Monday, March 25, 2013

Assassin Developer Interview

SWTOR Game Update 2.0 Assassin Developer Interview

Double-bladed Saber Flourish

Assassins and Shadows have responded to Game Update 2.0's changes with a lot of resistance since PTS became available.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing SWTOR's Lead Combat Designer, +Austin Peckenpaugh. I gathered the most common themes of community complaints and reader suggestions to form this list of questions. The discussion we had should address many of your concerns.

Austin Peckenpaugh on Assassins in Update 2.0

Belanos: Hey Austin, thanks for chatting about Assassins and Shadows with me today. You must be excited about update 2.0 and Makeb.

Austin: It’s been a long time coming. I’m really looking forward to finally rolling things out and getting the new classes into everyone’s hands.

Belanos: Darkness and Deception trees are working well after the latest changes. Are you happy with their performance now, or are there other changes we should expect?

Austin: Working on classes is a never-ending full-time job, and we’re never really content to rest on our laurels. It’s easy for us and for players to view any big release as “closing” or “finaling” the product, but in reality 2.0 is the beginning of something new. So with that perspective, we’re looking forward to gathering more player feedback and iterating on things. I’m actually pretty happy about how Assassins came together for the 2.0 release, but there’s always more work to do.

Belanos: Some Madness Assassins see the new direction the build is taking as less fun than pre-2.0. The phrase “gimped Sorc” is being thrown around on the forums. What are the design objectives in removing Shock and Maul from the rotation?

Austin: Changing the way Madness Assassins play was not an issue we took or take lightly. Changing numbers is a big enough deal for some players – changing gameplay is a huge deal for even more players.

When we sat down to talk about Madness Assassins in 2.0, there were many issues we wanted to address. Some of those issues were frankly caused by violating our own design philosophies. These are ways of designing skill trees that we follow and follow for a good reason, usually because straying from them causes big problems.

In the case of Shock, its contribution to Madness’s gameplay was effectively the Unearthed Knowledge buff it provided (which is to say, it provided no gameplay). Shock itself wasn’t very powerful or important, and it really didn’t need to be shoe-horned into Madness’s priorities. Additionally, a lot of the Force-management issues Madness Assassins complained about were caused by using Shock, which we encouraged players to do because of a few unnecessary and ill-fitting skills.

The bigger design problem was Maul, or more specifically, the Duplicity skill. In general, we really don’t like providing gameplay-altering skills as “low hanging fruit” near the bottom of a skill tree. These skills are usually a problem because they alter your established gameplay after-the-fact. By that I mean, once you’ve fully invested in a skill tree (let’s say 36 points in Madness), you have a 100% full and complete arsenal, skill set, and gameplay. Your leftover points should be used to reinforce and bolster that gameplay – not alter or further complicate it.

This isn’t so much a balance concern as it is a usability and complexity concern. There is a limit to the number of abilities in a priority list or rotation that most players feel comfortable with. Slapping more on top of that, which some players may or may not even choose to do, makes things difficult for us to balance and expand upon, and it makes things unnecessarily complex for players.

By contrast, we can provide players with skill choices that give the same overall effect without the additional complexity and without requiring players to master additional gameplay. Of course, some players have already mastered that gameplay and don’t see it as a problem. We’re not aiming to fix things for those players, and for those players, it might appear as though we’re messing with a good thing. Instead, our fixes aim to address the skill tree for players that passed up on Madness and haven’t ever considered it because it’s too daunting. To be clear, this is important so that all skill trees feel like they’re part of the same game and that they are all equally viable choices to players that want to try out what each skill tree has to offer.

With all of that said, I really want to get across that I personally understand how jarring it can be to have your spec’s gameplay changed in such a way. This is not the kind of thing we like doing or the kind of thing that we have any plans on doing again in the foreseeable future – for any spec.

Belanos: There is a fear amongst the community that low DPS parses versus other classes on PTS may lead to pigeonholing us into tanking. Of course, we only have limited data to go on. Could you clear this up: Are Assassin DPS specs reaching your targets?

Austin: Yes and no. If your measure of Assassin DPS is parses on a training dummy, you WILL see lower numbers than most other DPS specs. But allow me to put this into context in terms of what Assassins are “missing” compared to all other specs. I’ve color-coded “what’s missing” when fighting a training dummy based on severity (green < light green < brown < red).

