A SWTOR Context

UPDATE (11/18/2019): There has been some concern that I represented myself as an employee of Bioware-Austin, even though nowhere have I said that. I did contract testing for the game. I’ve stated this in other articles I’ve written, such as The Art of Attention to Detail in Exploratory Testing, Gaming Like a Tester, and Testing Like a Gamer. The basis of how that work started was covered in Enhancing Testing Skills By Playing Games. So if I’ve been “lying” about all this, I’ve been doing it with the long game in mind, apparently, having started my posts back in 2012. I can assure people I would not — on my professional, career-relevant blog that is used to provide some of my business — put a series of fictions that had no basis in fact. However, I would also not lie and say I was an employee of someone I was not.

Bioware even initially gave me an “infraction” which they had to reverse. (See below.) This had to be reversed because they realized I never “impersonated” anyone and my “insinuation” was not that, but rather direct statements of contract testing, which I was able to demonstrate with a signed NDA and 1099 forms.

Now … on to the original post …

There is a lot of sentiment around the game Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’s current development, and it’s possible future. I’ve found in a few of these conversations that people do appreciate a bit of context. Historical context is often the best of all.

Perhaps people remember this post regarding former developer Daniel Erickson.

A lot of the discussions I’ve seen here suggest it’s helpful to call out a few points from Daniel’s interview. I dusted off some of my own notes from the time but because mine will be largely (if not entirely) anecdotal, I wanted to fill in some aspects of what Daniel said. I don’t ask nor expect anyone to outright believe anything I say here. I can only hope that a certain level of cohesion with what we see now will resonate with folks.

So, let’s take some quotes from that interview:

“At the peak of Bioware Austin SWTOR development, they had 200+ developers with about that many more working offsite, freelance, etc”

That “200+” was by no means all dedicated to SWTOR as the quote maybe seems to make it sound but it is true that there was quite a bit. That was the alpha team. And it certainly was slightly over 100 dedicated people; that included contractors who were doing some development and some testing. “Developers” here was a broad term because this also included project and product folks. When did layoffs happen?

We don’t have to guess. See this article. Greg Zeschuk, co-founder of BioWare says:

“Hey folks, since you’re reading this you may likely have heard that we’ve done some restructuring here on the SWTOR team. Sadly, we are bidding farewell to some talented, passionate and exceptionally hard-working people who helped make SWTOR a reality. Impacting people’s lives this way is always very hard, but we’re ensuring the affected people are treated with dignity, fairness and respect.”

That was in, as I mentioned in a post on the official SWTOR forums, 2012 and you can see that in the timestamp of the article. So any fears about Anthem recently impacting SWTOR’s alpha team are misplaced. That team was refocused, reassigned, or let go many years ago.

A New (KOTOR) Hope

“We started talking about the MMO when we were still making DAO and James’ vision was far more BioWare than MMO.”

This was the fabled KOTOR 3 that a lot of people talk about. What a lot of people might not know is that the original plan was two story lines.

Return of the Jedi … and Sith

Sith and Jedi. The story for Jedi was a combination of the Consular and the Knight. The Sith was a combination of the Warrior and the Inquisitor. It was actually pretty epic in that you could make a lot of micro- and macro-decisions along the way.

Basically imagine, for example, the Knight and the Consular — all their quests, side missions, and so on — available on one class. It was pretty sprawling to say the least.

The two stories would directly intersect, somewhat as they do in SWTOR but the key being that the Inquisitor and the Warrior could choose a Wrath or a Dark Council position. The Consular and the Knight would both fight the Children of the Emperor and deal with the Emperor at the end. A choice could be made regarding the Jedi Council or a focus on Barsen’thor. So you can see the mirror paths that were possible:

  • Jedi: You join the Council or become the Warden of the Order.
  • Sith: You join the Council or become the Wrath.

It was thematically parallel so there were more story intersections planned than you currently see in SWTOR.

The book Revan by Drew Karpyshyn (initially released at the end of 2011 in hardcover) was absolutely intended as a complete tie-in to those two stories, including those intersections. Without spoiling too much, this book involved Scourge and the “Hero of Tython” vision. This was following the WoW model a bit in terms of a lot of lore being available in books as well as in-game. Obviously the book Deceived by Paul Kemp (released earlier in 2011) followed that same pattern and was a setup for the events of the Cold War in the game.

The book Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams (originally released in 2010, mind you) was meant to showcase a Republic/Empire teaming up which was going to factor into some elements of the story of KOTOR 3/SWTOR.

