SWTOR’s Game Design Director, Chris Schmidt, shared new details about the upcoming Combat Styles in 7.0 in an interview for Escape Pod Cast!

Note: this article is an analysis of the Escape Pod Cast interview with the SWTOR game design director Chris Schmidt, mixed with personal thoughts on everything he talked about in regards to how Combat Styles is being planned and developed for The Legacy of the Sith 7.0 expansion.

What are the upsides of Combat Styles?

The old way of class balancing and ability design caused an “arms race” of sorts with balancing classes against each other. For example, when one class is given a new DCD, now another class needs something to deal with that DCD and then because that class got something, another class needs something as well to deal with that. Balancing caused a lot of ripple effects.

I don’t really see his point, balance changes never happen in a vacuum, especially when your game includes hard counter mechanics like Electro Net and Entrench/Hunker Down where some classes are designed to do better against some classes and worse against others. Pruning a massive number of abilities won’t change that going forward. They’ll still have to make balance changes that will cause ripple effects.

Example of Abilities set currently live in SWTOR 6.3.1
Example of Abilities set in the current SWTOR 7.0 PTS

Even beyond that though, I have always viewed ability introductions as being more about fairness (“Why does their class get a new toy to play with while mine doesn’t?”) and standardization. The biggest standardization we’ve seen over the years has been with regards to mobility. Every class now has access to at least 2 major movement abilities. Cooldown length, discipline passives, and utilities have largely made up the differences in mobility. Giving AoE DR to all non-tank specs, periodic DR to almost exclusively DoT specs, and stun DR primarily to tanks was another standardization that happened at the beginning of a recent expansion. 

I wish he had clarified what he was talking about with the arms race thing though. The only real example I can think of that seemed like a response to other balance changes instead of standardization was Snipers/Gunslingers getting Imperial Preparation/Bag of Tricks and the DR on Shield Probe/Defense Screen for some Agent/Smuggler specs. I guess PTs/VGs getting Power Yield and Operatives/Scoundrels getting Tactical Overdrive/Hot Streak compared to everyone else’s far less useful abilities in 6.0 could also be considered an arms race thing, but overall, this really doesn’t seem like a lot of changes, especially over 10 years. Certainly not enough to justify the pruning they’re doing.

Another benefit that Chris mentioned was that major ability pruning gets everyone onto even footing in terms of balance and allows them to balance faster. Yeah, and you can tear down a building by nuking the entire city. It doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it. This really seems to be about balance speed. It’s already clear that they don’t like to spend time balancing based on the fact that for a long time, they have only made class/balance changes early in the expansion and then they just don’t do any changes whatsoever until the next expansion. Switching from Skill Trees to Disciplines in 3.0 was about making balancing easier for them as well. 

Combat Styles will apparently “open the door to do some more interesting things with classes” that couldn’t be done with the existing system and will (supposedly) allow them to add new combat styles in the future. I am quite skeptical of this. Almost everything BioWare has done with major class changes has been about standardization and making things easier for them to balance. Think about switching from Skill Trees to Disciplines and removing nearly all channeled abilities from melee classes. It’s hard for me to believe that they’re gonna do something that will make it more difficult for them to balance again, and crazy things like adding new combat styles will definitely make balancing harder. 

I do not have confidence in their ability to create new Combat Styles. They clearly struggled with creating enough specs even for the classes we have now since they couldn’t even come up with 3 unique specs for each Advanced Class before since every Advanced Class has a shared spec with the other Advanced Class (think Madness / Balance and Hatred / Serenity). Some of these shared specs have diverged over time, but others are still quite similar. 

Not all Disciplines make sense for both mirrors either. You can say you’re simply “redistributing” life with Force Serenity and Serenity Strike, but if you’re taking my life from me against my will, that’s still stealing in my book. Furthermore, many of the rotations still are quite clunky; don’t feel smooth; or simply aren’t viable in some fights due to some quirk of the spec. If they can’t or aren’t willing to fix these problems with existing specs, how are they gonna be able to fix those problems for new ones? Is it a good idea to work on new Combat Styles when the existing ones still have major problems?

