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Interview

Star Wars: The Old Republic Interview

IncGamers recently caught up with Bioware’s creative director James Ohlen to discuss the hugely-anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic.So, the Old Republic! Now, this is the first MMO game that BioWare’s done. How has it been coming up to the challenge?Well, the MMO genre is probably the most difficult genre to develop for. It’s the largest kind of game you can build, so it has been very challenging. One of the first things we did is we made sure the team at the very beginning, the core team, was made up of veterans who had built MMOs before. So we had Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton, our art director Jeff Dobson and Bill Dalton our tech director, all have worked on MMOs for many years before they started on Star Wars: The Old Republic. So that was one of our first steps.

Other things that have helped us… you know, when we were bought out by EA, EA is a huge publisher, has a lot of resources, that’s helped us a lot. Also the fact that Mythic is part of the studio family now, that’s been very helpful. Mythic has a lot of experience building the games. In fact they’ve actually lent some of their talent over to us – we have some Mythic programmers and designers working in our studio, and some working at the Mythic studio helping out. So that’s another thing that’s helped out.

But even with all that, again, it’s the biggest kind of game you can build, and so it’s taken many years and a lot of deep pockets, but at the end of the day, I think it’s going to be worth the wait. It’s a really ambitious game but it’s gonna be really cool, too.

So what do you think of the rest of the MMO market? It’s a huge market, obviously, if you look at the World of Warcraft figures and everything else, but what do you think of the competition?

Well, I think that there’s a lot of good competitors in the MMO space and there’s a lot to learn from them. Obviously World of Warcraft is the biggest game out there, and they’re developed by Blizzard, who’s just amazing. That game is incredible and you can learn a lot by playing it and just seeing what they did and the smart decisions they made. There’s other games – NCsoft is very good at building some games; Aion is a very, very pretty game that came out recently. Obviously Warhammer from Mythic, that’s a very good game, you can learn a lot from that. We play all the games as they come out. Every time a new MMO comes out, we sit down, play it, and try to learn as much as we can from it.

So you’re definitely paying attention to the rest of the market?

Oh yeah. It’d be foolish not to, right? You can’t compete in a genre without knowing what’s out there, otherwise you’re going to be reinventing the wheel everywhere. You need to take a look at some of the hard lessons that other developers have learned and then focus on developing some new stuff that’s going to differentiate you from those guys.

I’ve had the chance to play and get my hands on The Old Republic today, and I have to say it does feel quite different to other MMOs. How did you actually approach developing it and designing it and making it different?

Well, there’s two major differentiators for our game, we feel. One is story, and the other is combat. Well, I guess there’s a third if you count Star Wars, because Star Wars allows us to kinda be fantasy without being fantasy – you know, you have to differentiate yourself and so many people are just in the fantasy genre, so Star Wars is big.

But story. Bringing story to the MMO space, that’s huge for us. We feel that by making the player fully voiced, all the characters in the game fully voiced, by having cinematic conversations, by allowing your choices to actually impact how the game unfolds, by giving you companion characters that you can have romances or friendships with, or by allowing you to make good and evil choices that actually impact your character and everyone around you – that is something that’s never been seen in an MMO before, and is going to be huge for us.

And the combat – something you saw when you played the game – we wanted combat to be much more evocative of the movies, faster paced. MMO combat to today has been very slow – you run up, and you do the one animation, slam your weapon against the other guy, and he does the same thing, and thirty seconds later one guy dies. Eh, you know, that doesn’t look very exciting. So what we tried to do was, we have a choreograph system for combat, so when you run up with your lightsaber, your lightsaber’s going to be clashing with the opponent’s weapon, you’re going to be doing lots of interesting and very visually interesting abilities, it’s going to be faster paced – like, you can kill a guy in five seconds instead of thirty. We also have systems like cover so that when people have blasters, they can take cover behind objects.{PAGE TITLE=Star Wars: The Old Republic Interview Page 2}

You mentioned the story, the full voice acting and so on and so forth. Historically with MMOs a lot of players skip over this stuff just to get on with the quests. Are you worried that you’re going to be working on all of this in vain, or do you think people are actually going to pay a lot of attention to it?

