A long, long time ago... eight years to be exact... BioWare released its RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and won the Game Developers Choice Award at GDC for "Best Game of 2004."
Flash forward to this week and BioWare Austin is launching its very first MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic, the game for which the Austin studio was created -- and the game that took "just" six years and a huge global team to build.
James Ohlen, creative director (and game director for SWTOR), and Daniel Erickson, writing director (and lead writer for SWTOR), both have high hopes that their newest release will garner the same praise that the classic title that inspired it generated.
Ohlen was lead designer on the earlier RPG, and he perceives the MMORPG "as a continuation of telling stories in that era. They share a lot in common, including the BioWare staples of cinematic storytelling and being able to make choices that impact how your story unfolds."
Even though it's a natural evolution for the pair, neither Ohlen nor Erickson had a clue as to what game they would be tasked to build when they came down to Austin in 2005. It wasn't until late 2006 that the team got started in earnest on the Star Wars IP.
"[BioWare co-founders] Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk believed it was time to get into the MMO space; they're always thinking about how BioWare can continue to be successful in the future," recalls Ohlen. "So they sent a few of us down to Austin to open a studio."
Austin was chosen, Zeschuk says, "because of its rich history as a great location to make online games. Any time you start a new studio, there's a challenge in getting the right mix of people, culture, and personalities. That's probably the biggest thing you need to get right and something we took a lot of care doing."
Looking back, adds Zeschuk, the best thing BioWare did in the starting of the Austin studio was "to bring some of the company's leaders from Edmonton down to Austin to work directly with Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton, who were already in Austin. This helped ease the transition and establish some of our values. Especially since James Ohlen -- who, with Rich and Gordon -- really formed the core leadership at the studio."
"I'd worked at BioWare since 1996 -- one year after the founding of the company in 1995 when there were just eight of us in a one-room studio above a coffee shop," says Ohlen. "I was going to be game director mainly because I had experience in building big games. I'd been lead designer on Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, as well as on Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, and I was, at that time, lead designer on Dragon Age."
He was intrigued, he said, by the idea of a persistent world where one could do BioWare-style storytelling. He'd played MMORPGs for years and "never felt that any of them had gotten the multiplayer aspect quite right, so this was going to be a challenge for me -- combining multiplayer and storytelling."
Daniel Erickson, who would become lead writer for the MMO -- as well as hiring and training the entire writing staff -- remembers meeting with the team in an Austin hotel and discussing how they would start the studio from scratch and then move on to the next task -- deciding what title to build.
"We knew we wanted to do a license from the very beginning, mainly because for original IP -- like Dragon Age -- we had to do a year's worth of work just putting on paper the history and the world-building and such. We knew we were going to tackle the biggest game that we were ever going to do, so we decided to make it that much easier by licensing an established IP. And, we decided, if we were going that route, the license we would buy had better be a great one."
Because Knights of the Old Republic had been BioWare's biggest fan favorite, the Star Wars license quickly rose to the top of the wishlist. But it took quite a while before all the contracts were signed. In the meantime, all the departments spent their time experimenting, hoping what they did would be applicable to the license they signed.
"I started bringing in the first writing hires, mainly because BioWare writers are very hard to find," says Erickson. "As soon as we had a few people on the writing team, we just started writing The Old Republic -- and crossing our fingers, hoping our efforts wouldn't be wasted."
As it turned out, they weren't.
In the months that followed, it became apparent that the size of the project was the biggest hurdle the team would encounter. SWTOR contains more content than in all the previous BioWare RPGs combined.
"There are more game systems in it than in any other BioWare RPG," says Ohlen, "with a lot of those systems having a lot more depth than in any other RPG I've ever worked on. The fact that this is a game with huge worlds that are each the size of a game by themselves -- that's been a huge challenge for us."
In Zeschuk's opinion, two of the biggest challenges were the sheer scale of development and the complexity of the project -- and, he says, the solution to both was always communication.
"To a certain degree, we reorganized fairly frequently to try and drive better and better communication and integration," he says. "Where we ended up was a hybrid -- we've got interdisciplinary pods working on discreet zones but also discipline-focused teams working on other areas. We also work really hard to make sure all the different groups work together and ensure our culture is one of sharing information and helping each other. We're all one team and function in that way."
Challenging, too, has been managing the size of the BioWare team. The design department for the one game is the size of the entire design department at the BioWare Edmonton, Canada studio.
"It took me a decade to build up the Edmonton staff," says Ohlen. "But I had to build Austin in like four years."
While he would not say how many people worked on SWTOR, he estimates they are in the hundreds, with team members not only in Austin but also in Edmonton, in Virginia at BioWare Mythic and at various outsourced studios for art and QA.
Because the studio had to hire so many people, says Ohlen, a huge benefit was the fact that Austin has such a vibrant gaming community, including Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas, both of which provided quite a few developers.
As the size of SWTOR grew, elsewhere in the MMO space, games were shrinking -- and were transitioning from subscription-based titles to free-to-play. But Ohlen says there was never a temptation to follow suit.
"First of all," he says, "I believe that there is only a group of developers -- like Zynga -- who are making smaller games. For the most part, the successful ones are still the big ones, like World of Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and all of EA's big sports franchises. What you are seeing is just two different areas, both of which are growing, and I think it's good that small games exist because they allow for more innovation and more risk-taking because you're not betting the farm every time you build one."
As for the free-to-play (F2P) business model, Ohlen doesn't believe it will turn the subscription model into a dinosaur. "Yes, it's getting difficult for companies to compete in the subscription space because players' expectations are so high. That has been a big challenge for us, mainly because Blizzard set the bar so high with World of Warcraft. But I think we've hit it and we're bringing innovations that are really going to change the way people view the AAA subscription MMO."
