Creating the Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic Senior Content Producer Dallas Dickinson pens this dev journal discussing the job of the content team and the monumental task of constructing the the Star Wars universe in an MMO which he describes as "essentially building Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) 3 through KOTOR 10, and then shipping them all at once."
What, exactly, does a “Senior Content Producer” do, you may well ask? My job is to make sure that everyone on the different groups that make up the Content Team is working together, communicating clearly and all focused on a single goal. This translates into lots and lots of planning meetings followed by lots and lots of Bug Triage to ensure that we fix the bugs that are most critical to getting a smooth gameplay experience.
How do you make sure that the largest BioWare/LucasArts game ever made happens on time, at the level of quality that people expect from BioWare? Various members of our team have said this in the press before, but I think that folks have generally thought we were being glib. Let me be clear. We aren’t kidding. Building Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ is essentially building Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™ (KOTOR) 3 through KOTOR 10, and then shipping them all at once. There is as much story content here as in all BioWare games combined. As you might imagine, making sure this content all gets done, tested and tuned is a massive undertaking, and it requires the dedication and focus of everyone on the content team to make it all happen.
Our Content Team actually consists of many sub-teams: Writing, Worldbuilding, Scripting, Environmental Art, Combat Design, Combat Art (animations and f/x), Combat Programming, Gameplay Systems Design, UI Art, Gameplay Systems Programming, Audio and of course Quality Assurance. Each of these teams has a huge amount of work to get done, and they all need to coordinate on a per-planet basis. We are very committed to early playability and testing to make sure we are making a fun, complete game.
For instance, the planet of Korriban (home world of the Sith) went through the following process:
- First the Writing team researched every single detail about Korriban. Having the lead designer from KOTOR as our lead designer helped a great deal but there’s been plenty of fantastic fiction written about the planet since then and it’s important to our fiction teams that we are accurate and embrace the legacy of the great content creators that came before us.
- Reams of history and look & feel documents in hand, the Writing team then set out to create the basic stories and quests for the planet. This involved first a high level overview document that detailed exactly what was happening politically and socially on the planet, as well as what experience we wanted the Players to have and what Classes were going to be adventuring there.
- After the prep work came the real writing, rewriting, peer reviews and more rewriting until we knew Korriban was exactly what we wanted it to be. Good writing comes from rewriting and the same fearless commitment to quality over ego that the entire creation team has to have. Though we knew more changes would come later, we finally had something to start the rest of the process with.
- Next the Concept Art team painted concepts for all of the major areas and art assets for the planet. Every single piece of Korriban from the furniture to the interrogation rooms has to have a particular look and the Concept team worked tirelessly to make sure they had captured the essence of the Sith Empire and what their most sacred planet would feel like.
- While Concept was working the Scripting team hooked up the stories and quests in a basic, box test level, so that a first round of feedback could be assessed. Revisions were made for pacing and structure. Interactive storytelling is far more than dialogue writing and at each stage we have to reevaluate how the experience feels.
- Once we were happy with the test level scripting, the Worldbuilding team laid out a simple version of the planet in our game engine (basic look, proper layout and size), ran through the grey world to plan game flow and visual storytelling. Again there were many revisions and whole sections of Korriban that needed to be rearranged because they didn’t pass muster. Only then was it handed off to the Environmental Art team.
- The Environmental artists then took that simple grey planet and lovingly painted it, filled it with objects, created the terrain and brought it to life, finally lighting it to match the concept art exactly.
- Then came the Combat Systems team (design, art and programming) to build and test all of the character classes (abilities, combat effects, pathing, NPC behaviors, etc) that would be on Korriban and make sure they specifically played well on the planet that had been built. Spawns were moved, skills adjusted, to make the experience the best it could be.
- At the same time the Gameplay systems team (design, UI art and programming) built all of the complex RPG systems you would expect (looting, inventory, quest journals, maps, etc) that make it a complete game.
- Once everything was running as expected, the Audio team had to come in and add the sound effects and music that give Korriban its mood and style.
- And finally, the QA team had to play through the game at every single step and make sure it was all functioning as designed—despite all of the groups above tweaking with things constantly. That’s a huge job by itself.
This doesn’t even take into account all the work that the Client and Server programming teams are doing to add features, optimize the way the game runs, and ensure that the game looks good and runs fast with all of the constraints that a MMO puts on its technology and hardware.
All of this has to happen at essentially the same time, and it has to be done in a way such that a) nobody is stepping on anyone else’s toes and b) the end result is a complete, playable experience that we feel comfortable putting in front of people who weren’t working directly on the game. And did I mention that this is just one planet? We have multiple planets being worked on at any given time, so that we have a constant flow of testable content finishing up every few weeks for internal testing.
This is what my job entails. Luckily, it also means that I “have to” play the game a lot. I’m thrilled to be a part of a company with the legacy of quality that BioWare has. On top of that, to be working on a project that is the successor to KOTOR is like the icing on the cake.
Dallas Dickinson Senior Content Producer
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