While fans anxiously await Star Wars: The Old Republic, the massively multiplayer online role playing game from BioWare, Comic-Con International: San Diego 2011 did provide some new information. [Check out the replay of our panel liveblog here.] The preorder was launched via EA's own Origin.com and several partner retailers, fully customizable companion characters (and the names and voice behind a few of them) were announced, and Player vs Player (PvP) mode was shown off to the public for the first time.
Shortly after the announcements, and the fastest selling preorder in EA's history, we spoke with Game Director James Ohlen about the new features, release dates, and how fan feedback affects development.
Newsarama: James, obviously the big news of the convention for you guys was the pre-order going live. Were you expecting any level of the response you got from the pre-order, with Origin.com and Amazon.com selling out in one morning?
James Ohlen: The truthful answer is, yeah. Yeah, we know we have a ton of hype. Right now, we have a ton of hype and that puts a lot of pressure on us, because we want to make sure we deliver on that with a game that's really high quality and is going to blow our fans away, and is also going to make the team proud.
That's also why we've not been giving specific release dates right now. We don't want to give a specific release date until we're absolutely certain that when we launch the game it'll be a smooth launch and a bug-free experience. It would be terrible if we released and the servers fell down or there was a bug that detracted from the overall experience. It'd be terrible for Star Wars fans, they'd be really sad, cause they're excited about it as shown by the pre-order numbers, and it'd be disappointing for team members. People like myself, I've been on this project for six years. I want it to live up to the expectations.
Nrama: Six years! Probably a lot of ups and downs in that time. Is there anything from early on in the process that you feel is still informing the decisions you're making in these late stages?
Ohlen: Oh yeah, the art design way back in 2006 is very similar to what we have now. The initial pitch was essentially: BioWare x MMO x Star Wars. So we wanted to mix in BioWare type storytelling into questing based massively multiplayer gaming model in the Star Wars Universe. That has stayed the same. A lot of our game mechanics that we designed early on are still in the game. In fact, one of our most innovative ones, the multiplayer dialog system. That was a prototype done in the NeverWinter Nights engine back in 2006. So it's been around for a long, long time!
But the thing about a massively multiplayer game is that there are so many features, so many things that it just takes years and years to implement them all. It's been surprising how many years it's taken.
Nrama: So aside from fan requests or fan feedback, why did you feel that companion characters needed to be customizable, as announced at the Comic-Con 2011 panel?
Ohlen: It's actually something we talked about way back when. When we started talking about companion characters, we were worried about a couple things. One of them was, each class will have their stable of companion characters, and those companions will have names, a personality, and a look. It would be a little immersion breaking when a Sith Warrior sees another Sith Warrior with his same companion character.
We've been doing a few things, as many as possible to not break a player's immersion. So when he or she are in the story, in the world, it feels like a living, breathing world and we don't suddenly take them out of it. So one of the other things we do is, when you see a player, you don't actually see the name of their companion character. If they're character's name is Joe, it's "Joe's Companion."
Nrama: Rather than seeing 30 "Mako"s running around.
Ohlen: Yeah! Then, we're obviously letting people dress them up, so they'd have different clothes on, but now with the full customization they'll look different. We'll have companions that look quite a bit different than others, so the immersion breaking will be a lot less. There'll still be a little of it, and some people will still be bothered by it, but we've been getting very positive feedback on companion characters, it's one of fans' favorite features of the game, so I think the positive far, far outweighs the slight immersion problems.
Nrama: Talking about 200 hours, playing one character, one class. With a story-driven game, is there any danger of losing the story through-lines in that length of time? I mean, that's 8-10 seasons worth of a TV series. Is there any way you can carry a through-line in that full story?
Ohlen: That's been one of the focal points for the writing staff. One of my instructions to the writing team, and this is experience I've had all the way since Baldur's Gate, one of the lessons I've learned is, you want to have fewer characters, because you want players to connect with the characters. Often when you have new writers come on, they want tons of characters and tons of things going on. But you're not writing a novel like George R.R. Martin where you have a huge cast of characters, you really have to keep the cast, especially for the mane through-line as small as possible. We have characters that come back and are playing with the character for almost his entire 200 hour experience. So he'll bond with those characters and really grow to like them or hate them.
I think the best way to do a through-line is great characters. In fact, that's true for the best storytelling. So that's been the focus, is giving players characters that they care about in their story so they are sharing the entire experience.
Nrama: We've talked a lot about progression, we've seen a lot of those videos. How do you space that out though, without also making it that people aren't going fast enough? It seems like a difficult thing to juggle, 50 levels across a couple hundred hours. You both want to see progression steadily, but you don't want people to reach level 50 in the middle of the second act, so how do you juggle that?
Ohlen: Well, we have a guy whose entire job it is to basically keep characters experience point curve so that, essentially, a player reaches level 50 when they reach the end of the content.
One of the things we focused on is we never want the game to feel like a grind. We've been pretty aggressive at getting rid of the grind when we see it, which has sometimes made the game shorter in places.
We had the game, at one point in testing, well beyond our targets, but there were a few points in the game that were way too boring, way too much of doing the same thing. So we went through and upped the speed at which a player leveled up in those bits. We don't want to artificially inflate the game's length by adding a ton of enemies the player has to kill with no story context.
That's what players are used to in massively multiplayer games; we're talking about how we want to reinvent the MMO with story, and it would be misleading if we suddenly had that grind.
Nrama: Obviously you can't reveal all the secrets yet, and you'll be releasing a steady stream of information until launch. Do you feel like you've held anything really big back, a 'best for last' sort of thing?
Ohlen: We have some pretty exciting announcements that will be coming. I don't think there's anything on the level of PvP, Warzones, space battles or anything like that. Well, there's one thing that might be at that level. Depends on what you like about the game, but it's pretty exciting. Obviously I can't go more into that, PR will kill me.
Nrama: Finally, what's the response been like to PvP that you've been showing off here in San Diego?
Ohlen: They've been having a ton of fun! Some of our fans are lining up and going through it more than just once. There are these twins who have so much energy, they just keep going in, kicking butt, going in again. People are really excited. I love sitting and watching the vocal guys, trying to coordinate the other players there. People are having fun with it, and people will have a lot of fun with it when we launch!Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!