We sat down with Daniel Erickson and got to grips with Star Wars: The Old Republic - it's scale, what it means for the KOTOR franchise and how it plans to invigorate the MMO:
Strategy Informer: Can you give any indication how far along the game is?
Daniel Erickson: Not really, as it never really means much. We are out of pre-production, we are fully into production, and we've got, what a year as Spring 2011 is the target date. All the major systems are in and running, all the classes are in, the combat is in. Bioware is a 'content-company', we out-content the competition and we decided to make a game that's bigger than every single other game we've done put together, which means this year there's a lot of content going in. It's a really exciting time to be on the project - you come in every day or every week and find whole new planets. whole new races, the area you were just in looks totally different.
Strategy Informer: Not to foreshadow anything, but how much leeway will you have should you think you'll need more time?
Daniel Erickson: What we do is we do reviews fairly early on, like there's a reason we didn't announce a release date for a while. We also don't mention features until we're pretty sure they will be in the game. We didn't announce that Spring release date until we were sure we could hit that date. You're probably not surprised that it wasn't the first release date we thought it might be. That said, Bioware is committed to shipping quality, and there's a reason our games have come out like they have. We got a lot of support from both sides, [Ed: Publishers & Developers, I'm guessing here] as really there's no sense in spending that much time and money, and then shipping it wrong. The truth everyone knows about MMO's is that you get one ship, and that's it. You can fix anything you want afterwards, but nobody is coming back if you get it wrong the first time.
Strategy Informer: One of Bioware's commitments with TOR is that they want to completely voice the entire game. Now I know with Dragon Age, that wasn't voiced as much as, say, Mass Effect because of concerns over the size of the game etc... TOR I assume is going to be even bigger though, which will mean a butt load of sound bites - how will that impact on the game?
Daniel Erickson: It is huge, yes. I actually worked on Dragon Age, and there were a number of things there. When we did the Origin stories on Dragon Age, we thought "Oh my god, this is so much fun", we could really tailor this experience and make it unique. Then we thought, well what if we could do this for a whole game? (TOR) But again, massively expensive, and no one is going to let you do that for Single Player game, no matter the replay value.
But with an MMO, it's different, so we're able to go the extra mile with the voice acting. So you have character class stories, which are completely unique, and then you have faction stories as well, and this is something people have trouble getting their heads around - there is zero repeated content. IF you play through as a Jedi Knight, and then re-roll a Sith Warrior, there will not be one repeated line or repeated content. This makes it a huge project, it's like a year's worth of voice recording, with studios all over the world.
Lucas Arts is actually handling all of that because they have the most experience with it, getting thousands of people together to do Star Wars, but yeah it's still a huge undertaking.
Mass Effect actually came out when we were still very early in the project, when we didn't think we were going to do player VO. Our whole thing has been about trying to be a real Star Wars hero, feeling like you're in the movies. Mass Effect changed everything about what being a hero meant, because for the first time you were looking at Shepard, and not the people around him. He had the best lines, he was actually the character people connected to the most, and at that point we pitched up to Lucas and EA and said "Hey, we'd like to do this really insane thing..." and we used demos of both ways, and what the resources will be, but everybody signed on... and then of course we had to go back and re-write everything we had just written, because obviously you do things different with VO.
Strategy Informer: The main staple of The Old Republic has always been its story, but I'd argue that without good game play to support it, there is a lack of incentive to want to find out that story. I use Final Fantasy 13 as an example here: excellent story, but sometimes the grind or the linear game play made me struggle in wanting to see it through. What are your thoughts on that?
Daniel Erickson: Well, before I address the main point I just want to take a slightly more controversial route: You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character... I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? But they're not RPG's.
But you're absolutely right, without the systems, your nothing. One of the things we've always been aware of is that a lot of people play Baldur's Gate to death, and those people who play it 3,4 5 times aren't story guys, they're D&D guys.
We know there are going to be people here for Star Wars combat, for PvP all that... and actually, what we were originally going to do was just have standard MMO combat. Two guys swinging at each other, but not interacting. It didn't feel like Star Wars though, and it wasn't fun. So we went back and prototyped this run and gun, lightsabers touching, choreographed combat sequences in real time. The Director always holds everything we do to this 'standard' - does it look and feel like Star Wars? If no, fail.
Strategy Informer: Looking at just the sheer scale and size of the 'TOR' project, does this mean an end to the traditional KOTOR franchise? Obviously TOR is a continuation of the same story, but many people were hoping to see a more literal KOTOR 3.
Daniel Erickson: Obviously I don't know what the future of the franchise will be, but what's interesting is that when people sit down and play TOR, we almost never get that question again, because everything you would want from KOTOR is here. The story, the action, the combat, the companions, they're all here. The combat is actually based on the same principle as KOTOR, it's just more exciting.
The only difference being is that in TOR, it's amore individualistic as opposed to general experience. In KOTOR, we didn't know who you were, or what you wanted, but now, with your 8 different classes, if you played a smuggler your story would be completely different from say the Sith Warrior. It's like we've shipped eight different, yet specific, TOR games. E.g. TOR: The Sith Warrior Game, TOR: The Smuggler Game etc...
Strategy Informer: Behind us is an impressively epic looking vista, depicting a battle between Republic and Sith armies, will we see anything to that kind of scale in the game?
Daniel Erickson: Scale? Possibly... I don't know how many people they're trying to draw on that thing though, so I'm not signing up to that one.
Strategy Informer: Lucas Arts can be very protective over their IP, did you face many restrictions?
Daniel Erickson: We tend to be more restrictive than they make us. The extended universe is very extensive, and they're always open to new people creating new spaces to play in. We created this space originally, and we have a amount of respect for Star Wars. I'm not out there trying to break barriers and do my own thing and call it 'Star Wars', I'm out there trying to create a Star Wars Fantasy, and to do that I look straight at the movies.
Strategy Informer: One of the key staples of MMOs is the additional content updates that come after release, do you have any idea what kind of theme or direction they will take?
Daniel Erickson: We have not looked at it at all right now, we've got to be focused on just getting the game out of the door. After that, well like I said before, there's a reason we haven't talked about Endgame yet - to talk about Endgame content, we need to know what was fun in normal game. It makes no sense to make more of what people hate.
Thanks to Daniel for taking the time out to talk to us. Don't forget to check out our hands-on impressions of the game.