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SWTOR's complex challenge: BioWare story in an MMO world
 SWTOR 's complex challenge: BioWare story in an MMO world
October 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Programming, Art, Design, GDC Online



BioWare's Damion Schubert is a systems designer, not a writer. Yet he ended up dealing with those elements anyway, as the first designer with MMO experience on a team of traditional BioWare writers. His job was to tell them what elements of an MMO need to be considered in the story design process.

MMOs are difficult, balancing concerns of server architecture, massive content, class balance and more. Even though BioWare has a formidable pedigree in the industry, taking the quality for which its teams are known and applying it to the MMO space would be a new challenge.

Yet there were some advantages, too: The Star Wars license was uniquely suited to the MMO environment, with both human and non-human enemies, strong visual combat, and a strong heroic arc, plus it's accessible to both casual and hardcore fan audiences. Further, BioWare had made Knights of the Old Republic, and had a relationship to the world.

Story naturally means different things in different games. BioWare traditionally focuses on very narrative-oriented freeform stories that players can experience with some determinism. Most writers struggle with the challenge of writing choice where all options are equally viable in terms of continuing with the game in a pleasing way.

"No choice is so bad it actually kills the game experience entirely, and going with choice is the idea of consequences of your actions," explains Schubert. "'Your character is affected, but your decisions also actually affect the world around you."

Companion characters are also an important component of the BioWare experience; they're essentially story elements that can come with you, making the narrative personal. Cinematic presentation is another key BioWare trait.

In classic BioWare games, consequences matter, but players can always go and reload save states to explore "the road not taken." But there's no way to "go back" in an MMO, and players would have to live with the way their choices affect the online world. Rather than conceive of that as a limitation, Schubert says players were intrigued by this new ground for MMOs. MMOs require a staggering amount of content, however, and at the level of time and quality BioWare usually invests, this made the budget of the game massive.

Plus implementing choices that have permanent, "BioWare impact" on the game world is nigh impossible in a place that all players share. For example, you couldn't burn down a town or permanently impact major people in the world through your actions. "We had to drive our stories to be more personal and less about the world around you," Schubert explains.

"We wanted each story to really feel like it was about someone of that class," he explains. "We wanted the knight to have a Luke Skywalker story, we wanted the warrior to have a Darth Vader story, and we wanted the smuggler to have a Han Solo story." Doing this was a content risk, meaning the team had to write eight different stories, and that those who play one class and stop only see an eighth of the best content.

Designing for choice and personal arcs for each class in an MMO environment was an incredible amount of content that even the BioWare team wasn't prepared for, especially given that the incredibly deep and long-standing Star Wars universe required a special attention to approval from publisher LucasArts.

Starting months ahead with the story put the team ahead in content creation, but it also led to mistakes, since the team had to start writing before the world was underway and before the game mechanics were well-defined. At launch the game had 260,000 lines of dialogue, and featured 321 actors playing 4,094 characters whose performances were recorded across 17 recording studios. It took 1,600 sessions to record almost 275 hours of voiceover -- not counting aliens and non-English speakers! -- and content is still being added as we speak.

"We had too many quests," says Schubert. Players had trouble keeping track of the storylines, and quest delivery mechanisms would have to evolve to avoid the problem of overwhelming people with too many quests per hub. Unfortunately VO was often recorded and localized before problems with the quests emerged. For example, in one case a nearly-defeated boss springs back to knock the Jedi Knight out, and the player is meant to wake up on another planet a year later.

"What happens to your group in that situation?" Schubert points out. "It just didn't make any sense. It's something that works great in a single-player game but in the context of the MMO is a lot more problematic."

Thanks to the magic of astromechs and aliens, BioWare could do some clever hacking of quests that turned out to be broken or nonsensical as the game evolved. "Pretty much anytime you're having a conversation in our game with a guy who's important, and out of nowhere, his friend the R2 unit pipes up? Yeah that's us doing surgery," Schubert reveals.

The massive, multifaceted quests constantly in need of tinkering made keeping things in sync challenging enough -- but to make matters worst, writers originally wrote quests so that different classes were to go to different quest hubs at different times. Maintaining sync among those destinations became a priority, and subtle differences in mission length had huge social impacts. The philosophy of "class stories are done alone" definitely had to change.

BioWare stories rely on the dramatic pacing of ambushing, when an unexpected approach changes the direction of the story. "Our writers were very, very cranky when they were told they had to do these things a lot less," says Schubert.

