The team has both been hand-picked from the main BioWare studio in Edmonton, and recruited from the now large and experienced pool of developers who have previously worked in the MMO industry. But getting a game like this right is not just about having talented people, it's about having loads of talented people. "Once you go over 100 people, communicating what you're doing, and what you're trying to achieve, and how everyone's little element fits in, that becomes very difficult," says Vogel. "Get beyond a tribe and you have a problem."
And this game does encompass more than one tribe. While BioWare might have already done loads of creative work with the KotOR games, they aren't entirely free to mess with the canon. Star Wars is still owned, and tightly controlled, by LucasArts. "Everything has to be cleared," Walton admits. "But it's actually been relatively smooth. Part of the decision to use the KotOR era was to allow us some latitude, some freedom to get away from the films. So we're in an ideal spot have a lot of familiar stuff, but there's loads of freedom."
That freedom is important, because BioWare's great big innovation for MMOs is going to create massive lore headaches. BioWare intend for The Old Republic to be the first successful story-driven MMO game. On the face of it, that doesn't make much sense: surely we've been told that the player's story, not the developers story, is the point of MMO games?
Playing The Old Republic rapidly defeats that twisted logic. My demo begins on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, talking to a captain who has done a very, very bad thing. In this case, a crime punishable by death. A fully voiced cutscene follows, with the kind of dialogue choices and moral consequences that you'd usually expect from singleplayer roleplaying games.
"I'm sorry for my failures," says the captain. "Just please, respect my crew."
At this point, I'm given a choice: kill him and promote his first officer, or let him live. The first time I play, I let the poor sap live. Then we launch the Star Destroyer into hyperspace, the better to ambush a rebel freighter.
When we arrive the freighter attacks, launching pods filled with troopers and Jedi toward our Star Destroyer. The captain assesses the problem quickly, and orders all turbolasers to track and destroy the pods. He also asks the medical bay to stand by. A few invaders make it through. When distress calls come from engineering, and my party fights from the bridge down through the decks, it's a fairly simple process, and we're reinforced by a steady stream of revived NPC characters, fresh from being healed by the medical droids.
The next time round, I decide to kill the Captain. His ambitious first officer quickly assumes command, and immediately orders the Destroyer into hyperspace. At arrival, the pods are sent out again. My new First Officer is smug, yet inexperienced. She ignores the boarding parties and demands all fire be focused on the freighter's engines and powerbays. "If they can't move, they can't attack."
The ship is quickly overwhelmed.Distress calls come in from all decks. I have to head off immediately. The numbers are striking, particularly without the buffed and healed reinforcements from sickbay. Rather than a group of cut-off and lonely rebels, the encounter ends with a particularly vicious Jedi.
The demo demonstrates, so very clearly, what BioWare mean by choice and story. The Star Destroyer serves as an instance, like WoW's dungeons, yet this wasn't simply a romp through a series of angry monsters. It was a back-and-forth through different portions of the ship. And, at any point, I could invite my mates along to help.