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January 20, 2012

Star Wars: The Old Republic — the story behind a galactic gamble

Posted in: Games

A warrior in a scene from Star Wars: The Old Republic. (LucasArts / BioWare / Electronic Arts)

A gunslinging smuggler in a scene from Star Wars: The Old Republic. (LucasArts / BioWare / Electronic Arts)

A space combat scene from Star Wars: The Old Republic. (LucasArts / BioWare / Electronic Arts)

A Jedi in a scene from Star Wars: The Old Republic. (LucasArts / BioWare / Electronic Arts)

It may be the largest entertainment production in history. More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being written. Nearly 1,000 actors have recorded dialogue for 4,000 characters in three languages.

The narrative is so huge that writers created a 1,000-page “bible” to keep the details straight, and the director recently asked a colleague not to spoil moments he hadn’t yet seen.

It’s not a movie or a TV series. It’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, the most expensive, ambitious and riskiest video game ever produced.

Created out of a 60,000-square-foot converted warehouse next to a cooking school on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, the Old Republic is proof that while box-office, network TV ratings and music sales are slumping, games are holding their own, thanks to steady growth from online games. Revenue from games played online last year topped $7 billion, up from $6.5 billion in 2010, according to Parks & Assoc.

Did the prequels change cinema?

Even among its interactive peers, the Old Republic is touted as a great leap forward. Much as the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977 changed film history, its makers hope to create a new gold standard for gaming.

“We want to do to other video games what talkies did to silent films,” said Rich Vogel, co-director of the studio leading the game’s production.

To recoup its massive investment, the Old Republic’s publisher, Electronic Arts Inc., will have to snag more than 1 million customers willing to spend $60 to buy the game and an additional $15 a month to play for years on end. The game, released in late December, already has more than a million registered users, but many could leave after a free 30-day trial.

“The real test is whether they can retain subscribers in the long run,” said analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co.

At the Austin home office of game developer BioWare, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, more than 400 designers, programmers, writers and artists have immersed themselves in the imagined Star Wars universe, surrounded by maps of the ice planet Hoth, armor designs for bounty hunters and even a five-day weather forecast for Princess Leia’s home world of Alderaan.

Art has been outsourced to Russia, Estonia and China. Motion capture filming is done in L.A. and Vancouver, Canada, with voices recorded in New York, London and Paris in English, French and German. Quality assurance testing takes place in Romania, Argentina and India, while technical operations are run out of Virginia and the customer service center operates in Ireland. A regular plane shuttles employees between Austin and Electronic Arts’ headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif.

“Coordinating it all is like teaching elephants to do ballet,” said Greg Zeschuk, who co-founded BioWare with Ray Muzyka.

Spotlight on Irvin Kershner

The Old Republic’s builders are trying to fundamentally change the online gaming experience. In most such games, players, alone or in groups, go on generic quests interspersed with narrative moments. But what players see and do in the Old Republic is shaped by the players’ own decisions. On one mission, an imperial agent in search of clues can flirt with a female character or threaten to kill her — and then do so, after she talks.

Those choices take place in the context of eight distinctive storylines inspired by movies and written for different character types whom players choose at the beginning of their adventure. Players who choose the smuggler will see hints of “Big Trouble in Little China,” for instance, while the trooper’s tale is loosely based on “Band of Brothers.”

“With each character class, you create and star in your own ‘Star Wars’ adventure,” said head writer Daniel Erickson, who with 16 scribes created every detail of the Old Republic’s galaxy down to details about Sith art, interstellar wedding protocol and the look of the elephant-like Bantha’s excrement. It’s all collected in a digital library, accessible available only to BioWare employees, called BioWiki.

And as with every online game, it allows players to join together on missions or engage in mortal combat against one another.

The idea for the game has its origins at a 2005 meeting between Vogel and BioWare’s Zeschuk and Muzyka, two Canadian physicians-turned-game developers. After attempts to adapt “Lord of the Rings,” “A Game of Thrones” and Marvel comic book super-heroes like such as Spider-Man, the team signed a co-publishing deal with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas.

The filmmaker, who declined to comment for this story, blessed the idea of setting the Old Republic in “Star Wars” pre-history and gave Muzyka and Zeschuk virtually free rein. His LucasArts’ staff stepped in only to soften content they found too risque, such as scenes involving sex slaves. To avoid contradicting established tales of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the game takes place 3,000 years before the “Star Wars” films.

From a business perspective, potential rewards are huge: World of Warcraft, the most successful multiplayer online game to date, has generated more than $3 billion in profit over the last seven years.

'Star Wars': A toy story?

“There’s no other opportunity to make money like this in the entertainment industry because people keep paying to play continuously,” said Bruce Hack, a former chief executive of World of Warcraft publisher Vivendi Games.

It’s also a great risk. In addition to the nearly $200 million spent to create the game, tens of millions of additional dollars per year will be required to keep it refreshed with new stories and adventures.

When the makers of the Old Republic began their work, subscribers were flocking to multiplayer online games. But that trend has reversed recently. Even the mighty World of Warcraft has lost nearly 2 million players over the last year as customers have embraced free online titles such as FarmVille and League of Legends.

In addition, although “Star Wars” is among the most popular and recognizable entertainment brands in history, characters and story lines familiar from the movies are not part of the game’s landscape, because its setting is so far in advance of the film narratives. There is no Han Solo or Chewbacca in sight.

A gunslinging smuggler in a scene from Star Wars: The Old Republic. (LucasArts / BioWare / Electronic Arts)

Some who participated in pre-release testing last fall have already developed a devout passion for the Old Republic. Jeff Hollis and his wife, Deirdre, have matching “Star Wars” tattoos and help run TORWars.com, a fan site devoted to the game.

On a recent Sunday night, while their 3-year-old son slept nearby, the Burbank residents fell just short of their goal of capturing a Jedi ship when the beta test ended and the game went offline. “We both let out a cry,” Jeff recalled. “We had already become accustomed to having the game as a part of our lives.”

– Ben Fritz and Alex Pham

Reporting from Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles


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