E3 2015: SWTOR’s upcoming expansion builds on the ‘legacy of KOTOR’

So what’s with Knights of the Fallen Empire? Inquiring Star Wars: The Old Republic fans want to know! That’s why we sat down with the BioWare devs at E3 to suss out some answers for you. We also got to see some of the expansion in action; Senior Producer Bruce MacLean and Studio Creative Director James Ohlen walked us through a demo of part of chapter three in the new story sequence. Afterward, Lead Designer Michael Backus fielded more of our questions.

What is Fallen Empire? It’s more than just the biggest SWTOR expansion to date. MacLean summed it up succinctly by arguing that this expansion is “a return to BioWare’s cinematic storytelling — it is a Star Wars epic where you are the central hero.” He emphasized that this expansion is about going from heroic story moment to heroic story moment and described the game as “cinematic action-packed RPG experiences thick with plot twists, surprises, betrayal, redemption, and hard choices.”

Ohlen chimed in too: “This is more than just an expansion for us. This is really the culmination of making Star Wars: The Old Republic what we always wanted it to be, which is that endless Star Wars BioWare epic story.” The devs stressed it is a change in how they tell story, inspired by Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.

And more than all that, Knights of the Fallen Empire is only the beginning. This expansion is called season one for a reason; there will be more seasons coming. And that means more story.

Choices matter

Hurry, player #1859237; you are our only hope! A phrase that gets tossed around a lot in MMOland is “making choices matter.” It’s almost a Holy Grail of features that MMORPGs have a hard time achieving, especially since so many others share the same world and make the same choices. Until now in SWTOR, we’ve had plenty of choices within our story lines, but not many have any real impact on the direction or ending of our personal stories or the world’s story. So what about this new expansion changes that?

Even though I experienced only a sliver of the story arc, it demonstrated major character choices that had some immediate consequences and apparently will have long-reaching ones as well with companions and other NPCs. What does a major choice look like? One was whether you save a city — and the countless lives in it — or save only yourself. Another choice in that same arc is whether or not the force-using cop Tanek dies at the hand of your newest companion, Sith Lord Lana Beniko (I was the only one who voted for him to live!). Do you really want to chance ticking Lana off to avoid being hunted down by the cop’s partner later? While I didn’t see the long-term consequences during the walk-through, I did see the immediate ones. Backus noted that big choices will affect gameplay: “Do you go down this path or do you go down that path? Is one path more difficult? What happens?” Other personal decisions, however, will have more indirect consequences, such as NPCs: “NPCs returning to confront you — how will they interact with you? Are they upset with you?”

This expansion is literally “building on the legacy of Knights of the Old Republic as well giving players that BioWare RPG experience that they’ve been asking for.” – BioWare’s Bruce McLean
One of the reasons the game can pull this off a little better is because the focus is different than the base game; fans who think that SWTOR sounds like it is moving away from its MMO beginnings would not be wrong. As MacLean said, this expansion is literally “building on the legacy of Knights of the Old Republic as well giving players that BioWare RPG experience that they’ve been asking for.” There are no class stories, just the epic story with a dash of class flavor tossed in. Ohlen noted that this makes SWTOR the destination for folks who want big, epic stories. He continued, “It’s a very big departure, but at the same time we’re not abandoning the online components — we still have a giant online universe, you just now have the most epic BioWare Star Wars stories.” Backus assures that it is still an MMO; devs know that players still enjoy grouping content, and it will be there.

Because the story is personal to you, playing with even one friend is restrictive. Unlike the base game, where friends could play together and follow different class storylines, Fallen Empire has just the one epic story, so it can only be played out one player at a time. That means friends have to either take turns doing the steps or take turns completing an arc for each other. That’s good in that friends can witness your epic story without affecting it but bad in that it will spoil it for any friend that hasn’t already played through.

Lastly, let’s talk about changes to the world: Will yours affect how others see the world? Will there be a phasing mechanic? Backus answered, “As of right now, no. We have no plans to do that.” So does that mean there will be no physical changes to the world through choices? Backus hesitated and said, “I am going to dodge that one. You need to wait for some more announcements before we start talking about some of that. There’s things that I think resemble some of what you are talking about, but we need to wait.”

SWTOR as canon?

Although SWTOR was confirmed as not strictly canon at the Star Wars Celebration, the game has still attempted to play within the bounds. So we asked Backus how well this new story, with the new planet and original epic story, fits within current or former canon. Backus reminds that “it is and it is not” because SWTOR is set thousands of years before actual canon; he doesn’t believe the new story departs too far away from the sphere of canon. “We have a very good relationship with Lucasfilm,” he explained, “where we submit basically everything we want to do — be it character or stories or whatever — and they give us feedback on it. They keep us honest and they keep us on point.”

Backus also spoke about Lucasfilms’ Keeper of the Holocron, the existence of the small council that maintains the lore of all aspects of the Star Wars Universe, and how BioWare has a high level of communication with this group. “Everything we do is vetted; everything we do is absolutely on the up and up with Star Wars as far as lore and stuff.” An interesting fact that Backus shared is that Director J.J. Abrams watched the KotFE blur trailer because he had carte blanche to decide whether what the BioWare team was doing contradicted the story he was telling in any way. He also added that Lucasfilm could draw on any of what BioWare writes for future Star Wars things.
So why was a new planet created instead of something already existing in the Star Wars universe? Backus told me it was because the unknown threat needed to come from somewhere unknown; to use an existing planet would have been messing with its story and history. Parts of the epic adventure do still happen in known space as the story weaves around the galaxy.

That’s not all, folks!

If you were worried that this is all the information that we gleaned from the devs, you can be assured that it is not! Join us for a second installment of this interview series tomorrow for more about the game, the Eternal Empire, and what you get with Fallen Empire.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Los Angeles, California, for E3 2015, bringing you expert MMO coverage from NCsoft, Blizzard, Ubisoft, BioWare, and everything else on display at the expo!
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