[As BioWare Austin prepares to release Star Wars: The Old Republic, project lead James Ohlen talks with Gamasutra about polishing up the MMORPG in these final pre-launch months, and the difficulty in letting go of creative control.]
While no official release date has been set on paper, BioWare is hoping to have Star Wars: The Old Republic -- its first ever MMORPG -- to be available this holiday.
With the game entering its final months of production, and with BioWare Austin and its parent Electronic Arts counting so much on the game's success, project lead James Ohlen tells Gamasutra, "One of the secrets to making a 90 Metacritic game is you really have to continue to polish all the way to the end." He adds that "Most BioWare games aren't really fun at all until the last five or six months."
Ohlen goes into greater detail about what his team is doing in the home stretch, the post-launch plans, and how difficult it is to let go of creative control when your project gets too big to handle.
This is a pretty ambitious MMO, there are a lot of moving parts. At this point in the development process, what are you focusing on?
Polishing game systems, tutorials, and teaching new players how to play the game. So, we're introducing systems that will do that. We're also focusing a lot on making sure our tech's going to be stable, that we have a very stable launch.
The thing about a massively multiplayer game is that it's different from any other game out there, because you have this vast online community all over the world online at the same time, and you have to make sure there's no way for your game to be hacked. You have to have very strong security, your game has to stand up if you have hundreds of players in one zone at the same time. There's a lot of things that we've never had to worry about at BioWare before.
And the fact is, because of the hype around the game right now, our launch numbers are predicting something really huge, which means we have to be ready for the biggest online launch in history essentially, which has made it really tough. We've been running a lot of tests, just making sure we're going to stand up when we launch.
We're also focused on game balance for combat, for itemization, for the social systems. We've been running a lot of tests, we're getting a lot of feedback on the game. And when we get that feedback, we use it to make tweaks and changes. We're not making major changes now, we're just making changes that we can. Every BioWare game goes through this process, or any game in general.
One of the secrets to making a 90 Metacritic game is you really have to continue to polish all the way to the end. You have to do a targeted launch, because if you go too crazy with feedback and you change major systems, what happens is you don't have time for polishing. You have to choose where you're going to change according to feedback from players, both external and internal.
As far as polish, something that strikes me as particularly interesting about this project is that it's fully voice acted. Traditionally an MMO can iterate easily because they don't have to worry about going back in for a re-recording of dialogue since it's text only. Is this a challenge?
It's been something that we've had to be aware of, but we've been aware of it since back in 2006. We knew it was going to be something we had to worry about, and the big thing is, when you're doing game balancing for quests, it's really about the activities that you're doing. So, if you're told by the NPC "You have to assassinate this guy," we can change what happens in-between that and you getting to him.
If we get feedback that the current way the mission runs is not intuitive or not very fun, we can change how the mission goes. But the actual conversation at the beginning where you're told to kill him off? That doesn't have to change. So, most of the feedback we get is around the actual activity that you're sent to do.
Another aspect of MMOs that's interesting to development is the way that it is constantly expanding and changing. That strikes me as another pretty big challenge with all these voice actors. Is this something that's planned ahead of time? Like, that you're going to get all these same voice actors in the studio next month?
Obviously if we're successful, which I think we're going to be, for years we're going to be doing new content. We're going to have free content, and…I won't go into details on what we're going to do post-ship, but obviously we're going to continue to feed the content pipeline if we're going to keep players in the game. And so yeah, we've been thinking about that.
The most important actors for us to keep around include the player character voices, because you don't want your voice changed. But that's something we have to be prepared for, that is one of the challenges. We have sixteen different player character voices that are probably the ones that we're going to be bringing back over and over again.
Is this your first massively-multiplayer beta test that you've been a part of?
Well we're not really calling it…I guess it is kind of a closed beta. Yeah, it's the first time I've been involved in any kind of massively multiplayer testing.
Were there any kind of big surprises once you had people actually playing the game? It's a very different feedback process than just playtesting a single-player game.
The thing about it is, it's important to get people to test your game, but the beta tests are more for finding out if your technology's going to stand up, and finding some small tweaks and changes. But all the big changes that we've been making were planned from way before, because we've been playing the game ourselves. If we didn't figure this stuff out, we'd be terrible game designers. So, internally we figured out a lot of the problems early on.
But at the same time, it's good for fans to feel like they're having an impact, and sometimes they do. Sometimes they do point out information that is a little bit surprising, but nothing hugely surprising. There's been surprises on the project, but mostly they've come from us playtesting this stuff.
Have you found that the development process followed a traditional sort of BioWare plan? Or did you really have to adjust yourself?
It's very different. Mainly, most BioWare games that are new come together at the last like, four months or something like that. Usually they look like trainwrecks. When we're showing them to the producers or publishers, they're like oh my god, how is this game going to come together? And then it comes out, and it's a 90 Metacritic game. But this game hasn't been the same, it's actually been in really good shape and playable for a long time.
Yeah. And that's been a lot different for me. Most BioWare games aren't really fun at all until the last five or six months.
When you go back to the office now, as the project director, what are you doing?
There's a lot of different things. There's obviously the post-release stuff that I have to be working on, because all that stuff has to start much earlier in the process. I look at all the feedback that's coming in. I play the game a lot now. So one of my jobs is to kind of sift through all the feedback I'm getting, both from the internal team and external sources, and figure out what to do with that. So I like to make sure that I'm playing the game a ton so I'm not just taking someone's word for it that a part of a game needs fixing.
That's kind of a philosophy of BioWare. Even the two doctors, Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk, BioWare founders], they always play our games, and that allows them to… they've actually played the game, and they can say yeah, I agree that this is boring or that doesn't work or whatever. That's what I have to do as well, to make sure that I'm on top of the game. It's kind of a challenge because the game's hundreds of hours long and there's eight different classes and so many different activities.
One difference between RPGs and other types of games is that RPGs have so many different systems involved in them. If you think of a first-person shooter, those kinds of games are very streamlined. You have like one mechanic: you shoot things. But then in an RPG you have a lot more mechanics.
And then in an MMORPG like The Old Republic you have so many mechanics. You have your adventuring game, you have your war zone PVP game, you have your crafting game, you have the space game. You have the itemization game, the level-up game. You have the multiplayer social systems, the multiplayer dialogue… there's so many systems involved. So, it's a challenge to keep track of them all.
One of the things that I've learned personally is that I've had to become much more… on previous games that I've worked on, I was much more of a control freak.
I was going to ask! It seems like the BioWare philosophy is that everyone is on top of the game, but it seems like you have to spread yourself a lot more thin on an MMO and learn to delegate.
Yeah. I have to trust my lieutenants. I have senior designers underneath me, and basically my management style now is I give my guys freedom, as long as they feel that they're going the way I want them to go, then I don't get involved. Even if I don't totally agree with something. There's no way for any one person to be able to be controlling a project this size. And the fact is, there's elements of the projects that I'm not going to be as knowledgeable about.
For example, Gabe Amatangelo is the guy who heads up the warzones and our operations, our PVP, and he has a lot of experience with that from Warhammer. I don't have that experience, so I definitely give him a lot of freedom on that. Our lead writer, Daniel Erickson I've given a lot of freedom. He's a writer, I'm not.