Teleportation plays such a huge role in MMO, so players could never be ambushed on the way out of dungeons, where they could often be expected to skip that exit process. Players have so much control over routes and destinations that it made it much harder for the team to conceal ambush moments and surprise the player.

The light side/dark side divide made choices much more complicated. For example, love is considered a "dark side" value in the Star Wars universe, and flirting would add "dark side" points to a character trying to be on the light side, so the team had to communicate much more clearly. Overall the nuance of the two different sides made it more complicated to wrangle story choices so they were sensible for players.

"The combat team had to change how the companion characters were, in order to make them more useful and give them more combat roles, and they pretty much gave every class a healer," says Schubert. The companion character was always meant to die, but in one case that character was the healer, which meant that story element had to see an 11th-hour edit. "We just could not take your healer away from you. We were actually afraid of the customer service cost involved in that."

Ultimately the game is a very mixed success -- its development costs have been estimated at $150 million, and it saw a subscriber falloff not long after launch from which it has yet to recover. The team has seen departures since then, most notably The Old Republic's lead writer, Daniel Erickson, while BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk themselves decided it was a good time to explore new roles outside of games.

Schubert says he's pleased with the sales and the game still enjoys a considerable subscriber base, but declined to reveal exactly how long The Old Republic spent in development when asked in the session Q&A.

Nonetheless, he says he's incredibly proud of his team and in particular noted that the game's story is often cited as its strongest suit in its critical reception. A closer partnership with the writers and the world-builders earlier on might have taken the dev process further, Schubert reflects.

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.


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Comments


Alan Rimkeit
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And all we KOTOR fans wanted was KOTOR 3. But what do the fans know? We are only the customers. Yes I am beating that dead horse. I don't care. It should have been done and now it shows.

What a wasted opportunity. They should have planned a KOTOR trilogy from the start. But I guess Mass Effect took precedence. Oh well. I am not playing SWTOR anymore as I just don't have the time for an MMO.

Too bad because SWTOR has an amazingly high production level. Over all it is a great game. I guess I am missing that level of satisfaction of having a start, middle, and end that a traditional single player RPG has. MMO's are all so open ended. That is good for people who like that sort of thing I guess.

I can see how managing so many levels of story lines could be very very difficult as well. It looks to be a god level juggling act of epic proportions.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jonathan Jennings
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good to know i'm not the only bioware fan who was a little disappointed to hear my Kotor would be going online instead of continuing the singleplayer series especially after all the lessons i am sure bioware as a whole learned from mass effect.

Maria Jayne
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I think it was a brave attempt to bring kotor to an mmo. It's just they could have made 3 kotors for the budget they had.

...and every one of them could have been less linear in story.

Bob Allen
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And I'm sure all the Warcraft fans really wanted was Warcraft IV but Blizzard had to get greedy and go after that Everquest money...
And to this day there are still Mac gamers bemoaning the loss of the Halo RTS that morphed into the killer app for the Xbox 1.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Bob Allen - Sorry Bob, but SWTOR is no killer app.

And yes, real Warcraft fans do still want Warcraft IV. That is a fact. I know I do.

It is also a fact that more KOTOR fans I know would take a KOTOR 3 a hundred times over SWTOR.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Frankly I just want a KOTOR 2 that's bug free...but I wholly agree with you.

And Bob-yeah, we desperately want a WCIV, but there's a key difference here-there's only one current way to scratch that Warcraft itch, and its to play WoW (arguably still the king of the tab targeting holy trinity MMOs). Hell, getting to go up close and explore in Azeroth is still a bit of a thrill, especially when new content drops.

TOR is just the billionth Star Wars game. As Revan, Kyle Katarn, or Starkiller, I've already downed the most massive creatures and robots the SW universe has to offer, and I've already gotten to go through tightly crafted single player stories-there's nothing new or interesting that TOR can offer. I've visited tons of those planets before. Hell, I briefly played Galaxies, so I've gotten to socially interact on a virtual Tatooine.

Blizzard took Everquest's idea and did it better, utilizing a strong IP that is fleshed out and explored in a way we had previously never gotten to see. TOR is just meh.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Kellam Templeton-Smith - A KOTOR 2 with a truly finished ending that is bug free would be very nice too. Me, I would love for Bioware to take the Unreal 3 engine that made ME3 and remake KOTOR and KOTOR 2. Then make KOTOR 3! I would pay large cash for that to happen.

