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Interview - Star Wars: The Old Republic's Daniel Erickson (part two)


The Star Wars films have always had a nasty habit of making you wait years between sequels. What's up with that? Us though, we're not like mean old George Lucas. Waiting's not our style. Yesterday: part one. Today: part two.

Jump past the break to hear Star Wars: The Old Republic writing director Daniel Erickson's thoughts on MMORPG endgames, why you shouldn't just play as a Jedi, how TOR's MMO nature will mesh with its single-player heritage, the game's art style, commitment (or lack thereof) to a release date, and tons more.

[Interview by Nathan Grayson]

A lot of MMOs come out the gate with almost zero endgame content, and then they’re shocked when – three days later – they have a bunch of disgruntled level 60s saying, “Is this all? Where’s the rest of the game?” So are you guys going to have a lot of endgame content right off the bat? Is that something you’ve considered?

We haven’t actually talked about the endgame content at all. I mean, it’s obviously something that we think about. I don’t think that most companies think, “Hey, we’re not going to have any endgame content.”

The primary thing – and the reason we haven’t talked about it yet – is all of the stuff that’s in the works. Again, endgame – more than anything else – has to be based off what is fun in your game. If you’ve decided that your endgame is going to be entirely raiding, and it turns out that -- because of the way you structured your servers and the way your combat works -- raids suck in your game, you just shot yourself in the foot.

So we’re not going to come forward and talk about the endgame until we find out what fits the criteria of the Star Wars dream. Does it feel like cinematic combat? Does it fit all of these things? And then, how does it work with our engine and our particular system? That’s what we’re gonna lean into for our endgame content.

Are you afraid everyone’s gonna ignore your game’s other classes and go straight for Jedi? Because, you know, that’s the dream. Be a Jedi, wave the lightsaber around, make people say that they’re not looking for those droids, etc. What are you doing to incentivize players to try out other classes?

Really, the only thing you can do to incentivize them is to make the other classes awesome. And I think one of the things we’ve seen repeatedly is that people do actually pull to very different classes. People are starting to discover how cool the imperial agent is. He’s sort of our sleeper class. The one that’s really more about exploring our world than a classic scene from Star Wars. “Guy with sniper rifle” is a very different experience in an MMO. In the same time that your bounty hunter will kill a bunch of people, your imperial agent may kill the same amount of people.

But the imperial agent may do it with exactly one shot per person. Like, a lot of it is setup. You’re gonna get undercover. You may be stealthed. You’re gonna figure out what’s going on. Send out your little explosive piece that won’t blow up until there’s damage. And then one headshot, and it’s all over. And he never saw you.

It’s a totally different way of playing an MMO. The feel is really fun. So we’re hoping that with the trooper, the smuggler – and the smuggler, I have to tell you, I wanted to be Han, not Luke. I wanted a lightsaber, obviously. I wanted to swing it around. But Han was the man. Han got the girl. Han had the ship. So we think there’s a lot of different fantasies out there. At the same time, there’s a reason we split the Jedi and Sith classes. It’s because when we started talking about our Jedi and Sith fantasies, they didn’t match up. People would be like, “I wanna be a Jedi. I’m gonna use my lightsaber!” and then someone else would be like, “No, no, no! I’m gonna be all cool and Zen. I’m gonna be like ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for.’”

So we actually split those. You’ve got Mace Windu over here [gestures] and older Obi-Wan over here. And they’re very different. It’s the same thing with the Sith. The guy who wants to be Vader is very different from the guy who wants to be the cackling, crazy Emperor, or Palpatine, even – who wants to be the deceptive, smooth villain character.

And the nice part of it is that, at the end of the day, it’s The Old Republic [timeline]. There’s a ton of Sith and Jedi out there. So if people get excited and they really all want to be Sith and Jedi, it’s supported in there. And as they start to get more experience with it, they’re gonna see other things and say, “Hey, I wanna do that.”

Have you figured out what you’re gonna do in terms of your business model? I was chatting with some folks from Lord of the Rings Online earlier today, and they seemed to think the majority of MMOs would go free-to-play in the coming years. Are you thinking about following suit?

We actually haven’t talked at all about business models, and – this is probably gonna surprise people – but it’s not a decision the lead writer usually makes [laughs].

[laughs] Just figured I’d make sure. Ok, back to more game-related stuff. How are you making sure the single-player aspect meshes with game’s MMO side? What you’ve told me so far sounds really, really cool, but at the same time, I worry that I’m going to be completely taken out of the experience when one of my friends keeps messaging me about something stupid their mom said, or just something no lightsaber-carrying member of the Jedi order would ever be concerned with.

There are moms in Star Wars. That is canon. Totally established [laughs]. And stupid friends. That’s also a part of Star Wars canon.

