Make no mistake about it, Star Wars: The Old Republic, the new massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) from acclaimed developer BioWare is nothing like Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts’ Star Wars Galaxies of the same genre, which, after more than eight years, officially shut down this past December. And for fans of everything Star Wars as well as MMO gamers, that’s a good thing.
Electronics Arts-owned BioWare has redefined the role-playing game (RPG) genre with each new title it rolls out. Starting in the early days working with the Dungeons & Dragons license, the game studio obliterated the need for pen and paper by immersing players in that fantasy universe with Baldur’s Gate. In fact, BioWare has a strong history with LucasArts and with Star Wars, having worked with George Lucas’ games division on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in the console space several years later. While the developer has expanded more recently into original IPs, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the game maker has showed that it understands licensed material. And there’s no bigger license out there than a certain galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: The Old Republic takes place thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader and 300 hundreds years after Knights of the Old Republic. The Republic and Empire have signed a tenuous truce, but they’re at each other’s throats. It’s within this volatile setting that BioWare allows players to take center stage and become a hero. Because this is a BioWare title, the MMO game has been designed to tell emotional stories involving evolving characters.
Star Wars: Old Republic pushing MMO game graphics to a new umiverse—and one that is familiar to players.
To bring these ambitious goals to life, BioWare turned to new technology. One of the impressive developments actually enables all the characters, even the player character, to speak, making The Old Republic the first fully voiced MMO title ever created. The game features several hundred thousand lines of dialog and several thousand unique characters with which players will interact. Technology Drives The Force
According to Emmanuel Lusinchi, associate lead designer, there are two pieces of technology that really helps Star Wars: The Old Republic come to life. The first is the studio’s complete voice-over dialog system. “Fortunately, we’ve had plenty of experience with voice-over at BioWare, with games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, so we were able to rely on well-established processes and technologies [such as lip synching],” he says. More important, the group was able to realistically assess how much work this was going to entail—and how much money it was going to cost—before committing to this approach.
“It is truly a monumental task dealing with a quantity of assets rarely seen in game development and with a very rigid production pipeline. You need to schedule around real actors, some of them in foreign countries,” Lusinchi points out. “However—and here’s the important part—this tech, even though it is not particularly new or particularly complex to code, really brings a sense of immersion to the game. Well, to a certain extent anyway, because what we’ve found, and what all players know, is that an uninteresting dialog is still uninteresting with full voice-over. So that’s a place where the technology is an enabler, but the creative part is still what really matters in the end.”
The second technology that drives the new game is more subtle, according to Lusinchi, and that’s the phasing system. Star Wars: The Old Republic is both defined by its story and, since this is an MMO, by its multiplayer interactions. Unfortunately, story and multiplayer do not always play nice with each other, and it’s sometimes a struggle to balance one with the other.
The scale of The Old Republic universe, with its thousands of characters, required BioWare to balance
aesthetics with gameplay.
“The example we used while developing the game was the confrontation between Luke and the emperor in Return of the Jedi,” explains Lusinchi. “That particular experience would have been somewhat spoiled if the player was in a room full of other players, either queuing up and waiting for the emperor to respond, or each confronting his own emperor in view of all other players. A traditional way to handle this type of situation is through instancing, whereby a new version of an area is created for each group that enters it. While instancing does a fine job of isolating the player and his or her group mate from the rest of the MMO population, it does too good of a job and makes it easy for the players, in an instance, to feel entirely disconnected from the rest of the MMO world.”
BioWare instead developed “phases,” which are simply instances that do not require a loading screen, so the player barely notices that he or she is entering or leaving one. This allows the developer to keep players connected to the general population, while also allowing them to enjoy their own story moment without exterior interference. From the players’ perspective, they just happen to enter a room that seems quieter than the rest of the world. This is a case whereby technology allows the developer to bring the player’s story to life, even in a crowded multiplayer environment.
Building an MMO Galaxy
With its background in the PC and console gaming space, whereby a game is developed, followed by supplemental downloadable content and then sequels, adjusting to the MMO game space was quite a challenge for the studio. In fact, BioWare’s Austin, Texas, facility had to rethink game design to accommodate an always-evolving game story line and persistent world.
“The sheer scale of Star Wars: The Old Republic is what impacted the creative process the most,” says Lusinchi. “In previous BioWare titles, a designer would do many tasks. In The Old Republic, because of the amount of content that had to be created, we had to introduce a much more focused and specialized workforce. So now we have designers who specialize in specific areas—PvP (player vs. player), for example.”
