ecently LucasArts announced that their highly requested combat revamp for Star Wars Galaxies would release after their expansion Jump To Light Speed. Community response, to say the least, has been varied. We here at Game Informer Online have been swamped with e-mails from Galaxies players and decided that it was time to get the straight story from the source. Managing Editor Billy Berghammer and Associate Online Editor Chris Cook got a chance today to chat with Galaxies and JTLS producer Haden Blackman to get his side of the story.
GI: First of all, for background sake, could you describe the recent announcement that went out to Galaxies players regarding the Combat Revamp?
Hayden Blackman: For clarification, it was originally called the combat balance, now we’re calling it the combat revamp and we announced that it would be released sometime after Jump To Light Speed, which is scheduled for an October launch. Up to this point we had never announced a release date for Jump To Light Speed and we hadn’t committed to a hard date for any of the other updates. So, we were clarifying when those were coming.
GI: Was the decision to switch development focus from the Combat Revamp to Jump To Light Speed an SOE or LucasArts decision?
Blackman: We always knew that in the last few weeks of work on Jump To Light Speed we were going to need all hands on deck in order to help us out with some of the final tasks to make the game as engaging as possible. Really what’s happened here is that we realized that perception about combat balance in the community really started to encompass more than what we had originally intended. So we’re stepping back from it and saying, “OK, how can we actually do that?” and meet the community’s expectations with the combat balance, which again we are now calling the combat revamp. So really what’s happened is that we’re looking at increasing the scope of the changes and the updates and additions that we were going to make with the combat balance and make it more creative.
GI: What were some of the features and additions that you guys mentioned when you first announced the Combat Revamp?
Blackman: We never really talked much about it. It had to do with moving some numbers around and things like that so that we were balancing things like armor, which will get a complete overhaul. All of the moves and their associated costs will also get a complete balance path. We’ve talked really high level about those sorts of things. But we hadn’t really released any major details. I would say in terms of new features there wasn’t really anything promised and we can’t talk too much detail right now about the scope of the combat revamp because we’re just wrapping our heads around how we’re going to kind of increase it and what the scope will be. We have meetings all this week to discuss it so hopefully next week we’ll be able to start talking about it. We also really want to find ways to engage the community. We’ve been moving very, very fast and that’s something that people don’t seem to recognize. The pace of our updates has been phenomenal and we’ve been adding major new things to the game, like player cities, player vehicles, the whole Jedi Revamp. These are not easy tasks to undertake and they’re not done in a week. This is months and months and months of work. Because we’ve been moving so fast, we haven’t been able to engage the community to a level that we’d like to at each step. When we finish design docs and say this it the direction that we need to go towards and ask for feedback, that takes time as well. Once we get implementation done we need to get feedback on the implementation and that takes time as well. We really want to take the time to do that because the combat revamp and the Galactic Civil War Revamp literally have the potential to change the face of the game and we want to make sure that it’s a positive change. We really want to take our time on this and everyone in the community talking about the “schedule change” needs to realize that we never said when Jump To Lightspeed was coming out and that’s right around the corner. The fact that these are coming after JTLS doesn’t mean that they necessarily got pushed; it means that now you know when JTLS is coming out.
GI: Is it tricky to work with a community of such a large size? You’ve got so many players and such a rampant fan base. How do you plan on communicating with them on a better level? Will there be more involvement in the forums or are you thinking of things like questionnaires?
Blackman: Kurt Stangl, Thunderheart, is our community manager and he is trying to find ways internally to increase the range of correspondence much more often. We’re trying to find ways to engage them much more frequently and even kind of face-to-face. So hopefully we’ll be able to talk a little more in detail about that. Managing a community of this size that is so large and passionate, we try to engage them as much as possible, especially in the forums. One thing to realize, too, is that those posting and reading on the forums is a small sliver of our overall fanbase. It’s kind of the core. So their comments and opinions and criticism is all really, really valid because it affects everybody else. But in order to really get the big picture of how the community feels about the game you have to play online and talk to players online, which we do frequently, as well. We are using questionnaires as well. We do use exit surveys and we’re looking at doing more polls online. We also do focus testing and that’s something that we want to do more and more of. We’re looking at putting together a subscriber survey right now so the active player base can tell us what they like the most about the game and what needs improvement. The focus tests, for me, have been incredibly valuable and we’ve been doing a lot of those for JTLS.
