Interview – Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Daniel Erickson (part one)

Saturday, 19 June 2010 20:20 GMT By Nathan Grayson


Star Wars: The Old Republic is perhaps one of the most massive videogame projects ever undertaken. When BioWare said the MMO set an even longer time ago in a galaxy far away was KOTORs 3-8, it wasn’t kidding. Every character class skywalks its own completely unique path through the game – each with a narrative arc larger than that of any single game BioWare’s ever created. Yeah. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

So it’s only fitting that our chat with writing director Daniel Erickson quickly morphed from a tiny R2 unit into a Rancor-sized behemoth of a conversation. Check out part one for Erickson’s thoughts on beating World of Warcraft, why this year’s CG trailer was a better choice than demonstrating gameplay, how BioWare’s managed to fit story’s square peg into an MMO’s circular hole, unfinished storylines from KOTOR 1 and 2, and tons more.

[Interview by Nathan Grayson]

VG247: So, for the second year in a row, you decided to show a CG trailer during E3. And it was totally rad and basically amazing. But why not show us some gameplay or combat after all this time? Is the game really still that early in development?

Daniel Erickson: No, not at all. The interesting thing about the show is that – assuming you got to go in and see it [behind closed doors] – we’ve got the whole thing running. We didn’t have to bring a demo this year. It’s just the MMO up live and playable. People get a half hour to 45 minutes and they can sit down and do whatever they want.

The problem with the way the show’s sort of developed is that anything you put down on the floor, people play with, people mess with. You get people video recording it and trying to get places that, you know, can’t be done. It’s really hard to monitor and really hard to control. So, unfortunately, because we’re not that close to coming out, we decided to put it behind closed doors. But now – because I know how many shirts we’ve run through – we’ve had at least 700 or 800 people play hands-on for a half hour to 45 minutes. Each how ever they wanted, whatever they wanted.

As for the trailers, one of the things that’s really complicated about doing an RPG is that RPGs do not show well in five minutes. It’s very akin to telling your buddy, “Hey, this is the best book I’ve ever read,” and them responding, “Great! Show me which sentence would prove that to me!” [laughs]. So that’s why we really pushed to have 30 or 45 minutes for people to play. Because you’ve gotta sit down and, you know, what I always think of great RPGs is “Give me two hours, and I’ve got you.” Give me five minutes and it doesn’t show the way, you know, a Call of Duty would – where you’re like “Wow! Look at how impressive that is!”

EA Games President Frank Gibeau and LucasArts online boss Tim Nichols both told us that The Old Republic has its sights set on WoW’s top-of-the-pops MMO throne. Is that a sentiment BioWare echoes?

I’m sure that we have never, ever said that. I know with our team, there’s never been an approach like that. You can’t build games like that.

I’m sure that somebody’s tried to, and tried to think about it, but all we’ve ever tried to do is say, “Hey, when we first got into MMOs, we thought they were going to be a certain thing. We thought they were going to be a giant role-playing game that we could play with our friends – that went on forever.” And that means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To us, it meant you would have all the loot and all the cool stuff, and you would go up levels, and have an awesome story – because that’s why we play role-playing games in the first place. And so we’re trying to do that.

If everybody who’s ever seen a PC would like to come and play our game, we would be very down with that. But you can’t actually try to design a game or develop a product based on a plausible share. Like, I assume nobody since WoW has said, “I don’t want WoW numbers. We aren’t interested” [laughs].

The Old Republic takes place about 300 years after KOTOR. Will the game explain what happened to Revan after KOTOR 1 concluded? And what about KOTOR 2, which you didn’t actually develop? Is that game even a part of the canon for you guys?

Absolutely. We get the KOTOR 2 question a lot. The thing with KOTOR 2 is that it was a very Jedi-specific plot. The Jedi were very much ravaged by it, and we talk about that in the timeline – trying to rebuild the Jedi. But it was not as large a galactic piece. So there are a lot of factions and things that aren’t actually affected by it. Also, we’d always worked in the fact that Revan and Malik were, in fact, involved with the Sith emperor himself, and it’s really why we touch back on KOTOR a lot.

There are going to be a great deal of questions answered from KOTOR 1 and KOTOR 2 in our game.

Very cool. Ever since I played those games, I’ve been like “What happened? I want to know! I liked that guy. He was me kind of!”

[laughs] That’s the interesting one. People saw the timeline that just came out, and for the first time, we sort of started to hint at what Revan looks like. And, obviously, a lot of people have the attachment [to their in-game characters]. Lucas had long ago decided that there is a canon concept of both Revan and of [KOTOR 2 main character] The Exile. And so that one’s hard for people who haven’t really been in the know as much, because there’s still people who are like “No! Revan was bad! And a girl! And The Exile was a guy!” But they are both light side in the canon. Revan is a guy. The Exile is a girl. That’s actually Lucas canon.

I didn’t actually know The Exile was a girl. Well, that makes my playthrough deeply confusing.

[laughs] So you’ve got the “Crying Game” twist.

So is there a chance that Revan and The Exile are still alive? It’s been a long time, sure, but they’re both Jedi masters. Don’t old Jedi masters just turn into shriveled green people – ala Yoda?

