It is fun: just a few minutes of combat demonstrate that. A Sith character leaping into the fray, a smuggler hanging back and using cover. "I don't know if you noticed," Vogel says, "but it's all synchronised combat. We have a synchronised animation system, it's not like every other MMO where it's two guys dancing, watching each other run through the animations. This is like KotOR. Blades hit, we can block stuff, people are actually parrying - you always know why he hit." This combat dynamic, combined with group dynamics, will be fascinating to work with. But what if you want to join the party halfway through a mission?Isn't that going to be confusing for other players? "We actually have a system to do that. You have to decide: either we're going to start over for you, or they could join you where you are."
"It's a fun challenge," says Vogel. It's the kind of challenge BioWare seem to relish. "There are two flavours to our design team. There are the story guys who say 'we want to make everything as detailed as a singleplayer game', and then we have the hardcore MMO multiplayer guys who are always going to ask that exact question: 'Where are my guys? Where are my guys? Why can't I meet them?'"
Providing the solutions to these problems is something Walton seems confident about: "You're playing this game live, in a hostile environment, on a buggy connection, and it works because we got the best-in-industry people from all over. We have a huge amount of programming experience from different MMOs, all of whom are terrified of launch day. They have every horror story, everything to prepare for going into the launch."
That launch is going to be vital. This is BioWare's bid to reclaim their territory on the PC. "The PC is in a terrible place," says Walton, "but online is in a great place." Does he see the PC and online as separate platforms? "They are different platforms. They require different methodologies." For Walton the evolution of online gaming has created both a new format, and a new gamer. "They're looking for evolution, not static. They're looking for a differentiated product. Look at Team Fortress 2... You have to keep bringing out content, or the game disappears after the first weeks."
Vogel chimes in at this point: "The PC industry is like the music industry, it's evolving away from a sold product to an online presence." An online presence. There's one online presence that looms so large on the PC that it scarcely needs mentioning: World of Warcraft. Even when The Old Republic is at its most exciting I can only think back to how much I've already got out of WoW. Something ActiBlizzard boss Bobby Kotick once said springs to mind: anyone intending to take on WoW had better have some pretty deep pockets. But do you really need a billion dollars to take down WoW?
Vogel laughs: "You have to be smart. You have to develop with people who have experience and understand the game." Walton is similarly upbeat: "If I was doing a fantasy RPG on the same plane as World of Warcraft, well, you better spend a shit load of money." But he doesn't see taking WoW on at its own game as a realistic, or even desirable goal. He argues that new MMOs need to create their own template. "I thought Age of Conan would be more differentiated. We were betting that both Age of Conan and WAR would have been bigger than they are, but that's down to their execution, not the market... Age of Conan would have really had something if they've maintained that great experience beyond the first 20 levels... What happened to that? When you get past the first 20 levels that experience went away. You can't do that, not in this climate. The market is ready for differentiation. There's a lot of WoW fatigue. It doesn't matter how good that game is, you're going to get tired of it."
At the end of the presentation, the point is made that what BioWare have shown is nothing like the MMOs we know of today. Where are the PvP arenas? Or the large, 25+ player raids? Or auction houses? Or, hey, space-combat? Vogel raises an eyebrow. "Oh, we have all that too. We're just going to wait a little bit to show you that." That's a promise that seems too good to be true. Stay tuned. The Old Republic is going to be huge.