Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Alright, a bit early perhaps, but tomorrow early I’m going on vacation and thus won’t be around for a while (and thus won't be posting any updates). I’ll be spending most of the Holiday season with my family in my parents’ second home in France, hoping to relax most of that time. Reading, watching movies, playing some board games perhaps, just unwind and enjoy myself.

Unfortunately they don’t have anything better than dial-up over an old laptop there, so I won’t be online much. But to be honest I’m rather looking forward to spending some time away from the computer.

So I wanted to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy start to 2009. I’ll be back around the tenth of January. And watch out with fireworks.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Changed Text Column Width

You might've noticed already, but I made a small change to the style the blog uses by changing the width of the text column. This used to be 410 pixels wide, but I've changed it to 510 pixels now as I felt the old width was a bit too claustrophobic small.

Hope this makes the blog a bit more readable.

Monday, 15 December 2008

SW:TOR HeroEngine Interview

TenTonHammer has an interview up with Simutronic's Neil Harris. Simutronic is the company that created HeroEngine, which is being used by BioWare to create Star Wars: The Old Republic.

It's a decent interview and sheds a little more light on why BioWare chose HeroEngine for their game. It doesn't really give any further details about the game, but it does hint at the possibility of live updating of the game and streaming content (I'd imagine in many ways like how Guild Wars streams its content).

Anyway, here's a snippet:
There were a couple of reasons why they decided to go with our engine. First, we've known Gordon Walton a long time and has worked around us for quite a while. He's been around the online games industry since the 90s, as have we. At the time, they also had two employees that were former employees of ours and we had a unique way to build games that is core to the functionality of the HeroEngine and those guys got it right away and wanted to have access to that kind of methodology. We showed the engine to them - just as friends - at a show, and they said, "Hey, we want that too." That's really how we ended up working with them.
It's nice to hear that things have been going so well for Simutronic and that BioWare seems to be at the forefront of that success.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Video Documentary #1

As promised yesterday BioWare have posted the first video "documentary", meaning a video that's a combination of developer commentary, screenshots and ingame footage. And though the movie isn't entirely ingame footage (I'd say less than a third or it is, altogether) there's still a fair deal of it.
BioWare® and LucasArts™ share the vision for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ in our first video documentary, complete with new concepts, new screenshots, and real-time pre-production gameplay video. Hear about the approach to storytelling straight from The Old Republic’s Creative Director and Lead Designer James Ohlen and Principal Lead Writer Daniel Erickson, and watch Art Director Jeff Dobson discuss the aesthetic appeal of stylized realism. Watch the latest video documentary and experience the “look and feel” of Star Wars: The Old Republic now!
And indeed it looks quite decent so far (considering that it's pre-production footage). Though I still don't like their artistic direction (and I'm not talking stylized, I'm talking heroic proportions) it does in many ways feel like Knights of the Old Republic in a new jacket. And that is likely a good thing. Anyway, enjoy the video.

[EDIT] Since the embedded video played automatically, which is quite irritating when you're trying to read another post on the blog, I've changed the embedded video into a link to the video on BioWare's side instead.
[EDIT2] Replaced the text link with an image link.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

First Video Documentary Coming Soon

Seems that we're getting our first video footage of The Old Republic tomorrow. At least, that's how I'm interpreting the news on their website:
LucasArts and BioWare today announced that the first video documentary for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ will be posted on the game’s official website on Friday, December 12. The video gives an overview of the upcoming story-driven massively multiplayer online PC game set in the timeframe of the Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™ franchise and provides the public with its first look at in-game footage.
Of course it could just be a bunch of interviews and slideshows. But considering that GameSpot already posted a video interview for the official announcement I think it's safe to say that we'll finally get to see the game in motion.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

SW:TOR to be "microtransaction-based"

Just got the following from Kotaku:
The brand name for BioWare's upcoming Star Wars MMO may be a familiar one, but EA's plans for tempting you to part with your hard-earned cash are not.

Rather than asking for a monthly subscription fee, ala World of Warcraft, EA boss John Riccitiello has strongly hinted that the game will instead be "microtransaction-based".

To us, that sounds less like "pay as you go", more like "pay as you go for new GIANT LIGHTSABERS". Riccitiello also said that more on the game's payment structure will be revealed in February, so I guess we'll all be staying tuned.
Hmm, I'm not sure what to think of this. To begin with I must say that I'm rather shocked if they indeed don't go with the traditional monthly subscription fee. I also think that it depends a lot on what exactly you do and don't buy with these micro-transactions. But overall it doesn't sound good.

I guess we'll have to wait until February to hear more, but so far it seems to be yet another strike against Star Wars: The Old Republic. At least it should make the whole discussion on lifetime subscriptions moot.