To me, this notion of creating interesting new things for classes in the future or new combat styles is the biggest upside of major ability pruning, but I’m not interested in waiting what will probably be years before we get any actual benefits, and we’ll definitely have to give up something else too since it will take development time to make the new Combat Styles. Pruning so many abilities would be a lot more palatable if it came alongside brand new Combat Styles that were also getting released with 7.0.  would rather they sit on the changes they’re making and release them when we actually get something for our sacrifice. 

I also don’t buy that they couldn’t have made new Advanced Classes or Disciplines prior to this. I can see how introducing Combat Styles would significantly reduce the workload since you can make some alignment/faction-neutral Combat Styles rather than needing to have an Imperial and Republic version, but I don’t see why they needed to lock abilities behind choices in order to do that.  

Throughout this portion of the interview, Chris talked a lot about creating a new baseline for balance, and it sounds like they view classes now as being fundamentally unbalanced or too difficult to balance. I disagree with the notion that the game is so unbalanced that we need a ton of ability pruning to fix it.

Yes, there are several big balance issues, but they don’t require and won’t necessarily be solved by pruning a ton of abilities. The two biggest balance issues in my view are the following: 

  • High-uptime reactive/reflective damage is way too strong in many fights. I’m talking about things like Lightning Barrier/Telekinetic Defense, Reflective Armor, and to a lesser extent Pyro/Electro Shield, Cloak of Pain/Rebuke, and Power Yield. They tried to account for this somewhat with single target damage output, especially for Power Yield, but it’s just flat out too easy to abuse and is the primary driver behind what has been flavor of the month/expansion for a long time. The specs that don’t have a strong, reliable source of reactive damage end up being more unpopular. It’s hard to justify bringing a spec that will typically deal 2-3k less DPS and then on fights where specs can’t benefit from reactive damage, the other specs are only on equal footing. It’s possible these things are getting nerfed in 7.0, but you don’t need pruning to fix them. Many of these effects could just be outright removed or tweaked to no longer be based on damage frequency but rather be proportional to cooldown length. For example, Lightning Barrier/Telekinetic Defense could apply a set amount of damage when the bubble is popped to whatever popped it rather than having it trigger repeatedly on ticking damage.
  • Burst capability is another big issue. Some specs have access to burst that is way too strong while others don’t offer nearly enough to compete. 6.0 did a lot to address this, but more tweaks are needed. I imagine many of my peers would disagree with me on this, but I think burst damage should be heavily standardized where every burst spec is capable of doing about the same burst damage and only burst specs should be capable of passing all burst DPS checks in the game. In contrast, the AoE checks can require DoT specs to beat. This should help to solve related issues in PvP as well. Ability pruning has largely focused on non-rotational abilities thus far though, so this will require separate attention in 7.0 anyway; therefore ability pruning is not necessary for fixing this issue.  

Again, I really don’t think the existing balance issues in the game can or will be solved with their current pruning solution, so I really don’t see the point of making such a major change now, other than for the sake of change for the 10th anniversary and to make balancing even easier for them.

On a final note for this section, Chris mentioned that the classes are being balanced around the various types of content players are defeating. I found this somewhat amusing because it seems they have not considered NiM/MM raiding at all since many fights require specific usage of abilities that will likely be pruned or that we will be forced to choose between. High-skill PvP is another area that seems to be basically getting ignored since a lot of the abilities that are the best candidates for pruning are because they are abilities that are only useful in PvP or are otherwise so situational that they really don’t get used outside of PvP. 

