Interview: BioWare devs reflect on five years of creating Star Wars: The Old Republic

I know that sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly what you were doing five years ago. I know that I had been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for a couple of days attempting to level my character quickly, but at the same time, enjoying the game. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I was doing five years ago on this date, but there is probably video record of it someplace. Last week, I spoke to two people who know exactly where they were and what they were doing five years ago. I’m talking about Producer Ben Irving and Creative Director Charles Boyd.

Many of us think of these triple-A games as part of the giant corporate machine, and unfortunately, there is a part of the game industry that is that money-making monstrosity. However, when you look at a game like SWTOR, you see passionate people who really want to make a great Star Wars game. You find Irving and Boyd both were there when the game launched on this date five years ago: December 20th, 2011.

Pushing the go-live button

“It was a really crazy experience to be the guy in the trenches back then, creating just one part of this giant experience for our players, and to actually have it go live,” Boyd explained to me. “This was the first project I did ever [in the games industry]. This was my first experience seeing it go out and see people actually dive in and start playing it. We were really, really fortunate that it went really, really well. I’m sure Ben will talk about this because he was in the room when we hit the button. Thankfully, the people in that room knew what they were doing. They hit the right button.”

Both Boyd and Irving joked about there was only one big red button to hit, but both expressed just how mind blowing it was to be a part of a project this huge. “I was in the control room, so to speak,” Irving said. “I remember that conversation where our leader was talking to GM. They were like, ‘Are we ready?’ And they go, ‘Push it live.’ And the button got pushed. It was this really surreal moment because how often are you a part of launching one of the biggest games ever made? That experience was incredible, and to think that was five years ago now is crazy.”

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Giving up everything for the dream

Of course, Star Wars: The Old Republic didn’t start just five years ago. For Irving, it started six years ago. He was living in Australia at the time with his girlfriend, who was from Texas. He worked as a programmer and project developer on mainstream software but had a passion for games and gaming. He said that he had a passion for MMOs specifically, which is why SWTOR piqued his interest. He reflected on his conversation with his girlfriend:

“I remember coming home from work one day and I’m like, ‘You know, I’m really unhappy with everything that I’m doing. I’m successful in my job, but I’m just not happy.’ She goes, ‘OK, well, why?’ and I go, ‘I really want to make video games.’

“My whole life, that’s been my biggest hobby and my biggest passion, but I can’t do it here [in Australia], not to make the big blockbuster games that I want to make. I was like, ‘Would you be interested in moving back to the US?’ and she was like, ‘I’d like to get back to see my family. You know, I went to UT [University of Texas]. What do you think about Austin?’ I said, ‘It’s funny you mention that. BioWare has this studio there and they have this game: Star Wars: The Old Republic.’

“That’s when I said to her, ‘I’m going into work tomorrow and quitting my job. In two months, we’re going to move to Texas, and I’m going to work on Star Wars: The Old Republic.'”

Of course, his girlfriend thought that he was crazy, but that’s exactly what he did. He quit his job, sold everything, and moved to Austin. He had no job and nothing really to go on; he didn’t even have his green card at the time. But he was willing to give it a go, and it worked. He eventually got his job at BioWare and was part of the team that helped keep the servers up when the game went live.

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No regrets

“Put yourself out there and do what you want to do. If you fail, then you fail, but at least, you will have no regrets.”
As Irving reflected on his move to the States, he said that he could have moved there, not found a job, and failed, but at least he could say that he tried. “That’s always been my philosophy: put yourself out there and do what you want to do. If you fail, then you fail, but at least, you will have no regrets.”

You can see this kind of leap-of-faith passion in his handling of SWTOR. He talked about the design philosophy at BioWare as being one of humility. He said that it doesn’t matter where the best idea comes from; what matters is that the team uses the best idea, even if it comes from the most junior member.

He specifically mentioned Galactic Command — a controversial system that just released with the latest expansion — when talking about taking a calculated leap of faith while being humble about it. “We took a risk here; we took a shot. I think we got most of it right, but there are things that we didn’t get right. And that was providing goals for those who are doing the hardest content and providing specific gear-chase items. So two weeks after we launch, we reviewed that data and had a heart-to-heart discussion with ourselves to say this is what we’ve got to do. It’s the right thing to do for the game.”

Regardless of your views on the choices that BioWare has made over the years, it’s good to know that passionate people still helm this ship. Not everything will work, and it’s part of our job as fans to let the producers know when they don’t. Irving said at the end of the interview, “Charles has invested 10 years of his life in this game; I’ve invested close to six. All we want out of that game is for it to be as good as it can be.”

I’d like to thank Irving and Boyd for taking the time to talk to me. I will reveal a bit more of our conversation at the beginning of next year when I’m taking a look back, but I thought this part was a great way to reflect on what people have given to be a part of this great game that’s still going strong after five years.

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