Starburst and Star Wars share a lot of DNA. We were the first magazine in the UK to cover the film way back in 1977 and with our passion for George Lucas' creation as strong as ever all these years on, it was with great excitement that we accepted an invite from leading game developers BioWare and EA to preview their much-anticipated MMO The Old Republic.
We’ll be featuring a full review of the game very soon (if we ever hear from our reviewer again!), but until then here’s our interview with some of the wonderful team behind Star Wars: The Old Republic - Writing Director Aniel Erickson, Lead Technical Designer Georg Zoeller and Associate Lead Designer Emmanuel Lusinchi…
Starburst: For those not familiar with the 'Extended Universe' mythology, where does the game take place in terms of the movie saga?
Aniel Erickson: SWTOR takes place 3000 years before the events of the movies and 300 years or so after the original Knights of the Old Republic games.
SB: Is there a specific reason you decided to set it in this particular time period as opposed to, say, the ‘New Hope’ era?
AE: Setting the game in The Old Republic gives us the freedom to tell new stories, do crazy things and really change the galaxy. Most importantly it makes the players into the stars and heroes of the time period. We can’t all be Luke Skywalker if we’re in the New Hope time period and anything less is going to feel like a letdown.
SB: Could future expansions lead onto, or up to that era?
AE: Doubtful. We want people to be able to keep characters for a long time, but 3000 years of content would really start to age people!
SB: How much involvement did LucasFilm have with the project? Did you have freedom to do as you pleased or did everything have to be vetted?
AE: Everything is vetted through LucasFilm but there were few issues and I can’t remember a single veto. We’re creating a love letter to Star Wars with SWTOR so it’s pretty easy to stay within the boundaries LucasFilm wants products in.
SB: So there weren't any aspects of the Star Wars universe that were off limits?
AE: There was very little that was out of bounds. I remember we explored the idea of having Dagobah in the game and we learned you can’t explain the tree or most of the interesting parts of the planet so we decided to leave it out for now. LucasFilm is keeping a few things back for itself.
SB: Has there been any reaction from George Lucas himself?
AE: George has seen the game and given positive feedback. He obviously has final say on all the Star Wars products.
SB: Crafting - what is the system like? Could you run down how it works, are player made items on par loot drops?
Emmanuel Lusinchi: Crafting relies heavily on the player’s companions. While the player is able to collect crafting material from the world he can also have his companions perform a number of crafting-related tasks for him using the player’s personal spaceship as a kind of factory or base of operation. For example, the player might be salvaging metal from a droid he just destroyed while also instructing one of his companions to start the production of a number of blasters… and also sending another of his companions on a mission to locate rare materials. As a result, the player can enjoy a deep and extensive crafting system without breaking the pace of his adventuring or being stuck in one place. Now, in term of how valuable crafted items are in the game, it depends on how dedicated the player is to crafting. Any player can craft decent items on par with loot that typically would be found during solo questing… but that’s only the starting point. A crafter can improve on each crafting recipe and discover higher quality variations. Through this process, many crafters can produce items comparable to (and sometimes better than) any other items in the game.
SB: Can you expand a bit on PVE? Specifically the smaller dungeons first. How many players are they designed for and do they use the ‘Holy Trinity’ of tank, healer, DPS?
Georg Zoeller: Flashpoints are our form of instanced group content. They feature a strong narrative, often with branching choices and usually take between 30 and 45 minutes to complete. Flashpoints are designed for a group of four players but groups that find themselves short a player may substitute the empty slot with one of their character’s companions, autonomous AI followers that are an integral part of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s gameplay.
Starting at level 10, we have one of these Flashpoints available roughly every five levels. The earlier ones don’t require a specific party makeup or roles, but as the game progresses, the presence of healer or tank roles becomes more important to succeed.
At maximum level, players can revisit every flashpoint in the game in ‘Hard Mode’, a level 50 version of the Flashpoint designed to challenge groups of seasoned players.
SB: Much has been made of the storytelling in KotOR – how is one player's story advanced in a group scenario such as a dungeon?
GZ: SWTOR features a multiplayer dialog system which puts all group members into cinematic conversation with the NPC and offers everyone the option to choose a response or action. The system then utilizes dice rolls to determine who gets to act.
For those not fond of words, we offer the option to skip through the conversation using the spacebar key, just like any other BioWare game.
