Building the Old Republic: The Technology Behind BioWare’s First MMO

Electronic Arts-owned BioWare Austin has been working on the epic massively multiplayer online (MMO) game Star Wars: The Old Republic for more than four years. The game developer is familiar with the Star Wars universe, having created Knights of the Old Republic for PC gamers back in November 2003.Set 400 years after the last Knights of the Old Republic game and 3,000 years before the rise of Darth Vader, The Old Republic allows players to choose a side (light or dark) and then embark on an epic journey into the mythology that George Lucas created in a galaxy far, far away. Here, Emmanuel Lusinchi, associate lead designer on the MMO at BioWare, talks about the role technology has played in bringing this massive world to life and the experience PC gamers will get when they explore the 19 planets in this online universe:

Digital Innovation Gazette: How did you utilize technology to push the MMO space forward with this game?

Emmanuel Lusinchi: Our engineers are always trying to squeeze more and more performances out of the game engine and, as they are doing so, they are coming up with a clearer understanding of exactly what the creative folks can get away with. During that phase, we get new rules on just how many creatures, or visual effects, or anything, really, we can have in any given area. The key is to be ready to be adaptable.

We have a full story, full cinematics, high-quality professional voice-acting and everything you’d expect in a single-player game, but with hundreds and hundreds of hours of story per class. Really, it’s the biggest role-playing game ever created. And you can play it with all your friends.

DIG: What’s the coolest technology in this game?

E.L.: We have 800,000 lines of dialogue in this game, which is the equivalent of 60 Star Wars novels. We created a fully voiced-over dialogue system to utilize real actors. Fortunately, we’ve had plenty of experience with voice-over at BioWare, so we were able to rely on well-established processes and technologies like lip-synching.

It is truly a monumental task, dealing with a quantity of assets rarely seen in game development and with a very rigid production pipeline — after all, you need to schedule around real actors, some of them in foreign countries. This tech, even though it is not particularly new or particularly complex to code, really brings a sense of immersion to the game.

What we’ve found, and what all players know, is that an uninteresting dialogue is still uninteresting with full voice-over. So that’s a place where the technology is an enabler, but the creative part is still what really matters in the end. We want people to really enjoy the personal stories of their characters and see what it does to their way of playing. Hopefully, they’re going to really care about what’s happening to their characters.

DIG: How has this dialogue technology opened up a new variety of experiences?

E.L.: We have our class stories. There are eight different classes and each one has their own unique story that takes them from the beginning of the game all the way to the end, and they each feel very different. The Smuggler is an action-comedy. The Bounty Hunter is more of a Western. You’ve got the big drama of the Sith and the noble things of the Jedi. It really takes it in different directions.

We’ve added a lot more Heroic Quests, which are just normal quests on the ground, but you need a full party for them. It really helps with socializing, getting people together, and really getting them trained for what they’re going to need later for both the Flash Points and the Raids.

DIG: What will players experience in the Flash Points and Raids in this game?

E.L.: Flash Points are the Old Republic’s take on dungeons. That’s where you take your one party, go in and have some of the most amazing cinematic stories. You make huge choices that can destroy worlds and propel the story in different directions. It makes for some of the game’s most amazing moments.

Raids are about multiple teams of people, whether they’re eight-player or 16-player missions, all trying to work together for one common goal. It’s really about coordination and keeping people together to take on the biggest and baddest bosses. They’re probably our most story-light stuff, but they still have a lot of good story and a lot of good context to it. Raids are a way for us to reward players who have achieved tons of power through their story progression. One of the things you can do is participate in the operations, which are really challenging quests that you play with other players at the same time.

DIG: What are some of the activities your BioWare engine technology has opened up?

E.L.: Every player has their own ship. You can use your ship as transport to travel from place to place and go all over the galaxy. Once you get your ship, the galaxy is open and it’s yours. It’s also your base of operations for your crew skills, which is our take on crafting. Your companions all live on the ship; that’s where they do their crafting. They’re going to build stuff and make armor and do whatever it is that you like to do.

There’s also the War Zone, where you fight other players in PVP (player versus player) matches. These matches are brutal, fast and very entertaining. That’s something players can start encountering around Level 10. They can just push a button and get queued up and go play. It’s a really fun distraction and a great way to learn how to play your class. Instead of fighting the AI, which is not as smart sometimes, you fight other players. You really have to be on top of your game. It captures a lot of the best things we’ve seen in other games’ PVP and it put a little story twist on it. You know why you’re fighting, and you know what the battles are about. It’s just good fun.

DIG: What impact do you hope this game has on the MMO genre once it’s released?

E.L.: At the very least, it’s going to create a new subgenre of the MMO type. The inclusion of story does change the way you play, and it changes something about the game. It’s its own category that we hope will be successful.

At the best, this game will move the entire MMO industry toward [story-based gameplay]. Once you play it and you go to play another game, you’re asking things like, “Who’s my character? Why is he here?” We’ll see whether it just creates a subgenre or whether it changes the genre itself — but it should have an impact.