new players. With ability trees, the information to play a class is presented in one place and the choices are automatically set in an optimal way.
In order to streamline the classes, it was necessary to make adjustments and cuts to the quantity of abilities. The ability tree made this possible without completely breaking the classes or having to entirely redesign them from the ground up. In addition, we wanted to introduce gameplay variety within each discipline.
There is a fair bit of interest among NiM raiders to get proper NiM versions for old raids, especially for Temple of Sacrifice. Can you speak to the feasibility of such a thing?
George Smith: This isn’t a current focus, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely off the table. We’re always finding the right balance to determine where we can make improvements. This includes going back, reviewing existing content, and creating
There’s a pretty stark difference in trash mobs between operations like Dread Fortress and Dread Palace compared to newer raids like Gods from the Machine, Dxun, and even R-4, where it seems some iteration has taken place. Can you speak about your current view on trash mobs and the in-between parts of operations and how that compares to the bosses?
George Smith: We want the focus in Operations to be on the boss fights, not the trash pulls, so we spent more effort on them for R4. If we do create custom trash, we’d like them to show off a mechanic you might see in an upcoming boss fight (the attractor in the Nihrot hallway for example).
Why don’t bonus bosses in FPs drop anything better like Tech Fragments or higher rarity left-side gear/accessories (implants, earpieces, relics). It seems like a lack of access to higher gear has driven some players away from doing FPs for gearing.
George Smith: We touched on this a little bit in a recent forum post:
“This is something we have been very recently talking about that we want to start spending some time on addressing. Taking content outliers (like Flashpoints that are dramatically longer than others) and working to bring them more in line with each other.
I wouldn’t expect these changes in the super short term (like the next couple updates) as it will take time to audit and start making changes. But it is definitely something we have interest in doing.“
– An excerpt from Eric Musco’s forum post hinting at Flashpoints balancing plans.
We’re looking to revisit flashpoints to be sure that they’re all equally rewarding. As part of this, we’ll revisit their rewards and that will include bonus bosses.
How do you feel about the current difficulty of SM operations, especially compared to SM R-4, and the fact that so many are able to blaze through them with 7+ DPS?
George Smith: Players should never feel like they have to bring more than 4 DPS to an 8-person raid, and we’ve been making and will continue to make balance adjustments toward that end. This is a similar sentiment to question 2.
We strive to ensure that players have the best experience while also needing to balance their teams with the proper classes. Balance issues in R-4 drive a lot of the compositions players are bringing to the Operation it is on our radar to adjust.
Are there any plans to improve the quality of ability tree choices in the near-ish future or is that something that would come with an expansion? Many are very well-done and it’s clear PvP balance was a high priority, but sometimes the choices feel incomplete especially when there’s really only a single viable option. Examples include the Cloud Mind choice for Sorcerers/Sages and quadruple damage Force Rend/Force Melt for Annihilation/Watchman.
Chris Durel: Absolutely. We tried really hard to make all the choices competitive with one another but there always ends up being outliers. We have already made some adjustments to choices in 7.1 and we will continue to look at the trees, take player feedback, and make adjustments into the future.
To use the Annihilation example, in an ideal world all three of those choices would be viable for certain content, and be close to one another in terms of overall DPS (which I know at the end of the day is what everyone is looking at).
We don’t seek to design these so that every choice yields the exact same DPS output, but such that their viability should be close together and some choices should be better in certain content or with certain builds.
Another factor here is “playability vs skill gap”, where some choices are meant to be easier to play (usually what the game selects as default) whereas another is harder to play but rewards that higher skill. These are going to have differences in effectiveness, where the higher skill choice is more effective if played well, but they should not be so far away that the “easier” one is considered bad or unviable.
Was it your intent to make Assassin/Shadow tank damage mitigation worse than other tanks, Operative/Scoundrel healing stronger than other healers and Rage/Focus, Fury/Concentration, and Engineering/Saboteur stronger than most other DPS to combat issues related to viability and, subsequently, popularity? Are there any plans to shrink this specific performance divide?
Chris Durel: The gap was unintended. We have corrected many of these with 7.1 and reduced much of this gap and we will continue to adjust these with future balance patches.
You combined Vent Heat and Thermal Sensor Override/Recharge Cells and Reserve Power Cell with 7.0 to cut down on ability bloat, but this has created Heat/Energy Cell issues for basically all the Mercenaries/Commandos and Powertechs/Vanguards. In 6.0, you also tried to move away from strong vs weak fillers as a concept with different set bonuses. Is there anything on the horizon to improve Heat/Energy Cell management for Mercenaries/Commandos and Powertechs/Vanguards?
Chris Durel: Yes, we are planning additional updates to quality of life improvements to these classes, including revisiting their energy management, in future patches.
Can you go into why stealth rezzing was removed after it’s been in the game for so long?
George Smith: Stealth rezzing (or more accurately, the ability to leave combat during an encounter) created a fundamental imbalance that needed to be addressed. While it creates fun gameplay opportunities when doing open world solo content, in coordinated multiplayer content, it’s just mostly used to cheese mechanics. Improving in-combat revive can be done without reintroducing stealth rez, and would benefit all healers, with or without stealth.
We also know it’s possible to waste a revive if two players use it on the same target, and will be looking to address that in a future patch.
Only some classes received a proper level 43 build capstone choice and the lack of a build capstone seems to be a major contributor to the current balance issues we’re experiencing and makes those classes feel less fun and powerful. Why did this happen?
Chris Durel: In a lot of cases the “build capstone”, as you call it, was something we did to add a fun twist to the class or bring together their key ability with their other choices in a unique way. It was never a hard and fast part of the design framework of ability trees.
Some classes did not receive these because of the simple fact they did not have room for it. Although we wanted to prune abilities back, we still wanted the feel of the “toolbelt” for certain classes, so that they could pick certain utility choices on their tree and get those abilities they wanted. Because of this, certain classes did not receive a “capstone” ability at level 43.
That being said, we are constantly looking to improve tree choices and we have heard a lot of feedback from players about these. So it’s not out of the question that we’d be open to re-examine the design choices we made here, but we are currently balancing classes for the tree choices we have.
Is there a timeline for when we’ll be getting proper icons (no more solid light blue) and animations for ability tree buffs? Many of the ability tree animations are quick copy-paste stuff that feels incomplete. Some buffs just flat out lack animations and without flytext turned on, there’s little indication that some of the buffs do anything at all, even if they are quite effective.
George Smith: For the icons specifically, we currently do not have a timeline to share right now, but one of our focuses is to improve the visual communication within the Ability Tree.
In upcoming releases, we’ll be looking into taking some of the visual templates we introduced in the R-4 Operation and adding them to other boss and player abilities, AoEs like that with poor communication will be prime targets for a new VFX pass.
We would like to thank George and Chris for taking the time to share with us whatever they could at this time. Looking forward to what’s next for SWTOR!
Clarification: The images in this article were not requested, suggested or provided by BioWare for this interview. We placed them to create diversity and help support the content with related visuals.