Would he ever consider turning SWTOR into an F2P game?
"I don't know what's going to happen in the future," he says, "but, right now, we're very much focused on making it a subscription game."
While Ohlen was consumed with the design challenges, Erickson had his own set of challenges as lead writer in charge of the entire writing team. SWTOR has 20 credited writers who, Erickson claims, did "60 man-years worth of writing... or somebody's natural life."
Zeschuk explains that, as with most BioWare games, the developer tends to start out with a set of goals they want to achieve. In this case, "we knew we wanted to insert a story -- a BioWare hallmark -- into the MMO space, but we didn't know exactly how we would do it. For example, we didn't necessarily plan to voice absolutely everything in the game in our initial plans but, along the way, it became pretty clear to us that would be the best outcome for the players by delivering the best story. What that forced was a fair amount of work redoing character faces and making sure they held up well on close-ups."
"Even though it hadn't been the plan, we ended up with more than 40 companion characters, each with their own dialogue and their own quests," Erickson says. "Originally we thought we were going to do a small set of companion characters and all eight classes were going to share them.
"It just didn't work out that way, mainly because companion characters at BioWare have always grown very naturally out of the plot. The one ambitious thing we knew we were going to do were the eight different class stories... a separate story for each class that runs all the way through the entire game, from beginning to end. That's something that I don't think has ever been seen in an RPG, except maybe for the origin stories in Dragon Age."
So, in theory, SWTOR's story can be played all the way through eight times, each time enabling the player to work their way through a full trilogy.
"To give you an idea of how big these stories are, Chapter I of the bounty hunter is longer than the entire old Knights of the Old Republic," says Erickson. "And then there's Chapters II and III. If, after that, you go and re-roll on, say, the Republic side, you won't see a single piece of repeated content, not one line of voiceover, nothing."
Did Zeschuk ever expect BioWare's productions to become this elaborate?
"When we formed BioWare, we weren't even sure we would be doing anything more than playing games in my basement," he recalls. "It's fair to say we've been more than surprised at how things have unfolded."
While the original strategy had called for Erickson to write the part of the bounty hunter, it soon became obvious that his full time job was just keeping all the plot threads together and keeping his writing team on track.
"Before we did any writing, we constructed 1,000 pages of documentation on such things as why Sith architecture looks the way it does, the history of wedding rituals on various planets, and so on.
"We are well aware that many of the gamers know the entire lore and will call us out on anything that isn't consistent with not just the movies, but the hundreds of books, comics, and other games about Star Wars. So it was important for us to become experts on all that."
"Though the game is now a trilogy -- with Chapters I, II, and III -- we are planning to keep it going for a fourth chapter -- and more," says Erickson. "That is my hope... that I'll continue to have a job here. The writing team has been hard at work on additional content because the lead time for content is quite long when you're doing AAA professional voice acting and such."
But additional chapters depend on the success of SWTOR and how quickly it can recoup its cost which was substantial. For instance, according to Ohlen, SWTOR "was the biggest localization project in history. Localization -- which is so expensive -- was done in English, French, and German, meaning that the hundreds of thousands of lines of voiceover had to be done in all three languages. We decided to go with French and German because those are the #2 and #3 markets in terms of revenue for a game. We might localize into other languages in the future, but I can't really talk about that right now."
Ohlen wouldn't give exact figures, but he described SWTOR as the most expensive game BioWare has ever done, and cost "about the same as other big AAA games, like Grand Theft Auto V and the current Call of Duty."
How long does Ohlen think it will take to recoup the cost of SWTOR? That, he says, is entirely dependent on how many subscribers sign on.
BioWare's parent, Electronic Arts, revealed on Dec. 5 that the game attracted more than 2 million volunteers for its recent beta test. Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, the game saw more than 725,000 unique users.
"There are different levels of success and we have all the different models built out," Ohlen explains. "While we want to be super-successful, we also need to plan for not hitting all our targets. Can we then still be profitable? Yes, but it will take longer.
"While I can't give away exact numbers, I can say that we have plans for super success in the millions of subscribers... and then we have plans for if we have a much smaller subscriber base. While it would be great to get the kind of numbers that World of Warcraft gets, we don't have to come close to those in order to be wildly successful. We could be well below WoW and still be incredibly profitable."
Ohlen insists his goal isn't to beat WoW which, he says, is very much "a once-in-a-lifetime kind of game. While I'd love to compete with them, I'm fine with us just being successful and having our own niche. I don't think it's healthy for our team to be constantly comparing ourselves against another game. Especially since there's room in the market to have two big MMOs."
Current projections, he says, show enough success that BioWare is investing in the future and keeping the entire team of hundreds of people together.
"Unlike a lot of other game companies that, once they launch a game, downsize their teams radically, our plan is to keep the team together and continue to focus on building content."
Indeed, Ohlen says his experience has been that, once a game is finished, he always moved on to the next game right away, sometimes even before the game was done. But SWTOR will be different, he insists.
"There's no secret project currently being done in the Austin studio," reveals Ohlen. "We're very much focused on Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars for the foreseeable future."
But, down the road, does Zeschuk ever expect BioWare to tackle a project as big as SWTOR again?
"We've apparently been on record as saying that BioWare would never grow beyond 100 people, so you have to take statements about our ambitious with a grain of sale," he quipped. "It's hard to say right now what we may or may not do as far as future projects. We're really busy working on future SWTOR content as well as continuing to improve the service. This will never end."