With rumours of a mind-boggling budget and recent criticisms calling Star Wars: The Old Republic a "WoW clone" these seem to be turbulent times for BioWare's upcoming MMO. Is the game likely to succeed despite the scepticism? We talk to Daniel Erickson, writer for Star Wars: The Old Republic, about the negative responses the title has had, recent design decisions, and the future for the MMO.
Q: At Comic-Con this year, one of the Star Wars: The Old Republic developers said the team hopes the game will last for decades. Can any game legitimately have that kind of longevity?
Daniel Erickson: That was James Ohlen and he was making a joke that got misquoted and misconstrued. Always watch what you say at a con!
Q: What are the steps it would have to take to last that long if it were the case?
DE: Some sort of free beer and pizza dispenser connected to said game?
Q: A few months back an industry analyst made news after he called Star Wars: The Old Republic a highly derivative WoW clone. Could you comment on why critics have been so sceptical?
DE: It's an odd notion that we've seen before in the industry when dealing with outside analysts. RPGs are more similar to each other than they are to FPS games. FPS games are more similar to each other than to racing games. If you're not playing something or a fan of the genre, the games inside that genre look fairly similar. If you're looking from 30,000 feet up and making comparisons then you could see the argument that Diablo and Baldur's Gate were the same game, as were Quake and Half Life but I can't imagine many player ever saw it that way.
Q: Many were surprised the game doesn't completely break from tradition, particularly in its action-bar style of combat. Would it have been more difficult to market the game had you completely re-written the rules of MMO design?
DE: It wasn't a marketing decision at all. We make RPGs and we use the best RPG interface we can put together. Not only did we not depart from action bar combat, the Dragon Age series adopted it right from the start for its single-player game. It turns out to be the easiest way to organize a complex series of powers. What we did bring was synchronized animations, more dynamic and movement-based combat (Force-push, explosions that send people flying, etc) and far faster fights. Which seems to be plenty marketable as a bonus.
Q: Does the fact that you've broken EA pre-order records alleviate the worry over whether the game will be successful?
DE: At least for myself, nothing short of shipping and actually being successful will alleviate that worry. I've watched this game grow since before day one and as with any creative project you pour your heart into, the mix of anticipation and fear is huge. We'll relax after the game is out, running beautifully and our fans are having a blast.
Q: There are no companion deaths in this game, which is rare for a BioWare title. Does that speak to the differences in designing single player games to MMOs?
DE: It does. Companion deaths were one of the very last things to get cut from the game. We had some interesting plot lines we really didn't want to see go but the risk to game balance was just too huge. Testing quickly showed that people would do things in the heat of the moment (and to see if they could) and then instantly suffer game-crippling remorse or would be fine with the decision until they ran into a situation where they really needed that companion. For gameplay differentiation it was important to us that each CC had a clear and distinct combat role that works with the character class - which means being a tank and realizing you've killed your healer companion right before the Chapter boss fight... it wasn't something we could defend without a reload button for people who were going to have these characters for years.
Q: We're beginning to see more MMOs being developed for console, and MMO-oriented apps for iOS, is cross-platform gaming the next logical step for MMOs?
DE: While there's always been a push for cross-platform gaming, I don't really see MMOs being the place that it takes off as a pure implementation. In a community where a one point difference in dps per character classes can cause major outcries, it's hard to imagine accepting wholly different input devices. So until consoles have keyboard/mouse setups standard and enough users willing to find a way to use them in the living room, I imagine we keep the core game to one type of platform each. That said, using light console games or iOS games to enhance aspects of your MMO or explore other takes on the world is exciting.
Q: Is it reasonable think we'll keep seeing more subscription-based MMOs being developed even though there's a push in the market for F2P and microtransaction-based titles?
DE: Absolutely. In everything from magazines to cable TV to MMOs there are multiple market segments with their own pricing and revenue generation stream. What we've seen repeatedly is that people will pay subscriptions for top tier, best of show quality products (The Economist, HBO, World of Warcraft) but they will not pay for many of them at once. I expect to see a small group of games compete for the subscription dollar and a larger group take on the F2P market with smaller, faster produced games that try to establish a core market then use the revenue streams created from that small market to improve and expand their game. In that market the best ones will stay around and the less exciting entries will fall off fairly quickly. I'm excited to see what's coming next!