(Keep in mind that the original plan for SWTOR was a release in mid-2010. It was known in 2008 that it would not be called KOTOR 3.)

Finally, those who wonder how late the idea of Theron Shan was and the story arcs we’re now seeing, consider the book Annihilation by Drew Karpyshyn (first published in hardcover in late 2012), which focused on Theron.

It’s perhaps telling that further books in the Old Republic series were entirely shelved. That “shelving” happened in 2012.

In case you’re wondering how Bioware dropped the ball so badly on Scourge (<– opinion), this shows how they started to abandon a lot of the original ideas. For anyone who read the book Revan (whether you liked it or not), it’s clear that the setup was there. Events in the game like the Revanites on Dromund Kaas, the Infinite Engine quest on Nar Shaddaa, and The Foundry were all continuing that arc.

The notion of Theron and his story arc, given how variable people perceive it, can also be attributed a bit to the original ideas (showcased in these various books that were meant to be teasers for game content; all of which were canceled except for Annihilation) and where the team ended up going story-wise. There is, to be sure, a lot of overlap. But you can also see where the seams are stretching a bit, if you will, from a narrative cohesion standpoint.

Back to Daniel’s interview:

“Basically a huge, sprawling, ever expanding BioWare storyline with a multiplayer marketplace, social spaces and PVP.”

The idea wasn’t so much “MMO” as it was a multiplayer experience that was attached to a very broad two-campaign single-player experience that would be the definitive entry in the KOTOR series. The expanding story line is a key point there. Some people seem to think that KOTFE and KOTET were somewhat unplanned, hurried additions to the story. That’s actually not true. The original idea was something like KOTFE/KOTET

… but …

that’s where the story ended for your character.

Wait, what? Okay, just bear with me. There is a lot of back-and-forth with this in the game development industry and a lot of it hinges on who remembers what and who was in what conversations. So take this for what it’s worth.

Expansions to the SWTOR game were then going to take place in that universe with three factions. But you would essentially be a different character (for Empire or Republic) who dealt with the ramifications of the class story of your original character. This would have been the episodic content.

The Business Model Strikes Back

Regardless of what you think about that, including its veracity, as we objectively all know, the story writers re-used this material when it was clear many players preferred story-driven RPG (SD-RPG) to MMO-RPG. As we all also pretty much know (but perhaps less objectively), the story did paint them into a corner a bit. That can be said, I think, whether you liked KOTFE/KOTET or not. Essentially it’s hard to go from being the supreme of everything to … well, back to not being that. But the arc makes more sense when you realize that was the ending. Or the ending for one character.

But the business model was, by now, entirely set. So previously planned content had to be refactored for the current context. (Ah! So is that why there are so many Skytroopers — and why stealthing doesn’t really work there?)

The “Five Year Carbonite” gap, by the way, was not — at least so far as I know — planned for the main character. Instead between the end of what we now call KOTFE/KOTET, there was a five year gap where you would start playing as a new character who was dealing with changes wrought in the galaxy over the course of those five years. You weren’t in carbonite and the previous (i.e., your original) character’s companions were parts of the story that were going to fill in details.

The companions, as you can imagine, went through some shifting as the story itself was expanded to include the other classes. So if some companions seem like they “don’t fit”, either with the class or just at all, this can be partly why. A lot of shuffling had to be done to come up with new companions, regardless of how well or to what extent they fit the story.

The Phantom (Acquisition) Menace

Again, from Daniel’s interview:

“As we were sold twice (first to an investment company then to EA) the pressure for this to be the mega hit meant the finger kept being pointed at WoW.”

So SWTOR had to be like WoW in this new view of the world. People can turn that into an “EA sucks” argument all they want but it’s objectively factual to note that the WoW model was by that point more than self-sustaining and, even with reduced WoW subscribers, was a model that businesses salivated over because it … well, helped keep them in business in an industry that was rapidly becoming more complex and more expensive.

Plus, say what you will about WoW, lots of people played it. Lots of people spent lots of money playing it.

Yet, you can see how uneasy this alliance with the story-driven RPG and the MMO was in many quests in SWTOR. Certain things — like quest objects or quest NPCs — are placed way too close together in a multiplayer game but not for a single-player. Respawns had to be added but, of course, that was a hit-or-miss affair depending upon how likely they thought people would be doing things at the same time.

So when you see a lot of things in the game and you ask something like “Why the heck did they place so few of these taggable NPCs in one area?” Realize that this wouldn’t have been a question you have needed to ask in a single-player context. When you see something and ask: “Sheesh, why didn’t they just instance that?”, again: that wouldn’t have been a concern in a single-player context.

