LOS ANGELES — "Star Wars" is hyperspeeding to an even longer time ago.
The next chapter in George Lucas' ever-expanding franchise will be "Star Wars: The Old Republic," a massively multiplayer online game set thousands of years before Darth Vader was born. The game is being developed by BioWare, the Electronic Arts-owned studio responsible for the first "Knights of the Old Republic" role-playing game in 2003.
"People have asked us why we're not making 'Knights of the Old Republic III,'" said BioWare senior content producer Dallas Dickinson about the much-rumored-about game. "Our response is that we're actually making 'Knights of the Old Republic III' through 'Knights of the Old Republic X' — and we're releasing them all at once."
In the game, players can customize their own characters, align with the Jedi Order or Sith Lords and participate in adventures with other players on virtual worlds, such as Korriban and Tython. "The Old Republic" developers said they're focusing on storytelling and promise that Cold War-type events in the game would lay the groundwork for future lore.
"In an MMO, you usually do what you're told, whether it's go kill 10 dudes or find this artifact or whatever," said BioWare creative director James Ohlen. "You never get to make meaningful choices that are tough to make. That's something we're going to have in our game because 'Star Wars' is all about the struggle between good and evil, light and dark."
The game will feature multiple companion characters — think: Wookie sidekick Chewbacca and beeping droid R2-D2 from the films — that players can interact with during their adventures. Ohlen said the companion characters can be romanced, befriended or offended and will have a significant affect on the way players progress throughout the game.
"The Old Republic" will be LucasArts' second online "Star Wars" game. "Star Wars: Galaxies" was released in 2003, but the popularity of the multiplayer game — which takes place after "Episode IV" — has since dwindled. LucasArts online director Tom Nichols said "Galaxies" will remain open but will be completely separate from "The Old Republic."
"The marketplace will obviously tell us what will happen," said Nichols. "We think the games can live side-by-side. They obviously have very different timelines and will have very different game mechanics. 'The Old Republic' really has an emphasis on story."
LucasArts did not announce a release date for "The Old Republic." The game, which will take place 3,600 years before the "Star Wars" films, has been in development since 2006, when BioWare opened a new studio in Austin, Texas. The last game in the series, "Knights of the Old Republic II," was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and was released in 2004.
"It's the biggest game BioWare has ever done by order of magnitude," said Ohlen. "We have a writing team that's three to four times larger than a normal writing team. We have more programmers and developers working on this game than any previous BioWare game. We'll essentially have more content than any all other BioWare games before this combined."
Other previous BioWare games include "Baldur's Gate," "Neverwinter Nights," "Jade Empire," "Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood" and "Mass Effect," the critically lauded science-fiction role-playing game released last year. The Edmonton, Alberta-based company was acquired by Electronic Arts in January alongside Pandemic Studios for $860 million.
The "Star Wars" franchise's most recently released game, "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed," is currently dominating game sales. Over 1 million copies of the aggressive action-adventure game for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii were sold in September, according to market researcher NPD Group, which tracks console video game sales.
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