A Galaxy Not So Far Away
Austin's BioWare unleashes Star Wars: The Old Republic
Who wants to wield a lightsaber? BioWare Austin's Dallas Dickinson, producer of Star Wars: The Old Republic, definitely does. "I'm actually running around in the game now as I talk to you," he said, just hours before the game's midnight launch on Dec. 20. The expectations are high: Though California-based Blizzard Entertainment and its breakout title World of Warcraft have reigned over the realm of massively multiplayer online role-playing games for nearly a decade, the allure of Star Wars' multigenerational fan base could make the Austin studio's game more seductive than the dark side of the Force.
This is not BioWare's first journey to a galaxy far, far away. In 2003, it released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, an RPG set four millennia before George Lucas' original films. While KoTOR (as it's known to fans) was one of the best-reviewed games of the last decade, BioWare handed sequel duties for The Sith Lords off to Obsidian Entertainment and concentrated instead on its own sci-fi epic, the equally stellar Mass Effect. As a replacement for the last Force-fueled MMORPG – Sony Online Entertainment's hugely successful Star Wars Galaxies – and with a reported budget of more than $135 million, The Old Republic has been an epic endeavor almost five years in production. "People ask us why we didn't make Knights of the Old Republic III," Dickinson said, "and I tell them we've made [The Old Republic] III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X, all in one game."
Now the circle is complete. The Old Republic uses KoTOR's story as a springboard, opening with the collapse of 300 years of uneasy peace between the benign Republic and the malevolent Sith Empire. "It's a time period where there are lots and lots of Jedi, lots and lots of Sith. It allows us to create lengthy storylines for someone who is a Jedi knight," Dickinson said. "In the movie era, you can't really do that because there is only one, and it's Luke Skywalker."
Given KoTOR and Mass Effect, the Austin software house knows about RPGs. Now it adds its own vision of the shared world of the massively multiplayer experience. "We're not going to try to reinvent the wheel across the board," said Dickinson. "We're adding in the things that BioWare does best: the deep storytelling, the companions, really making it feel like your own personal heroic Star Wars journey."
Yet there has to be something universal about the adventure. Lucas was openly influenced by Joseph Campbell's deconstruction of mythic tales, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and BioWare emulates his use of character archetypes through eight character classes – four each for the light and dark sides of the Force – all with their own unique but iconic story arcs. "The Sith Warrior is very much what we would expect Darth Vader's story to be. The Sith Inquisitor is very much what you would expect an emperor-in-waiting to be," Dickinson said. Through the development, Dickinson has played them all, but the Smuggler was "the one I played the least during the testing period because I wanted to save that one for when the game was actually live." Again, he hopes that adventure will appeal to fans of cinema's most famous space pirate. "People identify with Han Solo," he said, so in the Smuggler's story, "you're on the run from some shady gangsters; you lose your ship; you get your ship back; you're making the tough rascal call from time to time."
Dickinson will measure the game's success by the response from three core audiences: hardcore MMORPG players, BioWare loyalists, and Star Wars fans. That last group, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the lore, could be the toughest to please. Throughout development, there was a constant flow of questions and queries between the Austin studio and their partners at LucasArts, checking that designs and concepts fitted that ethos. Dickinson credited his secret weapon – "people in our team, especially on the design and art side, who know Star Wars backwards and forwards" – and said that more than any instructions from the bearded one, they made sure the game "stays true to the fantasy."