During the biggest gaming event in Europe, GamesCom gaming convention in Cologne, Germany, we had the opportunity to talk to the man whose decisions will have a great impact on the future of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Mr. Jeff Hickman, the new Executive Producer for Star Wars: The Old Republic sat down with us and talked on a number of topics. You can watch the exclusive interview in the video bellow and here’s a recap of topics that were discussed:
- Introduction of Mr. Jeff Hickamn and his previous work as well as his tasks in the future
- His thoughts and plans on how to make the Free to Play model a reality
- When will Free to Play launch?
- Correlation between announced content (new warzone, raid etc.) and launch of Free to Play
- Once Free to Play goes live, will subscribers ever have to pay for anything (like a big expansion/content pack)?
- Will Makeb increase the level cap?
- How do you introduce a cash shop into a story MMO?
- What is your stance on “Pay to Win”
- What did 50+ mean when new space missions were announced
- Number one community question was “When will our story continue”. Can you tell us more about that?
- Why the space missions and not Makeb?
- What is the future of SWTOR in Mr. Hickman’s words?
Swtor Spy/Life: We are here with Jeff Hickman. If you would like to introduce yourself to the Star Wars: The Old Republic community, because people have not seen much of you before. They do know that you were the Live Producer before, but the first we really heard of you was when you made the announcement about free to play. If you could tell us about your previous work and what is your future role in Bioware.
Jeff Hickman: I am currently the Executive Producer on SWTOR. My background; I’ve been in the MMO industry since 2001. My first game was Dark Age of Camelot. I worked on Dark Age from the time it launched, joined Mythic about 6 months before it launched; helped launch that game. Eventually, in 2004, became the Executive Producer of DAOC. I was also the Executive Producer of Warhammer Online, so that was my game. So, for 13 years I spent my time building, launching and running big MMOs, that’s what I do. Of course, this was all in Mythic Entertainment and Mythic in 2006 became part of Electronic Arts and in 2008 Mythic became part of the Bioware team within Electronic Arts. So, in 2010, after we launched Warhammer Online, Ray and Greg came to me and said: “Hey, we’re getting ready to launch SWTOR. You’re the guy who’s launched, probably more MMOs than most people on the planet. We’d love your help, would you like to come down and help us launch SWTOR?” and I said: ”Sure, sounds good”. I moved to Austin, I love Austin, and I became the Executive Producer of Live Services. What that means is that I was basically responsible for anything not development related. That’s Customer support, it’s live production, which is the guys who monitor the live servers, who patch the live servers, who take care of emergency issues and that kind of stuff, responsible for the Community team, I was also deeply involved with Marketing, Operations and with dev to a point. My partner was Rich Vogel and I literally sat in the office with him, this far away from him, and between him and I we mad the decisions for the launch of the product and what TOR was gonna become. Rich has since moved on, he’s looking for different things for his future, and so I’m still responsible for Live Service and they also rolled up the development team underneath me. I’ve got 14 years of experience to involve and it’s an awesome opportunity and a super big honor for me. You know, I’m working with guys that quite literally are my heroes in the gaming space. You talked about James Ohlen and having your first interview with James back in 2010. Well, James Ohlen and (I grew up?) playing Baldur’s Gate and KOTOR and other games that were my beloved games before I even got into the industry back in the 90s and James was the guy on those games and now James Ohlen sits three feet away from me, he’s my creative director on TOR, this is his game; and what an honor it is to have this opportunity.
Yet it is a big responsibility as well
Yeah it is!
Because you are actually in charge of making Free to Play a reality.
That’s how I gather things are, that was your first announcement so I presume that is what your task is specifically. So, how do you plan on accomplishing this?
