Alex Freed talks to Develop about scripting the much-hyped MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic

Interview: SWTOR’s senior writer

What previous experience do you have as a writer?
BioWare’s is my first video game work. I’ve been at BioWare since essentially the beginning of this project. Before that – in the distant past – I’ve had some short stories published in magazines and anthologies, I did some pen-and-paper game design – you know, traditional Dungeons and Dragons type games – on a freelance basis. But no previous video game experience, but I have experience with story-telling, game design and interactive narrative.

How does SWTOR differ from any project you’ve previously written for?
Well, not having worked in video games, that was of course a major change of pace. Everything that comes with that – having to be working consistently with all the other departments, understanding the unique needs and what needs to be flexible depending on testing results – were a new challenge.

Writing for voiceover, I had never done before. It’s very different writing for actors than writing for prose or comic books. People say things in ways that would not write. It was a whole new world on many many levels, and of course The Old Republic being a particularly massive project for the industry, there were challenges for everyone in terms of scope and making sure everything was consistent, making sure the system we had to process that much material, from writing the script to getting the game out, was quite new to us.

What are the main differences between storytelling techniques in MMORPGs and the traditional single-player RPGs BioWare is known for?
Well there are new techniques we’ve had to develop. For the Class storylines, the more solitary experiences, we could obviously draw lots from BioWare tradition. But when it came to writing the more group-focused content, the side quests and big group storytelling moments like the Flashpoints, there was a lot to learn in terms of how do you generate moments that are going to be interesting for a group of people to play through? What kind of characters are going to illicit a divergent reaction from a group?

If you have a Sith Lord, how are you create a reaction where the Sith in the party is going to react differently to the bounty hunter and thus create an interesting dynamic. We want them to feel like they are a group of different people. We don’t necessarily want them to hate one another, you want them to be playing together and enjoying the experience, but you don’t want a situation where everyone in the party is saying exactly what you would say.

MMORPGs often lack in engaging storyline because they’ve got to cope with so many people going through the same story, but BioWare has claimed SWTOR is going feel like a personal saga for each player. How have you accomplished that?
Again, drawing from the tradition of BioWare storytelling. We know how to tell a big epic story about characters who go through life, encounters dramatic villains, overcomes conflicts, has companion characters. All of these are the tools BioWare has developed in order to tell compelling stories. Bringing that into an MMO space obviously has its challenges, but the core ideals are there and the goals remain the same.

BioWare’s games tend to be 40-to-50-hour single-player experiences, but MMOs need to last almost indefinitely. How have you accounted for this?

I’m going to hit a couple of different points here. In terms of the traditional BioWare game, one thing that we did in terms of storytelling with The Old Republic was we knew we did not want to stretch a single story across the entire length of time, from that first level to the max level. So in many ways we’ve structured it like you would structure an entire series of games, or a trilogy. So you’re going through multiple plots that build on one another, you’re going to run through all of the content we’ve given to each class, and each character has accessible to them. And at that point, storytelling can only last so long.

We can keep doing updates, but people are always going to play through new material faster than we can create it and that’s the fact of any MMO – not just a story based one. At that point you need to have gameplay that rewards and encourages people sticking playing it and have stuff that, even without have story-telling, is fresh and new to them.

So you give them really difficult group-based challenges, and that’s what we’ve got with Operations (our take on raiding) and hard-mode flashpoints, which are on a similar scale but for smaller groups. We’ve got warzones, we’ve got open-world PVP – you need to have enough diverse and fun experiences that are going to keep people coming back. And when you’ve got more story-based content, hopefully they’re going to stay engaged with that as well.

Are there plans to continue introducing more story-based content in future?
Obviously I can’t talk about details yet, but we are a story-based game. If we were to say there will be no more story content, that would be a betrayal of the core principles our game is built on. If there are things you enjoy in our game, we should continue giving them to you. We can’t dramatically shift the focus of the game. No one wants that, and we don’t want to do that.

Is there pressure to uphold BioWare’s reptutation for storytelling?
There’s certainly some pressure, there’s definitely some friendly competitiveness in BioWare, like people saying ‘we want people to like this companion character more than one that’s previously been done’. But BioWare’s very good at sharing its methods and teaching new members to the team.

