Waxing philosophical about SWTOR companions with BioWare’s Charles Boyd

    
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Just in time for this week’s May the Fourth festivities, I spoke to Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Charles Boyd. He currently holds the title of Lead Designer — Creative, but he likes to refer to it as Creative Lead. It makes it easier to remember and say in front of his name. Essentially, he has creative control over the story and the direction of the game, specifically the narrative of the game. “I have unlimited power!” he exclaimed in his Emperor Palpatine impression. This only makes sense that a writer would hold this position given that it’s a BioWare game and he was big part of the development of Knights of the Fallen Empire back when he bore the title Lead Writer.

As I spoke to him about his job and the stories that he’s written over his almost 10 years at BioWare, the conversation took a philosophical turn toward the game’s companions, especially in how they reflect on the player and the characters that the players are puppeting.

There will be some minor spoilers about previous Knights of the Fallen Empire chapters, but I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum. But if you like to talk about storytelling in BioWare games or games in general, read on regardless of spoilers.

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Humility and criticism

Creative Director James Ohlen happened to be in room at the time I was speaking to Boyd, and he praised Boyd, calling him “instrumental in the development” of KOTFE. “He’s one the of the best writers we have at BioWare,” Ohlen said. “He’s always being super humble, which is important. Humility is one of the key attributes of being here at BioWare.”

Indeed, Boyd is surprisingly humble about his work and very willing to accept criticism of it. For example, I brought up one of my critiques of the latest chapter: that there was a strange transition between the two stories taking place in the chapter. One is an infiltration mission with Trooper companion Aric Jorgan and Agent companion Kaliyo Djannis; the other is a heist involving Warrior companion Vette and Bounty Hunter companion Gault. And Boyd acknowledged that disconnect.

“We are definitely looking really hard at TV,” Boyd explained, “and how they do things to try to model ourselves on what we feel is the most successful storytelling there. It’s been very interesting. You can say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how it works,’ but when you sit down to actually do it, there’s a lot of learning that goes on. It’s been a really cool creative challenge for us.”

He went on to say that writing episodically means that each story has to be contained, but there also has to be a throughline that holds them all together. Writers have to make sure that certain plot points are remembered from chapter to chapter. Unlike the creators of a self-contained, single-player story, SWTOR’s devs have to be concerned about certain beats that they wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about if the players had just experienced it ten minutes ago. The writers now need to make sure that players can recall things they did last month or even the month before that.

charles-boyd-interview-03Importance of companions

As we all know, however, companions are actually the most important part of BioWare storytelling. I don’t recall any BioWare game where companions haven’t been a key component to the game. To that, Ohlen immediately countered, “Shattered Steel,” BioWare’s very first game. Boyd even asked about MDK2, but Ohlen said that even that game had a couple of characters. When we have to travel back to 1996 to find a BioWare game that didn’t have important companions, then I think it’s safe to say that companions are where it’s at for BioWare storytelling. Even though it might seem that SWTOR is just throwing companions at you chapter after chapter, there is careful consideration for the companions chosen. Boyd had a great comment on that.

“Our first consideration, of course, is how do they fit into the overall story. How do they reflect or comment upon or contrast with the stuff that’s going on? Like in this case [with Chapter 13], Gault and Vette — they tie-in; they have useful skills but also an interesting contrast. They have this crazy scheme to rob the Eternal Empire, but they’re not tied into that. They don’t have political motivations; they don’t have aspirations to seize the throne or anything like that. They’re coming at it from a completely different direction.”

“To me, that’s one of the best parts of companions. It’s that they can have completely different points of view than the player does. It’s an opportunity to explore how different characters are approaching the same situation. What are the opportunities that they see there that we don’t? What are the different choices they would be making versus what we would be presented with? For me, that’s really the first thing that we consider whenever we’re looking at bringing characters back into the story. Obviously, popularity of characters is a factor. Vette’s one of our most popular [companions] overall, so we were definitely looking for a chance to bring her back in general. We enjoy writing Gault. He’s just a fun character. Those are certainly other factors as well, but at the end of the day we have to look at the story as a whole to see who’s going to fit into this piece. Who’s the best person to represent this theme or this viewpoint or an aspect of the Star Wars galaxy as a whole?”

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Philosophical proxy

BioWare companions aren’t just interesting people your character gets to hang out with. There is a deeper understanding and consideration when making the character in the first place. They really represent an ideology or a philosophy. Boyd definitely considered this when dealing with the latest SWTOR chapter.

