Once Upon a Time, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away... BioWare and Electronic Arts launched a Star Wars MMO titled The Old Republic. After six months, the game has been something of a trophy for both companies, with the Canadian studio leveraging its past work on the franchise with Knights of the Old Republic and EA positioning it as a challenger to Activision Blizzardís World of Warcraft.
The blockbuster MMO has had it ups and downs in the media, but fans continue to enjoy the pacing and entertaining core campaign - which has since been expanded thanks to two beefy game updates. This summer, BioWare is going to be releasing yet another update, version 1.3 - bringing with it free server transfers and an expansion of server caps. Best of all though, it will introduce a group finder for players to search for parties to play with.
At the MCM London Comic Con, BioWareís lead designer Emmanuel Lusinchi was present to chat about the finer details of the game update - what it means for users, and why he feels that The Old Republic
goes further than anything BioWare has done to date. Read on...
SPOnG: Thanks for taking the time to chat about Star Wars: The Old Republic. How has the game been doing since it launched late last year?
Itís been doing pretty good, really. We have a good player base, going pretty steady. And of course, weíre expanding to new territories. Weíve been working hard to listen to the feedback of all our customers, and that has been really impacting the things weíve been including in our game updates. This new update has quite a lot of new features and meta-features, like server transfer, that is directly based on the feedback we have had from our users.
SPOnG: There was a news story a while ago suggesting a drop in subscribers. I think EA said it was down to a bunch of free trial users not carrying over to a paid subscription. What do you say to that? Is that a normal thing to happen, or is that cause for concern?
Yeah, subscriber numbers are funny things. How you count them - the math you use - really matters, and there are lots of variables to consider. Such as, people that simply subscribe compared to people that actually buy the box. There are very different numbers out there, and you should be smart about which one you use when you talk to the press.
All games of this nature has a set of variables that are constantly changing. You will have a certain number of people that buy the box and never install it. I know it sounds strange, but it happens. There are people that play it, and then decide after ten minutes that itís not for them - thatís a small percentage, but every game has them. And finally you have people who play for a couple of months, finish the story, and then be done with it. All of those are natural things to be expected, and they will all impact the subscriber numbers, depending on how youíre counting them in the first place. So the news, to me, was no big surprise there.
Now, Iím not the best person to talk about subscriber numbers, thatís important to mention. We are a publically traded company, and subscriber numbers - like other things - are very touchy subjects. Even if I knew them I couldnít talk to you about them because it would be impacting on stock price and all that stuff. And I donít actually get raw numbers every day anyway.
But, I do get really good feedback - what we call metrics, or telemetry - that allow me to actually do my job. So itís more interesting for me to get feedback on how many people played the Rakghoul Plague event, something that happened a few weeks ago. To know if people who hadnít played for a while came back just to play that... was it so that we had a surge in subscriptions so that maybe people that lapsed came back... I get to know how many people - what percentage of people - participated in it, and how many people finished it. And thatís a number I can work with.
SPOnG: You mentioned updates for the game title update, new improvements. Are there any new campaign stages or scenarios included in 1.3?
In 1.1 and 1.2, we added a lot of content. In 1.2 we added new war zones to our PvP area, and new Flashpoint operations. In 1.3 we decided to actually separate the development of content from the development of the tech, because some of the tech we really wanted to get finished as soon as possible. We wanted the server transfer to be available as soon as possible, we wanted the group finder to be ready...
Basically, our thinking behind 1.3ís schedule is that, as soon as the group finder is ready, we are shipping with whatever we have at that time. So we really took care of separating the content from the system for this particular update because we saw it would be such an improvement to the players life to have this particular piece of tech. But, we might not do this in the future. With every update, we are going to take as it comes. New updates may be different from this one.
SPOnG: I wanted to pick your brains from a designer standpoint in terms of the game itself in broad terms. I know itís different teams within the studio, but was there anything from BioWareís past titles, like Mass Effect, that you looked towards in terms of trying to improve the MMO experience in The Old Republic?
Oh sure. A lot of the people involved with the first Dragon Age: Origins
ended up working on this game - people like myself, my boss, Daniel Erickson, and others. So yes, we take the best of our own games, and maybe the best of other games too, and we always try to improve what we are doing. The companion characters, for example, I think are pretty good. We worked hard to make them work in the context of an MMO.
I think we did a better job than in any other BioWare game in terms of advancing the different classes. I think striking a perfect balance between the various paths for characters in Mass Effect
is less important than for The Old Republic
, where itís one of the primary things we needed to achieve.
SPOnG: Star Wars The Old Republic was released as a subscriber-based game, which is interesting to see when the market is looking more towards free-to-play games. Do you think there is still a place for subscriber-based games in the market?
All I can say is that the MMO market is the most dynamic of all the different genres. I was mentioning that earlier on today - some genres, like RTS or action-adventure, are quite well understood. You develop an RTS, and you know exactly what youíre going to make. There is some innovation, donít get me wrong, but the players are more accepting of you releasing a very good version of an RTS.
MMOs have a lot of expectations as they are changing all the time. Every game that is released raises a bar, which is good for the industry, and great for the players. And I think weíve raised several bars ourselves, in terms of quest presentation and how much you care about the character you play as, and what your character is doing. But we continue looking at the market, including the economic models that people want. Itís a dynamic market, we need to be dynamic as well.
SPOnG: Handling the Star Wars license must be a massive deal. Whatís the best thing about looking after that franchise for you?
Well, yes, itís a massive responsibility. Fortunately, we had experience with it. We made Knights of the Old Republic
, so we already had established a pretty good working relationship with LucasArts, and it really was key for us to create a new relationship and have a good collaboration, but also to have creative freedom. Of course we made very smart choices, like being in a timeline that is before all the movies, otherwise all the cool stuff we would have wanted to do wouldnít have been possible.
Now, to answer your question, I donít know... itís Star Wars
, itís super-cool. For me, I was a big Star Wars
fan. The first film came out when I was seven years old and it blew my mind. And to be able to now have a creative say on what happens in the Star Wars
universe is fantastic. Itís the best thing - the thing you loved most in life, and now youíre in charge of a part of it. Itís great. I try not to think about it too much, because then I would probably freak out.
SPOnG: You must have run around as a kid dreaming of all these different Star Wars scenarios that now youíre putting to good use in your role today!
So, hereís the thing - when I was about nine years old, my dad found a Lightsaber. Just a plastic tube with a handle, really. He found it in the UK, actually, and he brought it home and gave it to my older brother. That toy was not available anywhere in France, and I spent every week, more or less, between the age of nine and twenty-something... every time weíd walk past a toy shop I went in to check. Just in case, because I want a frickiní Lightsaber [laughs]!
And they never made these toys available until the second trilogy started being released, with the Phantom Menace
. By that time, Iím like twenty-something and I already have like, five of them. And Iím like, itís not the same! But yeah, I was quite impressionable, and impacted by the movies, for sure.
SPOnG: You must be aware of Star Wars fans that make their own short films and put them up on YouTube, with all the special effects. Did you dabble in that when you were younger?
I have a very good friend that was in a movie - like a French production - pretty high quality, with the space fight and everything. It was fun to watch. I never made one myself, I must say, but itís good stuff.
SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time!