Writers go through a three-month training program where all of the lessons BioWare has learned get pounded brutally into their skulls. And of course we have a number of writers on the project that have worked on previous BioWare games as well. They’re always there to show us the way. So it’s something that’s very important to us. No one wants to let down the BioWare legacy but we’re also fairly comfortable that BioWare has always done this well and we’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to doing it. If we fail, it’s not because we didn’t do the absolute best we couldn’t do.

What about the challenge of writing for an established universe, and one fans will know intricately?

The most important limitations are pretty well self-imposed. There are a lot of things we could do but they aren’t good ideas. Ultimately, people are coming to our game as Star Wars fans, and we need to give them a game that star wars fans are going to fall in love with.

We needed to look at what makes Star Wars something that people get excited about, what are the aspects of storytelling, the characters and the themes that are important to people who love Star Wars. Those were the tools that we used to construct the story. Even if we’ve got some brilliant idea on intricate religious content or hard science fiction, those probably aren’t going to be appropriate for Star Wars. We might be able to shoehorn them in but what’s the point? We’re trying to tell a fantastic star wars story and that’s what we focus on.

Why are additional projects like the comics important to building the fiction of the game you’re working on?
It’s a tremendously big game with eight different storylines through the main classes, and the big overall factions storylines, and having built this universe that supports that much fiction, it makes the universe incredibly roomy in terms of supporting additional fiction.

There are so many stories that are implied but not necessarily told in the context of the settings. There are new types of characters that maybe didn’t fit into the storylines we had planned, but they maybe fit the universe well. The comics were an excuse to explore that space and hopefully reward fans with a different perspective on the same material.

Are you working on any other BioWare projects or just focused on the Old Republic?
I am solely focused on the Old Republic. The only exception is I am co-writing the script for a Dragon Age comic with the Dragon Age lead writer.

Naughty Dog called out the industry for weak storytelling. Do you agree that industry needs to improve storytelling in video games?
I’m not here to trash talk the rest of the industry, but I would say that the video game industry as a whole – less so than it used, I think we’re getting better and better at this – but for many companies storytelling is not a high priority.

Which is understandable – games are very difficult and very expensive to make and I think a lot of companies look at what they wanted to devote resources to and build their process around, and storytelling isn’t always a priority in this. And that’s unfortunate – I think storytelling is not separate from all other types of design, it needs to be incorporated into all elements of design, and that’s partly why it’s expensive and time-consuming to do a strongly story-driven project. But i think more companies are recognising that.

People are trying new an innovative things in story-telling – and I think that’s especially true in the independent games sphere. The industry’s going in the right direction, but we’re young as an industry and these things take time to develop.

Where did you draw inspiration from when writing for The Old Republic?
Star Wars, of course, was the primary source for inspiration but outside of that you look at everything. You look at weird stuff that’s outside of science fiction or epic storytelling. You look at places where you’re going to find some spark that you can bring into Star Wars that no one is ever going to recognise where it came from or feel that it doesn’t feel like star wars. And of course, you look for stuff that’s related to the class fantasies in other ways. So I was the main writer on the Imperial Agent, so I looked at a lot of espionage fiction: TV shows like 24, traditional spy novels, old world war II films. All of that stuff gets rolled in there. You try to keep it diverse and you try to keep it surprising.

Do you have any tips for anyone that would want to write for BioWare?
It’s trite, but learn to be a good writer. It’s not easy and that encompasses experience and a diverse range of material. Read, watch and play good stuff that is similar to what you want to do. Read good stuff that’s very different to what you want to do so you can incorporate elements that are going to make what you’re going to do feel fresh.

Read bad stuff that is like what you’re going to do. It’s very important to dissect and analyse very awful examples so you can analyse what went wrong. Develop your writing skills and play games, play non-story focused games, see what aspects they have that do work. Think about how story-telling could be incorporated into, say, a turn-based strategy game about moving blocks, figure out where a game can realisitically go to incorporate storytelling in a way that will be rewarding to the player and not drag down the whole experience. Storytelling should be part and parcel of the gameplay.

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