Star Wars: The Old Republic nears completion

By Daniel Emery
Technology reporter, BBC News

Media caption,
BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk talks to Daniel Emery about the game firm's controversial history and their upcoming Star Wars release

The massive multiplayer online role-play game (MMORPG) Star Wars: The Old Republic is nearing completion.

While the Canadian developer BioWare would not be drawn on an exact date, it said that spring 2011 "was not unrealistic".

"It's getting closer, it's coming down the pipe," the firm's founder Greg Zeschuk told BBC News.

At present the MMORPG market is dominated by World of Warcraft, which boasts more than 10m players.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is set 4,000 years before the events in the movies, which gave the developers almost a free hand in creating a unique persistent Star Wars universe.

"The only requirement Lucas Arts gave us when developing the game was not to blow up any planets that appear in the movies," said Mr Zeschuk.

Now a major player in the video games market, BioWare had somewhat humble beginnings.

The firm was founded in 1995 by two Canadian medical students, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk. Both avid gamers, they set up their game development studio in a basement in Edmonton immediately after graduating from medical school at the University of Alberta.

For them, the studio name was obvious: BioWare.

Within a year, they had created their first game - the first-person action shooter Shattered Steel - that had players fighting in mechanised combat vehicles. While the game sold well, it was cut from the same cloth as the likes of MechWarrior and BattleTech.

The firm's next game took them - and the rest of the games industry - by complete surprise.

Image caption,
Neverwinter Nights continued BioWare's RPG tradition

Released in 1998, Baldur's Gate was a role-playing game (RPG) - based on modified Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules - and follows the player's exploits across a mythical land as they battle monsters, negotiate with non-player characters (NPCs) and end up battling their corrupted half-brother to save the land from damnation.

The game won numerous accolades, including five "Game of the Year" awards, and spawned numerous add-on packs.

Greg Zeschuk said "everyone" at the time said the role-playing game was dead, and that they should be developing a different sort of game.

"We just didn't believe it - perhaps it was our naivety of being new in the games business - so we just built it anyway," he said.

"After a few months, our publishers asked for another one as it turned into a huge hit and we haven't looked back since."

Arcade action

Mr Zeschuk's next game took a very different tack.

MDK2 was a follow-up on Shiny Entertainment's third-person shooter, and had users playing the role of a mild-mannered janitor forced to battle alien invaders.

While popular with reviewers, the game did not exactly reshape the way we play action shooters and the firm's next game, Neverwinter Nights, saw a return to form with another top-down viewpoint RPG.

Then in 2003, BioWare managed to secure one of the more coveted licences in the games industry: Star Wars.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) combined the role-play elements that BioWare had developed over the previous five years with a third-person Star Wars universe.

The game engine was based on the Wizards of the Coast's Star Wars Role-playing Game - which used multi-faceted dice to determine outcomes - and put the player in the role of a young Jedi battling the Dark Lord of the Sith.

The game sold well and received critical acclaim.

Use the Force

BioWare's next Star Wars title - currently in the latter stages of development - promises to be its most ambitious to date.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is based on KOTOR and allows the user to side with either the Galactic Republic or Sith Empire.

Players' allegiance will influence character class, evolutionary route and impact on moral choices. For example, in one mission, the player captures a space vessel and has to choose whether to spare or kill the captain.

Image caption,
Shattered Steel: BioWare's very first game

BioWare said the game would have "a very deep storyline" and that a character class could change to suit the mission, rather than being locked into a single type throughout the game.

However, the firm is up against some stiff competition for the MMORPG space. World of Warcraft has captured almost 70% of the market, and attracting players to Star Wars: The Old Republic will be challenging.

The situation is somewhat compounded as the last Star Wars MMORPG - Sony's Star Wars Galaxies - came in for considerable criticism from reviewers and gamers alike.

A review by Keith Durocher on the gaming website Adrenaline Vault described it as a "half-finished game" and said it was "lacking due to its slow pace and the absence of vehicles and space travel".

BioWare said that its new game was something very different, and hopes that the similarities with the movies will "draw people in.

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