Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords Designer Diary #1
Producers Mike Gallo and Chris Parker share their thoughts on the upcoming Star Wars sequel's E3 showing.
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Let's face it: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is going to be one of the biggest games this year. It's Star Wars, and it's the sequel to one of last year's best titles on any platform--and that pedigree alone is enough to situate it firmly at the top of many gamers' most-wanted lists. But thankfully, KOTOR II is also being developed by the dedicated team of individuals at Obsidian Entertainment, a group that has collectively worked on some of the most hallowed RPGs of the last decade. In other words, it's a safe bet that the game won't be relying on name and legacy alone.
In our first Knights of the Old Republic II designer diary, we'll hear from LucasArts' Mike Gallo (who worked on the original KOTOR) and Obsidian's Chris Parker (whose resume includes classics like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale) about the trials and tribulations of creating an early demo version of KOTOR II for this year's E3.
Post-E3 ThoughtsBy Mike Gallo, LucasArts producer, and Chris Parker, Obsidian producer
We had a lot to do at E3 this year. And it's not like we just needed to show any game...we were showing the sequel to KOTOR, which won over 40 different "Game of the Year" awards in 2003! It was a tall task for both Obsidian Entertainment and LucasArts to illustrate all the ways we wanted to improve the game and ensure the fans that we had every intention of bringing a worthy sequel to the plate.
This article was written collectively by Mike Gallo, LucasArts producer, and Chris Parker, Obsidian producer. We both knew this E3 would be important, and we both knew that since it was so soon after the release of KOTOR, gamers would be apprehensive: can it be done, will it be done right, and will it live up to the first game?
Getting Ready for E3
We started talking about E3 when The Sith Lords was still in its infancy. The story overview for the sequel was drafted before the first game hit the shelves. Sure, it saw a lot of revisions, and even some major rewrites between then and now, but we had already been working on the game for over nine months by the time the show rolled around. E3 was going to be important from day one because it's the only E3 the game is going to see. Originally, we came up with a huge list of the stuff we wanted to show. To be honest, it would probably have taken a solid half an hour to do a demo that included all of the things we wanted to do. Unfortunately, that doesn't make sense for most of the E3 crowd. For every editor and gamer, there's at least one buyer or mass media guy. And even the editors are pretty much booked solid these days. In the end, you maybe have about 5 to 10 minutes to show your game at E3 if you are going to try to show it to everybody, so we had to cut down our list.
Cutting down the list of what we wanted to show was actually pretty easy for a variety of reasons. Because the game was on a short schedule, it was therefore scheduled unlike any game Obsidian (with their Black Isle Studios experiences) had scheduled before. It was scheduled out in stages, which would be most beneficial for the designers to make radical changes with the least impact. While being concepted, game levels were blocked out with rough geometry so the designers could start placing creatures and characters. After it was determined that these ugly but semi-functional levels worked, we went on to build the level geometry first pass or we went back to make changes. These levels often had base lighting and miscellaneous errors. Finally, after everything had been checked out in these passes, we would go through revision and polishing stages while we resolved any remaining issues.
None of the levels were polished to a shipping state when we were ready to choose E3 levels. So, a month before the show, we just picked three levels and put them on the schedule to actually finish them.
We knew we could get some levels looking good, and it came down the wire that the demo we had been doing needed to fit into five minutes. LucasArts started working on a script and Obsidian provided feedback on what would be featured in the demo.
Picking what goes into a five-minute demo is no small task. It may sound like a long time, but when you're talking about a role-playing game, everything is out of proportion. We needed to feature two or three force powers, even though we were adding about 10 times that number. We needed to illustrate some of the new feats, but again, we had some 30 new feats. We needed to talk about how we were modifying skills to make them more valuable for the PC, but the technical design for this took up three pages when covered briefly in our documents. And that doesn't even get into the story, the characters, and what has been going on in the galaxy since the original KOTOR.
Force Powers. We picked Force Sight, a power that required a significant amount of graphical programming to make it look cool; it lets you see through doors and read the force aura of characters in the world. We picked Force Crush, a power that required we add animation for every character in the game, new and old, allowing them to be lifted in the air and crumbled like a pathetic paper hat. And we decided to make sure a number of other force powers like Force Rage worked, even though we knew we wouldn't be able to cover them in the demo.
Feats and Skills. In the end, we glossed over these in the five-minute demo even though many were working in the game at the time. And it's a shame for the RPG gamer. Demolitions modify the amount of damage that grenades and placed mines do. A character's Treat Injury skill modifies how effective healing items are. The entire system of item creation and upgrading was almost completely glossed over. We didn't even hit on the new combat feats like Unarmed Fighting feats or the feats for using the new weapons.
Characters. We've added a bunch of new characters--with their own skills, abilities, and personas--that can join your party. We were hardly able to touch on what those characters are all about. And what about the returning characters? In the five-minute demo we said "some characters from KOTOR will be returning in various roles, from characters that can join your party again to those that just make cameo appearances." But to be honest, this was actually kind of nice because not talking about them means we don't need to talk about the roles they play in the story.
Story. We didn't want to give away too much of the story, so we focused on a brief (about two sentences) story overview for the show. The spoiler factor for a game like this is huge, and we like to keep as much of it under wraps until the scheduled winter release as possible.
Levels. Finally, we talked about what we were trying to do to make the levels feel even more immersive and alive than they were in KOTOR. To this end, we mostly showed what was visible on the screen, which included things like the new weather effects and lots of background animations.
We finished the demo only a few days before the show. We had to add in audio, do a scratch track for the voiceover, and reuse music from KOTOR--not to mention that we had to do specific work on the design, art, and programming side just to have everything work properly at the show.
We also needed to make save games that allowed us to actually do the demo in five minutes. The playable demo for the Microsoft booth could easily be played for 45 minutes. So the first day of the show, before it opened, we made the saves, got everything ready, and then we rocked and rolled.
E3 is a tortuous affair, especially if you're one of the live demo-ers. I actually think the editors have it worse, but standing there and doing the same five-minute demo hour after hour as your feet slowly start to scream about the color of your socks, while trying to smile the whole time--well...it gets a little old.
However, and this is a big "however," when you put something out there and people seem genuinely excited, and you know they've been out on the show floor looking at A LOT of other stuff, that's pretty darn cool. Over and over again, people were excited to hear what the heck we were doing with this sequel, and every time they left with a smile. That's enough to make the pain worthwhile.
At the end of E3 there was a collective sigh of relief. Living up to the original KOTOR, and proving to everyone that we were on the right path, was a huge task. In the end, I think we were successful, and we've shown everyone that the development team cares a great deal about this game.
The gamers liked the stuff we were doing with the rules system and the game mechanics, and they seemed intrigued by the story. The game looked good at the show, even though we know it will look even better, and the intense combat that BioWare perfected certainly didn't hurt. The overall reception to everything we showed was tremendous. E3 was great--we are happy that it went off well, but we have a crazy amount of work to do to pull this game off and have it live up to, and hopefully exceed the original--so I guess it's time to get back to it.