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GDC Online Speaker Spotlight: BioWare's Zoeller On Iterative MMO Content

In the latest in a series of interviews with notable speakers from this October's GDC Online, BioWare Austin's Georg Zoeller speaks out on the processes and tools his team uses to generate and tune MMO content in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Originally hailing from Germany, Zoeller moved to Edmonton to join BioWare in 2003, and has since held a number of positions at the company, working on titles such as Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. In 2009, Zoeller moved to BioWare Austin to serve as principal designer on The Old Republic.

Here, Zoeller provides an in-depth look at the BioWare's production processes in anticipation of his talk, "Rapid MMO Content Iteration and Validation with Spatial Analysis in Star Wars: The Old Republic," which will outline the various techniques the studio uses to test and validate the game's content.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing MMO content generation?

Achieving the required -- and expected -- volume of content without compromising quality. MMO players are pretty unforgiving when it comes to quality - you usually get one shot to get it right. Your launch sets the trajectory of where your game is headed and quality of content, even more than quantity is a major contributing factor to success of failure.

Content wise, these games are insanely large undertakings. For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Planet Alderaan, which is one of 17 planets in the game, holds more creatures than the entirety of Dragon Age: Origins, a game offering 60-80 hours in a single playthrough that took us almost than 5 years to create.

We have thousands of differently voiced characters in the game, all with dialogs and quests that not only need to be written, recorded, staged, scripted and animated, but also tested and validated -- the most engaging quest isn't going to keep a player around if it fails to work.

In order to make the creation and validation of that much content manageable, you not only need more people, you also need to be a lot smarter in your workflows and tools.

What are some techniques BioWare uses to create content for The Old Republic? Are there specific tools or processes your find particularly useful?

One of the interesting aspects of the game engine we are using is the fact that it is a large-scale collaborative environment. That means that most content creators work together on a single environment (i.e. server) and changes happen in real time. While an artist might sculpt a mountain in the background, a designer on the same map could be working on creating encounters or placing harvest nodes for crafting.

It's safe to say that collaborative real time development creates significant challenges on larger teams and, especially earlier in the process, introduces rather stringent requirements regarding the quality of everyday work -- after all, if you accidentally delete the terrain on a planet, everyone standing on it will plunge to their death, which isn't great for productivity.

However, there are also some great benefits to this approach compared to the traditional "build" model, such as the ability for a team of designers and artists, co-located in the same room, to create and iterate on a quest hub together in-engine as well.

Can you discuss BioWare's 'HoloProjector' toolkit? What does it do to aid content generation?

HoloProjector is a toolkit that provides a bird's eye view on the game's content, from static geometry, sound volumes, and triggers to creatures and vendors.

The initial goal for the tool was to improve awareness regarding the individual usage of the millions of individual game assets that make up Star Wars: The Old Republic.

HoloProjector reuses the highly detailed in-game map assets and auto generated terrain heightmaps to project and combine asset locations, test data, user interactions, performance metrics and other spatial data in 2D and 3D space into a single workspace where artists, designers and other groups can easily create and share custom data visualizations relevant to their needs on the project, from performance optimization to player behavior analysis.

For example, a technical artist can use the tool to generate a heatmap of a planet or sub-area on a planet where the number of budgeted draw calls visual effects is greatly exceeded, add any effect emitters to the map, inspect them for their properties, flag the ones most likely to cause the issue and forward the resulting map to the area artist with recommendations.

How does user feedback influence content creation for The Old Republic? How do you gather this data?

Testing and the use of data generated from testing has been an integral part of our workflow for more than a year now and has been critical for us in validating the game design, rooting out problems and improving the overall game.

Data is gathered via a broad set of methods, including automation, very high detail metrics about user interaction with the game, professional focus testing, in-game player feedback systems, private testing forums and direct contact with individual testers or entire groups via chat.

It's possible for us to drill down into the game interactions of every single tester and correlate their feedback directly with issues encountered in-game. By using a several different data sources, we can eliminate a lot of the usual bias encountered in direct user feedback.

High detail user interaction metrics also help us analyze complex content issues, develop fixes and most importantly, validate the success of those fixes a few builds down the road.

What advice would you offer developers tasked with generating content for an MMO?

First: Continuously invest in your tools. Make sure you keep on top of which tools are actually used for content creation, how many people rely on them, how stable they are, and where time is going when users interact with those tools.

With good metrics about use and stability of mission critical tools on your project comes the ability to understand return of investment. For instance, "If we speed up the pathfinding generation, we can save 250 man hours over the next four months, but if we fix this crash, we're avoiding 340 man hours of downtime over the next week."

Second: Test early and extensively. Test with both external testers and with automation software.
We all understand the benefits of human beta testers -- in addition to a great QA department -- and how talented they can be in finding all the things you didn't and how they keep surprising you by turning up the most obscure issues.

Additionally, automated testing and asset validation greatly complements those manual testing efforts by detecting subtle changes. For example, you might say, "The bot used to complete this quest in 2:20 minutes and only died here in 1/20 runs; now we're up to 2:50 and a 1 in 10 death rate. Something changed, QA investigate!" These processes also guard against regression and repetition of previous mistakes.

Every time we discover a problematic asset on Star Wars: The Old Republic, we investigate if a so-called "speed trap" should be created, an automated test of game assets that detects the condition -- exposing all problems of the same type -- and prevents it from happening in the future.

How will your GDC Online talk address MMO content creation, and what do you expect people to take away from it?

My talk will focus on the visualization tools and processes we use to combine metrics generated from large-scale game testing with game asset data to understand how users interact with our content, debug perceived issues, and test the implemented solutions.

Attendees should be able to take home a decent view of how exposing easily digestible metrics and asset data to artists and designers in the trenches can greatly improve speed of content iteration and validation as well as some tips and tricks on how to get started in building similar applications -- or reusing existing solutions.

Additional Info

In the weeks leading up to GDC Online, show organizers will continue to debut new interviews with some of the event's most notable speakers, in addition to new lectures and panels from the event's numerous tracks and Summits.

Taking place Monday, October 10 through Thursday, October 13, 2011 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, GDC Online continues as the leading worldwide event dedicated solely to discussing the development and business trends surrounding connected games -- including casual titles, MMOs, virtual worlds, and social networking games.

For more information on GDC Online as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC Online website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC Online is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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