Erickson: Star Wars MMO Akin To Multiple Full-Length BioWare RPGs

EA BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic is trying to solve the problem of story in MMOs by employing twelve full-time writers to flesh out the universe -- lead writer Daniel Erickson tells Gamasutra why, explaining: "[EA has] come to me and said,
In announcing its upcoming MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare is promising to live up to its official company goal -- "to make the best story-driven games in the world" -- in a genre where narrative delivery tends to lack the depth of its single-player counterpart. "We can't really draw from the MMO tradition to communicate a story," admitted The Old Republic lead writer Daniel Erickson, speaking to Gamasutra following the game's announcement at licensor LucasArts' San Francisco offices. Addressing the nature of most MMO narratives in an earlier presentation, he said, "Stories frozen in time aren't stories." BioWare, which has made its name on the nuanced tales told in games like Baldur's Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, hopes to stand apart from its MMO contemporaries by taking a surprisingly large-scale approach. This will effectively create the equivalent of a full BioWare single-player MMO for each of The Old Republic's character classes, integrated into the persistent world of an MMO. "When you pick the Sith class, you're essentially saying, 'I want to play the Sith RPG,'" Erickson explained during his presentation. He told Gamasutra that the team is aware of longtime BioWare fans who are suspicious of how their cherished character-driven narratives will translate to the online world. He's confident they will derive the same enjoyment out of the MMO. "For people who are like, 'God, I just wanted another BioWare [RPG],' they have gotten a little slice of heaven," he said. Of course, BioWare's games -- which ordinarily only contain one game's worth of content each -- already tend to command considerable budgets and development cycles. What does that mean for BioWare, particularly in the context of new owner Electronic Arts, which last year paid out a combined sum of nearly $800 million for BioWare and sister studio Pandemic? Erickson acknowledged that at least part of the challenge in tackling the "story problem" in MMOs is budget, scale, and effort -- a matter of volume. His team consists of twelve full-time writers, several times larger than BioWare has ever employed for a single project. But the studio's parent company is full onboard with the effort, he claims. "Yes, [EA has] come to me and said, 'Your budget is what?!' but nobody has ever said, 'Why are we doing this?'" he noted. "When you go into orientation, it says, 'to make the best story-driven games in the world,' and it's been that way for a decade, and they've never moved away from it." "So when we say, 'This is what it takes to make a great story-driven game that you're going to play for eternity, then, yeah, you've got to put the effort forth." He believes that BioWare's track record and experience with interactive stories will allow it to see the ambitious project through. "It's hard to get the dedication from a company that's never done it to say, 'Hey, we're going to do it.' But, at the end of the day, it is a known quantity," he said. "No MMO has tried to do it before, so how do you justify that? If you've got a company that has made its entire mark never having a game canceled, never having a game rated under 90 percent -- even the games that are considered our lowest games -- and that company's entire mantra and what they're known for is storytelling, it only makes sense to open it up and let them do their thing. "Commercial art will always be driven by the people who hold the pursestrings and get to have the vision," he continued, bringing up BioWare co-founders and studio heads Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka. "We are extremely lucky that BioWare is run by two guys who are dedicated to the idea of story. That's what they want to do."

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