No, I don’t think so, and here’s the reason why. Up until now most storytelling in MMOs has been basically done through a single method, and that’s – a text blurb shows up on screen in front of a character who’s just standing there waiting for you to come and, you know, give you a quest to kill 12 things. And the fact is, that’s not very compelling. Like, have you ever read a book where that happens, or seen a movie where two – no, no. Story is something that unfolds over time, where you meet characters that are interesting, where you develop relationships with them, and that’s what we’re trying to do in this game, and I think that’s going to get people into it. And the fact that it’s fully voiceovered and that they have facial animations – they feel like real characters that you want to interact with. The reason people skip over it, and I skip over it myself when I play MMOs, is it’s just that it’s not very compelling. It’s hard to tell a story in a text blurb that pops up in front of someone. It’s much easier to tell a story when you have a character that is fully animated, fully developed, and that can develop over time.

One thing that MMOs also tend to – well, one very important point with MMOs is the endgame, and with the focus on story, has it been difficult coming up with the sort of content that’s going to keep players going after they hit max level?

Nope, not at all. Obviously the endgame of our game is very important and something we’ve put a lot of thought into, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot of different ways to do endgames. You know, you have your battlegrounds, you have your endgame raids… I can’t go into detail on how we’re doing it, or if we’re doing those things, or in what form they’re going to be coming, because we’re still working on that and developing it, but in no way does us focusing on story in any way challenge us in that area. In fact, in some ways, the fact that every single one of our classes has his own unique story, that’s going to allow players to go back and start the game, and have a much different experience than they would in another MMO. I think that’s going to add to the replayability in a way that you haven’t seen before.

Just to give one example, if you were to play a Jedi Knight on the Republic side, and then if you were going to play the Bounty Hunter on the Imperial side, it’s actually like two different games. None of the story content, none of the combat – none of it’s shared. So you essentially have just played two different MMOs.

With regards to the different classes, then, have you managed to differentiate between the powers and give them a lot of different effects, or is it more in the sense that a lot of classes will have a ranged attack that does X damage, a ranged attack that stuns for X seconds and so on, or have you really managed to differentiate between them a lot?

We were really crazy, so we tried to differentiate them quite a bit from each other. The way we approached them is we took each class as essentially an analogue from the movies – the Bounty Hunter is based off Boba Fett; the Sith Lord is based off Darth Vader; the Jedi Knight’s based off of Mace Windu or Luke Skywalker; the Smuggler, Han Solo. So we take a look at those characters and look at what a player wants to do. Like, a player who wants to be a Han Solo-type character – what does he want to do in the game? What does he want to be able to do? And we based the abilities off that, so we kind of went from a top-down approach. So each character class has different abilities from the others. They’re quite a bit different in terms of what they do in combat.

You’ve mentioned the stealth system, the cover system, and bits and pieces like that which really do mix up the characters. Are there a lot of other surprises like that in there that’ll really change the way the game is played?

Well there’s gonna be a lot of surprising abilities that are pretty cool. *grins* Like, some of them we haven’t shown off yet. One of the things that a Trooper can do is he can call in an orbital strike, basically from space, and the laser comes down and blows up his enemies. Which is something that when you’re a Trooper, and you’re going up against guys with lightsabers and force powers, you need a lot of cool technology to make up for that, so there’s going to be a lot of things like that, that get revealed later on!

With regards to the classes again, you’ve finally announced the last two classes today. Now that means that there are four Force-using classes in the game, and four that aren’t. Why did you feel the need to put so many Force-using classes in there?

One thing is the Jedi and the Sith are just going to be the most popular classes – at first – because everyone wants to be a Jedi, everyone wants to be a Sith. And we didn’t want everyone playing the exact same class, so we wanted to allow for essentially two Force-using classes for each faction, so that we kinda split up what classes are being played. As well, there’s a lot of different styles of Jedis that you can be. You can be a Jedi that’s a guy who just jumps into combat and is a damage-dealer or a damage-taker, and then there’s the Jedis like Yoda who like to stay at range and use telekinetic abilities. The Jedi Consular and the Jedi Knight are different in that one is more of a ranged Jedi, more support, who’s using telekinetics. The other’s more like a Mace Windu – get in there and kick everyone’s butt with his lightsaber.

One other thing, then. MMOs traditionally never really end – there’s always expansion packs, and so on. With a story-focused game, can we assume that you’ve left threads open for expansions, extra areas, extra bits to the story?

Yeah. The way we’ve looked at it is, essentially this first game is like the original trilogy of Star Wars. So each class has multiple story arcs, and those arcs have endings. However, if you know the Extended Universe of Star Wars you know that after Return of the Jedi, in the novels and the comic books, Luke, Leia, and Han’s stories – they continue. So essentially that’s the way we feel. You’re going to have a really epic, awesome ending when you finish your class story arc in this game, but that doesn’t mean that your character can’t continue. It’s just like the comic books. In comic books, there’s always a new challenge that comes up. *grins*

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