There’s no question that developing this game has been a learning process for the studio. Lusinchi says that his team dealt with the kind of technical challenges that every MMO developer must face, such as the limitations of the client/server architecture. He hopes that one day network latency will no longer be an issue; but until that time, BioWare still has to design aspects of the game that will be especially resilient to lag. Furthermore, to be sure that the game is playable for the widest audience, the BioWare team had to develop for the lowest possible PC specification. Nevertheless, all things being equal, Lusinchi believes an MMO that can run on more machines will be more successful than one that can run only on a few nuclear-powered top-end computers.
“One of the greatest thing we got from the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic console game was the setting,” explains Lusinchi. “It’s great to know that, yes, we can in fact create a game thousands of years before the events of the movies, and yes, it is okay to make everything, from clothing to ship design, oddly evocative of the stuff from the movies.”
Of course, there are quite a lot of design ideas the artists are evolving from Knights of the Old Republic, such as the light-side and dark-side progression, as well as from other BioWare games, like Mass Effect’s conversation wheel.
At a high level, console games and MMOs have different processes, and there is a great contrast in workflow. So having the background in building critically acclaimed and commercially successful original and licensed RPGs was a good launching point.
“With this MMO game, our technology groups tend to be more isolated and focused on their area of expertise,” says Lusinchi. “This allows them to perfect the systems they are working on, so they can test and then implement them into the game once they are ready. Meanwhile, we tend to keep all the creative types together. There’s a lot of collaboration and constant communication that’s needed to ensure quality and continuity. They’re completely opposite approaches, but it works.”
To create each of the game’s 19 planets, such as Tatooine, in The Old Republic, the process starts with finding the answers to important questions like: Why does the team want to add it to the game in the first place? What do they want to express with this planet? How will it be different from the previous ones? What will it bring to the players? What’s the story? Once this is roughly established, the team leads come together and go into their different groups to work on the specifics and their specialties. The so-called secret sauce, maintains Lusinchi, is in how that all comes together and becomes something as great as some of the iconic Star Wars planets, like Hoth, have turned out.
“To create a character class, it is important to distinguish the role-playing aspect of the class—its story, essentially—and the gameplay role it fulfills,” explains Lusinchi. “Each one of our classes in Star Wars: The Old Republic has an intricate and extensive story, so this is not something we can create on a whim. We tried to imagine what class would please the players the most, and at the same time, have the most interesting stories. Once we pick the classes, we think about how they’ll play in the game and how we can integrate their story and their progression from the Origin Worlds all the way to our end game. After all that is done, we play, we play again, and then we play some more.”
The environments in the MMO are rich and varied and extend to 19 different planets.
Since The Old Republic allows players to pilot a wide variety of spaceships through the galaxy, bringing those vehicles to life was an integral part of the gameplay. The process to bring these spaceships to life, which was mostly a visual endeavor, rests in the hands of the artists. They started with concepts of the exteriors and interiors for each class and then build 3D models of each craft. However, because there are a lot of Star Wars and science-fiction fans in the office, including Lusinchi, the artists had to deal with plethora of opinions, tips, and suggestions from everyone on the team.
Star Wars Forever
BioWare has worked closely with George Lucas’ teams to bring relevant aspects from the Star Wars film universe to the game, including the iconic music. And, not surprising, LucasArts had to approve everything that went into the game—from the graphics to the sound. No question, maintains Lusinchi, the game developer’s existing relationship with LucasArts on past games results in a smooth workflow in so far as approvals were concerned.
“Fortunately, we have a good relationship with them, and BioWare has experience in setting a good workflow with IP holders, so the entire review process is more or less transparent to most people working on Star Wars: The Old Republic,” notes Lusinchi.
As technology improves, including the internal game engine BioWare employs, new challenges are bound to occur, and they have.
“As we got closer to shipping the game, our engineers were trying to squeeze more and more performances out of the game engine, and as they were doing so, they were coming up with a clearer understanding of exactly what the creative folks could get away with,” explains Lusinchi. “So, during that phase, we got new rules on just how many creatures, or visual effects, or, well, anything really, we could have in any given area. The key was to be ready to be adaptable.”
For fans who have been waiting years for BioWare to make Knights of the Old Republic III, this MMO game will deliver that experience, as well as parts IV, V, VI, VII, and more. The always expanding game world should keep players busy for years to come.
John Gaudiosi is an East Coast writer who has been covering video games for nearly 20 years.