Our Exclusive Interview With SWTOR's Gabe Amatangelo

At PAX, we got the chance to sit down with Star Wars: The Old Republic Principal Lead PvP Designer Gabe Amatangelo for an exclusive interview. We covered a wide range of topics, getting an insightful look into the inner workings of BioWare‘s controversial MMO.

On future content releases:

We’re going to be having a faster cadence of delivering content and features. There’s going to be around a six-week cycle where you’ll see something new, like there’s going to be the new operation, the new warzone, the new HK-51 Belsavis area, things of that nature.

On layoffs:

You have different needs in development when you’re going to launch as opposed to after launch. A lot of it lies in the formation of the tools. You put a lot of work and effort toward getting the tools and you get more efficient with them. It’s kind of this sliding scale – you need more people when you’re not as efficient, but as the technology and tools develop, you become efficient.

That’s just the nature of the beast. After World of Warcraft released back in 2004, Blizzard had layoffs. It’s sort of a sad situation, but that’s how it is.

On free-to-play:

We’ve got the tech in and we’re fine-tuning it. But ultimately it comes down to is putting the variables into a data table and we can do that at the eleventh hour. Internally, we’re discussing things like, “Is it X per day, X per week?” Or do we limit it at all? Or do we do something like the rewards are limited instead of the content?

There are different points of view at the office – and we debate in a friendly way – but we’re far enough along with the tech to get that feature enabled. We’d love to hear from the players what their point of view is on it. Personally, when I’m developing stuff, I leverage what the community speaks up about, and I use that to influence some of those debates.

Free-to-play is something EA‘s been talking about forever. Even before we launched, we were talking about it internally. Obviously we couldn’t do something like League of Legends does, rotating what advanced class you could play each week [whew!], but it’s the future of online games. It’s just what it is.

On the type of player they’re trying to attract:

Leading up to the launch, we always talked about SWTOR as being a fully featured MMO. That means a broad player base. It’s like we’ve talked about, we’ve got a new raid coming out, a new warzone, and there’s crossover with the players there, but they are different types of players.

We also talked (back at E3) about how we’ve got a new planet, Makeb, with new story, so we’re kind of rotating between the player types, if you will. But we do incentivise a lot of cross-play, and that’s where the accessibility of the different features come into play.

Like, we see people playing warzones, a lot of people who aren’t necessarily “PvP players,” as our stats define them. But a lot of people get into them because they’re really accessible, especially as people are leveling up.

So we’re focusing on all fronts. On the PvP front, we’re focusing on trying to get a better cadence with the new power progression so there’s not as much of a gap, and the ranked warzones, tournaments, things of that nature.

With the operations, we’re always trying to do new mechanics, new exciting, thrilling encounters that are wrapped in story but really focus on the gameplay features. We’re continuing to go on with that puzzle kind of staple that we established in Eternity Vault, trying to continue that style of gameplay as well.

On the PvP gap at max level:

I talked about before launch how I wanted a 20% gap [between a “new” level 50 and a top-geared player], and we did not hit that for a number of development reasons; I could get into the boring details, but the goal and the intent is still a 20% gap.

One way we’re going to handle that in the future will be a level 50 bolster. We’re going to introduce a recruit gear, mark II in the next patch, but a level 50 bolster will also bring things closer to that 20% gap.

On ranked warzones:

We’re making good strides on that. We’ve got a lot of exciting developments going on, but I’m not allowed to give details at this point. It’s something everyone at the studio is really amped about, and we hope to start dropping hints and teasers about that soon.

We want to do more than simply “turn on” ranked warzones for season one. We’re looking into other PvP modes, as well. I can’t give exact dates, but it’s likely that free-to-play will come online slightly before ranked warzones.

On Ilum:

It was one of those last features we tried to tackle before launch, and when you’re launching a major MMO, emergent issues arise and resources had to be pulled from it. It was unfortunate, and we were never able to get Ilum to the design spec that we wanted.

At this point, what we’re wanting to do is an event that revitalizes it. It’ll have something to do with an alien race crash-landing into it, and we’re targeting a January timeframe, which is when update 1.1 happened this last January.

In addition to revitalizing the open-world PvP, we’re also looking at the obvious issues like faction imbalance and things of that nature, though I can’t get into the details of our approach right now.

On Nightmare modes:

We have them done on our development charts. It’s the near future, very SoonTM. We’ve got the Terror From Beyond and then Nightmare mode for Explosive Conflict, and we’ll have a new set of gear for PvE split between those two modes. So you’ll have two operations for that tier of gear, as opposed to all of it crammed into one operation.

On his greatest challenge:

As we’re moving into this faster cadence and the new development structure and tools we have, you’ve got to get your ducks in a row, so to speak. How long is it going to be on public test, when is there sufficient QA for the release, things like that. It’s lining all those things up to have the assembly line going with that process. Shifting process around is a big challenge.

On revisiting old planets:

It’s something we want. I mean, that’s part of the Star Wars fantasy. Even at max level, you want to go to Tatooine or Voss for something – and we’ve been speccing out some other systems internally to make use of those other planets, like bounty-hunting missions or other events.