Steve had the chance at E3 to sit down with James Ohlen and Daniel Erickson, the Lead Designer and Lead Writer of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
In an extensive half-hour long interview the three discussed how BioWare’s traditional role as a storytelling company is making the transition to the MMO world, and their attempts to capture the look, feel, and flavor of a single-player RPG within a genre which is anything but.
An epic storyline that doesn’t involve killing rats? Heroic, action-packed combat? Living out your Han Solo fantasies (or Princess Leia fantasies, if you were into those gold bikinis) you’ve had since you were a child?
This was the way Star Wars: The Old Republic was pitched to my very skeptical ears. I walked into the demo expecting something along the lines of WoW with lightsabers. I walked out picking my jaw up off the floor, and scrambling towards the nearest PR guy to find out if there was someone, anyone, available to talk to about what I had just seen.
As it turned out, there was. And I could scarcely have picked two better people to interview if I had been given the run of the entire company.
Read on for the transcript.
The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you both please introduce yourselves and tell us a little about what it is you do at BioWare.
James Ohlen: My name is James Ohlen, I’m the Studio Creative Director, and Lead Designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Daniel Erickson: My name is Daniel Erickson, I’m the Lead Writer on Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The MMO Gamer: Now, I just sat through the demo, and I have to tell you, I was very impressed by it.
I was impressed, primarily, with the storytelling aspects of the game. I’m sure many people would agree that storytelling has been a major neglected factor in the MMO genre over the years; where the story in most games can be boiled down to why Farmer X wants you to go kill ten rats.
Obviously, BioWare is a company steeped in storytelling tradition. But, just for people who are complete novices to your games, could you talk a little about the philosophy with regards to story that’s going into The Old Republic?
Daniel Erickson: Sure. Really, we tried to take the same storytelling traditions we’ve used in the rest of the games. A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game is exactly what it sounds like. It’s just a role-playing game that you’ve taken, and allowed a lot of people to play in a large social space.
We always talk about the four pillars that create RPGs: You’ve got exploration, you’ve got progression, you’ve got combat, and you’ve got storytelling.
When we said, hey, we’re going to do our first MMO, the obvious one to talk about first, even though none of the pillars can stand without the rest of them, and none of them are more important than the rest of them, we’re talking about story first because story is the delta. It’s the thing we’re doing that other people have not done.
We’re approaching it the same way we’ve always approached storytelling in games, which is that you need to have a heroic, unique experience, with choice that affects what you do.
In fact, the MMO has given us a place to actually be able to do more unique storytelling than we could in an RPG, normally.
Baldur’s Gate is a great example. With Baldur’s Gate you had a huge, epic story, it’s awesome, but guess what? It’s a fairly every-man story. Because you might have rolled a Druid, and somebody else might have rolled a Warrior, and they had the exact same story, right? We had to make it work for everyone.
Because we did all class-specific stories for The Old Republic, we’ve allowed ourselves to basically make, “Knights of the Old Republic: The Smuggler,” its own game. Everything in there, when you’re playing a Smuggler, you feel like a Smuggler.
The adventures are crazy, and madcap, and you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and there’s romantic stuff, and you’re spouting off crazy one-liners, etc., etc.
Then, when you’re playing as a Sith, it’s a completely different game. Everything is from that perspective, you come from a very dark world, you’re on Korriban, you’re dealing with Sith politics, you’re dealing with some very, very dark people who are allowed to do anything they want.
It completely changes the way we do storytelling.
The MMO Gamer: From a design standpoint, how do you handle heroic storytelling in an MMO?
In your standard online game you might walk up to a quest NPC, see a guy right behind you, and know that he’s getting the exact same quest you are to do whatever the heroic thing you’re doing is.
Do you have to segregate players, emulate the single player experience within an online world to make them feel as if they’re the protagonist, as opposed to just one player out of hundreds of thousands?
