Star Wars: The Old Republic’s lead designer talks about new planets, free to play, and the Yuuzhan Vong

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BioWare shook the MMO world with the December 2011 release of Star Wars: The Old Republic. It was like millions of voices suddenly cried out in elation and were then silenced… by the deafening clatter of keyboard-and-mouse clicking as a new subscriber base ground its way to the level 50 cap with the game’s eight separate story-driven classes. I reviewed The Old Republic and I very much liked what I saw.

That was just the beginning, however. An MMO’s development process doesn’t really start until the game is fully released and backed by a fanatical community of players. The Old Republic, with its Star Wars underpinnings and trademark BioWare focus on story, was virtually guaranteed to reach that point, and it did so long ago. BioWare’s done a good job post-launch of bringing out content updates. Perhaps not in the order that some players might prefer, but them’s the breaks of dealing with a large fan community. The recently released update 1.3, referred to as the “Allies” update, is the biggest that The Old Republic has seen yet. We caught up with Daniel Erickson, the game’s lead designer to talk a little bit about what’s new, what’s to come, and where things really stand in BioWare’s ever-growing corner of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Perhaps the biggest of the additions coming in the near future to SW:TOR is a new planet, Makeb. Unlike other new planets added in earlier updates as part of one high-level mission or another, Makeb is a fully baked world that players can access via their ship’s star map. “This is a new planet for the Star Wars universe and a new planet for our game,” Erickson said of Makeb. “It’s our first big return to the… storytelling of the main game.”

The future update includes a level cap increase, from 50 to some as-yet-unrevealed number. Makeb will cater specifically to players reaching to bring their characters in line with the new bar that’s being set. You can visit it whenever, just like you can any other planet in the game, but it’s really recommended for level 50+ players. Erickson wouldn’t tell me much about the planet beyond what we already know, that it’s a Hutt-controlled world filled with entirely new content for the game.

This sort of addition has broader repercussions, as any Star Wars fan knows. All of the Star Wars fiction exists within a giant transmedia universe that is overseen by Lucasfilm and its assorted divisions. Which means that BioWare adding a planet to the game isn’t as simple as just writing some code and letting players have at it. There’s the larger Expanded Universe to consider, everything from how the planet’s lore and history fits into the larger picture to where the physical ball of rock sits on the established star map. As tricky as it can be to introduce something as large as a new planet, Erickson has nothing but praise for the experience of working with Lucasfilm.

“They’re incredibly good about all of that and we’re probably the most diligent researchers and Star Wars experts of anyone in the EU creation system, because our fans are very particular and they will catch us,” he said. It also helps that the dev team approaches their game with the attitude of franchise purists.

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“We’re not experimental Star Wars people,” Erickson explained. “We must have sat down and watched Empire Strikes Back every other day for months when we were putting this game together. We’re not trying to [add] samurai or… time travel. We are saying ‘Let’s get the most incredibly core Star Wars feel that we were so excited about as kids.’ Which means we run into pretty much no issues with Lucasfilm.”

Inspired by all of this Expanded Universe talk, I asked Erickson the same question that I frequently return to whenever I get to talk to someone about a Star Wars game: is there a place in The Old Republic for the Yuuzhan Vong?

Let me explain: the Yuuzhan Vong are an extra-galactic race of beings that were introduced in one of the more recent story arcs for the EU books. They show up several decades after the events of Return of the Jedi and proceed to wreak havoc on the universe that we know. Chewbacca’s death is a notable moment in that series. The hardcore Star Wars fanbase has long been divided on the Yuuzhan Vong; some feel that it was a breath of fresh air, treading new ground that the franchise never had before, while others derided the arc for perverting the pure good vs. pure evil conflict that lies at the heart of Star Wars.

Based on Erickson’s response, I think it’s safe to say he belong in the latter group. Without even a moment’s though, he replied to my question with a matter-of-fact “No,” a word which he repeated several times — just to make it abundantly clear — before explaining the reason why. “At the point the Yuuzhan Vong come in, you’ve stopped the conflict. Star Wars is, at it’s heart, the very quasi-fascist, controlled [approach of the Empire] versus the Republic’s chaotic, tons of people working together, it’s corrupt but at least it works [democratic ideal]. As soon as you introduce a third threat that is bigger and more powerful than all of us, you lose your core heart and you can’t bring it back. Especially in an MMO where it’s all working at once.”

It’s hard to argue with the reasoning there, even if you’re an ardent supporter of the direction the EU went in with the Yuuzhan Vong. It would certainly be cool for hardened fans to explore that section of the larger fiction, but The Old Republic isn’t the place for it, especially with its faction-based focus.