Shacknews has some updated information on this:
Update: Electronic Arts has responded to Shacknews, reiterating that "no statements have been made about the Star Wars business model," and attributing Mr. Riccitiello's comments to a misunderstanding.
Of course, I'm sure that they said the same thing when Mr. Riccitiello let slips that BioWare was working on a KotOR MMO months before the official announcement. But at least this brings back the traditional subscription model back as a possibility. Or perhaps they'll do something completely different; I guess we'll hear more come February.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Spore Most Pirated Game of 2008

That subject title, or something close to it, seems to be doing the rounds as a headline now. Apparently TorrentFreak released a list of the ten-most pirated (through BitTorrent) games with Spore unspurpisingly leading the list:

2The Sims 2(1,150,000)
3Assassins Creed(1,070,000)
5Command & Conquer 3(860,000)
6Call of Duty 4(830,000)
7GTA San Andreas(740,000)
8Fallout 3(645,000)
9Far Cry 2(585,000)
10Pro Evolution Soccer 2009(470,000)

The message that people seem to be distilling out of this, including the original TorrentFreak site, is that Spore was pirated so much because of its DRM measures. After all, at about the time of the release of the game there was a huge ‘panic’ around the DRM measures that Spore would employ. And the general thought seems to be that because of these DRM measures a lot of people pirated the game where they otherwise wouldn’t have.

There may be truth to that. Or at least, there may be truth that because of the panic around its DRM that more people decided to pirate the game than would’ve otherwise be the case. Though I think this has more to do with the panic surrounding it and not actually with the DRM (Mass Effect, after having been scaled down due to more panic, uses the same DRM and people seemed overall quite happy with that). I’ll at least concede that DRM in one way or another had an effect on the number of pirated copies.

But beyond that I think it’s hogwash to say that these numbers prove in any way, shape or form that DRM is responsible for more pirated copies. In fact, I say that on their own these numbers are fairly useless. You see, I believe that Spore was pirated more simply because it was a far more popular game.

You see, the TorrentFreak site says that after ten days already half-a-million had downloaded the game, but by that time the game already had near to a million copies sold. And three weeks after release, the game was already close to two million copies sold. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if by now that number had already doubled to close to four million copies (but I don’t have any data to back that up).

And you see that in the rest of the list as well. It reads a lot more as a list of “which games were popular this year” than a list of which games were pirated more. To get a true representation of which games were pirated more you have to compare the number of pirated copies to the number of total sales. Then any game that has a significantly higher portion of pirated copies to legitimate sales is a game that’s been pirated a lot more (and I’m guessing that the DRM-free World of Goo is likely to top that particular list, though there too saying that DRM has much to do with it is misleading).

People are, in my opinion, way too quick to attribute pirating to DRM and success to a lack of DRM. The truth is that pirates pirate everything regardless of DRM or not and people are all too quick to find any excuse to justify doing something illegal, particularly if it feels like they’re not directly hurting anyone as a result. I think that there are a lot of people who jumped on the Spore DRM bandwagon as an excuse for them to pirate a game and thus be able to play it without paying for it, regardless of whether any DRM issues were justified or not. The way to protest against something in a game (like its DRM) is by simply not buying it, not by pirating it.

Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t think that DRM is the solution to the problems and even though I think that StarDock is getting far more popularity due to their stance on DRM than they deserve they do have a point in that it is continued online content delivery which is the surest measure against pirating. And I can see us heading to a future where all games, single-player or multiplayer, are streamed online (or perhaps even played directly on servers with local machines just displaying the results, so to speak). That way games simply can’t be pirated since you need an online connection and a legitimate account to be able to play the game. And until then I do believe that companies continuing to provide additional value to your games online is a good way to go.

Luckily such pirating issues aren’t really of a concern to MMO games (and hence why I think that MMOs are currently the most popular form of gaming on the PC as there companies know that they always keep full control). There’s little point in pirating a game if you have to pay a monthly subscription to play it anyway.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Article at Edge-Online

Edge-Online has an article up about Star Wars: The Old Republic entitled: Inside The Old Republic

There isn't really much there. At least not anything we didn't already know from previous articles. Though it does say that there will be eight classes, which is the first time I've heard that. Of course, could just be game-journalistic eye-to-detail (as in, they've pretty much just made it up or misunderstood something), or it could be that BioWare mentioned some plan for eight classes to them and they reported it as if it was common knowledge already. Either way...

Here's a snippet:
Each of the eight classes also has its own distinct narrative. “If you start our game as a Jedi knight, play from the start to the finish, then you play as a Sith from the start to the finish, you will not see one repeated bit of content. Not one quest, not one line, nothing,” says Erickson. Nothing at all? “OK, well, you might see different sides of the same conflict, but this is Star Wars – ‘Wars’, you know?”
I'm really starting to dislike the emphasis they keep putting on the "Wars" in "Star Wars", because combat doesn't interest me one bit. Ah well.

