SAN FRANCISCO--Today at a flashy media event in San Francisco, LucasArts and BioWare announced development of the PC massively multiplayer online role-playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic. Though ostensibly suspenseful, the unveiling's thunder was stolen this past July by John Riccitiello, CEO of BioWare parent Electronic Arts. Speaking to a business-oriented magazine, the executive casually confirmed that, yes, BioWare was working on a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Universe.
However, Riccitiello's comments--which weren't officially corroborated until today--were unsurprising even then. Whispers of a KOTOR MMOG began back in March 2006, when BioWare opened a satellite studio dedicated solely to an unnamed massively multiplayer online role-playing project. Leading the new operation were James Ohlen, lead designer of the original KOTOR, and Richard Vogel, former vice president of product development at Sony Online Entertainment, developer of the only current LucasArts MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies.
The fact the studio was in Austin, Texas--home of SOE's Austin shop, which is the developer of Galaxies--only heightened suspicions that the BioWare game was Star Wars-related. A year and a half later, speculation reached stratospheric levels when BioWare and LucasArts announced they were collaborating on a "next-generation entertainment product." Since the only joint ventures between the Edmonton, Alberta-based developer and the San Francisco, California-based publisher had been the two KOTOR games, it seemed likely the new project would be a follow-up of some kind.
Now that cat is officially out of the bag, as GameSpot sat down with the architects of the forthcoming MMORPG to find more about the The Old Republic. Lead designer Ohlen discussed what will set it apart from other MMORPGs, and its head writer Daniel Erickson explained how it will implement story in a way never seen before in the massively multiplayer space. LucasArts executive producer Tom Nichols talked about working with BioWare--and how SW:TOR will not be replacing Star Wars Galaxies. Finally, BioWare cofounders and EA vice presidents Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka laid out the game's origins and ambitions--and why they wanted to get into the cutthroat MMORPG space in the first place.
A not so long time ago, in a studio somewhat far away…
When Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic debuted in July 2003, it was an instant sensation. It sidestepped the controversy surrounding the Star Wars prequels by introducing a new era set 4,000 years prior that was packed with Jedi Knights and a whole army of their nemeses, the Sith. Using BioWare's trademark in-depth dialogue system, the game let player's choices in individual situations build up to a permanent alignment with either the Dark or the Light sides of The Force. At times, the dilemmas were deliciously agonizing, such as when, right at the game's climax, a player was forced to chose between killing an Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque father figure or a romantic interest made all the more tempting by the Dark Side.
Besides receiving critical accolades--including being named GameSpot's 2003 Role-playing Game of the Year--KOTOR went on to sell nearly 1.3 million units domestically on the original Xbox and over 500,000 units on the PC. Its success spurred a sequel, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, which sold more than 1.275 million units in the US on the Xbox (2004) and PC (2005). Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the independent studio formed by some of the team behind the first two Fallout games, KOTOR II got solid marks from reviewers. However, it came under some criticism when it was discovered the game's story had been truncated to make a holiday release window.
Ironically, it was the tales that KOTOR II left untold which sparked development of The Old Republic. Not long after the PC edition of the sequel hit stores in 2005, BioWare approached LucasArts with a pitch for what would be their biggest collaboration yet.
"This project originated a couple years ago when BioWare spoke up and said, 'Hey, we'd love to do another project with you guys,'" explained Nichols. "We were thinking about working on new, additional projects in the online space, and Galaxies was three or four years old, and we started to look into the future about what we might want to do in the MMO genre. And I think the timing was pretty serendipitous that way, since BioWare wanted to work with us, they wanted to do an MMO, and they had a lot of experience playing MMOs. They wanted to bring some of their learning and aspects of their gameplay--namely storytelling--into MMOs, and we were looking to reapproach the genre with a major partner."
Muzyka was equally enthusiastic. "Doing an MMO is something we've wanted to do for probably over a decade," he said. "We wanted to wait until we had the right partners, the right team, and the right IP."
