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James Ohlen on BioWare Storytelling

Star Wars: The Old Republic Interviews - By Gareth Harmer on August 10, 2015

James Ohlen on BioWare Storytelling

It’s an incredible year for Star Wars fans. Episode VII: The Force Awakens arrives in cinemas later this year. Star Wars: Battlefront hits PCs and consoles in November. And with our own genre, Knights of the Fallen Empire, the latest expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic, will open from October 27.

Touted as a ‘return to BioWare storytelling,’ KOTFE will see us become ‘The Outlander’, a veteran of the great Galactic War. When the expansion launches, we’ll have nine chapters of new episodic content to play through, with further updates planned shortly after the holiday season. For more information on how that’ll work, I caught up with James Ohlen, Game Director on SWTOR, over at Gamescom.

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Before I get into any of the story reveals shared at Gamescom, it’s worth catching up with

Bill Murphy’s and Jean Prior’s previews on what we’ve already discovered. During the event in Cologne, we were also shown content from Chapter 3, including the famous Carbonite defrosting scene on the planet Zakuul. Which led me to the first question – just how would the transition be handled?

“I don’t want to do spoilers, but I can say that the defeat of the Empire and Republic don’t come instantaneously - it takes a period of time for it to occur.” Ohlen went on to explain that he liked to look at the current game in a similar way to Episode I, II and III of the films, with IV, V and VI being similar the phase they’re entering now. “So you had the wars and everything that happened before, and then some time has passed, and then this is a new era, with new heroes and new villains. But the player is that figure that bridges both gaps. He’s almost like an Obi Wan, except he’s an Obi Wan that doesn’t die! [laughs] It’s that kind of feel.”

Ohlen’s team is also keen to keep supplying new content, with nine chapters being delivered when the expansion launches. Folowing a break for the holiday season, the studio is planning to follow that up with regular updates, possibly as frequent as every month.

“We want to have a game that’s very similar to a TV series. Not a weekly TV series because we just don’t have the ability to produce a new episode every week, but we would love to do a monthly cadence. Now I can’t really promise that because I’ll be killed, but that’s where our goal is. Whenever we’ve had a cadence that’s regular and expected and that fans can trust in, that’s been very successful for us and so that’s what we want to do. We want fans to know that, no matter what, their next episode is going to land on this date. And then it’s going to continue to have the same cadence throughout the year.”

Building the Story

It was abundantly clear, from what I saw at Gamescom, that the cutscene quality in KOTFE has improved significantly. According to Ohlen, it’s something the team has been working on for a long time. “We’ve been focusing a lot on improving the tools and processes for our cinematic designers, and we have been putting a lot of effort in our cinematic tools, and making sure that the team and the tools and the pipelines are going to be able to produce high quality cinematic content on a regular basis.”

“One of the first steps towards that was Shadow of Revan from last year, but we feel we’re there now. So yes, the cinematics that you’re going to see are probably the best we’ve ever done in the game, and you’re going to see a lot of them. And that has to do with the tools, but it also has a lot to do with the team focusing on making sure we can do the best BioWare storytelling possible.”

According to Ohlen, that signature storytelling isn’t just about good quality cinematics, but is also about having meaningful choices with consequences that matter.“We hear the complaints, we know that players feel that you had choices in the original campaigns, but they didn’t have as much of an impact as we would have liked. So we’re making sure that we put more of an emphasis on that. […] We also heard from fans that they don’t want artificial, filler content in their game, so that’s something else we’re really focusing on.”

“What if you had an epic Bioware story, a ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ you could say, like in the Old Republic universe, where it was just focused on telling an epic story where the player was the hero, and you got great choices, and everything you love about choices and cinematic storytelling was there.”

As for having meaningful choices, Ohlen also agreed that it’s likely to improve replayability when playing alts. “Yes, for sure. If you have multiple characters, I’m pretty sure you’re going to want to play through Knights of the Fallen Empire multiple times, just to see how it all rolls out depending on your choice.”

Changing Up Companions

With other famous BioWare franchises such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, a hero’s companions would change with each sequel – some would stay, others would drift away or become NPCs, and new ones would join up in their place. The same approach is being taken with KOTFE, as Ohlen explained. “Maybe at the beginning they’ll be a little bit apprehensive, but I think once they see how good the story is, and the fact that we haven’t pulled an Alien 3 and just killed off the favourite characters - they’re still around and we’re going to make use of them. We know that they’re characters that people are very much attached to. But make use of them in different ways.”

“One of the lessons we learned from Star Wars: The Old Republic is that I think we were too conservative with our companions. We let gameplay decide, we didn’t want players to not have access to certain characters for gameplay purposes because we felt that would be bad in a massively multiplayer game. And now, looking back at it, there’s other solutions we could have done there while still having that ‘BioWare Choice Matters” element to the game. We can still have the player impact companions, or lose and not have companions, and it won’t affect the gameplay long-term.”

A Deal for Fans

The focus on an epic storyline isn’t by accident. As Ohlen described, it’s also the result of regular, meaningful involvement with the community. “There’s two ways that they give input. There’s the communication obviously either from the forums or from the community events. But then there’s also the communication that we get from metrics that we gather on play style and everything else. Both of them really pointed to one thing, which is that story is the central theme and the best part of Star Wars: The Old Republic. It’s what all our fans wanted. If we could give them an endless epic Star Wars story, they would be happy campers for the rest of their lives.”

“That’s not to say that the other elements of the MMO aren’t important – we have a big contingent of fans in PVP warzones, we have a big contingent of fans who like the coop flashpoints and operations, and those are systems that we’re going to support because they’re a big part of an online world – but the story is really what our community would love to see a lot more of.”

It’s a similar story elsewhere. When I asked Ohlen about the recent community poll on future mounts, and the huge call for Basilisk War Droids, he responded “No promises, but there’s a good chance that it will show up.”

Surprisingly, Knights of the Fallen Empire won’t come with its own price tag. Instead, anyone who’s a subscriber will be able to leap into the new content when it opens on October 27. When you mix in the high rate of planned updates, I asked Ohlen how he was able to make money on the whole deal.

“There’s a whole bunch of answers there. We actually had lots of discussions, and then it became the obvious answer. Obviously, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a business, and needs to continue to roll so that we can continue to produce this great content. But, like a TV series, we want our fans to be at the same moment in time – we don’t want our fans to be scattered across all the different episodes. If you think of a service like HBO, you can binge watch and get to the most current episode, and be with everyone else, and we feel that’s important for our fans as well. So if we gated them by making content cost money, we feel that would not make a good community. So you become a subscriber, you get all the content.”

“But also, we really feel that if you have a vibrant community of subscribers and fans, you’re going to be successful no matter what. Instead of taking the short-term look and saying ‘hey, we can make a bunch of money when we release in October,’ we want to take the long term look. We want to have a healthy Star Wars: The Old Republic universe for years, and so this is a way to encourage more people to come back and we’ve really lowered the barriers of entry.”

As we wrapped up, I asked Ohlen about the longer term future. Would KOTFE be the final large expansion, and would monthly updates take over? “Personally, I would love to continue doing big events every year for Star Wars: The Old Republic. So no, I don’t see it as being the last expansion. I see it as being a refocusing of Star Wars: The Old Republic, but I want to do exciting things every year. That’s what our fans want, that’s what the team wants. So if we can make it happen – which I think we can – there’s nothing saying that in 2016 we won’t have equally exciting things to talk about.

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.