Story Writing Updates

It is Friday again and thus BioWare has a new update up. This week it comes in the form of two articles about story writing. One talks about a general, high-level approach to writing stories within BioWare and the other talks about how they're bringing these stories to the player in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The writing team for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ faces an unusual set of challenges. It’s not enough to write a great story; it’s not even enough to write a great player-driven interactive story, or a great player-driven interactive story that fits within a massively multiplayer environment. On top of everything, every story in the game must be a great Star Wars story. If it’s not, it belongs somewhere else.

So how does the writing team approach a challenge like that? Here’s a look at some of the features that make a Star Wars story worth telling.

The Foundation

We can all list familiar elements from the Star Wars films: Jedi, Sith, the Force, droids, lightsabers and starships; themes of heroism, redemption, learning, friendship and oppression; a trilogy structure, pulp-inspired “episode” names, and so on.

These iconic elements are the basic tools the writing team uses to build uniquely Star Wars stories—stories that feel like they’re part of the same fictional universe as the films. Not every Star Wars story needs a cantina or a wise old mentor, of course, but the films are the foundation for everything we do. If you’re not using at least some of those iconic elements, your story probably isn’t about Star Wars at all.

The original Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™ is a great example of a story that uses this foundation well. Even without characters like Luke and Leia, it’s clearly Star Wars—it’s a story about Jedi, Sith and redemption, taking place against a galactic backdrop of strange planets and alien species.

The Building Blocks

But we’re not restricted to the movies. The Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels, television and comic books provides a tremendous amount of material for us to draw upon (as does Knights of the Old Republic specifically). Without the Expanded Universe, we wouldn’t have Mandalorians, a Sith Empire or even our setting’s time period! We wouldn’t know anything about the temple where the rebels hid on Yavin 4 or the names of the alien species in Jabba’s palace.

So long as these building blocks don’t obscure the foundation, we’ll use them. We’re also not averse to creating new settings, species and technologies, expanding on old ones, or developing new themes. Contributing fresh ideas to the setting is one of the most exciting things about working in Star Wars—but those ideas always have to fit, which leads to…

Star Wars “Feel”

The flipside of straying from the films is that we need to be careful about what we introduce. It’s easy to accidentally ruin our Star Wars “feel” by writing a story that just doesn’t seem right.

Sometimes, identifying these ill-fitting elements isn’t hard—time travel and dimension-hopping are staples of science fiction, but they don’t work well in the Star Wars universe. Other times, it’s a matter of staying true to the mythology of the Force (especially when it comes to new powers) or figuring out “Would a Jedi really say that?”

It’s not uncommon for debates to spring up around the office as to whether a story idea is “Star Wars-y” enough, and sometimes there isn’t an easy answer. Maintaining a Star Wars feel is one of the most difficult things our writers do. We need to constantly edit ourselves and ask if what we’re doing is right for the grander story of the Star Wars universe.

Respecting the Continuity

There’s one last big challenge to writing a great Star Wars story. Even if the story grows organically from the setting, adds something exciting and new, and has an undeniable Star Wars feel, it still needs to work within thirty years of other Star Wars stories told in comics, novels and television.

Since Star Wars: The Old Republic takes place almost four millennia before the films, it removes a lot of potential for error, but it’s still not easy keeping track of when Species X was first discovered or when Technology Y was invented. We do our best to work within established continuity where we can, and adjust it gently where we can’t—even a long-forgotten issue of Marvel’s Star Wars comic series is something we’d rather not contradict.

We always try to respect the fact that we’re not the first or last writers to work in this universe. Yes, we want to leave a mark—we’d love to see other writers expanding on what we’ve done, years down the line—but not by hurting the continuity as a whole.

Alex Freed
Senior Writer and Managing Editor

“BioWare’s vision is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world.”
BioWare mission statement

“To create games that inspire, challenge and engage players.”
LucasArts philosophy

Creating great stories in video games is a hallmark for both BioWare and LucasArts. Star Wars: The Old Republic marks the beginning of a joint effort between these two companies to bring epic storytelling into a massively multiplayer online game. We believe that there are four pillars of the roleplaying experience: progression, exploration, combat, and story. Achieving a high degree of quality in each of these will create a rich, challenging, and emotional gameplay experience. Among massively-multiplayer online games, story hasn’t always received the same level of attention given to the other pillars. Star Wars: The Old Republic brings a new dimension to the MMO experience by putting story front and center.

