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E3: Bringing Story To The Forefront In  Star Wars: The Old Republic
E3: Bringing Story To The Forefront In Star Wars: The Old Republic
June 3, 2009 | By Kris Graft

June 3, 2009 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, E3

BioWare wants to be a storyteller as much as a video game developer. The studio is known for its keen focus on story and character development, with revered single-player role-playing games like Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect to its credit.

But the studio has yet to tackle the MMO genre, and it's clear that BioWare feels that it has something to prove. At a Gamasutra-attended demo of the upcoming MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic at E3, BioWare Austin senior producer Dallas Dickinson said he and his team want to "bring story to the forefront of the MMO space."

It will be an incredibly difficult challenge making a highly story-driven MMO, one that takes all of the varying actions and choices of masses of players and neatly wraps it all together into a cohesive storyline.

"To put story into an MMO, we had lots of discussions," Dickinson said. "...Story has to drive choice, and choice has to drive action." He said that the game's dynamically morphing story and the player's choices must have a "real emotional impact" for gamers.

The Old Republic takes place 300 years after the events of Knights of the Old Republic, and 3,000 years before the events of Star Wars: Episode IV. An action-packed pre-rendered cinematic trailer for the game showed a massive hand-to-hand battle in a large pillared hall between Sith and Jedi, with some flame-throwing bounty hunters thrown into the mix. Lightsabers, of course, were aplenty.

While the trailer was pre-rendered, the cinematic is indicative of the kind of gameplay BioWare Austin is aiming for in the battle system. Choice-driven action will be a central to the game, Dickenson said. Gamers will often be attacked by multiple enemies in what the producer referred to as "heroic combat."

A Talkative MMORPG

But it's when the action subsides when The Old Republic's "BioWare-ness" really becomes obvious. As revealed earlier this week, all of the game's dialog with all non-player characters will be voiced -- a massive undertaking as the game will have hundreds of thousands of lines of dialog. It's a first for an MMO, Dickenson said, and in line with BioWare's goal to make the game as cinematic and story-driven as possible.

"It's a production challenge," Dickenson told Gamasutra after the presentation, perhaps understating the effort that BioWare will have to put into the game to reach such a goal. "But it really came down to when you see it with the full voiceover, it's an impactful, emotional experience. When you take away chunks of it, you start losing some of that. It's about putting our money where our mouth is when we say that story and choice matter."

During the short half-hour demo held at LucasArts' meeting room, the voiceovers and writing seemed particularly strong, with a tinge of humor. If BioWare can keep the consistency throughout the game, it could make good on its promise of a memorable, cinematic, story-driven experience.

Players control their dialog choices in a way similar to Mass Effect dialog wheel. As in past BioWare single-player RPGs, the developer wants to have choice have real meaning, and with The Old Republic, BioWare appears to be trying to make choices blurrier -- less cut and dry. In one case, players are given the choice to cut down a captain with a lightsaber after he fails to follow orders, which will build up fear and loyalty amongst surrounding NPCs -- or let him live, which will allow players to speak with him and feed off of his knowledge in the future. By making sure there are clear benefits and drawbacks for either choice, choices can have more meaning.

The bloodthirsty attendees of this particular demo voted to kill the captain, which irreversibly changes both the story and the gameplay scenarios for the player. "There are mid-term and long-term impacts" from decisions, Dickenson said. "...Every NPC involved in [a] conversation... is going to react to you differently depending on what decision you make."

He also briefly mentioned an intriguing multiplayer conversation system, in which players in the same party will be able to take turns responding and initiating conversations with NPCs. It's a concept that could add a new dimension to MMOs, but Dickenson said that BioWare is still keeping details of the feature under wraps.

Choices will also drive gamers to either the Light or Dark Side of the Force: "If you go totally Dark Side you will have some abilities that are available to you that aren't available to players in your same class who took a kindlier route," Dickenson said.

