Steve sits down for a conversation with BioWare Austin’s Blaine Christine, producer for Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Read on as the two discuss matters of heroism and villainy, time devoted to story versus combat, the misconceptions of it being a “Massively Single-Player Role-Playing Game”…
And, of course, why anyone would want to play something other than a Jedi in the Star Wars universe.
The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself, and tell us a little about what it is you do at BioWare.
Blaine Christine: Sure. My name is Blaine Christine, I’m a producer at BioWare Austin. My job is primarily interfacing with LucasArts on all aspects of the game.
The MMO Gamer: What does “interfacing” entail? I’m sure some of the more hardcore fans hear that and picture George Lucas sitting atop a tower, meddling with knobs and dials and playing you like The Sims.
Blaine Christine: [laughs] I wish it was that cut-and-dried. Typically it’s myself interfacing with the LucasArts producer, Jake Neri, on pretty much a daily basis for everything about the game.
It’s them essentially looking at the game at whatever state it happens to be in, looking at the artwork, anything that’s going into the game, or website, or any other aspect, and giving us feedback.
Essentially just collaborating with us on making the game great.
The MMO Gamer: So then, how does one go about making the game great?
Blaine Christine: [laughs] Well, I think for BioWare the formula is distilled down pretty well, at this point.
Our lead designer, James Ohlen, has been with BioWare for eleven plus years, he was the lead designer on Baldur’s Gate and many other games.
In terms of quality and what goes into making a true BioWare experience, I think he is the key reason we’re able to succeed, and head in the direction that we’re heading.
But really, as with any other game it’s about really great planning, great design, but it’s also about listening to feedback that comes all sources.
Whether that’s from LucasArts, from within our own company, or eventually when we get there hopefully opening it up to fans to play, and listening seriously to the fans and their feedback to help us make a great game.
In an MMO I think it’s key to get feedback from as many sources as possible. It’s such a big undertaking, it’s not quite as simple as some other games, where you can plop down a focus group and have them look at it for a short period of time.
Looking at that feedback is critical.
The MMO Gamer: Ever since TOR was first announced there’s always been a very big emphasis on heroism; you, the player, aren’t just some regular schlub who wandered in from off the street, you’re a hero! Everything you do is heroic!
But if you’re an “evil” character, say, playing a Bounty Hunter or a Sith, wouldn’t you be a villain, not a hero?
Blaine Christine: [laughs] I certainly can’t deny that.
I guess what we mean by hero is not necessarily in the good guy sense, but hero in the you feel like you’re taking on a ton of enemies at once, your storyline is impactful and meaningful… you don’t feel like you’re being sent on quests to collect ten boxes for some random vendor.
The MMO Gamer: So you can play as an antagonist, the story for the “evil” classes doesn’t just swap names and places around from the stories of “the good guys”?
Blaine Christine: I would say yes, very much. The storyline for the Sith Warrior, if you want to play a bad guy, he is a bad guy.
Your storyline as it goes through, he’s not a nice, friendly dude. You see that in the gameplay footage we’ve released, where you get the choice to save or kill the captain.
These are heavy choices, and if you strike him down, you get dark side points that are going to influence how your character develops, influence how the rest of the story goes. You kill somebody, they’re not there later.
The MMO Gamer: That morality system, the dark side and light side points, seems to be carried over directly from Knights of the Old Republic. But in the MMO, what is that actually going to do?
I would assume that with the breadth of content you’re dealing with the story can’t change all that much, even if you’re all the way light side playing as a Sith Warrior… you’d still have to be out there doing bad things and killing people by nature of its being an “evil” class.
Blaine Christine: The best answer to that is it’s going to be similar to the other games we’ve done. If you look at KOTOR and how that worked out, if you played light side versus dark side, there were distinct different in the story, and distinct differences in how your character developed.
It’s going to be very similar to that.
The MMO Gamer: But in KOTOR, it was the exact same story regardless of what you were playing. A Jedi Consular had the same story as a Jedi Guardian. Here you’re dealing with a lot more variables.
Blaine Christine: That was sort of the thing where yeah, all of the classes were bound by that one story, which is not the case here.
Each of our classes has a distinct story, but within each of those stories, if you go light side or dark side, there would be differences similar to what you saw in KOTOR.
The MMO Gamer: So you could play a fully light side Sith Warrior or a dark side Jedi?
Blaine Christine: Absolutely.
The MMO Gamer: Interesting twist. Being a Sith and going around saving kittens?
Blaine Christine: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
The MMO Gamer: From the beginning, BioWare has always pitched story as the centerpiece of the game. But you’ve also said that this is going to be a true, “traditional” MMO—and in a traditional MMO you spend about 99.95% of your time engaged in killing things.
So, is story really the centerpiece of the game, or is it combat?
Blaine Christine: That’s a great question, and another important point: Essentially, if we break it down, and this is really rough in terms of percentage…
We’ve talked a lot about story as we’ve delivered demos over the course of the summer, but a very important message is in terms of time spent, you’ll spend more time in story in our game because we have the fully voiced system, and we have the conversation trees instead of just getting a quest from a quest-giver that is text on screen…
But in terms of how you play the game, it’s going to be a relatively small amount of time that you’re going to spend in these conversations. Let’s say roughly 10-20%. Whereas the rest of the time, we’re assuming, you’re going to be running around.
There is exploration, there is combat, it is a wide-open world. Going to have crafting and harvesting, going to have guilds and social activities…
We certainly expect you’re going to spend a lot of time doing that. We don’t want to mislead people into thinking, there’s been speculation out there, “It just looks like a single-player game!”