That’s the part that people really haven’t seen much of yet. They’ve only gotten to see the origin worlds. The origin worlds are very story-focused, so a lot of the content – although your friends can come with you and play with you – is still really like “You’re Luke and you’re dealing with Yoda.” And yeah, you guys can team up together and you can go and help him out, but about half the content there is solidly single-player.

That proportion goes way down as the game goes forward. Again, it’s not single-player, per se. Your friend can go with you, but he can’t mess with [the story]. Later we get into the multiplayer stuff, and that’s what people haven’t gotten to see. The world arcs are huge. They are double-digit hours of quests – giant chains, all built for multiplayer, all built for your whole group to do this great story together. And that’s where you get the actual story of the war. That’s where you get the conflict between the Republic and the Empire. That’s where you’re trying to take over worlds. That’s where you’re changing history.

And it’s actually a real, honest-to-goodness storyline in both progression and pacing? It’s not just a thinly veiled series of “Kill 30 boars. Ok, now kill 60 boars” quest lines? You’ve done away with all the artificial length padding?

We set up our quests the same way we set up all BioWare games. First we write a story, and then we figure out who the players are and how much space it’s gonna take up. You know, it’s the same thing. The writers were the first people that ever came onto the project team, because we had to have all of this done before the world designers came in behind us. And then they have the entire story in front of them, and we’re building areas and things to bring this story to life.

So it’s a very, very different approach.

Do you have any plans for an open beta at some point – hopefully in the near future? After all, you said you’ve got the whole MMO here at E3, so surely you’re about ready to take it for a test drive, right?

I don’t know what the plans are for testing. I’m sure at some point we’ve got to open it up and let far more people play it than we can find even at EA. But, you know, the big one is we’re gonna do it when it seems like it makes sense for us and when we can learn things from it. At the point in time when we can still see what’s wrong with it [without need of outside help], then we’re not getting the best feedback. It’s not to find your obvious bugs or your obvious design flaws.

The game’s art style has been a point of contention for many fans. Especially after the hyper-realistic CG trailer you showed off at the EA conference this year, it just sort of seems like the art style you’ve chosen doesn’t quite fit the KOTOR universe’s darker tone. What made you decide to go with a cartoonier, stylized-realism look?

Well, the stylized realism had a couple of things going for it. And I have to say that the amount  of people who talk about not liking the art style who have played the game is a much smaller percentage.

We picked the art style, one, because it emoted really well. It was very easy to express emotions. It was very easy to see that, yes, we can communicate with these characters.

We also wanted something that was going to age well. If you try to go realistic – if you try to go sort of cutting-edge – you’re actually the thing that looks the worst in two years. There’s nothing funnier than the tech demo from a couple E3s ago.

And we wanted something that was going to run all the way up and down different computers. And, as our art director always says, it’s not acceptable that it runs and looks different on a lower end computer. It might punch a little more on a higher-end computer, but it still has to have the same basic look when you go down to a low level.

And if you’ve seen the game before, you’ll notice that it’s getting better all the time. We’re famous now for saying, you know, “We’re not going to show you anything until we know it’s done,” but we can’t do that with art. Because then we couldn’t show you anything. The last things that we ever finish up are characters, because we’ve gotta do so much work on them. For a long time, there was the one dude who, yes – everyone noticed – looked kind of like me. The bald dude with the big chin. And he didn’t have complexions to him. There was nothing happening under his skin. He kind of looked like a big plastic mannequin. But we had to show something, right? We couldn’t have just had a headless guy.

So it’s looking better all the time. Some of the comments that came in early have sort of disappeared over time. And some people will always pull towards the realistic, but personally, for me, I love to get out there and see who has some art direction -- who tried to do something actually surprised me. Of course, I really liked the Kirby yarn game.

Did you see the Rayman thing from Ubisoft?

Yes, yes! It’s incredible.

Ok, a couple more questions. First up, how big is your script? You’ve crammed multiple larger-than-life RPGs into this thing, so it must be absolutely massive, right?

The game itself, when you talk about total number of conversations, is bigger than every other game we’ve ever done put together. At one point, we realized that, just for voiceover content, we were larger than 50 Star Wars novels – which was kind of surprising [laughs]. That kind of stuff is exciting and scary all at once.

When we talk about things like, “You can play through one faction, and then play all the way through another faction, and it’s totally different,” that’s huge. Even if you’re in the same faction, you’ve got a whole class story that’s going to take you all the way through everything. Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff there.

Finally, can you commit to a 2011 launch?

That is where we’re committed. Spring 2011.

And there will be no delays?

It’s happening. There will… er, be no delays [laughs].

All right. Well, I’ll make sure to include that shifty eyed glance you just did in the interview text.


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