Definitely not giving out any spoilers, but we are gonna take care of all those questions.

Can you go into any detail on how your PVP is going to work? Will it be something you can toggle on and off? Based on the CG trailer, I’m guessing it’ll be between Republic and Sith. But can you tell us anything more about it?

The only thing we’ve talked about so far are the warzones. And the warzones are set up for doing group play. The first one’s on Alderaan, because Alderaan’s sort of our, like, really, really messed-up politically planet. Everybody’s kind of waging proxy wars on it. The Republic’s supporting a house trying to get the throne. The Empire is supporting a different house trying to get the throne. And then off in these lands where nobody’s watching, the Republic and Empire are going straight at each other. So you get to get in involved in that. As far as overworld PVP and the rest of it, we haven’t actually talked about any of that yet.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that we have to make sure our ducks are in a row, and that we understand what’s fun in our game. You don’t want to make a PVP plan, you don’t want to make an endgame plan – any of it – until you know gameplay-wise what the strengths of your specific combat system are.

So I guess you can’t really say whether it’s going to be sort of like WoW – where most servers allow you to toggle your PVP status on and off? You know, to avoid getting ganked and whatnot?

Yeah. None of that has actually been worked through.

Ok, this is sort of a hypothetical thing. Except that it’s based on an entirely true story. Let’s say I’m a disenfranchised former MMO player who was desperately addicted to WoW for two years and then quit cold turkey when he went into college. Why should I…, er, I mean, that guy give The Old Republic a go?

The big one we’re trying to bring is content and story. If you’re somebody who enjoys single-player RPGs – if you’ve enjoyed our games in the past – you’ve gotten to see now, sitting down and playing it, that it really does bring all of that to the MMO space.

One of the interesting things and one of the reasons that we really wanted to get the game on the show floor is, right from the start when we announced the game, there were a few people who really understood – and in fact, almost put up our design doc of concepts and said, “No, no, no, BioWare doing an MMO would look like this.” But most people couldn’t see it. There were a huge amount of people who were like, “Oh no! You’ve got MMO in my KOTOR, and I don’t want that!” And then the MMO kids were like, “You got KOTOR in my MMO, and it’s not gonna work!” And it’s nice to see the people who come and play it go, “Oh! Oh! I get it!” It’s like, there it is. I’ve got full conversations. I’ve got context. I’ve got choice.

One of the really interesting things about doing the game this way is – because we were pushing for replayability, pushing for people to be able to have very separate experiences – we got to do something we’ve never been able to do before, which is fully individualized stories. So if we’re talking about a Baldur’s Gate or any role-playing game, you have to do a kind of general story. We don’t know if you’re a mage or if you’re a warrior. We just kind of have to make it work. Now, with the backstories, we have a smuggler-specific RPG. You can roll a smuggler, and he’s got a crazy story. And it’s funny, and he’s got ridiculous lines, and he’s always in over his head, and everything’s always going wrong, and you can flirt with everything that moves. And then you go and roll a bounty hunter, and it’s much more serious. He’s sort of a gunslinger, and he’s one man with a gun making his way in the world.

They’re like completely different RPGs that you would have never gotten to see. And the big one of course – that people are still trying to get their heads around – is that if you played that smuggler RPG, and you played that from the beginning all the way to the end, and then you decided “I want something new,” and you played the bounty hunter all the way to the end, you would not see one piece of repeated content.

Like, not even in terms of environments?

Oh, environments absolutely. But no quests, no quest-givers, no NPCs, and not one line of dialogue.

And it’s going to feel like a BioWare single-player RPG in terms of amount of time spent playing as well?

No, no. It’s massively massive.

For each character, though, I mean. Will each character class’ storyline unfold in about the same amount of time it would take to play one single-player BioWare RPG?

No. One playthrough is far, far, far bigger than anything we’ve ever done before.

Would you compare it to the MMO timesink, then? Am I going to need to spend as much time on a regular basis with The Old Republic as I would with another, more traditionally structured MMO?

Well, we’re hoping you’re going to play it until you die [laughs]. What we have done that’s a little different is stories aren’t just stuff that happens. A story needs an arc. And – something that sort of weirds people out when we first started talking about it – a story needs an ending.

So the game is actually separated into chapters. So we actually have pieces were you might play the smuggler, and play the first chapter of it, wrap things up, and figure “Oh hey, I kind of finished my first movie here.” Then you might decide you want to go play a different class and see chapter one of that class. Or maybe come back and play chapter two. But we really went out of our way to make sure there were some chunks that – if you’re more of an episodic player, but then maybe you want to put the game down for a week, and then come back – the game is actually structured so that you’ll know what’s going on. There are good spots to switch around.

So you don’t have to spend, like, 40 hours to get that satisfying experience? You can play for a little bit and sort of wrap up the story arc?

Absolutely. And we have the world arcs, which are actually very similar to the feel of Knights of the Old Republic when you were on a particular planet. Like, I know when I played KOTOR, I would play Korriban and then I might take a break for a couple of days. But when I was mid-planet, I was kind of “Errrr, I have this arc going on! I need to know what’s going on!” And we do that in a lot of different ways both micro and macro to give you digestible chunks.

Check back tomorrow for part two!