BioWare are known for creating rich and meaningful worlds. Now they are turning their energy into the already crowded MMO space in an attempt to create a loyal Star Wars experience  – but what can they offer that the competition can’t? We recently sat down with the founders of BioWare in the newly established BioWare centre in Galway to talk everything from the economy to what fans can expect from Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Here’s how we got on…

The Gaming Liberty: Why Ireland? What attracted you to Ireland? And what do you think Ireland can offer that, for example, the UK can’t?

Ray Muzyka: Well we looked at different countries and different regions within countries, but Galway stood out because of the talent, experience, workforce and great Universities. If you think about it, it really acts like a nexus point to the rest of the world – in a global context.  The people here are passionate gamers, passionate BioWare fans, so it’s going to be our customer support network centre for the world. Having access to really smart and passionate people made it a pretty easy choice. You see people like working  here, they like living here, it’s a great place and it seems that there’s a good quality of life here too.

TGL: That’s the funny thing – a lot of Irish would look at Canada and think that’s a  good place to live, with a good quality of life!

Greg Zeschuk: Well there’s always pros and cons – but try joining us in January and see how you feel <laughs>.

RM: There’s also a fair, reasonable tax and regalatory structure the government here has provided for us which creates an entrepreneurial environment for us which is a big bonus too.

TGL: Obviosuly job creation, considering the turmoil in the economy, is an important and positive result for Ireland. What are your aspirations for the centre here in  Galway, and what do you think the centre can do for BioWare?

GZ: Well right now we have three main areas. The first is the customer support element to it. When you’re playing the game, if you have a problem, you can literally ask for a GM to come help you, talk to you and even guide you through parts of the game. Secondly there’s what we call the “network operation centre”; which are a group of keys guys that keep an eye on the entire network, all the data centres and the machines. It goes around the clock between here and Austin and it goes 24/7 – they watch every single server – they’re also the guys that will fix things, which is really cool. Finally there’s the folks that are testing. There’s the QA of the game, so if there’s any issues, or problems at any time, we’ll try to figure out what’s  going on – which means we’re really keeping an eye on everything.

Over time we’ll see if the game takes off you know? It could be a super-duper success and if it does well, we’ll keep on growing.

TGL: Well now with the downturn in the users on WOW – The Old Republic is really well timed…

GZ: Yeah, maybe timing is good. Well there’s that chance it can get really big, you know? As time goes by, and as opportunites present themselves, we’ll always be considering locating here for future plans and future growth.

TGL: For the Old Republic, where did you draw reference points from? Did you research and focus on the films soley? Or did you expand into the books, comics and more?

RM: Well all of them really for an inspirational perspective. Knights of the Old Republic was set thousands of years before the movies, and Tales of the Jedi was the only extended thing at the time.

GZ: Yeah it was very limited…

RM: There was 6 comic books, from Dark Horse, so we took that as inspiration and set a game that was in that general timeline. It’s a time that is really interesting with Sith, Jedi and lightsabers all over the place. Everyone gets to be a hero. You can still be a bounty hunter, smuggler, trooper, agent and there’s also four Sith and Jedi classes there too. But yeah, we definitely look at all of the materials for inspiration. We also get a lot of feedback from LucasArts. There’s a lot of collaboration – our teams are continously in contact so we get a lot of feedback from the designs and more; so it’s a very collaborative relationship.

TGL: With such a deep history in Star Wars, did you guys feel any pressure to live up to the expectations from the Star Wars fans? Or did you simply focus and hone down your idea and run with it?

GZ: We don’t specifically feel pressure from the license by any stretch – it’s a kind of ‘given’, you know? Fan expectations are high in general when they see the BioWare logo, so the way I see it is “Well, we’re already under pressure – what’s a little more?” <laughs>

TGL: Well that’s very true!

GZ: I also think that we’re in a good position thanks to loyal Star Wars fans on our team. So in terms of going head to head with the lore, I think we’re well equipped. We obviously have a real passion for it. We’ve worked on very few licensed games so I think we take on games that we really really want to work on and feel very passionate about. We’re aiming to make it feel as authentic as possible…

TGL: Well it does feel like it alright. Some of the guys here at TGL are fans and it really  feels “part” of the Star Wars world.

GZ: Well thank you. The interesting thing is that you’ll never satisfy everyone, you know?

TGL: Never, that’s very true.

GZ: The scale of what we’re doing is so big – there’s going to be flaws occasionally. If there’s an issue we can just go and fix it. But because we’re striving for high-value, and if we nail it and get it just right – I think this could be really successful.