Some Flashpoints offer a different kind of player choice: Crafting skills, such as Slicing or BioChem can be used to unlock secret corridors or even hack droids to change the course of the action or provide situational benefits to the group.
SB: Moving onto endgame PvE. What are your raids shaping up like?
GZ: Operations, our version of Raids, are designed for two group sizes: 8 and 16 people. We also have three distinct difficulty modes for the operations: Normal, Hard and Nightmare mode.
SB: Are the encounters tank and spank or can we expect a few surprises?
GZ: At launch, the game has two Operations available to players and we will be expanding this type of content as part of ongoing updates post launch.
In terms of encounter design, just like in Flashpoints, you can expect to see a wide variety of combat mechanics on Bosses, along with other interesting contraptions to keep the players on their toes.
SB: Staying with PvE - solo wise we know that the story arc in the game is a huge driving force behind a player’s progress, how rigidly will we have to stick to the narrative? Is there freedom for players to ‘do their own thing’?
GZ: Following the unique story for your class is definitely encouraged. Important milestones such as assembling your first lightsaber, getting your ship and unlocking new companions happen through the course of that story.
That said, the game doesn’t force you stick to the story all the time. There’s a lot of room for progress through other means (including participation in our PvP Warzones, flying missions in our space combat minigame or running flashpoints with your friends).
And for those that really don’t like to play solo, we allow your group members to join your unique story instances, act as spectators in your cutscenes and dialogs and support you in the combat.
SB: What are the player’s motivation to PvP both in a group and solo sense? Are there any incentives for world PvP?
GZ: You’re going to be more successful in a group, period. Playing as a lone wolf is possible, but requires evading groups of enemies and certain class combinations, such as healer/tank combos will be very hard to crack alone.
In addition to our instanced Warzones and the free form Open World PvP possible on all the contested planets, SWTOR launches with two special Open World PvP areas:
Outlaws Den - a free-for-all PvP area on the planet Tatooine where everyone is able to attack any player who is not part of their group – regardless of faction. The area contains a number of special vendors…
The Battle of Illum - a massive battlefield on the planet Ilum where the two factions fight for supremacy by destroying enemy walkers, gun batteries and bases. Completing objectives grants PvP commendation tokens that can be turned in for powerful rewards.
SB: How will you avoid the age-old issue of balance, in terms of PvE vs PvP?
GZ: Striking PvE vs. PvP balance is challenging but not impossible to achieve if you plan for it from the beginning rather than designing one of the systems as an afterthought.
You address it through hard work and constant iteration. You can’t really ‘avoid’ balance when making a game like this, you have to tackle it head on and deal with it. At this point, we’ve already had more than full a year of testing on the game, with hundreds of thousands of testers over the course of that period. We’re also heavily invested into analytics, which gives us a great bird’s eye view of the game balance in general.
SB: What transport can we expect - both mounts and from flightpaths etc?
GZ: For flight path, the mode of transportation really depends on the planet you are visiting. While short distances are often bridged by traditional speeder bikes or landspeeder type vehicles, you can also find shuttle connections.
On special areas such as the Republic and Imperial Fleet hubs, you are usually transported via shuttle between the different capital ships on the fleet.
For player controlled vehicles, the game offers several different STAPs (Single Trooper Aerial Platform), a large variety of speeder bikes and a good number of landspeeders.
SB: How is grouping encouraged?
GZ: From a game systems perspective, grouping offers a more efficient way of leveling as players will accumulate experience points more quickly while in a group. In addition to the fully soloable class missions and planet arcs, SWTOR contains a large amount of content designed for groups: Heroic Missions are repeatable quests designed for 2-4 players and offer harder but also more rewarding objectives, and Flashpoints, as mentioned before, are designed for 4 players, feature their own story arcs and offer some of the most iconic rewards in the game.
SB: Finally, should we also mention World Bosses?
GZ: Participating in multiplayer missions has more benefits being more efficient at defeating enemies. Your character accumulates ‘Social Points’ with each multiplayer dialog they are involved in, which grant the player access to special rewards in the game such as the famous Star Wars ‘slave girl Leia bikini’ or an imperial trooper uniform.
'Star Wars: The Old Republic' is out on general release for PC on December 20th.
For more info on the game, head over to the official site www.swtor.com