Massively multiplayer games come into the world as wriggly things full of writhing paths of possibility. This changes as soon as those servers go live and players start interacting with each other and the content. Running beta tests can predict some exploits and behaviours, but the game's also still being built while those betas are happening. Nevertheless, every beat must end and the game in question's got to come out eventually. For Star Wars: The Old Republic, that time was this week in the US.
Reflecting on the beta for The Old Republic, BioWare vice president Greg Zeschuk says that the changes made to the new Star Wars MMO can be categorised as micro and macro. "As far as the micro goes," Zeschuk offers, "we'd look at things like the success rate in battles and actually adjust the game directly based on data. Everything from length of encounters to other kinds of telemetry and analytics.
"[What] we discovered was that you could really change player behaviour by just the type of content you put in front of them," Zeschuk continues. "A lot of the multiplayer stuff got put in later in the beta test, and it was interesting to see how the frequency and the amount of group play would just skyrocket as soon as we started adding all that content. It was really an interesting way to validate all of our assumptions.
"If you wanted to put a little more group play on this planet, you just threw a little content in, and all of a sudden it happened. The more stuff there was to do, the more people would encounter each other and tackle things together," he explains. "So, it was a really neat relationship between player action and what we were building in the game."
A game like The Old Republic needs to have a sense of scale and BioWare's other co-founder says the beta helped BioWare re-think how to make their take on feel Star Wars ancient history feel weighty. "We re-did a couple of the origin worlds, based on feedback," says Ray Muzyka. "Many of the origin worlds were awesome but the beta also showed us how some of the other ones maybe weren't quite as great."
The game's developers would see players get confused as to where to go or why they should visit a particular planet, for example, a result of elements that didn't work as well as on other planets. "Some design choices didn't work as well, in terms of signalling progression to the player" say Muzyka, "and we redid them to make sure they all had the same high standard of quality."
Zeschuk added that the beta let them re-visit and tweak some of the earliest work done on The Old Republic. "Korriban was the very, very first planet we ever did. And it was really funny, because it stayed the same for like four years. Meanwhile, everything else got really, really pretty." Beta testers noticed the disparity in the art direction, too. Muzyka thinks Korriban looks great now. "That's a big change that came out of feedback," he says. "We said, 'Hey, that Korriban, can we redo that?' and the team do a major art pass on it." So, if you're playing on the Sith homeworld and love the way it looks, you can thank the beta testers for complaining in the first place."
BioWare's games have tended to be single-player affairs. That was true of their first Star Wars game, 2003's Knights of the Old Republic. This year's Old Republic, however, is massively multiplayer and filled with tonnes of spoken exchanges. That meant changes in how BioWare was going to deliver its signature dialogue. "We iterated a lot on how to make multiplayer conversations work and how you bring other players along with you," says Muzyka. "We added in bonus quests that are multiplayer-specific, based on wanting to provide more activities for groups of players. This game definitely has more layers than KOTOR did."
Coming back to Star Wars has made Muzyka and Zeschuk re-familiarise themselves with the universe's canon but they say the vastness of its fiction actually meshes with this new game. "One nice thing about an MMO is that it ramps up in a certain way so you can actually expose more and more of the Star Wars universe to folks," says Zeschuk. "We kind of joke as well that it's almost like a crash course in everything Star Wars. Because almost everything in the Star Wars universe is touched on in some way in the game."
Whether it's the noble Jedi, evil Sith, implacable bounty hunters or shady smugglers, several recognisable Star Wars archetypes get presented as playable classes in The Old Republic. Of all of them, Zechuk says the smuggler was toughest to get right. "Look at Han Solo in the movies. All right, what does he do? If you actually look what Han Solo does, he shoots someone in a bar in an off-handed way and goofs around a more than any other character. So we knew we had to infuse smugglers with humour and a bit of roguishness in their emotes and combat moves." Noting that humour is always hard to pull off, Muzyka says the smuggler's "dirty kick" move — where he just goes up and kicks someone, stunning them and making them double over — came from a desire to capture that Han Solo feeling in that character class.
As the final version of the game's gone live, Zeschuk's playing as a smuggler and Muzyka as a Sith inquisitor. Muzyka says that there's a class for every personality and player type. "They're inspired [by] the iconic characters from the movies, obviously," he says. But, we've tried to create a place set thousands of years before the films where you can take these archetypal roles and really make them your own. You don't have to be Luke Skywalker. You can shape your own Jedi destiny."