Of course BioWare, the Canadian video-game developer, would locate its headquarters for Star Wars: The Old Republic in Austin. The game–and the company’s ambition for the game–is Texas-size big. More-than-1,600-hours-of-game-play big. If that seems like an absurd figure to process, think of it this way: Were you to quit your job and instead spend your workdays playing The Old Republic, it would take you 10 months to get through all of the game’s eight full story lines that unfold across 19 planets. “It’s the most content in a video game ever,” says executive producer Rich Vogel, who, along with five others, helped seed the Austin studio back in December 2005. Compare that with BioWare’s “truly epic epic” Dragon Age: Origins or Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV, two titles heralded for the vast scope of their game play: Each clocks in at a mere 100 hours.
With hundreds of hours come thousands of characters–literally. So many of them, in fact, that this November, The Old Republic will enter the Guinness Book of World Records for having the biggest voice-over cast in entertainment history, with more than 1,000 actors speaking in three different languages. The game has between 250,000 and 280,000 lines of dialogue–the word-count equivalent of five Infinite Jests. To iron out bugs, some 4.6 million hours of beta testing were logged. The result is the first fully voiced massively multiplayer online (MMO) game that incorporates BioWare’s signature storytelling. The game, which costs $59.99 up front and $15 a month thereafter, will launch December 20. After six years of planning, writing, designing, building out, testing and debugging, retesting and re-debugging, BioWare, led by Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, is ready to let the world judge whether its effort lives up to the hype.
The stakes are as big as the game. For BioWare and its parent company, Electronic Arts, the release of The Old Republic is nothing short of transformational, according to Michael Hickey, senior analyst at National Alliance Capital Partners. In getting into the MMO space, BioWare is taking on segment leader Blizzard, whose World of Warcraft boasts a subscriber base of more than 11 million. For EA, The Old Republic is a chance to shed old skin. The company has made billions from shipping boxed products, but it has a spotty record with always-on MMOs, which entertain hundreds of thousands of users simultaneously and require constant monitoring by a 24/7 customer-support team. Do it right and the payoff matches the scope of the game: In 2010, a peak year, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft generated more than $1.4 billion in revenue for parent company Activision.
Electronic Arts needs that kind of hit. In fiscal year 2009, the company lost $1 billion, followed by $677 million in 2010. For 2011, EA’s losses narrowed to $276 million, helped by $833 million in revenue from its burgeoning digital business. EA has sunk a tremendous amount of money into The Old Republic. In a meeting with analysts last March, CFO Eric Brown called it “the largest-ever development project, period, in the history of the company.” While EA won’t share specifics, Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, estimates a tab of at least $100 million for development, and that doesn’t factor in marketing costs.
EA’s distribution of The Old Republic is novel too: The game’s digital download will be available exclusively via Origin, the online storefront EA launched last summer. This play could anchor the platform and “maximize the customer service,” says EA labels president Frank Gibeau. “Day one is just the beginning. We fully intend to be in the Star Wars business for 10 years or more.” But there’s always the risk that relying on a proprietary platform will limit adoption.
BioWare has become something akin to Pixar: a boutique production studio that wins critical acclaim for its rich storytelling, despite the less refined reputation of its parent company. If BioWare’s narrative magic works for the MMO genre, the game could be a blockbuster. But the company has never made an MMO before–so it’s prey to every rookie mistake. “You gotta give it to BioWare–they’re one of the best gaming studios in the world,” says Hickey. “But it’s still unclear how a singular type of experience will play into a social-type game. For MMOs, the value of depth of story line is unproven.”
BioWare Austin is 62,000 square feet of Star Wars devotion. On the walls are game-trailer posters, paintings of Jawas, bigger-than-life-size decals of Luke Skywalker. References like Mos Eisley Cantina are etched into office-space nameplates. The obsession makes sense: The Old Republic is the largest, most expensive addition to the Star Wars franchise since the film The Phantom Menace, which had a production budget of $115 million. When I stop by for a visit this fall, the staff of around 400, including designers, producers, and developers, are working feverishly to meet the December 20 launch.
If founders Muzyka and Zeschuk (pronounced me-ZEE-ka and ZESS-chuk) are feeling the pressure, they don’t show it. The two former doctors–who launched BioWare out of Zeschuk’s basement–meet me in Darth Malgus, a conference room at the far end of the facility, where construction is under way to expand the studio. Muzyka has the kind of preternatural calm you’d want in a fixer, while Zeschuk is bubbly and easygoing. Their description of how they established themselves in the gaming world is typically unabashed. “For the first two games we made,” says Muzyka, “not one of the people we hired had ever worked on a game. Not one.” Zeschuk laughs, “One guy showed up with a drawing of a robot on a napkin and we’d go, ‘Hey! That’s pretty good!’ And now he’s our assistant director of art! It’s this way for the whole company.”