We’re trying to really get the message out, all of the other stuff is there, it’s just a little harder to demo that. Of course we want to demo the coolest stuff, and things that we feel is new into an MMO, but all of the other stuff is definitely going to be there.
The MMO Gamer: To follow up a bit on some of that speculation you just mentioned…
Word association: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “Massively Single-Player Online Role-Playing Game?”
Blaine Christine: To me, right now, it’s something that I want to try to avoid. I don’t know if people perceive that as a positive or a negative, but I want to make sure that people know this is a true MMO.
Yes, there are elements… but it’s up to you as a player, right?
You’ve seen where we show conversations with multiple group members taking part, so even when you’re in story mode you can do that within your party. To me that’s still the MMO experience, and that’s what people don’t understand yet, because people haven’t seen it in context.
The MMO Gamer: So then, can you put it in context? What’s the experience going to be for the average player, the breakdown between time spent doing essentially solo activities versus group based ones?
Blaine Christine: That’s entirely up to you. We want to cater to different play styles.
Our intent is to make the game entirely solo-able. If you want to go through and solo, if you’re that type of player, you can play it as essentially a single-player experience.
Of course, you’re going to have other people running around you when you’re in the areas like Hutta, just like you would in any other MMO.
But if you choose to pursue the story on your own, you can do that.
Similarly, if you’re a social gamer, and your core gameplay is you want to get into the game, play with your guild, group up with a bunch of people, and either just do combat or do quests together, we’re going to have a lot of opportunities for group quests so that you can do that.
I got a question the other day, “Hey, if I’m really into more the crafting, harvesting, auction house type of gameplay, are you going to support that?” Absolutely.
If you want to spend a lot of time in the game being great at crafting—we haven’t talked about the specifics yet, but we’re going to have an entire system like you would expect—you’ll be able to play the game of crafting, harvesting, selling things on the auction house, do that type of gameplay, as well.
The MMO Gamer: I think we’re just about out of time. I know there are a lot of things that you aren’t able to discuss yet, but before we go is there anything that you, personally would like to talk about?
Blaine Christine: We get a lot of questions about, “How are you going to make sure that players don’t just want to play as Force users or lightsaber wielders?”
To speak on that a little bit, we’ve shown gameplay with the Smuggler, shown gameplay with the Bounty Hunter, so I just want to get the message out there that we’re doing everything to make sure that each of our classes is really fun to play.
My personal favorite now, when I play through the game is actually the Smuggler. The Smuggler has that cover dynamic, and that one element, that one tweak that is different about that particular class, makes him especially fun to play.
And then in terms of tools, if you watch our demos closely a lot of people say things like, “Well how are they going to deal with a Jedi?”
What we’ve talked about here is that idea which we’ve talked about before of true heroic combat, and that you’re a hero in the Star Wars universe.
When you think of a Bounty Hunter, when you think about Jango Fett taking on Obi Wan, if you’re the cream of the crop elite Bounty Hunter, if you have the right tools… you may just have a shot.
That’s a pretty prolonged battle, he’s able to use the whip cord, able to use the flamethrower, and different things to keep the Jedi off balance.
Similarly with the Smuggler, he has many tools at his disposal. He has cover, he’s got flash-bang grenades, so maybe it’s not an inherent ability like the Force, but he has other things he can use to incapacitate say, a Sith Warrior if we’re talking about a PvP situation. He’s going to be able to deal with that situation.
Again, because he’s not just an everyday ordinary smuggler, he’s an elite smuggler.
And then Trooper, another class we’ve talked about, same sort of thing. He’s not just your every day, average Clone Trooper, this is the cream of the crop. He’s part of an elite military force that we call Havoc Squad, so he’s the best of the best.
If you think of the absolute best Trooper in the Star Wars galaxy, would he have the tools and the abilities to take on a Jedi? We think he would.
The MMO Gamer: I like to round my interviews out 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 you make games? Why do you wake up every morning, go to work, and do what it is you do?
Blaine Christine: Good question. For me, I grew up playing games. I don’t know if I was the first generation of that or not, but back to the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64.
Even before that, I remember playing games on a Vic-20 with a tape drive that a friend had when I was in the third grade or something. It’s just always been a part of my life.
When I got into college and I was like, “Hey, what are my options?” I initially went into computer science and engineering. I stopped, because I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t like programming games, I actually enjoyed playing games.
I got a degree in acting—actually, two degrees in acting—and I didn’t know what to do with that. I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and I found out that there were many gaming companies around.
Sort of my happenstance I was like, “Oh, who’s here?”
Ended up getting a QA job, just a temp tester, and working my way over the course of about four and a half years to a producer position, and finished being the producer for X-Men Legends, the first Legends game at Activision.
For me it really was a life-long pursuit. I always knew I wanted to work on games, just my path of getting there was a little bit odd. But I eventually made it there and it’s a dream for me, I love it, I love it every day.
For me to work at BioWare, been here a little over two years now, it’s really a dream. Ray and Greg are fantastic, they have a great company. I think the message of our company, the quality of our games is fantastic. And I’m also a huge Star Wars fan, so it’s the perfect convergence for me.
The MMO Gamer: Alright, thank you very much for joining us, we appreciate it, and we hope we can do it again some time.
Blaine Christine: Awesome, thank you.
Stay tuned to The MMO Gamer for additional information on Star Wars: The Old Republic in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, beta sign ups are currently underway, and if this interview has whet your appetite you can head over to the game’s official website at: http://www.swtor.com