Hyperspace Beacon: SWTOR’s Charles Boyd on BioWare, newbie acquisition, economy, and beyond

10 years in the trenches of Star Wars The Old Republic

    
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So it’s been two years since I wrote a piece on Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’m sorry. You’ll have to tell me what I missed. I’m kidding, I will have Vulkk and SWTORista tell me what I missed. Or I can have BioWare Creative Director Charles Boyd tell me what I missed. That’s the best idea. We’ll do that one!

If you don’t know who Charles Boyd is, then you’ve probably been away from the game longer than I’ve been away from writing about it. When I spoke with him this week, he reminded me that he has been directly involved with SWTOR since 2006. That’s 15 years! You would be hard-pressed to find a developer who has been with a single studio for that amount of time, let alone a single game. Of course, he didn’t start as the Creative Director; that came later. He started as just one of many writers on the team at BioWare‘s then-new Austin studio.

I was personally interested in knowing what things were like back then, how things have changed in not just the game but his role in it. I also got a few peeks into where the game is going and Boyd’s priorities as the game marches toward the 15-year mark. Let’s dive in.

New to writing games, new to the industry

Charles Boyd looks like a Star Wars writer. He has hair down to his shoulders, silver on top and black on the sides. His salt-and-pepper beard rivals any convention nerd’s facial hair, mine included. But what really stood out to me was his collection of Mandalorian helmets. There were far too many to have been placed there just because he wanted to draw attention to the Book of Boba Fett trailer that just came out. Boyd is an avid Star Wars cosplayer; just check out his Twitter feed. I didn’t ask, but I would not be surprised if those helmets were all his creations, since they were all customized with different painted configurations of gold and blue. It’s no wonder he was hired to write for the next major follow-up to BioWare’s wildly successful Knights of the Old Republic, released in 2003.

“When I started the idea of a class story was something we were interested in doing, but it was just one of a couple of different directions we were considering,” he told me. Some of the first pieces released by Massively-of-old about 11 years ago were about the classes and the individual stories that each class would have. So if he joined before that, we are talking about a long, long time ago…

“At that time they had already decided that they wanted to make it a Star Wars game – an Old Republic game – and that it was going to be an MMO. All that was settled. We didn’t have the license to do it, yet.” He laughed. I was floored because I hadn’t heard that part of the story before. “[The developers] were already in talks [with Lucasarts],” he clarified, “It would have been madness to spend any serious time without at least talking to them.” But still, they didn’t actually have the license, which boggles my mind, if you look at the timeline.

In 2003, BioWare released KOTOR to acclaim and had done a pretty good job adapting Dungeons & Dragons RPG campaigns with Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. But this was a big risk to take on, especially since the studio had passed on making KOTOR 2, and Mass Effect would not hit until 2008. From the other perspective, Wrath of the Lich King had not released yet, EverQuest was measuring its subscribers in the hundreds of thousands not millions, and the other MMORPG in the franchise, Star Wars Galaxies, started bleeding players in 2005 (you know why). To make a Star Wars MMORPG in the climate of 2006 was a huge risk, and it was very ballsy of BioWare to proceed without a license agreement. My respect for the developers of that time just jumped up two notches.

Fast forward a decade

Now in 2021, Boyd is the Ian Grimm of SWTOR: Builder of Worlds, Creative Director, and Visionary. However, he approaches it with a lot more humility than Grimm does in Mythic Quest. He knows his role. He knows what he’s good at. He said that he will have input with the other writers, sitting in on their brainstorming session, and he works with the intangible parts of the game’s design. On the other hand, he said, “I’m rarely going to go in and say that this ability did not enough DPS. That’s not my [role]. If I notice, I’ll certainly say something, but I trust smarter people than me to work out that kind of specific detail.”

I asked him what’s kept him going in this field – what, besides his obvious love of Star Wars, has kept him rooted in this studio for so long. He said that the dynamic environment of running a game as a service was part of the appeal. “I also enjoy that we have a really long runway, right?” he said. “We’ve had 10 years to tell all of these ongoing stories, and we aren’t stopping anytime soon.”

That reminded me that Boyd’s former bosses Daniel “Absolutely” Erickson and James “Dungeon Master” Ohlen always said that they had a 10-year plan. Those 10 years are up – so what’s next?

“Ten years, round two! Let’s go!” He laughed. “I couldn’t quite claim that I have 10 years from now planned out, but we definitely have quite a bit. Part of the fun of it being a live service is that you can adapt that plan. You’re getting constant feedback. You can see how things land. You can develop your story further down the road knowing how this was received or maybe something wasn’t clear or if everyone’s like ‘Oh my gosh, this is the coolest character ever,” I’m like, ‘oh my gosh, I never knew they would like that character so much. Let’s find more for that [character] to do.’”

The most interesting part of our interview came when I asked him to pitch to me the next five years of SWTOR. It’s not quite the decade the earlier creative directors pitched, but I was interested in his take now. And as he explained to me about the new-player experience, it became obvious that he had graduated from a writer in the writer’s room, typing away to meet the next deadline, to a director of a game concerned about the overall player experience – new players in particular – and how the team would like to take another look at the older planets and updating them to match the aesthetic quality of the newer planets.

