“Star Wars: The Old Republic” wants to put geeks and nerds in the “Star Wars” universe with their new massively multiplayer online (MMO) game.
The development team at BioWare is very anxious for fans of the classic franchise to jump in and experience what it is like to live with (and perhaps battle against) Jedi and Sith. The writing team for the game spent 60 man years (that’s 525,600 hours) in crafting a world that they know is going to be closely analyzed by “Star Wars” enthusiasts.
Daniel Erickson, the lead writer on “SWTOR,” and his writing team poured over every bit of information they could get – from movies to books to comics to encyclopedias of data. He said they have to be on their game because there are three different types of fans out there and they will all be looking for details specific to their memories of “Star Wars.”
“There’s folks like you and me who are 1st generation. Our thoughts when we think ‘Star Wars’ is immediately ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and the big scenes from that,” Erickson said. “Then we have a whole generation after that who the prequels are really what ‘Star Wars’ is for them. Then we have the third generation coming after that who show up at the conventions to play the game in their Commander Cody outfit from the ‘Clone Wars’ cartoon.”
Erickson said they tried to represent the world as a normal, functioning world and not go into the minutia or crazy trivia. They wanted to provide enough information and detail that was relevant to the character class being played. But, at the same time, they respected the franchise and recognized that good story telling is very important to the “Star Wars” legacy.
“If you are just going to nerd out on ‘Star Wars,’ the only people who are going to enjoy it are other people who are going to hard-core nerd out on ‘Star Wars,’” he said. “The thing that makes ‘Star Wars’ so brilliant, and why we all loved it in the first place, is because ‘Star Wars’ is extremely acceptable and is very universal. It’s sort of the great Western fairy tale. So, ‘Star Wars’ done well should be totally accessible for anybody who jumps in.”
There are eight classes featured in “SWTOR” and each class has its own unique story line. Erickson said the team expects a majority of people to gravitate to being a Sith or Jedi, each of which has two individual classes to choose from. But there are four other classes that are not Force based and gives players options to experience parts of the “Star Wars” universe that they never have before.
“I know when I was a kid, I always wanted Luke’s powers, but I didn’t want to be Luke. I wanted to be Han. Han was awesome. Han got the girl. He had an ultra-cool life.”
The audience for the game is expected to fall into three categories: the “Star Wars” fan, the MMO fan and the BioWare fan who is used to playing the company’s role playing games. Erickson said there is plenty for everyone.
The “Star Wars” fan will get to live their own “Star Wars” trilogy. Each story has three giant pieces to it that are larger than the normal role-playing game. Erickson describes is as “finally getting to live and star in your own ‘Star Wars’ trilogy of movies”
The MMO fan is likely to enjoy the context and high production values surrounding the activities they will do in the game. Sure, you’ll get to kill lots of people and creatures, but those kills will have meaning and understanding rather than just killing as “grinding.”
“Getting a consistent world and galaxy that holds together, that actually puts way more meaning on all of the great activities that you always enjoyed doing,” Erickson said. “You’re not just feeling powerful and just feeling like you’re accomplished in this world because you’ve got really cool outfits on. The whole world is reinforcing your fantasy.”
While there is guild building to allow for groups of players to take on large missions, the solo player can also have great success, but at a cost. Erickson said lone wolf players will miss out on some of the best content involving multiplayer missions, however they will have an amazing RPG experience.
Erickson said their ultimate goal is to make all the fans feel comfortable and immersed in the game environment and experience. “Star Wars” has its own life with big, overarching themes, good versus evil, and the space opera/1950s serial action film feel, he said. And despite changing the characters and the time period and the main plots, he thinks people will “nerd out.”
“There’s a quintessentially Star Wars feel that when you turn it on, you go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. This feels like Star Wars.’ You can still settle in to your nerd phase and say this is the Star Wars I know and love.”
With their most recent expansion release, it seems Blizzard’s hold on the market share would grow even tighter. However, another game company is taking the plunge in the MMORPG arena and taking a little dig at the gaming giant with an ad that says, “We’re not in Azeroth anymore.”