GI: Today it was announced that beta testing sign-ups have begun for JTLS. Is this something that you plan on implementing for the beta testers as well?
Blackman: In terms of feedback loops?
Blackman: We’ll be engaging them directly on the beta test servers and we’ll have beta forums as well where they can post and provide feedback. They’ll be able to submit bugs and we may initiate some sort of correspondent program for those guys as well, but there are no concrete details on that. The first wave of beta testers are kind of our long term veterans in terms of community members and those who participate in test center and shortly after that are the Fan Fest folks. So all those people are people whose opinion we really, really value and they’re people who are incredibly invested in the game and in some cases they’re people who have been playing the game since launch or maybe were part of our original beta. We’re going to be engaging them as deeply as we possibly can with the number of people we have working on the project.
GI: Getting back to the combat revamp, it seems that you guys first mentioned that back in January.
Blackman: Yeah, I’m not sure exactly when we first mentioned it. We laid out a roadmap, so you’re probably referring to the first roadmap we did. We started this process of putting out roadmaps for the coming months and in that I believe we were very non-committal in saying that this was our plan for the next year or so. Right when we just got done tackling the Jedi Revamp and then the Revamp for the Jedi Trials. That’s another thing I think people are losing sight on. We’re working on a very big update, I mean it’s a massive update. It’s going to change the way people become Jedi and make that path much more acceptable and story driven. I think that’s going to bring a lot to the game, especially considering that we have a wide continent of our community that play the game because of that feature. That update is still scheduled and we’re working really hard on it and it’s in test internally and I think that players are going to be really happy. We’re also starting to talk about it in the development pages as well so we’re getting the community feedback there, so this is the process that we want to have and we want to engage the players at every step in the way so we have everything up in-concept and the designers are now starting to implement things and we starting to test things internally so we’ll be able to roll those things out to test, and get the feedback. But that’s a big and exciting update that’s coming soon.
GI: The biggest issue that we’ve seen so far, on the Net, in the forums, and in e-mails we get from Galaxies players, is that if you had announced the combat revamp road map back in January and that you said right now that you’re just starting to “get your heads around” the Revamp as an actual entity, has the whole process been null and void since the initial announcement and have you just been focused on JTLS up to this point?
Blackman: Again the roadmap that was originally put out was basically all the things that we wanted to tackle in the coming months - it wasn’t the roadmap for the combat revamp in particular. But over time we started saying that these things that we’re thinking about for the Revamp, like getting players feedback and talking to correspondents, what we saw was that what we were planning for the combat balance maybe didn’t go as deep or wasn’t as broad as the player base thought that it would or wanted it to. So all the things that have been discussed for the combat balance, we’re still discussing. Those things will still go into the rombat revamp and anything that doesn’t we’ll talk about and talk about why they didn’t. But, we’re extending the scope of it. If we did something wrong, which we probably did, was announce that we were working on some combat balance issues too early and we started throwing a lot of things into that bucket. When we met with Fan Fest attendees and they brought up specific issues, a lot of time our response was that “we hope to tackle that with the Combat Balance.” Well the number of items on that list grew really, really large but at the same time in terms of scope we weren’t thinking big enough. I really hope that by taking the time to think about this in terms of a Revamp and not just a balance, we’re going to deliver something that again changes the face of the game in a really positive way and becomes something much better than what the players would have gotten otherwise if we were still focused on just pushing a beta around.
GI: I guess that ultimately leads to my next question. Why not focus on these things that are centered around the combat revamp? If this list is growing exponentially and there seems to be a lot of things that you want to address in the core gameplay of Galaxies, why not just focus on those and release JTLS later?