“We want to make sure that the game is fun to get into and easy to get into, especially new players. We don’t want them to feel like ‘Oh my gosh, I have to learn 10 years of stuff to play the game in the first place.’ No, no, we want it to be something that you can pick up and learn pretty quickly, still.” – Charles Boyd

Lastly, I mentioned two words, and he knew exactly what I was saying: the economy. He nodded his head knowingly. He said he has been in discussions about that topic with Lead Designer Chris Schmidt but couldn’t mention anything specific – yet.

“It’s a delicate thing to get right,” he said of the economy. “It does need improvement. I believe there is room for fixes there. But we want to make sure that they are fair to players who have put in a lot of work, fair to players – We’re not just preventing new players from making credits. [We want the credits] that are out back in from the people who have so many that nothing matters anymore. We want an approach that is as pain-free as possible for everyone that gets the economy back to a place where it’s more accessible for, like we said, new players.”

Boyd chatted some lore bits with me that I’ll save for a future article – like the origins of Jakarro and where the idea of the Trooper came from – but for now, I will say that even through its ups and downs, SWTOR has come a long way in 10 years. And it’s a lot of fun to talk to someone who has witnessed all of it from the inside. I’d like to thank him for taking the time to talk to Massively OP for the return of our Hyperspace Beacon column!

Every other week, Larry Everett jumps into his T-16 back home, rides through the hypergates of BioWare‘s Star Wars: The Old Republic, and posts his adventures in the Hyperspace Beacon. Drop him a holocom on Twitter @Shaddoe or send him a transmission at larry@massivelyop.com. Now strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
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Jim Bergevin Jr

Larry! Welcome back! Thanks for a great article.

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Hostagecat

Yes its definitely good to see you back and writing again.

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bahramnima

here is the problem with swtor:
lack of content
if you are veteran player who played swtor since beta, you have nothing to do other than logging in at end of year to play new episode for few ours and log off.
for past 4-5 years the game received small amount of content, even the so called onslaught expansion was small. in compare with eso ffxiv and gw2, swtor receive by far less content update.
if you are new player you get ton of content unlocked with 15 euro, which is awesome deal.
again lack of content is a big issue swtor has in my opinion.

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Winter

I felt like this column brought me back in time :D

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Sarah Cushaway

My big issue with SWTOR is how dead the worlds feel–as in dead ambience and event wise. The worlds are just full of bland static mobs standing around waiting for you to come kill them. Nothing else happens. There’s no interaction with the world outside quests, no weather, no day/night cycle, nothing to make someone feel immersed -except- the stories (and even then IA was the only one that really held my attention–got fairly far along with Inquisitor but ffs even then I just started to feel less like a Sith and more like an errand-runner).

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hellodeliciousfriend

So did they ever add more class story content(other than Rishi) or is that dead forever? Because that’s what attracted me originally, and the lack of it is why I left.

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Natalyia

Full-on class stories are dead, and not returning from the grave. It’s eight times the work for the studio, and they don’t get eight times the benefit (or that’s their opinion on the matter.)

KotXX is the nadir of class-specific content in SWTOR, it hardly cared who you were – you were going to go down this set path. Force user or not, Republic or Empire, basically none of it mattered a whit.

Post KotXX we’re back to Republic or Empire mattering again, and the storyline does do some nice acknowledgements of your class. And there’s the additional option of your character planning to betray their original allegiance.

It feels a *lot* better than the KotXX era – like the writers are being allowed to care again who your character is. Of course, it’s still an MMO and we’re not getting wholesale branching storylines here.

If you enjoyed Shadow of Revan, and disliked the way KotOR genericized everyone it’s possible you’d enjoy the latter content again, but if you were hoping for a lot of class-specific new stories? That’s not in the cards.

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hellodeliciousfriend

Well, that’s at least something. I lost interest during Eternal Throne so if it at least improves over that it might be worth my time. Not looking forward to finishing ET though.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I think you can skip the Eternal Nonsense expansions entirely. The problem is, the game makes default choices for you regarding the outcome of that content since everything after is still tied to it.

I absolutely refuse to have anything to do with it, so stop playing after the Hutt expansion content. They need to allow us to completely ignore Eternal Nonsense and skip over that without any effect on our characters, and remove the forced speedleveling curve and downleveling mechanic before I touch the game again.

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hellodeliciousfriend

Unfortunately I started Eternal Throne so I believe I have to finish it before moving on.

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Greaterdivinity

Eyyyyy, it’s been a while since I last saw a Hyperspace Beacon! That’s interesting that they were doing loose scoping out of the project before they even had the license for Star Wars.

The comments on the economy make me wonder if the long, long, long ago discussed plans to rework the F2P model to make it less overtly hostile to non-subs is back on the menu. I sure hope so, I’m still pretty bummed the rework they were talking about never seems to have come to be.