Daniel Erickson: Well, we kind of showed that in there. When you saw the piece on Hutta, one of the things you might have noticed is that the main room where his people were that he was going in and out of, there was a visible barrier there.
We can’t go into how it all works, but we didn’t want to separate the player base. We definitely are not a… there have been some MMOs that are basically instanced games with common areas. We didn’t want to go there.
What we wanted to do was be able to separate out people just long enough for the parts that were important for it. If you’re going to go have a discussion with your dad Darth Vader, you probably want to go do that by yourself.
Or, with your party, you can bring your friends with you.
But you probably don’t want a thousand people there, especially if a fight’s gonna break out, because it wouldn’t really make sense.
But, most of the world actually holds it together pretty seamlessly. One of the things we do that makes it much easier, which you saw in the game, when you go into conversation everything else drops out of the world.
So, when you’re in there, we can do things while you’re talking to the NPCs that aren’t necessarily being represented to the rest of the game world.
James Ohlen: Plus, you don’t have to put up with when you’re talking to your Sith lord somebody coming up and doing the /grind dance right beside you. [laughing]
The MMO Gamer: That happen a lot in internal alpha?
Daniel Erickson: Oh yeah! [laughing]
James Ohlen: [laughing]
The MMO Gamer: I imagine that would be slightly immersion breaking.
James Ohlen: Yes, it is.
But, what you saw right in there had the working system. It’s basically a staged system. When you start up a conversation, everyone is on their stages and they’re able to play all of their animations, say all their lines, it’s very cinematic.
But, it still works within the confines of the public zone. What you saw in there was in a flashpoint, which is instanced, but that could also have taken place, and looked just as good, had it taken place in a public area.
The MMO Gamer: I also couldn’t help but notice during the demo the very Mass Effect-like branching conversation system.
That’s something very rare-I don’t want to say unheard of, because I’m sure there’s probably some obscure Korean MMO out there that’s done it before-but, I’ve certainly never seen it done on this scale in a Western title.
That obviously adds a great deal of flexibility to your storytelling ability, but how much is it adding to your development time?
It must increase the work involved in every quest line exponentially over the standard “go kill ten rats.”
Daniel Erickson: Well, the development of it takes a lot of time. The actual planning… we have thousands, and thousands of pages of just documentation before we ever start writing, literally, because trying to understand where all the quests are going to go, trying to actually think non-linearly takes the biggest part of it.
People who have been trained to write in that fashion, it doesn’t a whole lot longer than it might to write a really good screenplay, for instance. Obviously it takes a lot more time than it does to write, “Hey, go kill ten rats.”
But, BioWare has always put this sort of storytelling first. We started working on this, and started hiring in writers and training people in doing this basically before anything else happened.
James Ohlen: To give you an example, in your standard MMO you have a single person doing the quests. He writes it up, he scripts it, he places it in the world. It’s one guy.
But with us, we have a writing team, we have scripters who script it, we have designers who are very good at doing all the cinematic angles and all the animations… so we basically have three times the size of the team for implementing a quest.
And yes, the quests are a lot more intensive than in other games.
Daniel Erickson: And again, this is a place where one of the interesting things that you can’t do in an MMO comes in… There are some challenges, about movement, and how you get people through the space, and things like that.
But, there are so many places like the example I made of, “Hey, we just get to write a Smuggler story!” Where we’re actually getting to do better storytelling and role-playing than we’ve ever gotten to do.
And the biggest one for me, and it’s one that people stop and think about it and then the realization hits them: No save button.
We have choices that affect your entire game, and your storyline, and what’s going to happen and how people see you, like the choice you saw earlier today. I don’t know what you guys decided in there, whether you killed the captain or you didn’t…
The MMO Gamer: [gives a thumbs down]
James Ohlen: [laughing]
Daniel Erickson: So you killed the captain. If you had spared the captain, you know the pods that come ripping through the walls? He knows about those. He’s not some junior officer. You don’t go down that path at all if you spare the captain.