Blackman: Because JTLS is the number one thing that our community wants. When we did focus testing and talk to players in-game or those who had left, as well as read player reviews, it comes through loud and clear that the ability to fly in space is something that everybody wants. Everyone wants to engage in space combat and want to be able to jump into a star fighter and we left everyone know up front when we launched An Empire Divided that that wasn’t going to be a component and it still was something that we got slammed for repeatedly by the player base and by the press. For us we really want to expand the Galaxies experience and this has been something that has been in development for over a year. It hasn’t been the entire team; I think that’s been a big misperception. It’s a core group of guys who all have experience in flight action games, like Wing Commander. It has definitely not been the designers who have been responsible for the combat balance and they have not moved forward onto JTLS. I think there’s a misperception that we can throw bodies at something like a combat balance and fix everything. There is a small number of people that can actually work on this stuff and we don’t want too many people in there making changes willy nilly. There needs to be a senior designer leading the effort and the designers underneath him making the changes that we all agree are the right changes. So putting the whole team on something like combat balance right now would be counterproductive since all the tasks aren’t outlined. Once those are outlined we can start allocating more resources, which is the plan after JTLS. After JTLS launches pretty much the whole team will be focused on both the combat revamp and Galactic Civil War revamps, so both of those things will be in development simultaneously.
GI: After JTLS launches and I’m assuming it will bring in a lot more gamers into the Galaxies universe, would the combat revamp change the game dramatically or hinder the overall experience?
Blackman: This is something that we’ve talked about publicly before, but Galactic Civil War is going to change the game, especially on the high end for players in a lot of ways and I think that right now one of things the player base has told us needs to be improved is that the Galactic Civil War doesn’t feel like its effecting everybody or that it’s widespread enough and there’s not a lot of investment. Those are things that we’re trying to change. We don’t just want it to be about player versus player combat, we kind of want to take it to the next level and really engage the community. There’s a huge community building effort and should involve players from every profession and really build out the game for all the players. I think that will add a lot of depth to the game, a game that in my opinion is a really deep MMO. So it’s going to add another layer of depth. In terms of the combat revamp we haven’t settled on what the full scope of that will be so I’m reluctant to talk too much about what effect it’s ultimately going to have. But, we hope that it does change the game for the better. We really don’t want to do anything if it’s not going to improve the game and we want any changes that we make to really be the changes that we want to make and that they improve the game. I think that with some of the things that we’re discussing there is potentially to really dramatically change the game in ways that are really going to surprise players. I think that they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by some of the stuff that we want to tackle in the coming months. But, there’s no timeline for this and we need to scope out what we can honestly accomplish and we’re really going to be careful about setting any stakes in the ground and saying we know exactly what the scope is about what we’re trying to tackle. We don’t want to end up in the situation again where the community feels we pushed things out when in fact we’re trying to deliver what we think they want.
GI: Do you have any predictions or a ballpark estimate of when the combat revamp or the Galactic Civil War features are going to be released? Are you thinking Winter or maybe Q1 or Q2 of 2005?
Blackman: Let me just counter with something. One thing that we have been doing with JTLS is a lot of focus testing. We bring in Galaxies players and non-Galaxies players, but the reaction that we’ve gotten from all Galaxies players has been tremendously positive. We did it at Fan Fest and we did it before Fan Fest and we’re planning another round soon. For us, we feel very validated by where we’re focusing the energy of part of our team. Again I want to be clear that Galaxies is a very big umbrella for a lot of activities. We’ve got JTLS, we’ve got the day to day management of service, we’ve got the website, and we’ve got our future updates. Right now those include things like the Jedi revamp and the combat revamp and eventually the Galactic Civil War revamp. And there are people working at various stages in development on all of those things, so I think it’s a misperception to say that we’re focusing all of our energies on JTLS. It’s just not the case. In the end when we get close to ship, are we going to shift resources onto JTLS in order to make sure that missions feel fun and that they’re balanced. Yeah, we do have the date in October that we’re really committed to hitting and it’s going to be a really great and fun experience. But we’re really cognizant of trying to figure out how to balance the teams’ efforts so that they’re working on all the components at one time.
