The time period of Star Wars: The Old Republic was chosen as deliberately as that of Knights of the Old Republic. Set 3,000 years before Darth Vader and 300 years after KotOR, Bioware is able to move around in the time line while keeping the continuity of the Star Wars expanded universe in mind as they write their story.
"Being set in a new time period, we can use the content to weave a new story," said Alexander Freed. "We are telling the story of the origins of the Sith Empire." A different empire than the one of KotOR or the one run by Emperor Palpatine, in SWTOR, the gamer will see the different strata of the Sith Empire; the slaves, the imperial families, the regular middle class, the conquered planets, and of course the upper echelon, the Sith themselves.
Bioware has enjoyed a reputation for excellent story telling. From Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter Nights, from Knights of the Old Republic to Mass Effect, story has driven their games and they are determined to bring that story to an MMO.
"This is larger than anything we've ever done," said Dallas Dickinson, Senior Content Producer. "There are already more lines of dialogue in SWTOR than all the Bioware games put together."
The Knights of the Old Republic was the Jedi story. In the MMO, we are playing the Smuggler, the Bounty Hunter and the Empire Trooper among other yet unrevealed classes. "The class stories are unique and 100% different from each other," said Alexander, "to use a comic book analogy, it's like summer crossovers, where the story weaves through other different characters and stories."
There is great challenge to bringing an IP like this to the MMO genre and part of it is keeping true to the canon of the expanded Star Wars universe, making sure everything in the present continuity is kept in its own time and place. "It's an honor to be writing a version of the Star Wars story," said Alexander. "We will be drawing from the current expanded universe and we've got a huge database that we are constantly referring to and referencing."
Art Director Jeff Dobson promises us a vibrant and colorful world with different looks and feels for each planet. "We've developed our own style. It is realism but in Bioware's own style. Each planet has its own signature palette of colors," said Jeff.
The visual differences between the classes are harder to read in Star Wars, but they will be there in the game. "We won't have huge shoulder armor in SWTOR," said Jeff, "but there will be plenty of visual cues to distinguish the different classes from each other. A bounty hunter will look different from a smuggler, and a Sith from a Jedi." The color palette will also help with blacks, reds and purples representing the Sith and blues, greens and browns representing the Jedi.
"Lando and Han had different looks," Dallas remarked, "but you'd never mistake either for bounty hunters."
"Both the bounty hunter and the smuggler are gun classes," added Jeff. "Han Solo epitomizes the look of the smuggler. Lithe, quick and lightly, if at all, armored. Boba Fett is the bounty hunter with heavy armor."
All classes will also have their ranged as well as close combat skills. "Players will be able to use weapons to put their targets back into the correct range for their primary weapon skill," said Dallas, "A stun for example, so you can run up and engage in close combat or move further away for ranged combat."
Combat will be easy to get into, especially in the lower levels. The game will be designed for solo as well as group play. "SWTOR is not just about the single player experience," said Dallas, "It's an MMO and will contain the various features one expects to find in an MMO."
We spoke on the nuances in the classes next. Gamers may play the same class, but may play them very differently. At character creation, players choose to be Light or Dark, but regardless of their class and affiliation, players make decisions along their career that shift them toward the light or dark, and the powers they attain will reflect that.
Qui-gon Jin was brought up as the definitive "grey" Jedi. He is a Jedi, but was one who would do things his way. As to whether one could tip over to the other, Dallas would not confirm nor deny if that feature was in the game.
There will be a lot of iconic hero and villain characters in the game. Players will meet them as they move along their class stories and they will meet other class iconic characters in quests as well, although to know their story in game, they will have to play the other class.
In true Bioware style, the decisions players make in game will change their entire play experience of that quest. "There will be real impact to player decisions," said Dallas, "there's no SAVE button in an MMO."
"One specific answer in a quest line won't be a decision that makes the player hate his character," Alexander elaborated. "It's not like I've offered you 12 cups of tea and you've accepted everyone but I jump on you for accepting the 13th for no other reason than it's the 13th cup."
You don't spoil your character with a single decision. It is a cumulative effect. Of course some decisions are more monumental than others and we saw that in the play through at E3 where the decision to kill or not kill the Shuttle Captain changed the entire game play experience for the player. Just remember... it is a Bioware game. You will also have companion characters that will be affected by your decisions. At this time in the development of the game, we are only told that the usual MMO features will be in game. Yes, there will be PvP in game, with the mechanics revealed at a later date. Crafting, auction houses and the galactic economy will be in game. There won't be permanent death, but the death mechanic is also not something they are ready to talk about.
"We don't want to talk about features we ourselves have not decided upon or fleshed out," said Dallas, "We don't want to tell you something about the game that may or may not change three months down the road."
The game is going to be massive as well as immersive. Bioware has expanded their studios greatly and we are told of studios in Austin, Taiwan as well as Singapore. It will be the first of its genre to be fully voiced with interactive conversation and quests that actually change gameplay, making for an immersive experience, connecting players to the story and game universe. For now though, we wait. Practice patience young padawan, and choose wisely when the time comes.