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Star Wars: The Old Republic developers tell all

Welcome to The Old Republic: a massively multiplayer BioWare RPG set in the Star Wars universe. That means space opera plot, tough choices, and in all probability a lot of arguing with your asshole friends. Rather than follow the MMO template of pop-up quest text with little more than an ‘Accept’ button by way of interaction, BioWare are giving you the kinds of major choices that have come to define their single-player games. The difference in The Old Republic is that you can take your friends with you and pause to chat about the big decisions before you make them.

But this is more than just a cinematic RPG with extra players. This is a game on a scale BioWare have never attempted before. They’ve previously made their stories feel epic by hinting that there’s more going on in the universe around you, but this is the game where there actually is.

“It’s just such a huge game,” says James Ohlen, creative director on the project. “It’s the biggest game I’ve ever worked on. I’m surprised at the enormity of it every other week... We’re creating more content than Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 1, Dragon Age, and Knights of the Old Republic put together, and throw in Baldur’s Gate too.”

It’s so big that even a year from release it already has more recorded dialogue than the Mass Effect games combined. By the time it’s done, it’ll have more than the sum of all of BioWare’s 17 other games – James calls it “one of the most ambitious voiceover projects in the history of the videogame industry, perhaps of the entertainment industry itself.” It’s not so much the talking that’s exciting, though the cast list does include returning favourites from other BioWare games. It’s what that says about the sheer amount of stuff that will be available to do. Imagine a Knights of the Old Republic that lasted for as long as you cared to play it. Unless they screw it up, this will be BioWare’s magnum opus.

Above: And you can be a Sith

Yet it’s hard to see how such voice-acted, scripted, personal quests could fit with a massively multiplayer game. It’s tempting to imagine The Old Republic might be one of these pseudo-MMOs: Champions Online, for example, relies heavily on instances, creating multiple copies of busy zones that rarely contain more than 30 people at once. The Old Republic doesn’t work that way. “Our public areas are part of one contiguous world,” Ohlen says. “Not just our cities – 90% of the game, actually, will be a public area where you can run into other players.” He says the number of players per server will be comparable to World of Warcraft’s, some of which are home to 30,000 players at once.

“We really want this to be a classic massively multiplayer game, and have that feel. We are using instancing to tell some of our more complex stories, but it’s definitely not going to feel like a heavily instanced game. The very personal missions that revolve around who you are and your class – they’ll take place in instances. But missions that are group-oriented, that you can do with your friends, those’ll take place in public areas.”

Above: Dual-bladed lightsabers and force lightning? DO WANT

Neither type of quest will be like anything we’re used to in MMOs. Even the best-made of those know their little boxes of quest text aren’t engaging: World of Warcraft spelt them out line by line to force players not to skip them. Last year Blizzard’s own Jeff Kaplan announced at GDC: “Basically – and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back – we need to stop writing a f---ing book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.”

The Old Republic’s talky scenes will not only be voiced, but custom animated and cinematically directed like the best of BioWare’s single-player work. Their last game, Mass Effect 2, set a new standard in this both for BioWare and the industry at large. So it’s good to hear that one of the key people in developing the cinematic system on Mass Effect, Brad Prince, has since moved to The Old Republic team.