Goal of Combat Styles

When thinking about Combat Styles and loadouts, the devs struggled with finding the right balance between “ultimate flexibility and a little more restriction. Should I be able to switch to any class in the game, kinda like FFXIV, at a click?” The Legacy system is fairly unique to SWTOR and there’s a lot of other game systems that feed into that, so the devs wanted some focus to remain on having alt characters. 

Subscribers will be able to have 2 Combat Styles that they can switch between, and the styles you choose will likely be permanent, so it will be like you have 2 Advanced Classes rather than 1, meaning Combat Styles aren’t as big of a change as many initially thought. Chris said it is possible this could change, though it sounds like if it were to change, it would happen after 7.0.

My inner cynic wants to add that continuing to require alts is also important for Cartel Market revenue. You’re not gonna buy as many outfits if you only play on one toon. In general, I see where they’re coming from with wanting to restrict the number of Combat Styles a given toon has access to, but I don’t think it is enough of a justification compared to what we’re missing out on by not letting every character have access to a larger number of combat styles. 

Yes, there definitely would be some players that would choose to play on very few characters if they could. I imagine most players that have given all their alts a slightly different variation on the same name would probably choose to play on a single toon. However, I don’t think alts would be totally gone if we could have access to more than 2 Combat Styles on each toon. 

Each of my characters has a very different appearance and personality, so I would still choose to use and raid with different alts on different days depending on the character I wanted to play. Which toon I bring to raid would no longer be largely based on which Advanced Class it happened to have. The concept of a main would be greatly diminished for me, and I expect the same would be true for a lot of other players. The Legacy systems would still have value, though the purpose of having an alt would be very different than what it is today. 

Loadouts

Loadouts will save the following: 

  • Keybinds
  • Ability positions on the quickbar
  • Equipped gear
  • Outfit preset

It is unclear if gear will be stamped and therefore no longer need to be transferred between alts or if you will need to have it in your inventory in order to benefit from it. It is also unclear how many loadout profiles you will have access to. It sounds like it may just be one loadout for each Combat Style. 

They’re trying to make it so you don’t feel overloaded with your options on a specific character while still having more flexibility than you do now. Chris brought up that being able to just switch to a completely different Combat Style can be quite overwhelming even for veteran players, with all different gear, all different abilities, passives, etc. 

They are also aware of the potential issue where everyone in a FP is expecting you to switch to a stealther, though it sounds like they are attempting to mitigate this by just limiting the number of Combat Styles you can pick between and just hoping that enough players don’t pick a stealther as one of their 2 Combat Styles. This is a band-aid solution. BioWare needs to take a hard look at trash mobs in general. It is ridiculous that there are so many players that just want to ignore such a gigantic portion of this game’s combat content. This has been an issue almost everywhere in the game for a very long time. 

Constraints on Switching Combat Styles

These constraints haven’t quite been nailed down yet and are subject to change. Currently they don’t want you to be able to switch Combat Styles while in a phase at all (and of course also not while in combat). I think this is terrible. It’s fine for there to be some significant limitations on when you can switch, but those limitations need to be more tailored to the type of content you’re doing and how the group is formed. I do not want to have to exit a raid, switch styles, then go back in, requiring 2 loading screens. That’s basically the same as you have to do now to switch toons. It largely removes the benefit of allowing us to change between Combat Styles. I would be fine if these restrictions existed for content that you queue for, like Group Finder and PvP, but if the group is not formed through a queue, the restriction should not exist. 

SWTOR Field Respec Description

In the context of the Field Respec legacy perk, it sounds like it’ll mostly be how it is now. You’ll still be able to make changes to your spec (under the new spec progression system that replaces Disciplines) or switch specs whenever you like as you can now. The ability to add your second Combat Style for the first time will unlock as a legacy unlock at the end of Act III of your story. So on your very first toon, you’ll have to go through a lot of the story before you gain access to a second Combat Style, but after you do that once, the rest of your toons will have access to 2 Combat Styles at Level 1. It sounds like they are mostly concerned about not making things too overwhelming for new players and still want players to have (many) alts. They do not want players to have one main character that can do everything.