“Rift” (Trion) is set on Telara, a world that apparently is a nexus of sorts for different planes of existence. These other worlds invade Telara through physical rifts and allow monsters to attack important cities and people. Your job is to stop it from happening.
Players get to choose from two factions, Guardians and Defiants. Each has their own races and tactics to employ during the game and both can choose from four classes (warrior, mage, rogue, and cleric). The two factions aren’t necessarily battling each other, but are trying to show which way is the best to save the world.
Skills are built up using souls, which unlock powers and allow gamers to customize their characters as they match their style of play. A character can have multiple soul systems so they can change their abilities as needed.
Executive producer Scott Hartsman said the initial idea was not to start a new MMORPG, but it was to create a new gaming technology that would allow Trion to build games in different ways.
“There were visions for some slightly less formed ideas for what the game would eventually be,” Hartsman said. “It was all about think of all the cool stuff we could build if we had technology that would let us do 500 players in one place, 1,000 players in one place, big events that start up and shut down on their own. A world that is truly alive.”
Hartsman said their own technology had to be created first before they could figure out what to do with it. They were looking for something that was social, dynamic, and fun that would utilize their design to the fullest.
The ability to track online players’ locations and keep tabs on what actions they are doing led the team to develop a fantasy MMORPG. Trion CEO Lars Butler choosing the fantasy genre was an obvious decision.
“Because of the technology (we built), we wanted to take on the most established online gaming category first,” Butler explained. “We felt we had what it takes to substantially address some of the shortcomings that this genre still has.”
Trion servers are broken down by function, rather than taking care of a particular piece of virtual real estate in game. For example, they use servers to handle non-player character functions in the world, a different set of servers that handle boss events, and another set that handle player functions.
Hartsman says by dividing the servers along functions, more processes can be started and stopped more easily with less impact to the world overall. Getting them to all work together seamlessly was hard.
“Yeah, it was hard, but it was well worth it. We’re really just now at the point we’re about 25% into all of the things we can do with our technology and we’re looking to add more.”
“What people see in ‘Rift’ right now is pretty revolutionary as well as a great foundation for us to keep adding more unique types of things to do.”
The technology is flexible enough to handle the weight of the world without crashing and still be expandable for additional players or additional game features.
“Even the best fantasy MMORPGs out there are still mostly static. They have very limited social game play,” Butler said. “They’re getting old.”
“Rift” launched at the beginning of March after a beta run and a Head Start run, which allowed early gamers who signed up extra time in the world before the official launch. After the launch, there were some complaints about server wait times because Trion underestimated the demand on day one.
They doubled the number of servers in the first few days and eventually triple the initial number of servers in an effort to get the wait times down. Trion is also working on migrating players away from overcrowded servers to new servers in an effort to get everyone’s cue time to zero.
Trion developed the fantasy elements and story to populate their massive world to make the best use of their new technology. While acknowledging that the fantasy gaming genre is a difficult one to stand out in, Hartsman said having the ability to get players gathered together on a moment’s notice to battle a widening rift was one of the advantages of using their technology.
And despite the good-natured jab at Blizzard with their advertising, Trion believes there is room for two successful MMORPGs.
“Ten years ago, people were comparing everything to ‘Everquest.’ This year, people are comparing everything to ‘World of Warcraft,’” Hartsman said. He said talk about comparing “Rift” with “WoW” is more about gamer culture than direct competition.
But he said there are differences that make “Rift” unique in the genre.
“The fact that there is always something interesting going on in the world and the fact that the world itself can be a dangerous place and a place where there is new danger, new adventure … gives the game a sense of urgency and banding together with other people adds a whole lot of excitement that only ‘Rift’ is doing.”
“Rift” is available only on the PC. It is rated T for Teen due to alcohol references, blood, mild language and violence. There is a 30 day period included in the purchase of the game, but requires a monthly subscription for continued play. It is also available in English, French and German.