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The Making of Star Wars: The Old Republic

December 20, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

In Zeschuk's opinion, two of the biggest challenges were the sheer scale of development and the complexity of the project -- and, he says, the solution to both was always communication.

"To a certain degree, we reorganized fairly frequently to try and drive better and better communication and integration," he says. "Where we ended up was a hybrid -- we've got interdisciplinary pods working on discreet zones but also discipline-focused teams working on other areas. We also work really hard to make sure all the different groups work together and ensure our culture is one of sharing information and helping each other. We're all one team and function in that way."

Challenging, too, has been managing the size of the BioWare team. The design department for the one game is the size of the entire design department at the BioWare Edmonton, Canada studio.

"It took me a decade to build up the Edmonton staff," says Ohlen. "But I had to build Austin in like four years."

While he would not say how many people worked on SWTOR, he estimates they are in the hundreds, with team members not only in Austin but also in Edmonton, in Virginia at BioWare Mythic and at various outsourced studios for art and QA.

Because the studio had to hire so many people, says Ohlen, a huge benefit was the fact that Austin has such a vibrant gaming community, including Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas, both of which provided quite a few developers.

As the size of SWTOR grew, elsewhere in the MMO space, games were shrinking -- and were transitioning from subscription-based titles to free-to-play. But Ohlen says there was never a temptation to follow suit.

"First of all," he says, "I believe that there is only a group of developers -- like Zynga -- who are making smaller games. For the most part, the successful ones are still the big ones, like World of Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and all of EA's big sports franchises. What you are seeing is just two different areas, both of which are growing, and I think it's good that small games exist because they allow for more innovation and more risk-taking because you're not betting the farm every time you build one."

As for the free-to-play (F2P) business model, Ohlen doesn't believe it will turn the subscription model into a dinosaur. "Yes, it's getting difficult for companies to compete in the subscription space because players' expectations are so high. That has been a big challenge for us, mainly because Blizzard set the bar so high with World of Warcraft. But I think we've hit it and we're bringing innovations that are really going to change the way people view the AAA subscription MMO."

Would he ever consider turning SWTOR into an F2P game?

"I don't know what's going to happen in the future," he says, "but, right now, we're very much focused on making it a subscription game."

While Ohlen was consumed with the design challenges, Erickson had his own set of challenges as lead writer in charge of the entire writing team. SWTOR has 20 credited writers who, Erickson claims, did "60 man-years worth of writing... or somebody's natural life."

Zeschuk explains that, as with most BioWare games, the developer tends to start out with a set of goals they want to achieve. In this case, "we knew we wanted to insert a story -- a BioWare hallmark -- into the MMO space, but we didn't know exactly how we would do it. For example, we didn't necessarily plan to voice absolutely everything in the game in our initial plans but, along the way, it became pretty clear to us that would be the best outcome for the players by delivering the best story. What that forced was a fair amount of work redoing character faces and making sure they held up well on close-ups."

"Even though it hadn't been the plan, we ended up with more than 40 companion characters, each with their own dialogue and their own quests," Erickson says. "Originally we thought we were going to do a small set of companion characters and all eight classes were going to share them.

"It just didn't work out that way, mainly because companion characters at BioWare have always grown very naturally out of the plot. The one ambitious thing we knew we were going to do were the eight different class stories... a separate story for each class that runs all the way through the entire game, from beginning to end. That's something that I don't think has ever been seen in an RPG, except maybe for the origin stories in Dragon Age."

So, in theory, SWTOR's story can be played all the way through eight times, each time enabling the player to work their way through a full trilogy.

"To give you an idea of how big these stories are, Chapter I of the bounty hunter is longer than the entire old Knights of the Old Republic," says Erickson. "And then there's Chapters II and III. If, after that, you go and re-roll on, say, the Republic side, you won't see a single piece of repeated content, not one line of voiceover, nothing."

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Michael Gribbin
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I desperately wish I had time to scope this game out. It sounds really interesting from a player and design/development perspective. Luckily I have a few guys out in the trenches playing since beta to give me at least SOME idea of what's going on in there. They're having a blast!

Bart Stewart
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A couple of things.

First, no real criticism, but this piece is mostly PR for BioWare rather than information that's interesting or useful from a game development perspective. One of BioWare's perceived strengths is narrative, and from this story we learn mostly that SWTOR will, unlike its competitors, have lots of... narrative.

What we don't hear anything about is the design thinking by which this narrative strength is fused with MMORPG gameplay -- how does that work? Was it hard to do? What compromises had to be made with the gameplay in order to tell compelling stories? What compromises had to be made with storytelling in order to offer a game that current MMORPG players would enjoy while (one hopes) also attracting new gamers? How does the decision to adhere to MMORPG conventions in the class design distinguish this game from, oh, I don't know, WoW? We learn none of these things.

Maybe these questions were asked and will show up in a future piece. That would be appreciated.

The second thought is this: BioWare used the HeroEngine from (what was) Simutronics -- in fact, they were one of the first licensees. The thing is, the next big licensor announced after BioWare was Zenimax Online, the sister company to Bethesda.

So what might *they* have been working on all this time? ;)

Levi delValle
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Hold on Bart, first of all this is not the postmortem.

2nd of all there should be no compromises between story and gameplay, and further more the class mechanics are different. I suggest you try the game out and then try Wow out and then compare them. You still have the rolls of DPS, Tanks and healers, that has not changed but it allows for some customization with skill trees and a choice from level 10 to reach for an Advance Class.

For me I have played Wow from day one, Final Fantasy XI for two years, and now Star Wars: The Old Republic and I can say that the combat mechanics are different, though I would of liked the combat more if it was more like that of Dragon Nest from Eyedenity Games and Nexon.

As for your comment on the HeroEngine it is not uncommon for studios to use 3rd party engines to speed up production on the games. As for what they where doing all this time, I would have to say a lot of iteration, Usability testing, iteration, Play testing, iteration, Beta Testing, iteration, Stress Testing, iteration, prayer, release, postmortem, expansion pack per-production and prototyping.

Kostas Yiatilis
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I think Bart is talking about what Zenimax Online is doing since they got the same engine at about roughly the same time.