Calling The Old Republic the "right" IP may be an understatement. EA said one of the main reasons it shelled out $860 million for BioWare/Pandemic was so it would co-own the then-unnamed MMORPG, touted as a competitor to Activision Blizzard's mega-successful World of Warcraft. Ironically, the EA purchase has allowed BioWare to collaborate with the developers of the fastest-growing MMORPG on the market. "We're actively consulting with EA Mythic and are huge fans of Warhammer Online," say Muzyka. "They've got lots of great technology and lots of great people and ideas. They're great people to talk to about making an awesome MMO experience, and we're definitely looking to them for inspiration."
KOTOR 3 MIA…WTF?
While the cash-minting potential of The Old Republic has executives salivating, many BioWare fans were disappointed the series didn't return to its single-player RPG roots. "There are a lot of reasons why we decided not to do KOTOR 3, and why we decided to do this as an MMO instead," said Nichols. "The unique aspect of storytelling, which is really differentiated for this game, is something the KOTOR franchise did very well, and we felt that just doing a single-player experience with a new KOTOR really misses the opportunity to take this out to a much wider audience."
"One of the things we like to joke about is just the sheer amount of content we're doing," Ohlen mused. "Our fans ask, 'Why aren't you doing Knights of the Old Republic 3?' What we're really doing is Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12-plus. We have that much content and that many stories…We really get to do a lot of things we really wouldn't get to do in [a] KOTOR 3."
Ohlen is in a unique position to make such an assessment. Described as "the most important guy at BioWare no one has ever heard of" by insiders, Ohlen has been a lead designer on virtually every game the studio has produced, including Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and the original Knights of the Old Republic. Now, as lead designer of The Old Republic, he is overseeing what he isn't afraid to say is BioWare's most ambitious project ever.
"The biggest challenge for this game is the sheer amount of content you have to create," boasted Ohlen. "This is a HUGE game. Just to give you an idea of how huge this game is, we were taking a look at it, and it has more story content than every single other BioWare game that's come before put together. That would mean Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Neverwinter Nights II, Knights of the Old Republic, Knights of the Old Republic II, Mass Effect--and all the expansions." Currently, the Old Republic has 12 full-time staff writers who are "cranking out" content, some for as long as two years.
The Fourth Pillar
So what is the setting for this massive epic? The Old Republic takes place 300 years after the events of the original Knights of the Old Republic games, or about 3,600 years before the events of the films. While story elements from the first two games will "definitely play a role," much has changed since the end of KOTOR II. The old Sith Empire, which had been banished into deep space after nearly being exterminated by the Galactic Republic, has reemerged. Its return came in the form of a massive sneak attack by its huge fleet reminiscent of the Cylons' fiery return in Battlestar Galactica.
A brutal war ensued, which saw the Sith's elite armies conquer dozens of worlds in the Outer Rim and sack the Republic's capital planet Coruscant. Pacifist factions within the Republic forced the signing of a treaty, leading to a fragile peace across the galaxy. Those same factions blamed the Jedi for the Republic's drubbing by the Sith, forcing the relocation of the decimated Jedi Council from Coruscant to Tython, the Jedi's homeworld.
As the game begins, the interstellar Cold War is thawing, and players will find themselves at ground zero as a new conflict begins to flare up. "Players get to come in and take the roles of heroes--or villains--at this pivotal moment where we're starting to go back into a big galactic war," promised Erickson.
Like other MMOs, The Old Republic will have two factions--the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire. Though led by respectively benevolent and malevolent leaders, the two sides will be home to characters of morally varying stripes. "There's a lot more people than Sith and Jedi in the Empire and the Republic, so one of the things that became important to us is that we separate the idea of faction and good and evil," said Erickson. "Light Side and Dark Side is not the same as faction. In the original KOTOR, you could be Dark Side, even though you worked for the Republic. Here, just because you're in the Empire [faction], doesn't mean you have be Dark Side. You can play as the good guy in the bad place trying to do good things or the bad guy in the good place trying to do bad things."