Sorcerer-Lightning No armor debuff present
Sorcerer-Madness No armor debuff present
Assassin-Deception No Assassinate; no armor debuff present; no Sith Executioner
Assassin-Madness No Assassinate; no armor debuff present; no Bloodletting
Marauder-Annihilation No Vicious Throw; no armor debuff present
Marauder-Carnage No armor debuff present
Marauder-Rage No Vicious Throw; no armor debuff present
Juggernaut-Vengeance Nothing missing - Optimal DPS
Juggernaut-Rage No Vicious Throw
Operative-Concealment No armor debuff present
Operative-Lethality No armor debuff present; no Devouring Microbes
Sniper-Marksmanship No Takedown (also not benefiting from 4pc set bonus); No Headshot
Sniper-Engineering No Takedown (also not benefiting from 4pc set bonus)
Sniper-Lethality No Devouring Microbes
Mercenary-Arsenal Nothing missing - Optimal DPS
Mercenary-Pyrotech No armor debuff present; no Burnout
Powertech-Pyrotech No armor debuff present; no Burnout
Powertech-AdvPrototype No armor debuff present

There’s a good deal of additional context that can be added to these parses against training dummies, but I hope this clearly demonstrates how Assassin DPS has THE MOST to gain when switching from a simulated fight to a real fight.

Furthermore, I must mention that when we do our internal playtests against real enemies with real group conditions, Assassins are in fact hitting our DPS targets. Our tests aren’t perfect, however, and we don’t test every fight or scenario with every spec, so we will be looking forward to seeing the results players provide for us. If things really aren’t looking good for Assassins, we won’t hesitate to make the necessary adjustments.

Belanos: A gripe I’m seeing a lot of is that Lacerate costs too much Force to use for what you get out of it - even with new talents increasing its damage. Is this still being iterated on or do you think it has its purpose the way it is now?

Austin: I think players are spot-on with this analysis of Lacerate. It’s hard to give precedence to AOE viability when single-target balancing is such a huge priority, but that’s ultimately no excuse after a certain amount of time. I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to get to a spot (soon) where we can address some of these minor but long-overdue issues like Lacerate.

Belanos: Phase Walk is a really cool ability. Darkness gets a healing buff provided by it, but the DPS specs don’t have an in-combat PvE reason to use it very often. Has there been any consideration of using Phase Walk as a source of different group buffs for each spec?

Austin: I think Phase Walk is one of those abilities whose real use will only become apparent to all of us as everyone gets in and starts playing with it. As 2.0 goes out the door, we are fully aware of the criticism that DPS Assassins don’t have overt PVE application for Phase Walk. However, we want to see what players do with this ability and make judgement calls as we move forward. Players should expect to see this ability (and skills that modify it) evolve greatly as time goes on.

I do really like the idea of different specs providing different “buff zones” around the Phase Walk marker. This sounds like a direction we will probably go in.

One minor (but very cool) thing I want to point out that a lot of people don’t know is that Phase Walk can be deactivated even while you’re controlled. Being stunned doesn’t prevent you from de-toggling a mode, so returning to your marked location with Phase Walk is a great way to avoid otherwise unavoidable effects.

Belanos: My favorite change for Assassins in 2.0 is Death Field hitting 5 targets. Is there anything about Assassin and Shadow changes you’re really looking forward to going live?

Austin: It might seem kind of minor, but I’m actually excited about Overcharge Saber becoming a real survivability cooldown in 2.0. It’s now a baseline 15% heal for all Assassins, and for Darkness Assassins that spec into it, it’s also +25% damage reduction for the duration.

I’m also excited about the new Deception Assassin gameplay. Previously it was kind of a disappointment to deal with the conflicting motivations of bursting with a big Discharge and rapidly Discharging on cooldown for sustained damage. In 2.0, Voltaic Slash, Shock, Surging Charge, and Discharge have clear synergy and all play in better harmony with one another. And because our PTS players are awesome, we were able to make these changes without sacrificing on-demand burst. After a quick round of feedback from the PTS, we introduced Electric Ambush, which makes Recklessness instantly ready your big Discharge (among other things). The end result is a large improvement and slated to be a lot of fun.

Belanos: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Austin: Only the usual, which is to say that 2.0 is just the start of something new. We’re really looking forward to having everyone play the new classes and to get working on additional tweaks for the future based on that feedback.

Belanos: Thanks for your time!


I'm sure you're as happy as I was to hear we're not a burden to our groups when you look at the big picture. I appreciate having the full list of contributing DPS factors for every spec and seeing that our Operations Dummy parses are essentially incomparable against other classes in 2.0.

Your spec of choice may change if you no longer enjoy it, but you have a viable alternative either way. It's extremely interesting that Madness in its old form broke the developers' design philosophy and this was a correction of sorts. On the bright side, we get some mental bandwidth back because the complexity is being brought in line with other classes.

Finally, some of our pet peeves should get ironed out as the devs reach lower-priority issues. Share this info with your friends if you've gleaned some insight from it.