One fan-favorite corner that SW:TOR will return to is HK-47. The assassin droid first appeared in BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and he became an instant classic among Star Wars characters thanks to his penchant for murder and his affinity for referring to all humans as “meatbags.” The HK-47 character is already in The Old Republic, as a boss in one of the game’s Flashpoint missions, but “Allies” will allow players to recruit a newer model of the HK line as one of their companions, pending the completion of an extensive quest line.

“One of the things that was important to us was, HK-47 is, theoretically, a model like R2-D2. But he’s also a specific character in the world. So we treated him like that in The Old Republic. We do not ever want to give everyone HK. So we introduce HK-51 as a model,” Erickson explained.

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“These were a model of droid that were created for the Great War and then they disappeared. So players are going to get to find a ship full of the HK droids and then go on a giant galactic quest to try to get one of them to respond. Basically, you need to repair one of them and then you need to get it to not shoot you when it wakes up. It’s a core piece of our Legacy update and it’s going to require characters on both the Republic and the Empire sides. It is the biggest galaxy-spanning quest we’ve ever done.”

For those who don’t know it, “Legacy” is an in-game system that allows players who have reached a certain stage of the game with one of their characters to choose a surname, and then tie any subsequently created character into that “legacy,” as anything from a blood relation to a family friend. Through this, you unlock a separate set of levels to climb through and an assortment of unlockable abilities that are largely designed to give players running through second, third, and more playthroughs of the game an easier time. In the case of HK-51, players will be expected to have at least one level 50 character.

On the other end of the player spectrum are the noobs. “Allies” aims to make the process of playing The Old Republic feel less daunting for total newcomers with a revised tutorial system that explains basic concepts, everything from loot and vendors to social tools. This was necessary, in Erickson’s mind, as the team prepares to accept a flood of new players when The Old Republic opens up its early game for free play.

“In July we’re going ‘Free to 15,'” he said, referring to the upcoming free-to-play initiative that allows anyone to level up any of the game’s classes — or more than one — to level 15 without spending a penny on the game or a monthly subscription. “One of the things we’ve already seen is that people who are… excited about Star Wars [but don’t necessarily play MMOs], the MMO tropes hit them really hard. So the new tutorials are very much an introduction. Things that we should have but didn’t think about.”

“What we always say is, before the game came out it was our game. As soon as it launched, it became the community’s game,” Erickson added. “The number one request we get with a bullet [in terms of] what people want more of, is story. They just want their story to keep going. They want to see more of The Old Republic, they want to see how the galaxy is developing, and they want to do it with their prime characters.”

On the free-to-play front, Erickson refused to talk about the possibility of a larger free-to-play initiative for the larger game, something that many outsiders have been speculating is an inevitability, not just for The Old Republic but for all monthly subscription-based MMOs as premium free-to-play experience improve more and more. In his mind, at least for now, it’s enough to put The Old Republic in front of a total noob and let the game do all the work to encourage a subscription.

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“What we discovered is that people who play the game really like the game. We have the highest conversion rate with our free weekends, way beyond our predictions,” Erickson explained. “Our friend trials, same thing. We didn’t get as broad of a Star Wars group [at launch] because the message was MMO, and people have a negative connotation around getting into an MMO. So what we’re saying now is we’re going to find any way we can to get the game in front of people. Because when people play The Old Republic, they like The Old Republic. If we can get people to get in there, play it, hang out… we’re really confident we’re going to get a bunch of new players from that.”

It’s certainly a positive attitude, even if it’s one that might have to change further down the line. It’s not something that BioWare has to think about yet, however. Subscribers are still coming back for more, and fans are still getting excited about new, officially released content. There’s also the possibility of global events, something that the dev team tried out with its limited-time “Rakghoul plague” scenario, which affected the entire galaxy and on both sides of the faction fence. Erickson insists that we can expect to see more events like that one — and unlike that one — but he pulls up short of offering any hints.

“No hints,” he said, chuckling. “Here’s the thing about world events. When we were planning to do the events, we put the team together and then we had to go and tell the marketing team [they weren’t] allowed to talk about it. Then we had to go tell the line producers [that we weren’t] going to put it on the test server. And everybody got really, really nervous. So we had to do a ton of internal testing, we had to get QA out there, we had to basically take the studio down and make everybody play it, BUT we did something that is core to the MMO experience, and that is not being done enough out there. We surprised our players.”

“That’s what events are going to continue to do. I’ve got a full time events team and they’re gonna do little things, they’re gonna do big things, they’re not going to be in a pattern that you can predict, and the idea is to eventually make it to the time where [people are always checking in] just to see what happened today.”


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