After hearing all this information, it seems that the main purpose of Combat Styles is really the story/RP aspect, like if you want to play a dual-wielding blaster user as a Trooper like Captain Rex or a blaster-rifle wielding Bounty Hunter like Boba Fett. The emphasis is not on the convenience aspect of being able to switch to a bunch of different Advanced Classes on the fly. For example, I play completely different classes for different NiM bosses because fights are often balanced to require that or certain classes and specs have an advantage on certain fights. 

I wish the system were being designed with more consideration towards that. I understand they don’t want to overwhelm new players, but that’s easy enough to fix by just requiring that you can only choose secondary Combat Styles that you have leveled independently. This would prevent you from getting access to the second Combat Style until you’ve gotten 2 toons most of the way through the story, but I don’t think that’s too unreasonable. It would also make Legendary Status even more of an achievement because now any origin story can play as any Combat Style (besides the Force/Tech limitation).

More Info on Gearing in 7.0

It seems like many details are still being worked out about gearing in 7.0, so Chris couldn’t share a lot, though we did learn several new things. We will need to get new set bonuses for level 80 content, we won’t be able to keep using our current level 75 shells with level 80 internals. A lot of this is directly caused by the new leveling spec progression system and Combat Style changes they are making, so some current effects just flat out won’t work and as a result, they are choosing to make all set bonuses not work at level 80, similar to what was done with 6.0 for all previous set bonuses. 

SWTOR 6.0 Tactical items vendor

Tactical items themselves will still be a thing as well, and it sounds like many of the ones we have now will still be usable at level 80. Some of the rotational effects from tacticals and set bonuses will become passives or get worked into abilities, though it was unclear what proportion of effects from set bonuses and tacticals would remain unchanged. Chris said another dev explained it to him  that 10% of combat tacticals would be getting worked into passives and abilities, but there are a ton of tacticals out there that are technically combat-oriented that are absolutely terrible, so it’s possible that the effective proportion of tacticals is much greater. That 10% number also didn’t include set bonus changes. 

Non-combat-oriented tacticals, such as the ones from the Swoop Racing event, will likely remain the same and there will be several new tiers of gear. Sounds like not all tiers will be available at the launch of 7.0, so they might release new gear tiers as new content is released. 

Utilities

Utility points as we know them will no longer exist with 7.0. Some utility effects will be rolled into base abilities or given as choices in the new spec progression system. We have already seen this sort of thing on the PTS, but now we have direct clarification. For example, Force Camouflage may have the cleanse built into the base ability, or it might be one of the options available to you under the new spec progression system.

Chris brought up that the current utility system can be confusing to new players. Sometimes players don’t realize that they have available points to assign and end up without having any utilities selected. Under the new spec progression system, you will automatically have one of the 3 choices selected by default and then you can switch it if you want. It sounds like this is part of their rationale for switching to the new spec progression system, though it wasn’t stated outright. 

Initially I had thought that most of the changes BioWare was making were in service to making the game easier to new players, and it still seems like that is part of the reason, but it definitely isn’t the main focus. 

It is still worth acknowledging that this game is ridiculously complicated, and the fact that there are a lot of people who don’t even know that they should select Utilities is quite telling. It is reasonable for BioWare to want to take major steps towards simplifying their game, even if massive ability pruning is the wrong way to do it. Even if BioWare backs down from major pruning, some pruning and simplification will still happen. 7.0 will bring significant changes to the game, even if they are different from what we have seen so far. 

Part of the problem for Utilities specifically is that information about your character and leveling progression is scattered over several, disconnected locations. Utilities are on the same screen as Disciplines, but you really only need to go there when you pick your Discipline. New abilities provided by the discipline are rare and are placed onto your bar automatically. There isn’t a need to read through what each new passive does, especially considering how easy the game is now and the fact that you have glowing abilities to press. Utility points are more common than new Discipline abilities, but the effects start out extremely weak, so it’s easy to assume that all of them will be that useless, so you wouldn’t bother to read them all and you really don’t ever feel the effects of not having them because the game is easy enough while you’re leveling to the point where you can clear all the story content without them. 