Indeed, BioWare went to great lengths to make the ostensible villains sympathetic, going into the LucasFilm and LucasArts archives and researching the Great Hyperspace War for background on the Sith. "The Sith were literally chased out of the galaxy by the Jedi," explained Erickson. "You had an entire culture and people who were pushed out of known space. So you get these guys who come back and have a big chip on their shoulder. So if you're playing on their side as a good guy, you're not going to just go run over to the Republic, because the Republic tried to wipe out your entire people."
Erickson hopes such background will make the Sith Empire more compelling than the evil factions of other MMORPGs. "These [Imperials] are actual people," he said. "They don't get up in the morning and say, 'What can we do that's evil today?' They have to have a legitimate point of view. You have to believe when you're playing that the things you're doing make sense and be proud of where you are. "
Nichols agreed that having strong dramatic underpinning is what will set the Old Republic apart from competitors such as World of Warcraft. "What's really missing [in other MMOs] is context--why you're doing all these missions, why you're on this quest, why you're out killing 10 wolves," he asserted. "So story puts that in the context, and gives you a much more immersive experience where you're really building a stronger relationship with your online character than you would without it."
However, don't get the idea that BioWare and LucasArts aren't respectful of what MMOs like WOW have accomplished. "We're huge fans of MMOs and have played just pretty much everything else out there," said Muzkya. "We really appreciate the things that make great MMOs great. There's great exploration, there's combat, there's [character] customization and progression. The Old Republic has all those things. It's got those pillars. But what we're adding is a fourth pillar, a pillar of story and character, of meaningful choice with consequences. You get to experience your personal life story, your history as a character."
Indeed, BioWare is confident that The Old Republic's story will focus on character and affect gameplay like no other MMORPG before. "Because our stories revolve around a player's class, his role, we're able to tell stories that are very focused on who the player is, which is something other BioWare games haven't been able to do," explained Ohlen.
Ohlen went on to explain that each of the game's two factions will contain various classes, each with its own unique backstory. So far, the only classes confirmed are the Jedi and Sith, which will allow players to wield lightsabers and force powers "very early on," versus well into the game as was the case with the first KOTOR.
(The game summary also describes another possible class, the Republic Special Forces, "elite troopers [which] work often in conjunction with the Jedi." Concept art for the game also features assassin droids like the gleefully homicidal HK-47 from the first KOTOR, but it was unclear if they would be companions or playable classes.)
Besides the back stories, each class will also have its own branching storyline, which will be affected by players' moral choices as in other BioWare games. However, unlike in single-player RPGs, Old Republic players have no fail-safe when presented with an agonizing choice.
"The big difference, and what makes it so impactful when you're playing it, is you have no save button," said Erickson, a borderline sadistic glint in his eye. "One of the ways people have traditionally played BioWare games is by saying 'Oh my god, that's huge!' and quickly saving. "Then you reload and say 'Oh, that would've happened! That's exciting!' Well guess what, you're how many dozens of hours in…[and] that decision is going to make huge ramifications that are going to affect [you] for hours and hours. And you have to make it, and you have to live with it. That really puts an impact onto choices and story that's much stronger than we've ever been able to do in a game…During our testing, you can tell when these moments were happening, because you'll see people leaning back from their keyboards, wringing their hands."
Such trepidation is understandable, given that a player's choices will permanently open and close storyline options--and their included quests--and affect non-player characters' reactions. This latter factor is especially important, since players will have NPC companions as in the first two KOTORs. "You'll have dialogue with them and start building relationships with them," said Nichols. The interactions with companion NPCs will also open up new options, as they did in Mass Effect and other BioWare games, not all of which will be welcome. "Piss them off enough, and they may leave, and say 'Screw this, I'm outta here!'" joked Nichols, channeling his inner Eric Cartman.