As soon as those pods come, he’s like, “Oh those are terrible, get away from those, we’re going to do this…” the whole adventure goes on a different track.
But you can’t reload and find that out. You get to actually do what everybody says they want to do… but really when we play RPGs we always save and are like, “Oh wait, no!”
You actually get to live, and die, and watch all of your companions and everyone else treat you from the choices that you make every day.
The MMO Gamer: So then, how in-depth are these stories?
Is it just the next evolution of “Go kill ten rats,” where the guy tells you to go kill ten Smugglers, and then when you get back he gives you some flavor text and tells you to go kill twenty Bounty Hunters before sending you off to the next quest area?
Or, is it a true BioWare-style RPG, with a continuous storyline advancing with you from beginning to end?
Daniel Erickson: It is a story that advances as you advance, with several smaller stories that go on, as well.
One of the ways I always like to talk about it is if you think about the actual Star Wars saga: There are complete pieces that end, and then a new piece begins.
There are several different characters: There is Luke, whose mentor has died, and he’s going to Degoba to train up, while Han is being chased by a Bounty Hunter. But, they are all coming together to do the larger story as well, if that makes sense.
And absolutely, we have story arcs, and we have real storytelling with beginnings, and ends, and places to say, “Hey, that was great, and time has passed, and things have changed. By the way, here’s that quest that happened twenty hours ago where you totally forgot you screwed that guy, coming back to bite you in the butt, now how are you going to deal with that?”
James Ohlen: Well, have you played any BioWare RPGs?
The MMO Gamer: I’ve played just about all of them.
Daniel Erickson: Then you pretty much know what to expect, at that point.
James Ohlen: Just imagine, it’s pretty much essentially if you’re playing the Bounty Hunter, you’re playing a BioWare story. So, with the Bounty Hunter, like what you saw in the demo there, that starts up, you have Braden who is your mentor, and he’s giving you your initial quest, and then things go wrong, because things always have to go wrong in a story.
Then you continue on that world, and eventually you have the chance to escape the world of Hutta, because it’s kind of a scummy world, and you get to go into the wide open galaxy, and all sorts of other crazy stuff happens.
The Great Hunt, the initial quest, becomes an integral part of your initial story arc.
It’s a continual story, with characters that you’re meeting, after you meet them, they’re still a part of your story. You meet companion characters that can adventure around with you, and you can romance, and befriend or betray.
Daniel Erickson: Basically, as far as choice and complexity, it is as deep and as complex as anything we’ve ever done. Even if you’re just playing the Bounty Hunter, that piece itself, just playing the Bounty Hunter, would be multiple times larger than it would if you had just been playing one of our normal RPGs.
So that’s multiples of “KOTOR: The Bounty Hunter.”
Then, when you finish that, you say, “Hey, I’m going to roll the Smuggler,” because you saw that cover system and you thought that was cool, and then…
James Ohlen: You get a completely different story with a different voice.
Daniel Erickson: Not just a completely different story, but when you switch between factions, every class has their own story, but when you switch between factions there is not one piece of repeated content. Period.
Not one line of VO, not one character, not one quest. Totally different from front to back.
Because one of the things that, as James put it, it was one of those decisions that it really would have been more economical to be able to share quests. But then, how do you get Darth Vader to go do Luke’s quest?
The MMO Gamer: Well, that brings up all sorts of issues.
If you have five friends, and they’re all playing different classes, do four have to follow around one while they do the Smuggler quest, and then the Smuggler has to help the other four while they do their quests in turn?
And would those other party member just be standing idle by the sidelines?
Or, can you become actively involved in the storylines of other characters?
Daniel Erickson: If you go back to the Star Wars analogy, it’s pretty much dead on.
If you want to let Han go try to pay off Jabba by himself, there he goes.
James Ohlen: Or you can go with him.
Daniel Erickson: If you want to go with him, and be part of his story, and…
James Ohlen: One of the things our Lead World Designer is always doing, because he plays all of the MMOs in a party…
Daniel Erickson: He’s mister multiplayer guy.
