Next week, on January 17, BioWare will launch its first major content update for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Endgame players can look forward to a new Flashpoint called Rise of the Rakghouls and a significant expansion to the Karagga's Palaca Operation, putting it more in line with the amount of content seen in the MMO's other launch Operation, Eternity Vault.
I got BioWare's James Ohlen, The Old Republic's game director, on the phone yesterday to chat about this momentous occasion. He was more than happy to go into a little more detail on what you can all expect from the first content update, as well as what's to come in the March update and what the general philosophy is with regards to expanding on the groundwork laid in last month's MMO launch.
Building A Better Endgame
First we talked Rise of the Rakghouls. Like the new Operation content, this is an endgame story recommended for a group of level 50 players to tackle. It's a big story, set on the planet of Kaon in the Tion Hegemony. Big enough, in fact, that a single update isn't even enough to contain it.
"The Flashpoint is called Rise of the Rakghouls, and it's a huge, epic storyline that takes place over two parts," Ohlen said. "So part one takes place in our first game update, the game update coming out next week, and part two takes place in our second... major game update, which comes out in March."
Accessing the Flashpoint works just like any other, with the mission entry point accessed from your chosen faction's fleet. Kaon isn't a new planet with separate quest hubs and the like that you'll be able to explore. "It's basicaly a Flashpoint planet," Ohlen said.
There's also Karagga's Palace, which expands significantly with the coming update. The Operation, which is inspired by the early scenes in Jabba's Palace from Return of the Jedi, launched as a pretty barebones fight against a rancor. Fan-pleasing, sure. But not the sort of epic story one would expect based on how the rest of the game plays.
"You fight a rancor in the very first encounter of Karagga's Palace, but then after that it basically ended there and you didn't get to continue," Ohlen told me. "Now we've added four new boss monsters, we've added new cinematics. We've really beefed it up so it's comparable to our other Operation, called Eternity Vault. So now it's a full-fledged, multi-boss Operation that I think players are gonna really enjoy. The final boss is pretty unique in Star Wars, so I think people will like it."
What Lies Ahead For A Galaxy Far, Far Away
There's a lot more to come too. Looking ahead, Ohlen described to me how the development team is driven by a desire to give the fans their money's worth. People are paying monthly subscription fees, after all, and in a market that is increasingly filled with free-to-play massively multiplayer experiences, it's going to take more than just the Star Wars branding and BioWare's rock-solid reputation to compete.
"We have a big plan for updating the game on a regular basis," Ohlen said. "We know that if we're going to be accepted in the long-term, we have to prove to our fans that we're gonna support them, that there's gonna be new games systems and new content coming out all the time. That's what really is going to make them feel like this is an ever-growing, living Star Wars universe."
"So the first update that's coming out in a week is just to show them that we're serious about that. Then the second update, coming in March, has a lot bigger scope in terms of what we're releasing. And then after March, we have the third game udpate, the fourth game update. We're gonna have multiple game updates over the course of the year to continue adding content for level 50 characters."
Ohlen then ran through some of the content you can expect to see. Not much in the way of specifics, naturally, but the general tone of things. Operations and Flashpoints. More PvP WarZones. An expansion to the Legacy system, which you'll also be hearing more about later today. New guild features like guild banks. Single player-oriented content too, to give level 50 characters some more story to play through.
"We also have a team that's focused on creating events within the galaxy that make the galaxy feel like it's a living, breathing place where things happen all the time and things change," Ohlen added. "The great thing is, because the Star Wars: The Old Republic development team has stayed together, we haven't moved on to different projects, we haven't had to let people go... it allows us to develop an amazing amount of content, especially now that we've got all of our tools and all of our pipelines done."
"I think our fans... are going to be amazed at how much new content and how many new game systems they're seeing coming out on a regular basis."
With all of this talk of new content, I started to wonder what sort of approach the team is taking to more elaborate content releases, the sorts of expansions that bump up level caps, add significant new locations and continue telling the ongoing central story. Ohlen told me that such things are in the cards, but definitely not a focus right now.
