The past decade had made it clear that gaming, not film, is the medium where the great Star Wars tales of this generation are being told. While George Lucas was busy working on the mediocre-at-best Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Baldur’s Gate developer BioWare was crafting the outstanding role-playing game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which earned PC Gamer’s Game of the Year award in 2003. These past two years, while LucasFilm was making this year’s childish and critically panned animated feature, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, BioWare was working secretly on its next project: Star Wars: The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer RPG set 3,600 years before Lucas’ films, and sharing the original trilogy’s spirit of fantasy adventure, mature yet jovial tone, and appeal for all ages, BioWare has picked up the torch that Lucas dropped somewhere along the way; this is where the fans of old-school Star Wars storytelling belong.Thanks Jordano.
No pressure or anything-although Dr. Ray Muzyka, cofounder of BioWare, is already well aware of the stakes. “It’s something I think we recognize as a real challenge: to meet and exceed the expectations of fans. And that’s something that’s very sobering, because we’re big fans ourselves. We want to make sure that our audience gets something they can look at and say, “Wow this is the best MMORPG I’ve ever played, and I love it, and it’s everything I wanted a Star Wars game to be.’ That’s a big challenge, but we want to take that on.” He says as The Old Republic is unveiled at BioWare’s Austin studio, “We want this to be the biggest thing we’ve ever done at BioWare.”
But with BioWare’s Edmonton, Canada studio hard at work on games set in universes they themselves created (Dragon Age, and presumably the second part of the Mass Effect epic), why did the developer decide to devote so many of its resources to someone else’s story? “We love Star Wars, is the easy answer,” says Muzyka. “George Lucas created something that’s pretty amazing, with all this rich potential, and there are so many great things you get to do. It’s a universe that we’re very passionate about from having worked on Knights of the Old Republic and from just loving the great elements in Star Wars.”
With The Old Republic, BioWare’s stated goal is to put you into your personal Star Wars fantasy. No, not the one where Princess Leia asks you to polish her golden bikini: the PG-13 one, where you’re a hero fighting an epic battle between good and evil, and your actions determine the fate of the galaxy.
To help achieve the goals Muzyka and fellow cofounder Dr. Greg Zeschuk have set, the Austin studio has assembled a team with a wealth of collective experience earned working on a combined 40 MMORPGs, but that doesn’t mean they’re planning a cookie-cutter MMO. In fact, they have some radical ideas about how to make The Old Republic different, “We’re turning it up to 11. We’re not doing an incremental change, we’re really going far beyond what everyone else has done,” promises Design Director James Ohlen.
First and foremost: choice. Never before in the history of MMOs have there been quests with multiple outcomes depending on your actions, and with those actions having long-term effects. As in previous BioWare games, the circumstances of your birth do not determine whether you’re good or evil; it’s your actions that determine your alignment with the Force. In The Old Republic, you’ll frequently make difficult choices about whether to follow the Dark Side of the Force and do something despicable for a quick reward, or do the right thing and earn Light Side points for your character. The kicker: this is an MMO, so unlike a traditional RPG, you can’t save and go back to see what would have happened if you’d taken the other road. You’re stuck with your choices, so you must choose wisely. Adding this level of choice is a huge undertaking that literally doubles the workload of the game’s writing team.
“We’re really excited about bringing story to the MMO space.” says Muzkya. “We love MMOs, we play pretty much all of them collectively, and we think there are a lot of amazing games out there, but we think we’re adding something new. In addition to exploration, customization, progression, and combat, we’re adding a meaningful story that you get to play through as a character. You get to live the experience as a Jedi, Sith, or other classes.”
Quests the design team has in mind-formulated by saturating countless whiteboards with fantasies based on the movies-are complex operations involving multiple objectives with several group members acting as a team, says Muzyka. “The thing about Star wars is that it’s not all about combat or exploration; there are some subtle moments, too, like where Obi-Wan is sneaking through the Death Star. You’re doing some things kind of behind the scenes that are really important, and you feel like you have a purpose. Imagine you’re in that role, and you’re the one that’s turning off the Death Star’s tractor beams and force fields.” Meanwhile, your friends are fighting their way through guards to rescue a hostage or to escape.