James Ohlen: So, whenever he’s setting up the worlds, he’s very conscious of the fact that all the points of interest for the different class stories are set up in such a way that the flow of your party, you’re going to be able to move around the world in such a way that you can still stay together easily.
Plus, there’s activities to do like for example, if you’re going to help the Smuggler, and you’re a Jedi-I can’t talk about the specific Jedi class, but there will be Jedi-there’ll be activities for that Jedi to do while the Smuggler is doing his quest, that will help him out.
Daniel Erickson: Yeah, they can actually help him out and accomplish his goals.
One of the things we always talk about is we are trying to cover multiple camps…
The two big ones are the MMO players, who may not care about story at all. A lot of the people, for example, who played Baldur’s Gate to death were not story people.
They were people who liked the D&D combat, you know, and especially on their second playthrough they were like “Groooaaaaaan.”
And we’ve always known that those people have to be comfortable there, as well. If they want to form guilds, and have groups, and go after the best loot, and run around together… we have to make all of that available, we never want to take that away from them.
At the same time, if you are a big BioWare fan, and you love the single-player RPGs, this really is the RPG forever. You can play through this game, your actual story mode to the end, all of your characters, single-player. You can play solo all the way through if you want.
Then you can stop, and you can reload, and you can play another BioWare game, all the way through solo, totally different content.
The MMO Gamer: You just uttered a very interesting phrase I don’t hear often when talking to MMO developers: “The end.”
Of course, that is the one thing all BioWare games have in common: They come to an end.
In The Old Republic, when you’ve reached the maximum level, will there be that point where the story that’s been building up since level 1 reaches a climax, and you finally get to face down Big Bad Guy X who’s been antagonizing you the entire time?
And then, after you kill him, the credits roll with a message saying “Stay tuned for the expansion, kids!”?
Daniel Erickson: The Star Wars movies were based on the old serials. So, you had a story told that would have a cliffhanger, then you’d have the resolution to that, and then you’d have a whole new cliffhanger at the end of the next episode.
If you think about the original trilogy, you have Star Wars, you have Empire, you have Return of the Jedi. And Return of the Jedi was the absolute culmination of the stuff started off in the original movie.
However, because George Lucas is awesome at licensing stuff, and can make money in other mediums, the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia then continued in novels, and comic books.
You actually had in some ways Episodes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12…. 602…
Daniel Erickson: So, yes. In our initial release, we’re going to have Star Wars, Empire, and Return of the Jedi, in a way. We’re going to have our first movie trilogy, and then we’ll add on extra movies.
Since Star Wars is already built to support that kind of storytelling, I think it’s going to work out really well.
It’s extremely important to have the satisfaction of completing things. A BioWare story has never been a hamster wheel. We want you, even within there, long before you get to the end level to have completed whole storylines, to have put that to bed, to know what’s going on.
And you know, maybe one guy got away, he’s going to come back later and you’re going to deal with that. But that piece is… you’ve won the day for a little while. You and your companion characters can rest, breathe easy, take some time off.
And then hey, we start a new adventure.
The MMO Gamer: So then, what happens after the main storyline has ended for those other people you mentioned, who may not even be interested in the story in the first place?
I assume you don’t just tell them, “Well, that’s it! Reroll a Smuggler, play the game again, get the new story!”
Daniel Erickson: Absolutely not. One of the things that we’ve always talked about, because the end-game is incredibly important to a lot of MMO players, if that’s your game, great. That’s going to be there waiting for you.
If you want to do raids, if you want to do the whole end-game stuff, if that’s what you’re excited about, great.
But there’s also a ton of other content waiting for you, if that’s not what your game is about.
James Ohlen: With the end-game we can’t get into too much detail. We can say that the title of this IP is Star Wars. There’s lots of opportunity for conflict, conflict that doesn’t end.
