Star Wars: The Old Republic Comic-Con Interview - Exploring the Expanded Universe

There are few events in the world that are as perfect for Star Wars fans as the San Diego Comic-Con, and that fact was readily apparent by the vast number of Jedi, stormtroopers, and Sith...
There are few events in the world that are as perfect for Star Wars fans as the San Diego Comic-Con, and that fact was readily apparent by the vast number of Jedi, stormtroopers, and Sith walking the show floor on a daily basis. The folks at Lucasarts and BioWare did not miss this fact during their summer convention planning, and Star Wars: The Old Republic had a strong presence at the show. With the latest cinematic trailer running full bore above their heads, Ten Ton Hammer's Cody Bye had a pleasant chat with developers Jake Neri, Hall Hood, Dallas Dickinson, Alexander Freed, and Jeff Dobson about multiple aspects of SW:TOR, including fan expectations, combat content, and exploring the expanded universe.


Ten Ton Hammer: Obviously the response you're getting here at Comic-Con has been tremendous. Do you think that the expectations or SW:TOR continue to grow with every conference and convention that you attend?

Dallas Dickinson: *laughs* It makes me feel strange, but wonderful.

Jake Neri: I think we're all flattered, inspired and humbled by the fans. I think there's pressure there, but it's positive pressure. We have high expectations for ourselves as well, and I think we're meeting and exceeding our personal goals.

Dallas: The fans are definitely behind us. That inspires us to keep working hard at making this game amazing.

Alexander Freed: No on wants to disappoint an enthusiastic fanbase and it's very gratifying to get that sort of reaction.

Ten Ton Hammer: I was talking with a gamer that hadn't actually heard of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and when I mentioned that the game was going to be fully voiced and would focus heavily on story, he thought it would never work simply because gamers - especially in MMOs - constantly skip past story to get to the action. How do you fight that sort of cynicism?

Dallas: There's something different with the story you get in BioWare RPGs. There's voice over on all the NPCs and all the characters. It creates an immersion that simply isn't there in other games. That's one of the things we learned with Mass Effect - and I think was one of the reasons why the game was so popular when it was released.

To some degree, I welcome the cynicism because people are going to play the game and completely change their minds when it comes to story.

Ten Ton Hammer: You often talk about how story really bolsters the gameplay experience; do you think its ever limiting in anyway? Do you think the game could be more popular if you took a more WoW type of story route?

Jake: I think there's a misconception out there that believes that all you do is sit around and watch story the entire game long. I think if you carved out the percentage of passive story versus activities that you engage in while you play, there would be a vast majority going towards the activity side of the ratio.

We [Lucasarts] understand that the guys at BioWare have been making RPGss for a long time. One of the things that I think everyone is trying to sell in MMOs is the idea of story. We believe in story, and we believe in the fans that like story. But if you don't like story, you're going to be able to play the game at your own pace the way you'd like to play.

The game is a story-driven game, but people should give it a shot. The cynics should come in and try it, and the people that love story will definitely have a ball with our game.

Dallas: It's our job to make sure that you don't want to skip the story. That's what we're trying to achieve, y'know?

Alexander: I also want to take a shot at the content versus story suggestion. You look at a game - to pick a random example - like Bioshock. How much of that game is story and how much of it is context? If you remove all of the audio logs and all of the overhead stuff, you don't get a smaller game if you remove that. You would just have a game with much less context to work with.

People look at Bioshock and they react to it emotionally. The context is there so that everything you see and do in the game is meaningful on a different level than just "Can I shoot this bad guy?"

Ten Ton Hammer: It's interesting that you mention the percentage of story in the game... is that an indication to the fans of just how much content you're putting into the game?

Dallas: If you think about BioWare games in the past, they relied heavily on the actual action. That's why you play these games.

If you want to have *just* a story, go and watch a movie. If you want a story that you are a part of and emotionally involved in - where you get to drive the action forward and engage in activities that alter the outcome of the story -  that's the thing it should feel like. That's what we're driving towards.

We're simultaneously building a fantastic amount of content based on a story, but we're also building an MMO that is an RPG with really exciting content...

Jake: The four pillars.

Dallas: Exactly.

Jake: If we under deliver on any - combat, exploration, progression, and story - we're not creating the game we want to create.

Alexander: They all need to link together. When you're looking at the percentage numbers of story vs. content, that would be actual dialogue versus combat encounters. Ideally, ninety-five percent of the game has story and there's obviously a reason why you're doing something in the game.

We know that it's an MMO and you're chatting with your friends - and that won't necessarily be a part of the story - but you're asking them if you want to get together and go do this particular quest or activity together. Technically not story content, but all of your in-game activities should be tied into the story in some form or another.

Ten Ton Hammer: The one part of MMOs right now that I feel has pulled away from the story is the "meta-gaming" aspect of things. You finagle with stats and you finagle with gear, and that really pulls me out of the game. Is there some way that you're building the idea of stat / gear progression into the story?

Dallas: The one thing that we've talked about specifically - and what we can talk about at this point - is the idea of Light Side and Dark Side system. You're making decisions within a story and you're making decisions that are actually driving your character one way or another.

You have enough information to know that you're about to go tell someone to jump off a bridge - and that is a negative thing to do - and that will actually filter into your character. That's something that appeared in Knights of the Old Republic, and we want to make sure if you go very Dark Side within your story - and there's latitude within each story to go one way or the other - you'll have abilities that are available to you because you went really Dark Side or really Light Side.

All of these decisions are actually going to filter into not just your basic story, but your relationships with NPCs including your companion character and your character progression. It's going to change your entire experience with the class compared to someone else's experience with the class.

We both might be playing the smuggler, but we're very different characters based off our choices.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will that even filter into things like gear?