In terms of a ballpark, again we don’t have anything yet because we haven’t agreed to what the scope will be yet. But I will say that it’s likely that because of what we’re looking at doing with Galactic Civil War and the combat revamp that it’s going to be a series of publishes over time. It won’t just be one big publish that gets dumped out that has every change imaginable and every new feature imaginable. I think that we’ll be carving out a bunch of little things to update over time and rolling those out steadily and trying to gradually increase the scope of Galactic Civil War as an example. So even if we gave a date that said this is when you can expect to see the first combat revamp publish, it’s not gong to be all encompassing. There will still be things that we have on our agenda that will come out later and hopefully we’ll be better at communicating those types of things to the community so they don’t think that every single thing will be addressed in a single publish.
GI: Hypothetically, could these elements be rolled out in your next expansion or are you guys thinking about putting out more expansions? You’ve already seen what the fans are saying about JTLS, what are your thoughts on making more?
Blackman: I think that like all MMOs, we want to do future expansions. We have some ideas about what they might be or what they might look like. We’re obviously not ready to announce anything yet, but we would like to do additional expansions. In terms of whether or not some of those elements roll into expansions, maybe some of the non-essential features could, but I think that there are some fundamental changes that we want to make to the combat system and some fundamental additions that we want to add that we feel need to be rolled out to everybody, so those will be part of the free updates. In terms of Galactic Civil War, one of the reasons why we’ve looked at making sure that JTLS was out before that revamp was because a lot of the content in JTLS is focused on the Galactic Civil War. So we wanted to make sure that they were integrated and that we weren’t doing a sweeping revamp of Galactic Civil War without taking into account how JTLS content was evolving once players got their hands on it. Really one way to look at it is to look at it like a big bookshelf. At one end is An Empire Divided and at the other end is JTLS and any other updates that come out after JTLS or any expansions kind of go between those two bookends and go to improve or expand on both the ground and in space.
GI: What kind of message would you give to John Q. Gamer who has been playing the game since launch, sitting around as a Smuggler and looking forward to the combat revamp that’s going to increase the scope of his class? What sort of message would you give him to still stick with the game now that it’s up in the air when that sort of feature, which will enhance his experience, is going to be released?
Blackman: First I’d apologize that we were misleading at all, if that was the case, or if he was misled and had expectations for a Smuggler revamp. In terms of the Smuggler specifically, it’s something that’s definitely high on our list of priorities along with a handful of other professions. I think that he has to realize that we have a lot of things that we’re trying to do all at once and for us we have to make very, very difficult calls to prioritize all the features and updates that we want to do and that he definitely has not been forgotten, but to also hopefully enjoy all the things that we’re working on. I think again that the new Jedi path is incredibly exciting and does not exclude anybody. JTLS is going to add a whole new level of gameplay and it’s going to allow players to explore the game in kind of new ways and complete the Star Wars Galaxies experience. So I would tell him to definitely be excited about that and if he’s a Smuggler and has always dreamed of having his YT-1300 transport he’s going to have his opportunity to sort of recreate that whole Han Solo persona. I think that there are a lot of really great reasons to stick with Star Wars Galaxies and I just mentioned a few. I think that when we do roll out the combat revamp and the GCW revamp, they’re going to be very exciting and hopefully will change the face of the game in a lot of new and interesting ways. I’m really excited about the direction we’re headed in and the reassurance that I would give is that us taking the time to do things right isn’t a bad thing. Taking the time to get the community feedback, getting the community involved and making sure that we thoroughly test everything and that we understand the ramifications of the changes that we’re implementing is all a good thing. Do we wish we could do all those things faster? Definitely, that’s something that I think every developer wishes they could do. Unfortunately we don’t have a team of 300 and we’re trying to do what we can with the team size that we do have. I would hope that a lot of players would see this as a positive that we’re not rushing out or putting out revamps that could potentially change the game in ways that they’re not happy with. If we’re going to change the game dramatically we want to do it ways that they’re happy with.
GI: How many team members do you currently have working on JTLS?
Blackman: All told, including test and sound, we’re over 70.