"Obviously we're interested in doing expansion packs, but that's further in the future," he said. "Right now we want to focus on the free content. People are paying a monthly subscription, so they want to feel like they're getting their money's worth. Instead of focusing on expansion packs, we want to focus our energy on all of this free content that we're going to be delivering on a regular basis."
While the overriding philosophy of giving players the value they deserve is key to this direction, there's also the basic fact that most subscribers are still playing through what came with the game at launch. While it's true that it hasn't even been a month since the December 20 release, but gamers tend to be a tenacious bunch when it comes to plowing through favorite games.
Ohlen told me that the team recognizes this, and is pleased to see that there was enough content in The Old Republic at launch to still be keeping even some of the most dedicated players busy with their starting characters.
"We don't have a lot of people who have actually finished all the other game content, you know, gone through and done the Eternity Vault on Hard mode and Nightmare mode. Which is a good sign! We don't want players to chew through the content <i>too</i> quickly. But we do have a lot of level 50s, that's for sure."
Ohlen went on to tell me that the play stats are showing some amazing numbers. The average time for a typical play session is much higher than it is on any other games that the team has data on. "People, when they start a play session of Star Wars: The Old Republic, they want to play for a long time," Ohlen said.
"The unfortunate thing about that is, of course, they chew through our content real fast. Which is why we need to get that Legacy system out and also why we need to continue to provide the high-level elder game content, so they still have stuff to do."
Exploring The Expanded Universe Of Star Wars
Any MMO is a monumental undertaking, but Star Wars takes things to another level. This is more than just an established franchise. It's a transmedia universe with collected lore that spans film, TV, books, comics, video games and more. The so-called Star Wars Expanded Universe is a powerful draw for fans of the original film series, and those fans -- myself being one of them -- have been quick to notice elements in the game that nod to some seriously deep-cut EU releases.
"At BioWare, we've always been very serious about the source material," Ohlen replied when I commented on this faithfulness. "Back in the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights days when we were making Dungeons & Dragons games, we knew that Dungeons & Dragons fans were... very, very serious about the source material, and so we were very serious about the source material. The writers had to make sure they were immersed in all of the lore."
"That's the same thing we did with Knights of the Old Republic and The Old Republic. All the writers are very immersed in all the lore of Star Wars in that time era."
The team turns to a variety of sources for their information. They take it on firsthand, of course, reading books and comics, playing games, things like that. LucasArts is also working closely with BioWare, taking care to provide info. And then, there's always amassed collection of knowledge that is the Internet.
"To tell you the truth, one of our secret weapons is Wookieepedia. If you've ever been there, it's really useful for finding out all of the Star Wars lore," Ohlen said, chuckling. Most of what's in the game is pure Star Wars, pulled from one source or another, but that doesn't also mean that some creative strokes are being added. In the end though, it all comes back to servicing the fans.
"Obviously we added some new lore to the game in the world of Voss. Voss is a new world for the Star Wars universe. But one of our strategies was: the Star Wars universe is pretty huge, there's a lot of different races and planets and things that Star Wars fans would love to see in a video game. So instead of going out and creating a whole bunch of new stuff, we'll create SOME new stuff but we'll also give a chance for players to see some of these worlds that they've read about but have never been able to visit in a video game."
Hearing all of this, my fanboy thoughts immediately turned to one of the more notable examples of Star Wars Expanded Universe fiction: the New Jedi Order arc of novels released a few years ago and the terrifying extra-galactic invaders that those novels introduced, the Yuuzhan Vong. The Vong's arrival in the Star Wars galaxy sparked a massive war that resulted in the death of more than a few major characters.
So I asked Ohlen: might we see the Vong in a future expansion or content update? Is the team even considering how they might fit into a game like The Old Republic? The answer he gave was very encouraging.
"The Yuuzhan Vong... we're very familiar with them," Ohlen said. "You never know! The thing about The Old Republic is, we want to have this game running for years and years, and we're all about story. We're gonna eventually explore almost every corner of the Star Wars universe if we have a chance, so I would say that there's a good chance that the Yuuzhan Vong will show up at some point."