Lot of hard work. I think you hit it on the head. While I have broad responsibility across the development team, you know James is still the Creative Director; he’s the one who decides what the game is, the vision of the game. This is a James Ohlen product if you will and so he’s still deeply, deeply, involved in that. I help to make the decisions around a lot of the business aspects of the game. James and I work very closely together to make sure that the things that he wants to do with the game make sense from a business standpoint. Make sense within the kind of holistic structure of the game and so the Free to Play are both he and I, and the entire team of course, (there is a) giant team behind this, looking at what are the right decisions for taking this game Free to Play. What modifications do we make to the game? What does a Free to Play player experience when he plays the game? What does a subscription player experience when he plays the game? What are the different things that we need to do to keep our players engaged and how can we change the way that we’ve done things in the past to provide more frequent content updates; to give the Free to Play player a great experience, yet entice them pay a little bit here and there … This is all about business so we want a great game experience the people will love for years and years to come. What my actual plans are? Do the right thing for both our subscribers and for our Free to Play player. Do it as quickly as possible in a very high quality manner and provide a great play experience for both.
Since we are talking about “as quickly as possible” … Is November the month?
What have we said? Fall. Fall is what we’re aiming for. It is all we’ve said so far.
At the investor’s call …
They said … but it is fall
So you are broadening that deadline. Does that mean sooner or later?
As soon as it’s done at the right level of quality is when we’re gonna launch that thing and we think that we can hit the fall.
You’ve announced several new pieces of content. New warzones, new raid. Is that planned to come out before free to play launches or after?
They are not dependent on each other. If you’re a subscriber it doesn’t matter. As a subscriber you get all of that stuff. As a F2P player it almost does not matter either, because as a F2P player the restrictions you have, for example, one of the restrictions we’ll have is we will have a restriction on F2P players about how many warzones they can play in a given amount of time, so when we put out Ancient Hypergates, if you are a F2P player you will have that restriction. So, if you are currently a subscriber, which is the only kind of players that we have, you’re gonna get it no matter what. So, it doesn’t matter (if it’s released before or after F2P). We do not look at it that way. We have a track, a team of people working that are working on those six week content updates and those people, while integrated deeply with what we’re thinking about F2P, are not dependent on it. So, we’re gonna do that as fast as we possibly can, because we believe strongly that players want to see more frequent content updates and than we’re also gonna do the F2P piece as fast as we can also. It is all about Bioware quality. We are not going to launch any of these things until they are ready to go and we have, I think, really strong plans around both right now.
You answered a lot of question about the F2P model that you are going to be providing, but there are still some small things that we would like to find about. Will subscribers have to play for any kind of content? So, while it was just a subscriber game you would pay for a major expansion, but right now; I am guessing you are currently focusing more on smaller content…
What (if anything) will subscribers have to pay for after F2P launches?
I wish I had a solid answer for you on that. We’re still in discussion about some of the larger content updates that we’re planning. Great example is the planet Makeb. We’ve talked about Makeb, we have a lot of plans around Makeb. I wish I could give you more details, but I can tell you that I think the playerbase is going to be really, really pleased. More story content. New and interesting things for the players to do. More systems and interesting functions in the game … I can’t go into a lot of detail, but around things like that … This is a pretty big piece (of content). It is probably all that I can say. It is definitely still for discussion whether we sell that to the subscriber or the subscriber gets that for free because it is a big beefy chunk of content.
Makeb is going to expand the level?
… I can’t talk about that right now. She’ll kill me.
I think you guys will be very happy with what we have planned.
The one question I have personally is … How do you change a story MMO into a cash shop MMO? Because, you’re introducing a cash shop into a story MMO. There is definitely a process there. If you can talk about that that would be great.
