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SWTOR's complex challenge: BioWare story in an MMO world
 SWTOR 's complex challenge: BioWare story in an MMO world
October 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Programming, Art, Design, GDC Online



BioWare's Damion Schubert is a systems designer, not a writer. Yet he ended up dealing with those elements anyway, as the first designer with MMO experience on a team of traditional BioWare writers. His job was to tell them what elements of an MMO need to be considered in the story design process.

MMOs are difficult, balancing concerns of server architecture, massive content, class balance and more. Even though BioWare has a formidable pedigree in the industry, taking the quality for which its teams are known and applying it to the MMO space would be a new challenge.

Yet there were some advantages, too: The Star Wars license was uniquely suited to the MMO environment, with both human and non-human enemies, strong visual combat, and a strong heroic arc, plus it's accessible to both casual and hardcore fan audiences. Further, BioWare had made Knights of the Old Republic, and had a relationship to the world.

Story naturally means different things in different games. BioWare traditionally focuses on very narrative-oriented freeform stories that players can experience with some determinism. Most writers struggle with the challenge of writing choice where all options are equally viable in terms of continuing with the game in a pleasing way.

"No choice is so bad it actually kills the game experience entirely, and going with choice is the idea of consequences of your actions," explains Schubert. "'Your character is affected, but your decisions also actually affect the world around you."

Companion characters are also an important component of the BioWare experience; they're essentially story elements that can come with you, making the narrative personal. Cinematic presentation is another key BioWare trait.

In classic BioWare games, consequences matter, but players can always go and reload save states to explore "the road not taken." But there's no way to "go back" in an MMO, and players would have to live with the way their choices affect the online world. Rather than conceive of that as a limitation, Schubert says players were intrigued by this new ground for MMOs. MMOs require a staggering amount of content, however, and at the level of time and quality BioWare usually invests, this made the budget of the game massive.

Plus implementing choices that have permanent, "BioWare impact" on the game world is nigh impossible in a place that all players share. For example, you couldn't burn down a town or permanently impact major people in the world through your actions. "We had to drive our stories to be more personal and less about the world around you," Schubert explains.

"We wanted each story to really feel like it was about someone of that class," he explains. "We wanted the knight to have a Luke Skywalker story, we wanted the warrior to have a Darth Vader story, and we wanted the smuggler to have a Han Solo story." Doing this was a content risk, meaning the team had to write eight different stories, and that those who play one class and stop only see an eighth of the best content.

Designing for choice and personal arcs for each class in an MMO environment was an incredible amount of content that even the BioWare team wasn't prepared for, especially given that the incredibly deep and long-standing Star Wars universe required a special attention to approval from publisher LucasArts.

Starting months ahead with the story put the team ahead in content creation, but it also led to mistakes, since the team had to start writing before the world was underway and before the game mechanics were well-defined. At launch the game had 260,000 lines of dialogue, and featured 321 actors playing 4,094 characters whose performances were recorded across 17 recording studios. It took 1,600 sessions to record almost 275 hours of voiceover -- not counting aliens and non-English speakers! -- and content is still being added as we speak.

"We had too many quests," says Schubert. Players had trouble keeping track of the storylines, and quest delivery mechanisms would have to evolve to avoid the problem of overwhelming people with too many quests per hub. Unfortunately VO was often recorded and localized before problems with the quests emerged. For example, in one case a nearly-defeated boss springs back to knock the Jedi Knight out, and the player is meant to wake up on another planet a year later.

"What happens to your group in that situation?" Schubert points out. "It just didn't make any sense. It's something that works great in a single-player game but in the context of the MMO is a lot more problematic."

Thanks to the magic of astromechs and aliens, BioWare could do some clever hacking of quests that turned out to be broken or nonsensical as the game evolved. "Pretty much anytime you're having a conversation in our game with a guy who's important, and out of nowhere, his friend the R2 unit pipes up? Yeah that's us doing surgery," Schubert reveals.

The massive, multifaceted quests constantly in need of tinkering made keeping things in sync challenging enough -- but to make matters worst, writers originally wrote quests so that different classes were to go to different quest hubs at different times. Maintaining sync among those destinations became a priority, and subtle differences in mission length had huge social impacts. The philosophy of "class stories are done alone" definitely had to change.

BioWare stories rely on the dramatic pacing of ambushing, when an unexpected approach changes the direction of the story. "Our writers were very, very cranky when they were told they had to do these things a lot less," says Schubert.

Teleportation plays such a huge role in MMO, so players could never be ambushed on the way out of dungeons, where they could often be expected to skip that exit process. Players have so much control over routes and destinations that it made it much harder for the team to conceal ambush moments and surprise the player.

The light side/dark side divide made choices much more complicated. For example, love is considered a "dark side" value in the Star Wars universe, and flirting would add "dark side" points to a character trying to be on the light side, so the team had to communicate much more clearly. Overall the nuance of the two different sides made it more complicated to wrangle story choices so they were sensible for players.

"The combat team had to change how the companion characters were, in order to make them more useful and give them more combat roles, and they pretty much gave every class a healer," says Schubert. The companion character was always meant to die, but in one case that character was the healer, which meant that story element had to see an 11th-hour edit. "We just could not take your healer away from you. We were actually afraid of the customer service cost involved in that."

Ultimately the game is a very mixed success -- its development costs have been estimated at $150 million, and it saw a subscriber falloff not long after launch from which it has yet to recover. The team has seen departures since then, most notably The Old Republic's lead writer, Daniel Erickson, while BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk themselves decided it was a good time to explore new roles outside of games.

Schubert says he's pleased with the sales and the game still enjoys a considerable subscriber base, but declined to reveal exactly how long The Old Republic spent in development when asked in the session Q&A.

Nonetheless, he says he's incredibly proud of his team and in particular noted that the game's story is often cited as its strongest suit in its critical reception. A closer partnership with the writers and the world-builders earlier on might have taken the dev process further, Schubert reflects.

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.


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