Indeed, Zeschuk believes the options offered by the Old Republic are unique in the massively multiplayer genre. "You really can't overestimate the impact of choice in the MMO space, where choice is something that, in many ways, doesn't really exist. You get a quest and you do your quest. You can't say, 'Well, I'm going to do something different,' or change your mind, or manipulate a character into having a different result. But that's what we're talking about [with SW:TOR]. It offers a degree of choice that hasn't really ever been there before."
Loose lips sink starships?
Though effusive about how story would affect players in The Old Republic, both BioWare and LucasArts were reticent when it came to hard gameplay details. However, interviews and press materials did provide some information. The Old Republic game will feature "dozens" of worlds inhabited by players, including Coruscant, Tython, and Korriban, the Sith homeworld. Other planets mentioned in the announcement include Alderran, Utapau, Agamar, Dathomir, and Manaan, though their role in the game is unclear.
Some planets will be dominated by one faction, while others will be the sites of skirmishes that are flaring up on the Empire-Republic border. Though reps would not confirm it explicitly, these contested worlds seem a likely spot for player-versus-player battles, which both LucasArts and BioWare reps emphasized would be a major part of The Old Republic. "It will have all the features you'd expect in a triple-A MMO," promised Nichols, including guilds and "plenty of other socialization options."
The Fate of Galaxies
The amount of energy, resources, and enthusiasm being thrown at The Old Republic raises one obvious question: What about Galaxies? LucasArts was emphatic about the fact that there's enough room for two viable Star Wars MMORPGs to co-exist.
"We're looking to continue to support Galaxies with high-quality updates on into the future," said Jake Neri, producer for LucasArts' online division. "We're focused on a chapter release around Hoth, where we're re-creating the battle at Echo Base. We'll allow players to get in groups and jump in and just participate in a very high-quality battle. We've just released a trading card game inside of Galaxies, and fans are eating it up. Looking into next year, we're going to revamp our droid system with something called droid commander." Neri also said that SOE Austin was working in conjunction with LucasArts on further additions to Galaxies for years to come, with no end to the game in sight.
That said, Nichols is confident that the lessons learned from Galaxies' checkered history will be applied to The Old Republic. "What we can bring to the table is our experience with the brand," he said. "We can bring our knowledge of what's worked and what hasn't [worked] with Star Wars, and what's popular with Star Wars fans. We can bring elements to BioWare and say 'Hey, we know what works here and what doesn't, and let's see if we can kind of work together to kind of tweak this a little bit and tweak that.' And that's how the collaborative partnership is working."
Launch date TBA, console versions TBD
Last week, Dragon Age was confirmed as coming to the PC early next year and to the 360 and PS3 later that holiday season, casting The Old Republic's 2009 target window into doubt. Indeed, LucasArts and BioWare have now backed away from the previously attributed launch window, which was first proffered in a 2007 Information Week interview.
"When the content and the quality is there, that's the sign we'll be ready to go," said Nichols. "We're gonna make sure we take the right amount of time to make sure it's awesome," seconded Muzyka. "At the same time, we're part of Electronic Arts, so we're committed to delivering a great experience for our fans, who are eager to play like we are."
When the possibility of a console version came up, the infamous wall of BioWare secrecy was raised. "The PC version is all we've talked about so far," was the most Zeschuk would say.
However, the executive was effusive--even ebullient--about the challenge The Old Republic presents for BioWare. "I'd say this is definitely our biggest project yet," Zeschuk declared flatly. "We've worked on a lot of games--Mass Effect was a big game, and Dragon Age is a big game. But Star Wars: The Old Republic is just plain huge. And what makes it huge is not only that it's Star Wars--which means it's got to be epic--but [in] the MMO space, we've got something to prove. This is our first game in that space, and there's some really great competition, and we want to stand out…Ultimately in the MMO space, more than any other, you really have to nail it. There's a real high bar in that space now."