Dallas: I don't think there's a ton of detail on gear...

Jake: What we're trying to do with our progression is intertwine it with the story. Dallas alluded to it, and I think to pull that off will be extremely cool.

Ten Ton Hammer: Most MMO games don't seem to have a lot of "stickiness" right now except for the 800 pound gorilla standing in the corner known as World of Warcraft. The Star Wars IP will obviously help you a lot, but what areas are you really focusing and keying on that will make your game stickier than past releases?

Dallas: Again, I think it goes back to story. Obviously, that would be the simple answer. To lengthen that, we're just making sure that all of our MMO systems are the best versions of those systems that we can create. That said, the differentiator is the story.

We want players to understand that you're going to be getting a totally different experience if you play the smuggler all the way to the end, and then pick up the bounty hunter to play the next day. This isn't the type of experience where you just want to have the skills that you'll receive with a different maxed out character, but in order to do that you have to play through content that is going to be exactly the same.

That's not our game.

Our game is players saying, "I want to see what the bounty hunter is like!" And the story is compelling and I get to make cool choices throughout the experience. At the end, I'll have a character that is at the end game, but I may want to try *another* class on top of the first two simply because the story will be completely different.

I've played MMOs, and I usually dabble with a variety of classes until I find one or two that I level up and progress them as far as I can. I think our game is going to work differently, while it's certainly not proven, that's the experience that I've had so far.

The story these guys are writing are very cool and very unique. I can imagine myself playing three or four to the end game, There's really that much to the game, and that's where our stickiness will come from.

Hall Hood: It's a form of exploration in our game. As well as exploring the world, you're exploring a story...you're exploring new characters... finding new NPCs that you wouldn't meet otherwise.

Jake: Just to take it away from the story a little bit, if you want to talk about sheer playability...there are exciting new combat mechanics being put in the game. We're not talking in detail about any of this stuff, but rest assured that the action we're showing - which you might be able to pull out of some of the videos - we're trying to do that from beginning to end.

I mean, we haven't even shown anything to the public yet past level eight. We have really, really exciting character classes that each feel totally awesome. If you're a guy that just wants to power through a bunch of those and just have a really compelling combat experience at the top of the game, that's an option for you. We're already proving that to ourselves, and if folks just want to fight - and that's the pillar that they love - they're going to be very satisfied.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you talk about the UI at all? You showed it in the last movie...what were the little yellow segments on the lower left of the screen?

Dallas: We can't go into detail about the UI much...the combat UI we might be able to talk about specifics of sooner rather than later, but we're going to be able to playing with that for a long time.

MMOs are very complex, and I just can't guarantee that what I tell you is going to be 100% in at launch. So we can't talk about it.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you discuss any of the scenes we saw in the movie regarding the kind of "choreographed combat" that you've talked about in earlier interviews? Maybe talk about how that might be influenced by the abilities / skills / powers that a player uses in the game?

Dallas: I don't think we're talking details about that yet, just because so much of that is also involved in the specifics of combat.

We really just wanted to emulate the cinematic, action-packed Star Wars combat. The decisions that Jeff [Dobson]'s combat team makes are based on those tenants - that it needs to be full of action and visceral. It needs to feel like it has an influence on the game, and it needs to be reactive in that the enemies are reacting to what you're doing.

Jeff Dobson: The combat animation team is really, really involved in what they're doing with the characters, and they're trying to raise the bar with what players are used to in MMOs.

We didn't want it to be the "combat dance" of standing in front of someone and simply swinging your sword back-and-forth. It's not believable, it's not fun, and it's been merely accepted as this sort of standard MMO convention. We want to change that.

Ten Ton Hammer: How do you go about picking the planets that go into the game? There are dozens of planets to choose from....how do you pick the right ones?

Alexander: We get a map and use some darts.

Hall: We use a giant fish bowl and pull 'em out one at a time.

Dallas: I mean, some of them are ones that people recognize simply because of their importance, and others are those that you recognize from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and others maybe just have an oblique reference somewhere in the extended universe.

Alexander: A good example of that would probably be Tython, because it really hadn't been explored much at all and people weren't really that familiar with it.

Dallas: It's a mixed bag, but I think the main component we take into picking is whether it fits into the story or not.

Hall: The idea was to find places where you could meet interesting characters, fight exciting creatures, and do amazing things.

Alexander: And there are other times where we wanted a specific role to be filled. I mean, think about Hutta... what's a Star Wars game without the Hutts and the underworld?

Dallas: More of that went on when we continued our development on the game  - we asked ourselves, "What are we missing here?" Or maybe we wanted to go to a place that we always wanted to explore.

Ten Ton Hammer: As the final question, where do you draw the line in the Star Wars universe? Obviously you can't have fan service to everything in the expanded universe that's been explored...

Jeff: In our development, I think we've tapped everything that really needs to be in the game. It's everything really cool that we can do. I mean, there are certain things that he had to do - and we had a list of those - and then it's just taking out those elements that don't fit perfectly into what we're trying to do.

Jake: The bounty hunter was a *perfect* example of something that we must have in the game. I mean, would we make this game and not have a bounty hunter class?

Dallas: This is another place where our partners at Lucas really helped us. We did have some ideas that were maybe "off the ranch" and we had to present those to the folks at Lucas to see what they thought and get their ideas.

Alexander: There wasn't anything in the game that was implemented just because "it fits." The bounty hunter needed to go in simply because it was a major part of the universe and was vital to almost every element of Star Wars.

That said, there are areas of the expanded universe that we could take and run with if they fit every part of our game. But we're not going to look at pieces and just include them in the game simply because they exist.

Ten Ton Hammer: Thank you guys for taking your time to talk to the Ten Ton Hammer readers, and I'm sure we'll chat again soon!

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