RM: Well we always, in terms of feedback, take it very seriously. One of our core values, as an organisation, is humility. For us, what that means, is that we take in the feedback from fans and treat it very seriously, we’ll work on it and then build on it too. Our goal is to launch a game that might exceed people’s imaginations, if that’s possible. We’re commited to this long-term, in terms of improving the service and launching new content features. We’re taking players feedback very seriously, in terms of content packs and expansions packs for years to come.

That’s the two big things that players look at from MMO games when we did research; they want the game to be supported not only at launch, but long-term. Not only in content though, but in features, general content, accessibility and more.

TGL: Speaking of quality through play, the build we had hands-on with contained some pop-up questionnaires about how to improve missions – will the full game support this? And if so, what are the pros and cons of these pop-up forms?

RM: What you seeing there is the raw data…

TGL: So we shouldn’t have cancelled it… <laughs>

GZ: Well we’ll do that, a little. We might periodically surprise players. There’s a few ones in there but one I find enjoyable, irritating and funny at the same time is the one that asks you “What are you doing right now?”

TGL: We’re dancing!

GZ: <laughs> Yeah! Then there’s a drop down asking you “Did you have fun?” and “How would you rate the experience?”. Jokes aside though, it is cool because it helps us grab a glimpse of the game at that very moment you know?

RM: I’d type “I’m busy having fun – go away!” <laughs>

TGL: Or “we’re chatting to BioWare – see ‘ya!”

GZ: <laughs> It’s kinda’ neat though, but the only thing I’d have is WWWWWWWWWW -  like they just held the W key down to get rid of the screen.

RM: <laughs> Thankfully it doesn’t appear during combat anymore.

TGL: We’d imagine that would be problematic alright.

GZ: What’s cool about it is for the people that like to give feedback – they can really help the development, and in turn, help us.

TGL: So there’s been a real push to promote the cinematic experience that The Old Republic can offer people. But we want to know, direct from you guys, what you think it can  offer gamers that say, other MMOs can’t?

RM: Well we have the best features you can expect from MMOs. We have amazing progression and customisation – so you can really shape your avatar. We also have exploration, but one thing that sets this apart is that it’s set within the Star Wars world – so that in itself is very cool. We also have combat that’s exciting and tactical, but it also has lightsabers. Coupled with the animations – it’s quite beautiful to watch really.

Wrapping everything together is the story – and that’s one of the big difference between The Old Republic and other MMOs. For those familiar with BioWare games, they will be very happy with it. Every player, every character, every NPC has a voice, and although it’s subtle – the difference that makes is incredibly powerful. This helps to add a greater sense of purpose and depth to it. One of the most common things we’re already hearing is that people seem to find it hard to go back to other MMOs once they play The Old Republic; because there’s a real sense of purpose to everything.

Another interesting thing is that we have real choice for the game. There’s a hero journey for each class, there’s things you can share, but you can also join in on someone else’s personal quest – even if you’re in a different class. But because there’s personal choice, there is always personal consequences – there’s no going back you know? You can’t simply load up a previous save game and see “what if”.  That’s really exciting from a moral perspective, because it’s personally impactful. We’ve found a way to integrate group combat, with group exploration, group stories and explorations – yet, there’s still a great sense of a personal story. People couldn’t imagine how you could pull that off in the MMO space – and we did that.

TGL: Finally guys, and we know you’ve heard this a lot, what made you explore the MMO space instead of creating the next Knights of the Old Republic game?

GZ: Well interestingly – we always wanted to make an MMO. We ended up making a Star Wars MMO and we’re incredibly happy with that. The fans will be so suprised I think when they play it – I mean, you can play this completely solo if you want.

RM: Yeah, we found that some players enjoy playing MMOs like 60% of the time by themselves – so this game is completely solo in some ways, but enhanced by other players. At any point you can get a group together, play the story together or even apart, explore together, flashpoints and more.

GZ: We know people complained a little, but I think if they try it I think they’ll be blown away.

RM: Another dimension on the story front is the companion system. People love the companions in BioWare games, like the companions in The Old Republic are very powerful. They have unique abilites, unique actions, they comment on your actions and if anything; they’re like a lense to your world. They’re a big part of how we tell the story and in time they’ll mirror your actions back at you.

TGL: Sounds awesome! Thanks a lot guys.

GZ: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

RM: Thanks.

EA and BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic venture launches December 20th. You can check out our hands-on with the game here.