GI: What about those gamers who really aren’t interested in the path of the Jedi? What’s going to keep them playing after seeing two publishes that have been directly focused on the Jedi and their powers?
Blackman: Well made it so Jedi are fairly inter-dependent with the other professions. I think fighting alongside a Jedi is cool and exciting and if you haven’t done it yet I suggest you go and try it out. The Jedi bring a heavier Star Wars feel to the game. You know, they’re very unique to Star Wars. I think that for some of the professions, the Jedi will rely on medics and whatnot. I think that now they have a whole new outlet for their skills and bounty hunters are going to benefit from the increased presence of the Jedi. I think it’s also important to note that our path for Force sensitivity allows you to become Force sensitive and gain some skills that improve your current skills without necessarily becoming a Jedi. If you want to you can start down and explore your own Force sensitivity without ever picking up a light saber or becoming a Jedi knight or becoming involved in what we call the Force Ranking System. That’s something that’s overlooked and it’s very, very cool that a Marksman can become a better Marksman if he wants to explore more of his Force sensitivity. That goes across the board. We tried to include in all the major professions some sort of bonuses, so there are crafting bonuses scouting bonuses, and combat bonuses. So for me that really does add a whole new element and we’ve talked about this in the in-development pages that the dynamic of the Force sensitive features encourages players to work together to kind of solve these quests. So if you’re not interested in going down that path and becoming a full fledged Jedi, there’s some pretty exciting adventure to be had in and around that Force sensitive village teaming up with those players who do want to become Jedi. And again I think that we’ve added a ton of content to the game that players are out there enjoying. We’ve added huge adventure areas and objects and these are huge set pieces and major undertakings that players are still having fun with. We just did revamps for the Tatooine and Datooine quests and all of those things are the types of things that we want to continue doing. I think players can expect to see more of that going forward and again we’re reluctant to talk about it until we have concrete details. But definitely our agenda includes additional content for players to experience.
GI: You mention that the path of the Jedi is optional. What about those players who are getting frustrated after seeing two publishes directly centered on the Jedi but aren’t focused on things like balancing out things that should be in the combat revamp, like melee versus ranged combat balancing?
Blackman: Both versions of the Jedi do have a few things in there that do address some issues that we wanted to resolve before we rolled out any revamps to the Jedi because they so heavily involved Jedi. They were changes that were going to act as sorts of precursors to the types of changes that we were going to make on down the line. For us we do see that as a step forward for us and again I think that you have to look at the community as a whole. More than 50 percent of our community told us that they wanted to become a Jedi. That’s a pretty overwhelming number and it shows that we’re listening to the community by addressed that. The other thing is that hologrinding, a system that looked great on paper and one that we got positive feedback from by testers, it really did disrupt the social fabric of the game. One of the things that we’re addressing with this patch is getting away from the hologrinding, which improves the game for everybody. So you won’t expect to go into a cantina and see a bunch of AFK Dancers since that was really frustrating. We’re kind of in a Catch 22 to be honest. We’re trying to respond to an overwhelming demand by the player base for a Jedi system that is more engaging and more fun and accessible. And, we’re getting feedback from the entire community saying that the hologrinding is bad for the game and then we address those things and we get blasted for focusing only on Jedi. For us, we feel like we’re between a rock and a hard place because we can’t do everything at once, we’re just trying to do the things that feel like the highest priority and what’s urgent right now and that was fixing or revamping the Jedi system and trying to get rid of hologrinding. We got a lot of feedback and approval from the community in our roadmap to address the Jedi issues first and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the press on that, too. Do we wish that we could have done these things faster? Of course. Do we wish that we could have done more in each publish? Of course. But those are the priorities that we had to move forward with. And players have to realize that our next priority is the combat revamp and right after this will be GCW. I don’t think that we are ignoring that group of the community and I think that the fact that it’s not coming out before JTLS dictates that we are taking more time and giving a more direct response to the community about what they want to see in that combat revamp.
GI: What sort of role will the Summit play in allowing some concerned gamers to voice their opinions on Galaxies?
Blackman: We haven’t announced a date on that yet.