I think the core of that is actually fairly simple to explain, though it might be a bit more difficult to implement. If you look at what we’re planning on doing; the thing we’re giving away for free is the story. We talked a lot about … months of deep investigation … what are the restrictions the F2P player has in the game, and there was a lot of people who were saying you’ve got to restrict the story. The story is what it’s all about and therefore you have to restrict it. We actually believe the opposite. We think that the story is so core to the gameplay experience; the love and wonder of what Star Wars is; that breaking up the story in some sort of way is just not the right thing to do. We want that kind of casual player to come in and kind of start to play with the story and get drawn into what they are doing and we’re willing to give that away for free. There are so many other things outside of that that you can do that, that as a subscriber you will get for just being a subscriber, or as a F2P player you can buy out of a kind of À la carte way; you know – here’s a menu of things: You want more bank slots? OK. You want more warzones? OK. Whatever happens to be. So, for us, that is kind of the core of it. Give the story away. Make the casual player understand what that is. Don’t try to monetize that. Monetize all the things around that. I think, actually, as we looked through it is not as complex as you think it is (Ed. Note: converting story mmo to F2P). It is very difficult (Ed. Note to develop that system if it was not there before), believe me, the team is working really hard over there; working day and night to get this done, but it is pretty straight forward to understand once we through everything on the paper and went: “That actually makes perfect sense.” and we feel pretty good about it.
The major question about F2P; when any F2P project is announced or talked about is what’s gonna be in the cash shop? Lets just put this question out there in as plain and as simple form as possible. What’s your stance on Pay to Win?
Pay to win is not something that we like. I don’t want to unbalance the game by putting things out on the store that somebody can walk in on day one, buy and be the winner. Having said that, there will be some things that we put out in the store that do enhance power value in some way, but not at the top end. Trying to think of a good example. We may put a medium level blue piece of armor on the cash shop for example. We might do that. We haven’t decided and we’re still talking about this, but it’s one of those things it is like … most players will have something better than this anyway, but if you don’t here’s the way that you can get a leg up to at least make you equal with the normal players. That is kind of where our thinking is at, but we are still discussing it. But we do not believe in Pay to Win.
I have to ask you this question. It is a really strange thing to have been said. Just a couple of days ago the new General Manager
He said that you are going to be introducing a new raid, a new warzone and multiple 50+ space battles. What does 50+ stand for?
That’s a great question. It’s one way of saying that they are hard mode space battles. They are space mission for players that are level 50, who have done all their space missions. Who have a super upgraded ship and now want a big challenge and I can tell you they are a big challenge.
You answered this already, but I just want to pass this onto you because this is a community question (Ed. Note question sent to us by the community to ask the SWTOR team). I think it is important for me to relate what the community wants me to ask you.
I do to.
The number one question was: “What’s going to happen with our story?”. Now we have the Epilogue screen. Some people have it for months and they want to see what happens to their companions and…
So do I. I’ve seen some of it actually, because we do believe in story and we have plans for story moving forward. Makeb is probably the biggest example of that. Makeb is a continuation of your story.
That’s my next question. Why the space missions and not Makeb?
The easiest way to say this is there are actually two very different team working on these things. We literally have a team, team catalyst is what they’re called internally, that is responsible for these frequent content updates. There’s a team who is responsible for warzones and flashpoints and some operations and some of the events. This is the team for doing interesting, frequent content updates. We also have a space team. We have a team that all they do is space and they’ve been working on these hard mode space missions for months now. And than we have another team that is working on Makeb. These three teams, while they work closely together, they are not dependent on each other and when one is finished with whatever they’re working on that is when we launch it. Makeb is on its own timeline and on its track and its not a matter of us choosing between the two, it’s a matter of which one is done first. That’s it.
One last question. I’ve been following the game for a very long time. There is one marketing story that we’ve heard all that time: “This is a subscription game, we plan to make this a subscription game”. We know how that went. We’ve seen the past 6 months. We’re at a new point of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Going forward you are going to be leading that new push for SWTOR. In your words, tell us about the future of SWTOR.
I think that the future of TOR is about lowering the barriers for people that would like to play the game, but are not ready to commit to 15 dollars a month or who are willing to wait for 3 or 4 months for a new content update. Lowering the barriers to get into the game and stay in the game I think is probably the number one piece of the future that I am focused on. Free to play is a part of that, because I think money is a barrier to a lot of people, and so I look at the focus on Free to Play, the focus on more frequent updates, yet a continued commitment to things like story and that is the future of TOR for me. It is a future where we have more people playing than we ever had before, where we have a wide variety of options on how you want to play so you play the way you want to and pay for the things that you want to pay for and enjoy the game you want to enjoy it. That is the future of TOR.