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'Old Republic' writer discusses '60 man-years' of work

To say that writing "Star Wars: The Old Republic" was a massive undertaking would be an understatement. Like seemingly everything in the multi-year development of Bioware's highly anticipated massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, which has already attracted over a million players before its official launch today, the developers took their previous experience making epic single-player console role-playing games (RPGs) and scaled it up for a new gaming space.

"The Old Republic" is "ten times bigger than any game we've ever done before," Lead Writer Daniel Erickson said in an interview with msnbc.com's In-Game. "It's pretty much as big as every game we've done before put together." The game's 20 writers coordinated on what amounted to 60 man-years of work on the games multiple branching storylines, Erickson said, leading to the humbling thought that "it would have taken one person their entire natural life to write [the game]."

Besides the sheer scale, Erickson said the "Old Republic" writing and development process was more also difficult than that for a single-player game because the team had to control for the potentially disruptive actions of other players. "As soon as we started testing, people would find out exactly where they had to stand in order to photobomb people's incredibly important conversations -- jumping between them and the quest-giver, taking their pants off and dancing around, and so on," he said. "You're continually surprised by the ingenuity of the community and the players for mischief."

Another difference in transitioning from going from single-player RPGs to an online environment, Erickson said, is the ability to actually track player actions and use that information to affect what kinds of situations players will be faced with as new content is released.

"We can actually see how long it takes somebody to make a story decision, and that's a great way to see what the best story decisions are, where people just take their hands off the keyboard and just sit there and stare at it -- which in an RPG where you have no save button is a fun one.," he said.

Watching players in the "Old Republic" beta, in fact, led Erickson and his team to expand the number of what he calls "tester" and "tempter" quests, which challenge players to full embrace the virtual moral path they've decided to take.

"There were some particular plots early in the game on one of the four starter worlds that tended to shift people's light side or dark side [alignment]," he said. "People would go definitively dark side until they hit one quest, they would go dark side on that quest, then they would stop going dark side.

"Are you really dark enough to be the dark side?" Erickson asked rhetorically. "All right, go ahead and shoot this guy in front of his kid, and [we'd] watch afterwards as people clearly felt remorse from it and stopped going in that direction. Are you really going to be super light side? All right, we're going to dangle this giant, giant carrot in front of you. Can you stay in the light? That's one of the ones that did come purely from watching what the statistics looked like."

Erickson went on to describe how the team tried to make sure the MMO experience wasn't just like "playing a bunch of single player games together." The game's overarching story is structured in two distinct parts -- "class stories," which dominate the early game and focus on the player's particular character type, and "world stories" which tie those characters into a wider narrative of a galaxy at war.

"The pattern we used for it all when we were planning in out was the original [Star Wars film] trilogy," Erickson said. "So what is a 'class story'? Well, we've got Han Solo and he's got problems with Jabba the Hutt and bounty hunters going after him and people who want to turn him into a wall decoration, and we've got Luke and he's trying to be a Jedi and do his thing."

"But for most of the movie, they all come together and they try to do the big story which is, 'Hey, we've got to go off and fight the evil empire and we're fighting this war. That's really the same model the game follows," he said.

Of course, "The Old Republic" takes that structural inspiration of the original film trilogy and sets it in a time thousands of years before the events of those movies. It's an environment Erickson said he hopes will feel "immediately comfortable" to a base of Star Wars fans that's growing increasingly divergent.

"The interesting thing about Star Wars is it's arguable in this day and age that if you took a random snippet of the [population], the original trilogy would not even be the first thing that comes to mind for Star Wars," he said. "We have three distinct generations of incredibly passionate fans out there. We've got the old fogeys like me who still think of 'Empire Strikes Back', you have the next generation of people who really did grow up with and will swear by the prequels -- and they're constantly confused why people would like the old movies where everybody had the slowest sword fights ever -- and then you've got these great kids coming in, and they come to the shows and they go to the conventions and they're like ten and younger and they're wearing their full Commander Cody outfits from the [Clone Wars] cartoon, and that is Star Wars to them."

In the end, Erickson said he was hopeful that the team's writing efforts would help serve as an easy entry point for players who might not have played MMOs or RPGs before. "You can come in, you can create a character, it's a known place if you're a Star Wars fan, and you can understand it right from the beginning," he said/ "You don't have to worry from the beginning about your stats and how much damage you're doing and what your gear is. Somebody is just talking to you and asking you questions, and you're responding to things. And you find it's very easy to respond and very quickly you're wrapped up in it and it makes the transition into the MMO space much easier."

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Kyle Orland has written hundreds of thousands of words about gaming since he started a Mario fan site at the age of 14. You can follow him on Twitter or at his personal website, KyleOrland.com.