Stylized Realism

During the game demo, which ran without a hitch off of BioWare's servers in Austin, the senior producer played as a bounty hunter akin to Boba Fett, which used range weapons. He also revealed during the demo a smuggler class that lets players live the Han Solo fantasy. A sneaky cheat, the smuggler class allows players to use a cover system, which balances the class' lacking armor abilities.

Overall, The Old Republic boasted great-looking cartoon-inspired graphics -- exaggerated facial features, bright colors, and expressive animations. BioWare has been calling the art style "Stylized Realism." It's not necessarily high-poly, but very sharp. "We're actually going for more 'painterly,' if I want to use a hoity toity term," Dickenson said.

The cartoon-ish style will also help The Old Republic work on a wide array of PC configurations, so gamers won't necessarily need a top-of-the-line system. "The stylized realism actually kind of enters into that. We're choosing an art style that we can scale really well," Dickenson told Gamasutra.

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Dustin Chertoff
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I'm curious how this concept of meaningful choice in quests will work out. It could completely fail if it means you are locked out of certain content. In a single player game, that's ok, because you are just playing with yourself - create a save point and go back in time if you don't like the outcome. But in a MMO, that option doesn't exist. This can have a huge impact on group play. If I kill the captain, and someone else in my guild doesn't - how will that limit our ability to group and go to the same place?

Regardless, I think that if they can pull this off, it will be an evolutionary step for MMOs in much the same way that WoW brought the level-through-questing mechanic to the forefront.

Ian Campbell
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"As revealed earlier this week, all of the game's dialog with all non-player characters will be voiced -- a massive undertaking as the game will have hundreds of thousands of lines of dialog. It's a first for an MMO, Dickenson said."

I could be wrong, but I thought Sony Online voiced all the NPC dialog for their Everquest 2.

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Robert Usarek
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Well no, not if taking the middle choice allows you to go more places that are barred off from either good or evil players. A neutral bounty hunter could operate in good or evil space.

Tom Krausse
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@Dustin. I think, from some hands-on impressions, that, when your group encounters such a decision, the game lets each player register a vote, and goes with the majority. So if you went with two other people, and you decided to spare him, but the others decided not to, then he would still die.

Not sure how replaying will work though.

Kevin Campbell
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@Robert: I think the point is, no matter how much you include choice into a game to create a meaningful and interactive experience at the end of the day the game is still a game, and players will take whatever path is the most advantageous to them.

Similar to when Bioware was coming out and everyone was excited because the game supposedly would have lots of meaningful choices, but at the end of the day those choices affected the game, and it just so happened that harvesting little sisters was the "smartest" way to play the game.

This is one of the reasons why I'd like TOR to succeed, yet I'm pretty confident it's going to fail. The story may garner the attention of a considerable amount of roleplayers and people who love immersion, but the vast majority (and even a few rpers) will gravitate towards whatever path gets them to their goals the fastest, which invalidates all the effort Bioware is putting into this. Full voice acting will be fun and interesting the first few times you do it (or not at all for some, as Bioware is lousy when it comes to story compared to Troika and even Bethesda), but after a while everyone will just skip through the dialogue. I've done so in every Bioware game I've played.

I applaud Bioware for trying something different, but at the end of the day it's the gameplay that matters over the immersion, especially in a multiplayer game. I could be wrong though, and I hope that I am, but I predict this game isn't going to do so hot.

John Flush
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I have to agree with Kevin. Despite the countless ways you can build classes in WoW there are two or three builds that everyone does per class type, and how you play the game will be determined in such a way to maximize the build.

Eventually everything will turn into repeated group raids, and the dialog will be skipped instantly. I think they are trying to make a single player game in the MMO game space where people don't have the time to play 'single player'. Players will be openly mocked as a 'n00b' if they try and slow down the group.

I think a lot of people will try it, but I think most people will go back to their lvl70 chars in that 'other game' instead of invest into this one.