SWTOR Utilities Window in 6.3.1

Other combat information is scattered across the abilities window in several arbitrarily (at first glance) different tabs; ability tooltips that don’t include information about bonuses provided by your Discipline, and gear (for your set bonus and tactical). And then some abilities are provided by your trainer while others are provided by the discipline. It’s too much!

Clarification on Tech vs Force Combat Style Constraints

Combat Style choices are still limited to Force classes only having access to other Force classes and Tech classes only being able to switch to other Tech classes. This is currently a technical limitation, though the developers could make it possible if they wanted.

One thing they haven’t addressed is the impact that the Force vs Tech limitation will have on individual Combat Style popularity. The most notable example is with tanks, since two of them are Force and only one is Tech, but tanks are best suited, there is a new incentive to be a Force using tank class so you can freely switch between Jugg/Guardian and Assassin/Shadow and can just fully avoid switching toons. I suspect that PT tanks will become even less popular and it’s a terrible design decision to make a fight where only one tank spec is viable or attempt to make one tank stronger than the other two in order to combat this issue. 

Similar implications exist for other roles as well. There are two Tech healers and only one Force Healer. If there is still a strong FOTM Combat Style, good pairings with that Combat Style’s Force/Tech alignment will become more popular while other potentially good Combat Style of the opposite alignment may become less popular. For example, PT/VG is considered one of the best classes right now, if you want a ranged spec to pair it with, you don’t have access to Sorc/Sage on that toon. 

Sith Sorcerer

I don’t think that all of this is necessarily a huge issue with the Force vs Tech restriction on switching Combat Styles, but it is something that the devs should be considerate of since it is definitely exacerbated by each toon only having access to a single secondary Combat Style.

Clarification on Dark vs Light Combat Style Constraints

Dark vs Light alignment for force classes is a limitation primarily only for new players and is only a lore limitation, not a technical one. When you are choosing your origin story (new term for base class) for a force user as a new player, you will only get to choose between Combat Styles that match that faction’s canonical alignment. So new players playing as Jedi only get to pick from Jedi Combat Styles and new players playing as Sith only get to pick from Sith Combat Styles. This limitation only exists for new players. Once you have unlocked the Dark V and (/or?) Light V milestones in your legacy, you will gain access to the opposite alignment Combat Styles for all of your toons, so most veteran players will immediately have access to something like a Jedi origin story with a Sith Combat Style.

The purpose of the DvL limitation is so that new players’ first experience with the game or Star Wars in general makes sense. They don’t want your first experience to be playing as a Jedi Consular that shoots lightning out of their fingers. 

Chris was unclear about the exact Dark and Light unlock requirements beyond it just being tied to any toon in your legacy reaching an alignment milestone and then being a legacy unlock. Does having only Dark V mean you can only play Jedi stories with Sith Combat Styles and not Sith stories with Jedi Combat Styles? Do you need to have reached both Dark V and Light V to have access to opposite alignments at all or is just one sufficient? 

I am curious if they plan to implement some story-oriented specific unlocks for individual toons as well since there are a few story locations that happen before you reach Dark or Light V where it would be fitting to gain early access to alignment changes for that specific toon. Here are a few examples (spoiler alert):

  • In the Jedi Knight story, you temporarily get turned to the dark side by the Emperor. It would make perfect sense here to only have access to the Sith Combat Styles during that portion of the story, though it is unlikely that you will be Dark V by that point. 
  • In the Jedi Consular story, it’s pretty clear that you are a dark side player if you choose to kill most or all of the Jedi rather than save them with the ritual. 
  • One of the generic quests in the Dark Temple on Dromund Kaas has you speak with a hologram (holocron?) of a Sith entombed there that talks about the merits of going to the light side. Since it’s on Dromund Kaas, you won’t be Dark or Light V by that point, but it does represent a potential point where you’d want to change your alignment. 
Character Dark vs Light UI in 6.3.1