For Ohlen, this project is about realizing the perpetual RPG he’s dreamed of since working on Baldur’s Gate. “I always wanted a space where I could, as a player, go and play my RPG forever, I’ve got those characters, I’ve got my stuff, and I’m just going to keep having adventures in this world. Even the sequel RPGs start over, right? Now, it’s the new characters in a new place, and we’re going to start you at level 1. You never get that campaign feel. My first thought when they brought up the idea that we were going to do this story based RPG was, ‘Wow, we can actually have this, a place where I can go with my friends and have these adventures and do these stories, and we can keep doing it.”
Principal Lead Writer Daniel Ericson estimates that The Old Republic will have more quest content at launch than every BioWare RPG to date, combined. That list includes Baldur’s Gate (and its Tales of the Sword Coast expansion), Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (and its Throne of Bhaal expansion), Neverwinter Nights (and its three expansions), KOTOR, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect. Fans who were expecting a KOTOR III will not be disappointed, says Muzyka. “We joke that we actually are doing KOTOR III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII. It has that much content in it.” Essentially, the team is creating multiple games- if you play every quest as a Republic character and then start a Sith character, Ericson promises you won’t see a single repeated quest anywhere.
So exactly what’s different from that other Star Wars MMO that came out a few years ago and missed the mark for many fans? In short: everything. “What Galaxies tried to do was create Star Wars on the micro-level,” says Zeschuk. “It was an experience where the moment-to-moment was small stuff, whereas for us, really, the moment-to-moment is the big stuff. It’s big, it’s the macro, it’s at the heroic level.”
The first step in that direction is to dispose of the trivial busy-work quests that aren’t worthy of a hero’s time. “I’m busy saving the world, I’m not going to talk to you about your dog, I’m not going to find your lost keys. I’m going to do big, bold, heroic stuff.” Ericson proclaims. “One of the things I’ll always do when people are pitching things is to just hold it up against one of the Star Wars characters. If someone’s pitching something the Sith are going to do, whether it’s a side-activity or a plot, or whatever. I send it back to them and say ‘And then Darth Vader does…’ and I put a big blank. And if you giggle when you put it in there, that’s a failure. That doesn’t go in our game.”
Another hallmark of BioWare’s RPGs that will make the jump to its first MMO is companion characters-NPCs that join the player’s party and not only fight alongside him, but also interact with him socially and react to his choices. “They’re not pets, and they never have been.” points out Ohlen.
“You can romance them, make friends with them, be betrayed by them, and they can even decide to leave your party if they don’t like what you’re doing” All players will have access to a broad spectrum of companions to choose from, and Ohlen promises there’s a good explanation for two players having duplicate companions that is no way involves cloning. Having persistent characters around you who treat you like a part of the universe to balance out guys going AFK or talking about their homework is an ingenious way of building immersion.
DO, OR DO NOT-THERE IS NO TRY
We don’t yet know everything there is to know about The Old Republic-not while questions like “Will there be player-owned spaceships” “Will there be a space game,” “What kind of crafting system of heroes use.” And “Can I get my own Hunter-Killer droid army” still linger. But BioWare appears keenly aware of what features it’ll need to succeed in today’s saturated MMO market, where a game must distinguish itself from literally dozens of other contenders- not to mention the 11-million player gorilla, World of Warcraft. But if anyone has a shot, it’s BioWare. In the same way Apple, a company that had never made a cell phone before, has revolutionized the mobile communications landscape with the iPhone by using its strengths in interface design, BioWare has the potential to turn the MMO world upside down with best in class expertise in character-driven RPG storytelling. That, combined with the Star Wars universe, means The Old Republic has all the ingredients of a game-changer in the making.
“If [we’ve] done it right, it has a chance to be a truly gigantic, monolithic project.” says Zeschuk. “The potential success of making the great Star Wars MMO-the online experience where you somehow capture the magic of the world of Star Wars…it’s incredible.
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