The man in charge of creative development for The Old Republic, James Ohlen, had little experience in video games when the founders hired him away from a job at a comic-book store 16 years ago. “We heard he was an amazing dungeon master from a local D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] campaign,” says Muzyka. “We had this weird idea: That means he can tell stories! And it was true.”
The Old Republic is set 300 years after the events depicted in a console game BioWare produced for LucasArts in 2003, Knights of the Old Republic. Players choose a side (the Empire or the Republic) and one of four character classes. For the Empire, you can play a Sith inquisitor (think the Emperor), Sith warrior (Darth Vader), bounty hunter (Boba Fett), or an Imperial agent (spy). For the Republic, you can be a Jedi consular (think Yoda), Jedi knight (Luke Skywalker), smuggler (Han Solo), or a trooper. Your character is either out to defend the Republic or expand the Empire’s reach. Your experience is then so thoroughly shaped by the choices you make while playing that it is nearly impossible your story will be identical to anyone else’s.
“Most developers think of game play first, then story second,” says Zeschuk. “We reverse it and make story a core focus.” That means writers play an integral role in the game’s development, plotting out the narrative and scope of the game well in advance and fine-tuning it throughout the game’s production. All hired writers endure a three-month-long workshop–a process so rigorous that lead writer Daniel Erickson claims it drove him half-blind and made him paranoid. “I thought people were coming in and rewriting my scenes when I was away from my desk,” he says. His doctor told him that the tension was causing a peculiar phenomenon, jamais vu, in which Erickson, upon returning to a passage he had spent hours drafting, did not recognize anything on the page.
Erickson shows me a script from The Old Republic, and it looks a lot like code–a decision tree branching down vertically. To begin any one conversation in a scene, a character is given three dialogue choices. The writer not only pens the choices but paraphrases the answers that the voice actors will speak. Writers must create thousands of conversations spanning countless characters for scenes across 19 worlds–while keeping track of all the decisions and consequences a gamer could encounter. Chess grandmasters might be well suited for the job, provided they have a gift for snappy prose.
But the story line is only the start with a game that’s persistently on and shared by thousands of players. Customer support is another critical element. BioWare tapped Jeff Hickman, a veteran of Mythic (a studio EA purchased in 2006), to lead the live-services team, which handles everything from bugs and billing issues to lightly policing the game (so those who delight in exploiting game weaknesses don’t ruin the experience for the rest). A customer-service center in Ireland just opened and will eventually employ 400. Hickman signed on to The Old Republic only after playing the game. “When it comes to Star Wars versus other MMOs, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he says. “In every respect, it’s bigger. Once you play the game, you’ll find that it just . . . transcends. You’ll never go back. I can never go back.”
Much of BioWare’s bold bet on developing an MMO seems retro given gaming’s trends toward mobile, Facebook, and free-to-play. The MMO market has been flat or declining in recent years, says analyst Hickey. (In a move to attract users, in June, Blizzard announced free access for the first 20 levels of World of Warcraft.) But Zeschuk isn’t worried that charging a price will curtail use. “The trick is making things that are worth people’s while,” he says. “Free-to-play does not supplant high-quality games.” EA has a checkered track record with MMOs. Back in 2008, it shuttered The Sims Online after a long obsolescence. This summer, it relaunched the franchise as a Facebook game, which now has 39 million monthly active users. “We know this is no sure thing,” Zeschuk says of The Old Republic. “But we don’t really worry about what people say. We’re out to prove it.”
There’s also the risk EA is taking by offering the game’s digital download exclusively on Origin–thereby cutting out competitor Steam, which Hickey estimates commands roughly 80% of the download market. (Discs of the game will also be sold at retail stores.) If the game has to make back its huge cost of investment, why narrow the points of entry?
To be profitable, the game would need 500,000 paying subscribers in the first year, CEO John Riccitiello told investors in an earnings call last February. The founders are hoping to lure 1 million. So far, signs are positive: In July, when preorders were opened, CFO Brown told Reuters that more than 200,000 copies were sold in the first five days. One analyst firm has predicted a launch with 3 million subscribers. The true measure of success, says Wedbush’s Pachter, will come next year, when EA reveals how many people are still playing the game.
Given the high degree of peril involved with this project, do Muzyka and Zeschuk worry The Old Republic might flop? “We have a pretty healthy sense of paranoia, so when we’re testing a game we know what problems to anticipate,” Muzyka says. “It’s something we’re used to as doctors–there’s always something new to learn in medicine.” His expression is open yet reveals nothing. “Besides,” shrugs the avid poker player, “I’ve played the game. I know it’s fun.”