Meet the Developers: Rob Hinkle
Welcome to Meet the Developers! For this installment, we interviewed Rob Hinkle, Sr. Systems Designer for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™. In each “Meet the Developers,” we introduce a developer and ask them questions about their background, what they’re working on, and what they do for the team. After the interview, we will set up a thread on the forums so you can ask our featured developer further questions. Here’s our interview with Rob:
Can you explain for us what a Sr. Systems Designer does at a video game company?
I lead a team of designers who are ultimately responsible for how the game functions. We are responsible for any design element that involves numbers and formulas such as classes, items/economy, and PvP. If a video game was a board game, system designers write the rulebook.
What class(es) do you play the most?
The classes I spend the most time with are a Lethality Sniper and a Pyrotech Powertech, with the Sniper being my “main.”
What does a typical day look like for you at the studio?
My day can be broken down into a couple different major sections, not all of which happen every day but all of which occur with regular frequency.
Planning: Discussions that center around what we might want to do for the future, be it the next patch or for the next year
Designing: Doing the actual work fleshing out and implementing what has been planned and committed to. This is the lion’s share of most days, as it covers a wide variety of tasks.
Polish Iteration: After we get designs in to the game, the entire team hammers on them to ensure that the result is exactly what we want. This is less about finding bugs (though that does happen; our outstanding QA department handles the majority of the brutal bug finding), and more about making sure what we put into the game matches what we want to be doing.
Communication/Information Gathering: This happens both internally in the studio and externally with the players. I make sure that everyone who needs to know something knows it. This includes meetings with other teams in the studio to loop them into what is going on, as well as making sure I have a handle on the feedback coming from players (via the forums), bugs, and, emails.
What is your favorite part of working on PvP?
The best part of working on PvP is being able to play PvP. PvE challenges are nice, but nothing matches the difficulty of fighting other intelligent human beings. Being able to create that kind of environment for our players is extremely satisfying and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
What’s the biggest challenge you have to face in your role?
Receiving feedback from players, by far. When you’ve got players on both sides of a combat, one of them will win and one of them will lose, and no one likes losing. This can lead to emotional feedback, and we have to try to look at that feedback and get through any emotionally-driven comments to find what’s at the core of the issue. Even beyond that, almost every change we make will make some players happy and some players unhappy. We have to gauge the health of the game versus the health and happiness of our player base for almost every single change we make, no matter how minor it may be.
What is the process like for designing a new Warzone?
I start by collecting very high-level gameplay and layout concepts from anyone who is interested in submitting them. We take those submissions into a meeting room with the team, and we go through each one trying to get a feel for how it would play. How would it feel different than what we have currently? What kind of time investment would it take to create, etc? This usually narrows down our list to a small handful of ideas that we can start actually designing fully on paper. Once those paper designers are complete, we have a much more accurate picture of the artistic, design, and engineering requirements to make the Warzone.
At that point, we have another team meeting to go back over the paper designs, and we vote on a couple Warzones to start prototyping. Those prototypes get to the point where we can actually test the basics of the gameplay and layout. Then we run playtests with people in the office. Based on the feedback we get from those playtests, we decide which Warzone should enter full production, and off we go!
From that point on, the artists get their hands dirty with actual environmental art. The designers get to work on fleshing out the gameplay scripting. The writers set up the scripts for all of the voice transmissions for the Warzone. The engineers take on any new features we are going to need for the Warzone. That all goes on for a number of weeks, during which we are constantly running playtests and make iterative changes, until eventually we come out the end with a finished Warzone.
Class balance in MMOs with PvP is always a hot topic – how do you and your team approach it?
Lots of feedback from players, lots of theorycrafting, and a lot of playtesting. We feel like for the most part our class balance is pretty good, but it will never be perfect. We will always strive for better balance and making the classes more enjoyable, though it is a never-ending process of improvement.
When it comes to class balance and PvP, what do you think is the most common misperception and why do you think that is?
That the designers favor one class or another (or one faction or another). Not just in The Old Republic, but in almost every game I’ve worked on or played in, there develops a sentiment that the designers “hate” one class and “love” another class. Beyond being a terrible business idea, all of the members of the team play different classes, so even if we wanted to favor one class over another there would be internal conflict on what class that would be. I understand why it happens, when players see their class issues go unresolved while other classes get fixes and improvements, but I promise you it has nothing to do with what class we have chosen to like more than others.
What kind of feedback (in the forums, for instance) is useful to the PvP team?
One of the biggest things that we don’t get much of on the forums is actual combat log texts. Players make a lot of statements based on their own gameplay, and one of the more difficult things for us to do is to try to piece together what actually happened. If someone says they died from full health in one shot, looking at the logs will let us see the situation and what happened. Did a major bug occur and someone did way more damage, was the player actually getting attacked by 4 people at once, did the player only have 3000 health for some reason, or do we just have a really out of balance attacker? These are questions that can all easily be answered by looking at a log.
What’s your favorite Warzone? Why?
Ancient Hypergate is my favorite. It has a different strategic playstyle than any of the other Warzones, and has multiple different ways to try to win. I can’t wait to see all the strategies that develop in how to play and counter-play against good opponents.
How did you get into the games industry?
During college, I got big into online gaming with games like Quake 1 and 2, Tribes, and the original Everquest. Many hours were spent at the keyboard. During my Tribes years, I also got involved in the mod scene, creating a relatively popular Tribes 1 mod, Arena. Doing that really gave me the “I want to make games” bug. After graduating, I treaded water a little bit trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.
During that summer, a little company all the way in Northern Virginia (Mythic Entertainment) starting talking about a game called Dark Age of Camelot, which was supposed to be the next big Everquest-type game, but with organized PvP. I got into the beta, and was instantly hooked on the game. At one point before the launch of their game, Mythic Entertainment announced that they were taking applications for full-time positions for their in-game customer service department. Naturally, I applied, even though I was living across the country at the time.
Much to my surprise, they offered me a part-time position. I decided to take a chance and moved to Northern Virginia for a part-time customer service gig, just to try to get my foot in the door. Luckily for me, Dark Age of Camelot was a wild success. All of the part-timers were immediately offered full-time positions. Sometime later, I was moved over to the QA staff and then after that, I was moved to the design team. The rest, as they say, is history.
Do you have any advice for people interested in breaking into the industry?
It is both easier and harder to break in these days. Now there are a number of reputable higher education programs that can get you started, and a lot of cheap or free dev kits, but it all comes down to the same thing. The best way to make an impression on an application or interview is by having something to show off. Once you get an interview, you can wow your interviewers with your knowledge of design principles or ideas about the next best thing, but something on your resume has to stand out. The last 3 interviews I was involved with (discounting those who had preexisting industry experience) were with someone from a popular fan site, a recent graduate of Guild Hall, and someone who had created a couple Neverwinter Nights 2 modules.
Do you have any hobbies outside of gaming?
That depends on how we define gaming. Beyond video games, I’m also a big tabletop gamer with a good sized board game, miniature game, and pen and paper RPG game collection. I also enjoy a nice round of golf and would love to get back into some organized sports if I could find the time (or willpower when the time presents itself). My favorite “hobby” I have right now is being a father. My first child is just about ready to turn one!
Thanks for checking out our Meet the Developers blog. If you have any questions for Rob, please post them in this forum thread. We’ll choose questions that relate directly to Rob and his responsibilities. In the near future, we’ll have some answers from Rob to your questions!