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The Making of Star Wars: The Old Republic

December 20, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

A long, long time ago... eight years to be exact... BioWare released its RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and won the Game Developers Choice Award at GDC for "Best Game of 2004."

Flash forward to this week and BioWare Austin is launching its very first MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic, the game for which the Austin studio was created -- and the game that took "just" six years and a huge global team to build.

James Ohlen, creative director (and game director for SWTOR), and Daniel Erickson, writing director (and lead writer for SWTOR), both have high hopes that their newest release will garner the same praise that the classic title that inspired it generated.

Ohlen was lead designer on the earlier RPG, and he perceives the MMORPG "as a continuation of telling stories in that era. They share a lot in common, including the BioWare staples of cinematic storytelling and being able to make choices that impact how your story unfolds."

Even though it's a natural evolution for the pair, neither Ohlen nor Erickson had a clue as to what game they would be tasked to build when they came down to Austin in 2005. It wasn't until late 2006 that the team got started in earnest on the Star Wars IP.

"[BioWare co-founders] Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk believed it was time to get into the MMO space; they're always thinking about how BioWare can continue to be successful in the future," recalls Ohlen. "So they sent a few of us down to Austin to open a studio."

Austin was chosen, Zeschuk says, "because of its rich history as a great location to make online games. Any time you start a new studio, there's a challenge in getting the right mix of people, culture, and personalities. That's probably the biggest thing you need to get right and something we took a lot of care doing."

Looking back, adds Zeschuk, the best thing BioWare did in the starting of the Austin studio was "to bring some of the company's leaders from Edmonton down to Austin to work directly with Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton, who were already in Austin. This helped ease the transition and establish some of our values. Especially since James Ohlen -- who, with Rich and Gordon -- really formed the core leadership at the studio."

"I'd worked at BioWare since 1996 -- one year after the founding of the company in 1995 when there were just eight of us in a one-room studio above a coffee shop," says Ohlen. "I was going to be game director mainly because I had experience in building big games. I'd been lead designer on Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, as well as on Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, and I was, at that time, lead designer on Dragon Age."

He was intrigued, he said, by the idea of a persistent world where one could do BioWare-style storytelling. He'd played MMORPGs for years and "never felt that any of them had gotten the multiplayer aspect quite right, so this was going to be a challenge for me -- combining multiplayer and storytelling."

Daniel Erickson, who would become lead writer for the MMO -- as well as hiring and training the entire writing staff -- remembers meeting with the team in an Austin hotel and discussing how they would start the studio from scratch and then move on to the next task -- deciding what title to build.

"We knew we wanted to do a license from the very beginning, mainly because for original IP -- like Dragon Age -- we had to do a year's worth of work just putting on paper the history and the world-building and such. We knew we were going to tackle the biggest game that we were ever going to do, so we decided to make it that much easier by licensing an established IP. And, we decided, if we were going that route, the license we would buy had better be a great one."

Because Knights of the Old Republic had been BioWare's biggest fan favorite, the Star Wars license quickly rose to the top of the wishlist. But it took quite a while before all the contracts were signed. In the meantime, all the departments spent their time experimenting, hoping what they did would be applicable to the license they signed.

"I started bringing in the first writing hires, mainly because BioWare writers are very hard to find," says Erickson. "As soon as we had a few people on the writing team, we just started writing The Old Republic -- and crossing our fingers, hoping our efforts wouldn't be wasted."

As it turned out, they weren't.

In the months that followed, it became apparent that the size of the project was the biggest hurdle the team would encounter. SWTOR contains more content than in all the previous BioWare RPGs combined.

"There are more game systems in it than in any other BioWare RPG," says Ohlen, "with a lot of those systems having a lot more depth than in any other RPG I've ever worked on. The fact that this is a game with huge worlds that are each the size of a game by themselves -- that's been a huge challenge for us."

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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.