GI: But it’s in the works, right?
Blackman: Yeah, it’s in the works so we definitely want face time with the correspondents and have them all together so they can see the interdependencies between the different professions and get an understanding of what the other professions are looking for, as well as meet the dev team and get a better understanding about our process and why we can’t snap our fingers and magically make every single change that everybody would like. And, they can help us prioritize as well. That’s one of the problems that we’ve had in the past because there are so many things that we want to do and so many things that the community would like us to do and we’re pulled in a lot of different directions. I think that making sure that everybody that’s involved in helping us prioritize need to understand that there’s a trade off there and what the difficulty of doing X over Y I think is important. And I think that a part of the discussion will be what we can do for the combat revamp and I think that there’s going to be a lot of focus on each individual profession and then we’ll move onto the GCW revamp, which as I mentioned before really is meant to enhance every profession, if we can.
GI: With JTLS coming out at the end of October and EverQuest 2 hitting stores in early November, what about Galaxies is really going to pull in and keep gamers that have been playing since the title’s launch from not jumping ship?
Blackman: I’ve always felt that Galaxies has always set itself apart from other MMOs out there. I won’t speak specifically about EverQuest 2 since SOE is our partner on this but we set out on day one to say that we really want to be different from every other MMO and here are the ways that we’re going to do it. We’ve taken a lot of design risks, integrated social professions in a way that’s never been done before, we’ve provided housing and player cities to a degree that’s never been done before, I think we offer some of the deepest social gameplay of any MMO on the market, and I think that that will continue. I think that JTLS dramatically evolves the game and again offers up something that you can’t get in any other MMORPG. Having the ability to have these two different gameplay elements that coexist with one another essentially comes down to the fact that we’re adding a whole new game, in terms of the content and the scope of the design. For me I feel like there’s an endless list of reasons why people should stay with Galaxies and why you might choose Galaxies over another MMORPG. And we’ll continue to look at the trends out there and try to remain competitive and I think that again the combat revamp and the GCW revamp are other ways that we’re doing that. We’re looking at ways to evolve the game through those to help it remain competitive. And it’s Star Wars. Where else can you live and breathe the Star Wars universe? That’s another great thing that Galaxies offers. And for those players who have been dreaming of becoming a Jedi that path is almost available and I think that’s another huge draw for more than half of our player base.
GI: I’ve got one last question for you. I don’t know if you have access to the numbers, but have you seen any noticeable increase in account cancellations since your announcement about the revamp?
Blackman: To be honest we’re always concerned about that whenever we make announcements like this. We haven’t seen a huge spike and we’re going to continue to watch it but again if you look at the forums, and this is not at all to diminish what the forums bring to the game since we spend a lot of time on them reading posts and responding to posts, but they really are a small sub-section of our overall community. At our best estimate only about 20 percent of our community participates on our forums. The rest of the community gets their news through the Launch Pad or in-game and spend all their time in the game. In order to gauge the health of the community, which we do continually, we have to look at things like various numbers and cancellations but also go in-game and talk to people like that. There’s much more to managing the community than just managing the forums, although that is probably the largest and a very vital and important part of it. Our numbers continue to go up and we’re very happy with those in terms of subscribers. In fact in the past couple of weeks we’ve seen a very steady climb so I’m really positive in the direction that Galaxies is headed and I think that a large part of that has to do with all the additions that we’ve made and all the smart changes that we’ve made, like the addition of the Jedi as a more accessible path for players and the buzz about JTLS.
Again, none of that is to deflect the fact that we put out a roadmap a long time ago that said we’re working hard on combat revamping and the GCW revamp; we still haven’t been able to deliver on those things. Nobody is more upset about that more than us. We’re trying to be as contrite about this as possible without losing sight of the fact that Galaxies is a very big, very great, and very strong game with lots and lots of players and without losing the sight that this is the right decision and taking the time to do these things is the right decision for the game. Rushing them out would not improve the experience for anybody. We’ve very disappointed in the fact that the community is upset and that we couldn’t deliver to the community exactly what they wanted.
Billy Berghammer & Chris Cook