“There’s a lot of symbolic relevance with Jorgan and Kaliyo,” he agreed. “In some ways, they represent order and chaos. When choosing which one you side with or which one you disapprove of, it’s a reflection on your own character. I’m a Kaliyo guy, and I think we should do whatever the hell we want. We’re just going to run roughshod over the galaxy. Or I’m a Jorgan person. I’m going to say there are rules. There’s discipline. We have to pursue our goals in an orderly way. Letting players pick between them is an interesting way to let players reflect on their own character and define their own character through that choice — between these other characters who are representative of a larger philosophy. Any chance we get to offer a situation like that we’re going to look for the right character who can embody that. It’s always more emotionally engaging — it’s more interesting — when you’re choosing between people than when you’re choosing between things or concepts.”

I’d like to thank Boyd for taking the time to talk to me, but most of all, I would like to thank him for making me think about the SWTOR companions on a different level. On the Massively OP podcast, Justin asked me which were my favorite companions, and now I might just have to reexamine my choices. How about you? Which are your favorite companions and what does that say about you or the character you play?

If you are a SWTOR fan already, here’s a bit of news: This year will mark SWTOR’s fifth year since launch. So every five days of this the fifth month of the year, starting on the 10th, five players will receive several different prizes. Check out the full details on the official SWTOR website. I hope to see you in-game!

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Antilles98
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Antilles98

I like KOTFE for the most part.  Good writing, most chapters are engaging.  Looking forward to playing Chapter 1-16 on alts I’ve held back to experience the whole thing as it was meant to be, without interruptions. But two main gripes.  

1)  Romances:  Rekindling romances are great – but if you decided to establish a new one, after Chapter 9 so far it’s barely recognized or mentioned.  No traveling around, in the story, with your romanced partner – your companions are picked for you (in the story).  Since chapter 9 – no additional flirt or funny comments – like you have in the Vanilla SWTOR game.  

2) Lack of Group content – No New Raids!:  This is the single thing which is killing my guild.  There’s nothing new to do as a large group.  We’re lucky we have enough people to raid once a week.

LordOfBread
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LordOfBread

I like “niche companions”., the more alien the better. Xalek, Khem Val, Blizz, Qyzen Fess

menofhorror
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menofhorror

Very nice! It`s always cool to hear the Bioware devs talk about their philosophy and challenges for creating the story. I really just wish EA would allow them to put into the game more than the absolute minimun. Companions are really important but there is a great lack of romance specific lines after the initial “you want to romance…” popup window.

Widelan
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Widelan

EXECUTE  HAS BN

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sray155
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sray155

Nice piece, Larry. Always nice to see a bit of the writer’s process for MMORPGs, and how they’re approaching the companion stories in the expansion.
I do wish that you’d have had a chance to discuss the heavy reliance on Force mysticism that the KotFE story has had; and the mixed reaction the community has had to it (some love it; others, myself included, aren’t really feeling it for the non-Force using classes). Well, fingers crossed for another interview soonish.

Ryuen
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Ryuen

dwhisper crackfox Don’t remind me, I levelled my warrior before assignable companion roles so I was stuck with him for the heals.

dwhisper
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dwhisper

crackfox Least favorite? I have two words for you… 

“http://www.swtor-spy.com/companions/malavai-quinn/100/”

crackfox
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crackfox

I often find that it’s the proponents of a philosophy that turn me against it, rather than the opponents of that philosophy. While Vette represented a viewpoint closer to my own, she presented it in such a way that I felt compelled to play my warrior ‘darker’ than I would otherwise. She may have changed in the years since I last played SWTOR, but she remains my least favourite Bioware companion to date. I’m much more of a Varric kinda guy.

dwhisper
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dwhisper

The companions mean more to my character now that they’re all interchangeable, but I’m still missing the characters I liked the most for most of my toons (Elara on my Trooper, Kira on my Knight, Mako on my BH, Jaesa on my Warrior, Temple on my Agent, Ashara on my Inq). I get that there are certain ways to play with them in places, but I’d rather see them around. I miss the time with my ship where I could find them all, and the base doesn’t have that same feel to it. 

I also feel that, more and more as new chapter are released and we get a few, the characters we know and relate to are relegated back to B storyline status. The whole Jorgan and Kaliyo was so tacked on in the past two chapters that I simply didn’t care at the end. Both almost happened as stingers with a few choices, but in either case, it felt like I would have much rather played through that story than the one I got stuck with (especially in Chapter 12). 

The writing was a lot better in 13 and I’m glad to see Vette back, but I feel much less connected to any of my companions in KotFE than I have in the previous parts of the game.