We are going to have the stuff that allows you to continue to play the game. But, if you’re a player like myself, and I think Daniel here is similar, I’m the kind of guy who gets to the end level, and then I’m either going to play a new character, or I’m going to wait for the expansion to come out.
When I play most MMOs, like World of Warcraft, I get to the highest level and then I stop until the next expansion comes out, because I just don’t like doing the end-game activities.
However, there are a lot of guys on our design team, like Damien Shubert, who is our Lead System Designer, he is like the master of raids. He knows all the raids, he’s been through every single one of them, he’s part of a raiding guild.
Daniel Erickson: Our Associate Game Designer, as well, James’ right hand, is also the guy who’s like all the end-game stuff, all the raids, super excited about it.
James and I both tend to be people who look at it, and dabble at it, and go “Oh, cool, hey there’s a new dungeon!” and then after that, it’s like, “Well, what can I see that’s totally new?”
But we definitely want to accommodate all of those different sorts of players.
The MMO Gamer: [to James] I feel as though I’ve been neglecting you this whole interview, talking about story the entire time.
Is there anything that you, personally, would like to talk about?
James Ohlen: Hm… what to say about the game…
Daniel Erickson: He’s going through his list of things we’re not allowed to say. [laughing]
James Ohlen: I don’t know, for me, this is the dream Star Wars game. In my mind, once you play this game, [redacted]… well, I can’t really say that, I guess! [laughing]
We’re creating the ultimate dream, you’re going to be able to play every single fantasy from Star Wars you had as a kid. If you love your Boba Fett action figure, and you have the Slave-1 ship, and you want to be that guy, you can be that guy.
If you had the Millennium Falcon like I did, and you were like, “I dreamed all my life of being Han Solo and travelling the galaxy,” you can be that.
If you were a Luke Skywalker fan who always wanted to be a Jedi, you can be that too.
If you love Darth Vader, and you wanted to run around the galaxy and crush your enemies, you can do that, too.
All of the heroic characters from the movies, you can play in our game. And you can have an epic story that evokes the fantasy of those characters.
And it’s all done with high quality, cinematic, movie-like storytelling. So you have full voiceover, and great camera work, and emotionally engaging characters.
It’s essentially that you have Star Wars movies based on your favorite characters that you get to control how it unfolds. That’s kind of my dream.
The MMO Gamer: It was mentioned during the demo that even the combat is trying to be tuned to reflect more of that “heroic” tone. That you aren’t out there fighting rats and bunny rabbits, but you’re engaged with numerous humanoid opponents at once.
James Ohlen: I’ve always had a hard time enjoying myself in combat in MMOs. Mainly because I’m kind of an action/violence junkie, I like my fast-paced action, I like to be cutting enemies down by the boatloads.
MMOs are very slow-paced, it’s you versus one enemy, and you hit him fifteen times until he dies. That’s something we’ve consciously moved away from in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
You’re fighting against multiple enemies, the action is fast-paced, there’s a lot more animations going on.
We’ve gone out of our way, we hired a combat designer who had a huge amount of experience with fighting games, who really knows the secrets of making your combat abilities really feel powerful.
That’s something I think has really been missing from the MMO genre: Combat has always felt like an MMO, not like other games.
Daniel Erickson: There’ve been a couple MMOs that have attempted it, but none that have really broken through the big pieces.
The MMO Gamer: So you hope to break out of that mold of “Press 1 to cast Fireball, wait, press 2 to cast Frostbolt, wait.” Rinse and repeat?
Daniel Erickson: And preferably to get rid of the “Fight one guy for a minute and a half, then sit down and eat bread.”
James Ohlen: The thing is, I don’t think we’re revolutionizing combat. We’re just trying to take… we want to appeal to MMO fans who like the strategy and tactics involved in MMO combat, where you have the different character types, the guy who’s a tank that jumps into battle and everyone focuses on him while you have your ranged DPS guys.
We still want to have that.
