BioWare sets aim high with Star Wars: The Old Republic
Greg Zeschuk is confident about the new Star Wars video game. The cofounder of BioWare, now a label of Electronic Arts, has already had a hand in developing two role-playing games in the universe dreamed up by George Lucas. BioWare developed 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and suggested Obsidian Entertainment take on the sequel that came out the next year.
But Star Wars: The Old Republic, which will be released on Tuesday (December 20), is a different beast all together. A massively multiplayer online game, it was designed so that hundreds of thousands of players, even millions, can be engaged in the story at the same time, playing with one another as allies or enemies. “It’s the largest project we’ve ever worked on,” Zeschuk told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, “and while I wouldn’t say our reputations were at stake, I think we have a lot to prove.”
Edmonton is home to both Zeschuk and BioWare, but he was in the label’s Austin studio, where The Old Republic was developed, helping with the last-minute preparations for the game’s release. “One of the tricks to online and service-based business is that you actually test and prove it,” Zeschuk said.
His confidence comes from the fact that the game has come out of months of beta testing, during which no major issues were identified and many smaller problems were fixed. “Will every single person think it’s the best MMO ever? Probably not,” Zeschuk said. “At the end of the day this is the biggest licence in the world. Everyone knows it. There’s definitely a fan base there.”
The idea of developing an MMO came about around six years ago, Zeschuk explained. He and fellow BioWare cofounder Ray Muzyka had been wanting to explore that genre and agreed to a partnership with private-equity fund Elevation Partners in 2005 to help finance a studio in Austin. (EA would acquire the group in 2007.) There were a number of other properties, including 2002 project Neverwinter Nights, in the mix. They decided on Star Wars.
“We had partnered with LucasArts before,” Zeschuk said, “and were both interested in pursuing the project together.”
Zeschuk calls the new game “bold” and “audacious”. It’s certainly massive. The Old Republic is the first MMO in which all characters are fully voiced at all times. BioWare claims that element alone required more than 40 novels worth of dialogue, which was voiced by more than 100 actors in over 1,000 four-hour recording sessions. It also gave them a chance to continue some story threads that were introduced in the Knights of the Old Republic games, which were set a few hundred years earlier.
While the game itself is big and has been in development for years, it will be a success if it reaches a smaller audience than the blockbuster console games require. “If we have half a million users we have good business, and anything over a million is really, really good business,” Zeschuk said. “The trick with an MMO, of course, is getting people to stay.”
To that end, BioWare plans on using customer service to anchor their retention strategy. It will be supported by an ongoing content plan with special attention paid to the experience of high-level characters. “It’s already built to be retentive,” Zeschuk said. “We’ve got a lot of different activities.”
With nearly all of the titles developed by BioWare, the company has enjoyed critical raves, and that has often been a measure of success for their games. But Zeschuk doesn’t expect that kind of critical response with The Old Republic. “It’s just so incredibly complex it’s just not possible,” he said. “You’re continually battling to keep everything as good as it can possibly be.”
But the brass ring comes with enough satisfied players that become long-term customers. If that happens, Zeschuk said, it could become the foundation for all the other things BioWare wants to do.