What the difference is between the development of an awesome game and a terrible one is, Bioware leads Richard Vogel and Dallas Dickinson laid it all out at GDC 2012. For Star Wars: The Old Republic developers, making the game awesome meant creating their own Death Star. Even triple-A games have to make sacrifices in order to be successful. That’s why in the last half year of the development cycle The Old Republic, they introduced the Death Star—basically an “imperial” review board that would evaluate team progress and make harsh cuts as needed.
“We brought everyone [on the team] to us to explain where they were. In the background we had a board that was twenty feet across and had magnetic strips of different things that outlined what we needed to do and were tracked daily,” Vogel said.
“It’s very important to cut your babies in half early and often. It’s also very important to that you don’t do nice-to-haves. That’s what everyone wants. We made people cry in the Death Star many times.”
This is all part of the three-tier strategy Bioware used to ensure that The Old Republic maintained the company’s standards for quality as well as the game’s vision during over the course of its development cycle.
“Our main goal was to make sure you felt like you could live your dream in the Star Wars universe,” Vogel said.
How this was achieved is as follows:
Innovate – Because Bioware has a reputation for creating games with dramatic, sweeping storylines, this was always crucial to the The Old Republic’s successful development; combat had to capture the cinematic style Star Wars fans expect from lightsaber duels and blaster battles. Meanwhile, the legacy of Star Wars had to be intact, leading to the game’s massive scale, varied locales and attention to detail (240,000 lines of dialogue notwithstanding).
The game also had to strike the right balance to satisfy different kinds of MMO players. The solution was to create something for everyone, whether your personality type lends itself more towards using WASD, healing and crafting, PvP combat, loot collecting or exploration. Even more important was that The Old Republic consistently wow players from its opening to endgame level cap. Always appealing to the core fanbase was key.
“If you don’t have a climactic storyline that actually pushes you through—we have a three-act structure. And if third act doesn’t hit you with the power of great cinematics and great story, we actually have failed,” Dickinson said.
Scale – The Old Republic is no doubt a massive game—there’s about 150-200 hours of content to reach the level cap per character class, according to Dickinson—and for Bioware that meant trying to manage of massive team that eventually ballooned to over 500 people across the globe. It didn’t necessarily go well at first.
“We grew kind of quickly and we had the growing pains to show it, and the scars to show it. We realized as we were going through this stuff, ‘We really have to make some changes, we’re not scaling very well,’” Vogel said. “I tell people we’re craftsmen, we’re not cogs in a machine. And we all have personalities that we have to deal with.”
The issue of scaling made the team realize which company roles fit employees best.
“When we hire people, we want to make sure they have the skill to do it, and the biggest thing after we check that off is can they fit in our in team culture. That was more important to us than anything else,” Vogel said.
This led both to the use of what Bioware calls “content pods,” self-contained development units that could be shifted around on the fly to create the best teams as well as a try-before-you-buy policy for outsourced work where the company temporary contracted potential future employees. Vogel also said the team learned that they had to be flexible—if one toolset didn’t work for coding, for example, they would switch to a new one.
Triage – For triage, which involves taking repeated critical looks at a project to make sure it’s on the right track, Dickinson referenced Col. John Boyd, the man who wrote the book used by the U.S. Air Force on fighter pilot strategy.
“The person who wins is the person who makes the most decisions fastest,” Dickinson said, referencing Boyd’s argument. Bioware adapted this strategy through a four-step process of observing a problem, orientation through collecting data, deciding what to do and taking immediate action.
Coupled with constant reiteration of the game and its various systems and cutting excess elements when they dilute the focus from the game’s vision, it all becomes a balancing act, of scope, quality, time and resources.
“You always have to constantly do trade-offs all throughout your development process from the beginning to the end, to make sure you’re balancing your core features and make sure you’re vision of the game is always stayed through,” Dickinson said.