What does this mean to you? When you play Star Wars: The Old Republic, you will experience a new level of immersion achieved through the following features:
  • Epic Star Wars™ environments and story arc
  • Class-specific storylines that evolve based on player choice
  • Companion characters with individual motivations and personalities that will change based on player interactions
In Star Wars: The Old Republic you will have an emotional attachment to your character and face decisions in the game which will guide the development of your character and determine the direction of the character’s storyline. Whatever your choices may be, you’ll still be the hero (or villain) of an epic storyline which gives extra meaning to the other gameplay pillars. Character advancement will be much more than coming up with efficient statistics. Exploration will be about experiencing new places, new people, and new stories. Finally, instead of just reaching for that next level, you will be engaging in visceral combat reminiscent of the Star Wars movies where you’re motivated to fight for more than just yourself – but also for a cause.

We believe that choice is the most gripping and crucial element of these stories. The team has left a lot open so that your decisions have a significant impact on the way the storylines and the characters develop. Because each storyline offers multiple paths, Star Wars: The Old Republic writers create much more content than you would expect from a linear game storyline. In fact, Star Wars: The Old Republic will contain more story content than all other BioWare games combined. As with the original Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™, some stories intertwine, and some decisions may lead your character down a completely unexpected path. Smaller choices may yield small results, but on some occasions may later lead to larger consequences.

In Star Wars: The Old Republic, your class means more than just the amount of hit points your character has or how many skills you can choose. Each class has its own epic storyline that will drive the majority of your character’s journey. These storylines reflect the spirit of the class you chose, some more traditionally heroic, some more sinister. Class-specific content allows you to play through a tailored experience based on your choices.

Along your journey, you’ll come across a feature that made the original Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™ series so immersive – companion characters. Companion characters are your non-player character (NPC) allies, each with their own personality, thoughts, and struggles. Companions will fight by your side and get caught up in your storyline. You might even get caught up in theirs as well. Because each of your companions has a mind of his or her own, they will react to the choices you make and may support or even turn against you.

With compelling choices, class-specific epic storylines, and fully developed companions characters, we are making a strong commitment to put the concept of story at the forefront of Star Wars: The Old Republic. By focusing on these story-driven features, our goal is that you will become immersed in your character and others around you, explore exciting environments, and in the end, get lost in your own Star Wars saga. Stay tuned to the official website for more updates and behind the scenes looks at Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Well, there you go. Still no word on how they're planning to provide longevity to the game, but they once again stress the fact that in their game story plays an incredibly major role.

And yes, it still feels like a massive single-player game you happen to play online to me. Not that that's a bad thing.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Why "Moon over Endor"

It’s been a while since there has been any news, so I thought I’d write that post to try and explain why I named the blog “Moon over Endor”.

Let me first get out of the way that it is not because of the Ewoks. If anything, it’s more despite the Ewoks. I used to like them well enough when I was young (which, I guess, was their point), but they have very little to do with my choice for a title.

To explain the title perhaps first a little background is in order. “Endor” is used as a name for several things. “Endor” is the name of a planet, a gas giant (called “Tana” by the Ewoks). Around this planet a number of moons orbit, one of which is a forest moon (the “forest moon of Endor”). Seeing as living on the planet is impossible and living on the moon is (as it is where the Ewoks live) and considering the central role the moon plays in the last Star Wars movie people often refer to the forest moon as “Endor” as well. And together they’re in the Endor System (named after the planet).

So “Endor” is really the name of the planet, but it is often used to refer to the moon. And that gives me some nice duality to play with.

After all, if both can be “Endor” then which is the moon over Endor? Technically speaking the moon is the forest moon, as that’s the only true moon. But one could also say that if you are on Endor then the gas giant would look mightily like a moon (and, indeed, it does).

When you relate this to the development of the game (Star Wars: The Old Republic) one could say that the gas giant is the game (it’s still nebulous, it’s uninhabitable, etc) and the forest moon is where we, the community, live. So we can look at this moon over where we live and make all kinds of speculations about it, perhaps convince ourselves that we know what it is like. Thus “Moon over Endor” is us looking from a distance at an incomplete something that might seem substantial to us, giving us the feeling that we know what it is like.

But at the same time it’s also the other way around. “Moon over Endor” also refers to the forest moon, that place away from the real thing, orbiting the game, the community. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we’re all Ewoks, but for the most part we have a similar level of technological sophistication with the universe around us, the world that isn’t completely formed yet. We’re all looking up at the sky and dreaming about what might be.

Of course, I also just like the whole moon symbolism in general and I must say that a large reason for me picking the name is because I simply thought that it sounded nice. But there is at least a little more thought behind it; the forest moon is the community, orbiting a gas giant of a game, still insubstantial even if it looks solid enough from the limited picture we’re getting of it.

Thus “Moon over Endor” refers both to the community surrounding Star Wars: The Old Republic and to the process of us looking into the sky and think we know what the ‘moon’ (or game in this case) is like because the image we see seems clear enough.

And yes, I probably put way too much thought into that and should’ve just said “I like how it sounds”.