We also want to have a game that someone who’s not great at first person shooters, who doesn’t have great hand-eye coordination, who doesn’t like that kind of game style can still play. We just want to take the MMO combat and make it much more fast-paced, and make it feel much more action-packed.
And it’s really simple decisions, like fighting more than one guy, having a lot more animations in combat, having things like combat music being a big part of it.
There’s all these subtle things that as you layer on to combat it becomes what you saw in the demo in there.
It’s not revolutionary, it’s just a whole bunch of evolutions that have brought us to that point.
The MMO Gamer: The danger there, and why most games go either full FPS or “Press 1 for Fireball,” is you run the risk of trying to take the middle ground and in the end appealing to no one.
How do you address that?
James Ohlen: We test. We are very much about testing our stuff.
We bring in cohorts of people, MMO fans, we sit them down and we have them play our classes for like the first eight levels.
Then they fill out forms, they give us feedback, we videotape them, then we take a look at it.
So far, MMO fans, they sit down, they get into the game the easiest because the controls have the typical WASD drive scheme, and you have an action bar at the bottom where you can switch your abilities in an out, and use them with the num pad or click on them with your mouse.
It’s something that any MMO fan is instantly going to be able to pick up and be able to use.
We also have, most of our combat team consists of people who are very familiar with the MMO genre. So it’s not like, I don’t think we’re going to have any problem getting MMO fans to like our combat system.
Daniel Erickson: Very rarely have I ever heard anyone who was into MMOs say, “You know what I really like about the combat? The fact that it feels slow.”
James Ohlen: I can understand some of the concerns. It’s been very difficult, and it’s taken a lot of effort to get our combat system right.
It’s a very complex system. You’ll notice when you get into a battle, there’ll be classes with lightsabers deflecting, and we have to have all sorts of animation blending, and state managers, and all sorts of tech that allows the characters to do what they do when they’re in combat.
It’s much easier to just say “I’m going to play this animation when I attack something,” but we didn’t want to go down that way.
[said in a joking tone of voice] So we just got boatloads of money and we did something else! [laughing]
At this point we were asked to wrap things up.
The MMO Gamer: I like to end my interviews on a more philosophical note, as opposed to “What is your game, when is it coming out, and how many exclusives are you going to give me?”
So, why do the both of you make games? Why did you get into the industry, why do you get up every morning, go to work, and do what it is you do?
James Ohlen: Well, since I was ten years old I’ve basically played role-playing games. Pen-and-paper role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons, I played it, and played it, and played it. It was my life.
It was basically my dream to create role-playing games for the rest of my life, and luckily, I was able to get in at BioWare on the ground floor, and now I get to live that dream, building worlds.
Daniel Erickson: James was the lead designer on Baldur’s Gate 1. He’s been around a long, long time.
James Ohlen: Role-playing games have always been my life, essentially. I’m a giant RPG nerd, and I love the idea, what gets me off is, helping to create worlds and stories that people love to play through.
Daniel Erickson: I’ll take a little bit different tack on that, and I’ll answer “Why did I come to BioWare?”
I was actually working for a different company, and I was playing Knights of the Old Republic.
I decided to go down the evil path, to see what it looked like, and I did something-and fans of the game will understand-I did something with Mission that made me feel real empathy, and regret.
Which was a completely different emotion than had ever been imparted on me from a game. I pushed myself away from my monitor and I was like, “Whoa! I can’t believe I just did that!”
And then, there was this glee, as I was like, “I can’t believe I just felt that about a game!” I realized at that point that we were at the cusp of real emotional storytelling in games, and I had to be there.
The MMO Gamer: Alright, well thank you both very much for joining us, we appreciate it, and we hope we can do it again some time.
James Ohlen: Great, thank you.
Daniel Erickson: Thank you, sir.
Stay tuned to The MMO Gamer for additional coverage of Star Wars: The Old Republic in the days and weeks ahead.
In the meanwhile, you can visit the game’s official site at http://www.swtor.com for additional information and pre-release discussion boards.