Who was there: BioWare Austin creative director and Star Wars: The Old Republic lead designer James Ohlen was joined onstage by principal writer Drew Karpyshyn and managing editor Alexander Freed.
What they talked about: BioWare has a reputation for knowing how to tell a compelling story, and the Electronic Arts-owned studio will be bringing this pillar of its game-development strategy to its first massively multiplayer online role-playing effort, SW:TOR. In a Comic-Con panel titled "Beyond Solo: Crafting the Multiplayer Story in Star Wars: The Old Republic" in San Diego today, three of BioWare's writing leads discussed just how they were cramming a story into the genre, in addition to announcing that starship-based space combat would be in the game.
The panel began by taking attendees back to the beginning, five years ago, when the team first started to lay the groundwork for their MMORPG. Story being such a big emphasis for the studio, BioWare said that it first began to engage LucasArts to make a Star Wars online game because of the possibilities for telling a reaching narrative. A compelling story, he said, is the best way to immerse players in an RPG, especially when they feel ownership over it.
As BioWare has repeatedly noted, SW:TOR bears a storyline that is equivalent to a dozen or more versions of its acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic. The team emphasized that each player class--eight in all--has its own storyline to pursue, and each of these is equivalent to the plot in the original KOTOR. Also, SW:TOR's scope allows the team substantial latitude when it comes to telling a wide variety of stories.
Quests aren't limited to players' individual stories, however. The team discussed the concept of world arcs, which take place on a more inclusive scale and involve players joining up to complete a prolonged mission. The BioWare trio offered an example of the Battle of Hoth from the Empire Strikes Back film as one example of a world arc, where there are numerous conflicts and several principal characters to engage with.
However, given that SW:TOR presents an environment where players' individual choices matter to the way they experience the universe, grouping with others could be problematic. This is mostly the case because each player in a group will be able to interact with non-player characters who serve as quest pieces, and choices aren't always made on an individual basis.
BioWare felt that experiencing quests in this way creates interesting dynamics, and it wants to expose people to what it is like to try to cooperate and interact with others. However, the team also noted that they didn't want to punish players for grouping with people they didn't necessarily know. Therefore, even if the group decides to pursue a course that isn't what a player would have chosen individually, the player won't be knocked for it.
The team then shifted to the differences between the two factions, Empire and Republic. Namely, they noted that quests won't be shared between the two factions. This fact, along with the variety of gameplay between, say, a Sith warrior and a smuggler, will hopefully encourage players to continue creating new characters and experiencing the full breadth of the storyline from a variety of angles.
The fact that quests aren't shared between the two factions doesn't mean players from opposite sides won't be interacting with one another, however. For instance, many planets can be visited by both factions, but the quests will play out on different world arcs--ones that are focused on either Republic or Empire interests.
Quote: "For world content, we want you to experience what it's like to work with other people, and dealing with the fallout of that."--James Ohlen, on multiple group members engaging the same NPC.
Takeaway: BioWare's team of a dozen or so writers has crafted a massive amount of storyline content for players to experience in SW:TOR, covering both single-player and multiplayer quests. The challenge for players, now, is to experience all of that content.