I wonder if they plan to significantly adjust the amount of dark or light side points given by certain Dark and Light side choices in the game to allow you to gain access to the opposite alignment Combat Styles early at a point where it would make sense in the story. For example, each Jedi you kill in the Consular story could grant you equivalent Dark Side points to increase by an entire alignment level (so one Jedi kill moves you from Dark 2 to Dark 3, next kill gives you enough points to move from Dark 3 to Dark 4, etc.). The Jedi Knight story could just auto grant you enough points to reach Dark V when the Emperor controls you and then once that part ends, you get a choice to either revert you to your previous light side point level or keep you at Dark V. For the Dark Temple mission, depending on which choice you make, you gain a point multiplier for future Dark or Light side choices. 

Concluding Thoughts

I recognize that the views I have expressed in this article about BioWare’s approach to balance changes and combat styles for 7.0 are quite pessimistic and may seem a bit contradictory at first glance. I hate that they plan to prune such a massive number of abilities and are forcing us to choose between abilities when we previously had access to all of them. I do think some pruning is okay and necessary even, just not nearly to this degree. I understand that this game is ridiculously complex and BioWare is attempting to remedy that issue, but I think there are many better ways to do that than with massive ability pruning, especially considering it isn’t even their primary reason for making the changes in the first place. I even came up with some better alternatives, which you can find in my article on the 7.0 Guardian Changes.

I feel that they are attempting to justify their balance changes with a bunch of potential good things that could come of it in the future, but it really seems like BioWare just absolutely detests balancing their game and want to make it as easy as possible for them. I do not have faith that they are capable of properly capitalizing on the proposed changes in a way that would excuse so much ability pruning. 

I have also gotten the impression from this interview that Combat Styles seems to be focused more on being something that primarily benefits non-subscribers, since you don’t need to be subscribed to play the Origin Stories where the current direction they are going with Combat Styles will have the greatest impact. As it currently stands, they don’t seem to want to implement any of the potential QoL benefits that being able to switch between Combat Styles would provide, like not having to deal with so many loading screens just to switch Advanced Classes for a different boss. 

I understand that subscriptions don’t fund all of the development costs for SWTOR and it doesn’t work like that in terms of EA’s bookkeeping, but the idea behind paying for a subscription is generally to cover the costs of continued development on the game, including new expansions. You gain access to expansions exclusively by subscribing, even if it’s only for a month. 

Endgame content is also the only thing that requires a continuous subscription; you don’t need to subscribe continuously if all you care about is the story. It infuriates me that they are dedicating so many development resources for an expansion towards their current version of Combat Styles, that will have relatively little impact on me as a subscriber and endgame player while the primary benefit will be for players that don’t have to subscribe. While they can lock non-subscribers out of having access to multiple Combat Styles on the same toon, that benefit is minor because of all the restrictions they’re choosing to place on it even for subscribers. Meanwhile, it’s hard for them to lock non-subscribers out of non-traditional Origin Story – Advanced Class pairings, at most it would be an automatic preferred player benefit to create non-traditional pairings. 

After this interview, it seems more likely that BioWare has decided to forge ahead with major ability pruning and a diminished focus on subscribers. I hope that they will reconsider, but I highly doubt that this expansion will offer enough good changes to outweigh the bad.

You can listen or watch the full version of the Escape Pod Cast interview with Chris Schmidt. Both Vulkk and Endonae (the author of this text) would like to express our thanks to Max and Sema for the interview they did with Chris and to Chris himself for bringing new information out into the public and sharing more insights of how the development of the new Combat Styles feature for Update 7.0 is going.

Author Lokzmir
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