To give another example, when you go to Tatooine, on the Empire side, you talk to Darth Silthar and he has you recovering verbobrains. But, oddly, there’s this chained stage of mini-quests attached to his quest that have you tracking down Exchange members around Mos Ila. But this has nothing to do at all with the verbobrain quest. In fact, it’s not even in the same area or related to Silthar’s needs. This was an example — and there are many others — where quest chains got glommed onto other chains because they ended up becoming orphaned.

The MMO Focus Awakens

So the point here: there was a product and development team working on one vision of the game. That vision abruptly — well, relatively abruptly — changed. It went from the “definitive Star Wars experience” first to a “WoW killer” focus. It went with an engine that was quite well suited to the single-player RPG with some multiplayer elements; not necessarily as suited to the full on MMORPG elements.

This MMO focus was, of course, due to the need to monetize the upfront cost of the game (which actually was already largely budgeted) and — more importantly — the continued cost of the game as future development was considered with those expansions.

Keep in mind there was also a business impetus here as well. Disney announced their deal late 2012 (in October) regarding the acquisition of Lucasfilm. Now keep that 2012 time frame in mind with some other things:

  • Anthem pre-production development was starting up.
  • Most of the SWTOR alpha team was fired or redistributed.
  • The Old Republic books had been deprioritized and eventually canned.
  • It became known fairly quick that Disney was going to continue the Star Wars franchise.

So imagine you have SWTOR. It cost you a whole bunch of money to make. It wasn’t as successful as hoped. Shelving it might have been a not-so-bad option. Except … the entire Star Wars franchise just got a huge boost in terms of its continuance.

In November 2013, Lucasfilm/Disney announced that the next film (The Force Awakens) would be released in December 2015. And when did KOTFE come out? October of 2015. So what the team did there was grab anything and everything they already had on the table so that they could try to catch the wave. A large part of this work was redesigning the graphical aspects of the engine.

What they realized was that they already had the story: but it was basically too short for a major content boost. Remember that this was originally the ending of the class stories (Jedi and Sith).

Now it had to be the entry point for many new players and a continuation point for old players. That’s a really key point to realize if you feel disconnects between what SWTOR was (vanilla class stories) and what it become (KOTFE/KOTET).

So what happens? Well, given its length and the need to stretch out revenue (in the form of subscription) you have to release the content very episodically to keep players hooked. But the content itself — the chapters — were relatively small.

Also keep in mind that the situation was enough that one of the writers had to explain in a thread the basis of much of the story. A key point to note is at the end of the post, Charles Boyd (whom Eric Musco is reposting) says this: “Though as others have clarified, I haven’t been the Lead Writer since late 2015.”

Beyond being not much of a vote of confidence, that doesn’t say much, right? KOTFE came out in late 2015. Which means it was written before then. In fact, it was written quite a bit before then as it turns out. What was written before wasn’t quite KOTFE/KOTET; rather KOTFE/KOTET re-used story ideas that had been on the drawing board but, like those Old Republic novels, were shelved until it could be determined what to do.

What does “determined what to do” mean?

The waiting game between Disney’s and Lucasfilm’s annoucement of where the franchise was going led to a focus on other content for the time being. Rise of the Hutt Cartel came out around April of 2013, for example. (Keep in mind that the new film announcement wasn’t until November of 2013.) Shadow of Revan was late 2014 and this was seen as another way to close off some of the story arcs around Revan that had continued for quite some time.

And that’s probably where we can leave off this bit of SWTOR context for now because that took us into the recent KOTFE/KOTET era and, of course, an attempt to get back to a different story focus with Jedi Under Siege.

The Last Jedi Star Wars MMO?

As most people know, Star Wars games have been getting canceled quite a bit. This has to seem odd to many folks who feel Star Wars has a lot happening around it, what with Resistance having started up, The Mandalorian coming soon, another slight addition to The Clone Wars seasons, more books set in the prequel era interestingly enough, a slate of books planned after Episode 9 hits, as well as at least one trilogy from the Game of Thrones folks, and possibly one from Rian Johnson.

So given the development time on these games, why so much reluctance to get Star Wars content out there? Isn’t this the time to be focusing on something and getting it out there? Yes. The key is being able to focus, however.

The Star Wars: Battlefront series has had its ups and downs for a variety of reasons, as we all know. SWTOR has equally had a series of ups and downs. This has led to a lot of angst about what exactly it takes to make a good Star Wars game that people will rally around.

This seems like a good place to end this context because that next chapter has yet to be written.