Mitchell Fujino
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Just to be clear, BioWare didn't make KotOR 2.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Yes, we're all well aware that Obsidian made it.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Mitchell Fujino - Yes, we know. O.o But they SHOULD have.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I expressed my opinions in the situation in detail a couple months ago: http://gamasutra.com/view/news/175409/What_went_wrong_with_Star_W
ars_The_Old_Republic.php#.UHRu4hXA8gU

I think the shortage of MMO design veterans on the design team lead to the end product being "Massively Single Player". There are ways to make some of the content cyclical so that you can compress the content a bit. Giving much greater incentives to play through all of the story arcs would have helped tremendously. Making a world where most areas are only used once by a customer is not good bang for your buck on the developer side. Two very profitable titles that I showcased in my recent "Supremacy Goods" paper, World of Tanks and League of Legends, have much smaller content that is cycled over and over. As long as the game is actually fun this works.

This doesn't mean that large scale virtual world development is dead or pointless, but there should be a very good reason to go that route before it is chosen, and it is worth going outside of your inner circle to gather talent and skills that are not present in your inner circle.

Christian Schmidt
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I'm intrigued. Would you care to share your data points regarding your assertion of "I think the shortage of MMO design veterans on the design team lead to the end product being "Massively Single Player"."?

Are you familiar enough with the design team in such granularity that you can make the assumption there was a shortage of MMO design veterans? Please enlighten me...

Charles Durham
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There were plenty of MMO veterans on the design team.

Paul Peak
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I agree to the extent that I felt they tried to create far too much unique content which lead to a bloated budget. I feel like the basic design of Mass Effect's mission structure would be better suited to an MMO with the N7 missions that can reuse locations and set pieces the way the MP does. I also feel like the next time Bioware or someone else tries this they should consider breaking up and spacing out the story content over time. It would not only spread the budget out but it would also encourage players to pay a subscription if new content is coming on a regular basis.

Mike Jenkins
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Ramin that piece is still the closest to mirroring my own views on why SWTOR was a failure - at least the lack of social interactions section. I happen to believe the subscription model is completely viable for a well made virtual world, but not for the current trend of "theme park" games. Thank you for writing it.

Ron Dippold
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I have to say I really enjoyed the game on two playthroughs as massively singleplayer (smuggler and inquisitor). I even did a bit of grouping, usually with good results. There was tons of content. But at that point it's just more Star Wars of Warcraft (different setting but all the same all mechanisms), and it's time to move on to another game.

Jonathan Eve
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SWTOR has a great narrative for a MMO, that's a fact.
But is it really what the MMO crowd was looking for?

Every time I've played with friends I felt guilty to make them wait while I was looking at my storyline(either they already saw it or they were the kind of player that skips cinematics). So I basically had to choose between the MMO experience or the Bioware experience... Never both at the same time.

I feel sorry for Bioware... But the MMO platform is just not a great platform to have deep and profound storylines.

Alan Rimkeit
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"I feel sorry for Bioware... But the MMO platform is just not a great platform to have deep and profound storylines."

THIS :(

TC Weidner
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umm fellas the line to save the rebellion and the princess starts over there, the wait should be no more than 25 minutes.

Yeah nothing like story telling in a static theme park universe.

Alan Rimkeit
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Oh right, that's why the Mass Effect series sold over 7 million units. No one wants to play single player RPG's anymore, that is obvious. o.O

TC Weidner
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@Alan
Who are you responding to? Your comments dont make any sense in response to mine.

Where did I say no one wants to play a single player RPG? Do you even understand the references and meaning of static theme park? Im guessing not.

Alan Rimkeit
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@TC Weidner - Well, it looks like you are referring to single player game experiences such as the original KOTOR. Am I wrong? If not I guess I misunderstood.

And no, I do not understand the meaning of "static theme park". I Googled it and came up with nothing.

Mike Jenkins
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Yes Alan, you are wrong.

He means MMO mechanics do not work with linear storylines.

Getting a quest to kill John Doe, then seeing 50 other people waiting to kill John Doe, and waiting for John Doe to respawn, are so immersion killing that you may as well not bother telling the story at all. Obviously these are not issues in games like Mass Effect.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Mike Jenkins - Than yes, I misunderstood completely. I also then agree with his statement. Consider myself informed on the idea of a "static theme park".

Thus the need for KOTOR 3.

My apologizes to TC Weidner for the misunderstanding.

Mike Jenkins
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I didn't finish the story of my first character before my free month ended, and I wasn't compelled in any way to continue playing. Having the bulk of the content split 8 ways was not an issue for me, as I didn't even finish one of those eighths. Make the game fun, make the game world interesting, make content unsoloable to become worth conquering, and make items difficult to attain thus worth the time to acquire. These are the reasons SWTOR is a bad game and likely never to be fixed, in my opinion.


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