An even longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an Eternal Empire is claiming power.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has been bringing BioWare’s signature storytelling to Star Wars for years, and with the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, which is available now, the game focuses even more heavily on story. The player is the Outlander, a veteran of the war between the Jedi and the Sith. Frozen in carbonite, he/she wakes up in a world where the Eternal Empire has decimated both factions. Now, the player faces the Emperor Valkorion and his son Arcann.
I spoke to lead writer Charles Boyd and senior producer Bruce Maclean about the story of Knights of the Fallen Empire, including how it connects to the wider Star Wars universe now that a new canon has been established and what’s next for the game.
You talked about creating a classic Star Wars story. How does the story of the Outlander fit with the themes of Star Wars?
Charles Boyd: It’s very much a classic Star Wars character. You come from a background of one of the eight different classes: a Jedi, or a Sith, a bounty hunter, a smuggler, all of these very classic Star Wars archetypes. That character is a veteran of this galactic war that has been going on for years between the Old Republic and the Sith Empire.
So all of the plot elements are very reminiscent of Star Wars stuff, but also more to the point, it is a character who has faced challenges and moral decisions and temptations between the light side and the dark side, deciding who they’re going to be and what they’re willing to do to win the war for their side. They’ve formed relationships, even romances with characters around them, gathered allies, made enemies, all of these great things that we love from the movies.
This is a world in which the Empire of Zakuul has taken the fight to both the Jedi and the Sith. What does this third faction allow when it comes to storytelling?
CB: I think it gives us the chance to really shake up the status quo of the galaxy as we’ve established it. Since we’ve been around for a few years, we’ve had this Republic vs. Sith conflict for a while, and bringing in this new faction, this overwhelming power, really lets us challenge the players’ characters in ways they hadn’t been before, and also explore relationships that they might not have made before. There’s the potential of a Jedi and a Sith teaming up against this dangerous new enemy. There’s all sorts of really interesting storytelling options that creates for us, and a lot of really interesting moral quandaries that we can face the player with as they’re making their decisions throughout the storyline.
One of the new characters is the Emperor Valkorion himself. What can you tell me about his development?
CB: We very much wanted to explore this notion of this all-powerful emperor, this ruler over the whole galaxy, and see what we could do to kind of show a different angle on it, or develop a different character from what people expect from “Oh, this is Star Wars, this is the emperor, he’s evil.” We really wanted to explore that character much more deeply and create something new and interesting that might challenge our player as they’re moving through the storyline to see if they actually see things his way and maybe come around to his philosophy.
When creating an emperor different from anyone we’ve seen in Star Wars, did you pull from any particular inspiration or personal experience?
CB: [laughs] I wish I had more personal experiences with galactic emperors! I feel like I’ve made some bad decisions in my life so far that I haven’t gotten to.
We looked at some very dynamic characters in other fiction. It’s easy when you think of an emperor to think of them as someone almost passive in a way, like they just sit on a chair and say scary things and that’s all they do. We really wanted to explore a character who was more dynamic, someone who gets out there and does stuff, who is personally involved in the player’s journey in a direct way, rather than being this sort of mysterious figure off in the distance.
Out of the companion characters introduced in the new expansion, do you have a favorite?
CB: I have been trying not to play favorites! It’s tough. Bruce, you answer first.
Bruce Maclean: That’s easy for me. My favorite companion is Lana Beniko. She’s already a fan favorite. She was a major character in our last expansion, and then in events between expansions as well, she’s a player. She returns in the Knights of the Fallen Empire in a big way. Early on, you’re captured and frozen in carbonite. And Lana Beniko is the one who comes and rescues you, and I still just can’t get over that. I love somebody who rescues me from carbonite!
DebySue Wolfcale, marketing director: It’s Lana, she’s badass!
BM: She is badass! You do not mess with Lana. And she is ruthless, but in a very practical way.
CB: That was one of the most interesting things to try to create with a Sith character. They’re ruthless, they use the dark side. But is it cartoonishly villainous? But it’s not evil for evil’s sake. She has a goal she’s pursuing, and she’s willing to do a lot to get there.
BM: You’re freed from carbonite and you learn that years have passed, that the Eternal Empire has all but scattered or subjugated the Republic and Empire, and it’s up to you to build a ragtag group, an alliance, to lead the fight against this Eternal Throne. And Lana is one of the key characters in that, as well as Koth Vortena and Senya and HK-55.
CB: HK-55 is definitely one of my favorites companions this time around. Here’s sort of another model of HK droid. Of course, everyone loves HK-47.
BM: He’s programmed to protect meatbags!
CB: He was really fun. We had to come with a new kind of twist on the HK character who was still true to his roots and came from the right direction. He’s actually a bodyguard droid. He’s obsessed with protecting the…the meatbags that he’s assigned to protect. Ruthlessly he’ll murder anyone who comes anywhere near you! But he’s all about keeping you safe. He’s a good friend to have. It was fun to try to twist on those characters and see what else you could do with them.
There’s another character who we haven’t talked about much yet called Senya. She definitely has a big part in the storyline. She has some very cool backstory that I just love. She’s a kind of character that you don’t see much in games, really at all, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to create a character like that. Which I know is really vague, so I apologize!
BM: When you get to the scene in chapter six your jaw will drop and you’ll know.
CB: She’s a ruthless pursuer of justice.
DW: A little bit Game of Thrones-ish. Not quite, but a little bit.
CB: There’s a lot more to her character than that, that gets really deep and interesting, so that’s really fun to explore some new archetypes in the story.
You mentioned before how Lana has been a part of player’s lives for a while. What was it like to write her as she grew and changed?
CB: We’d been planning her overall arc for so long and it’s been at the core of our storytelling for a couple years now, and it’s been really cool to see that character change as we develop these new storylines and as we face her with new challenges.
It’s actually funny to watch the players. A lot of times they’ll forget that she’s dark side. [laughs] Which, I mean, is very reasonable minute to minute. She’s very organized, she’s pragmatic. They’re like, “Lana, great, I can count on her and everything.” And you can! But she’ll go much further than you might be comfortable. And players forget that sometimes. They think, “Oh, Lana’s just my friend,” and they forget that she’s kind of ruthless. So it’s fun to look for opportunities to remind them of that element of her character. And that being dark side doesn’t have to mean that you’re a bloodthirsty psychopath, but you don’t lose that edge, that willingness to use the quicker, easier path sometimes. And sometimes that can seem like the best choice, the choice that saves more lives in the long run. The ends justify the means. That’s what Lana’s all about, and players are like, “I’m totally down with that,” until they see what that could actually mean. It’s really fun.
The tale of the Outlander is described as a “personal” story. BioWare has done so well making really personal stories for player characters in the past. How did you ramp that up for TOR?
CB: With the storyline itself. When you’re in an MMO especially and you have high-level characters, it’s easy to fall into this trap where you’re like “Oh, this is a high level player, they should be able to take on anything with no challenges and be able to crush it.” And players will feel terrible if they make a choice that’s even remotely challenging in the story. It’s easy to fall into that trap as a writer, and in this expansion you really put the player through the wringer. Put them up against really tough odds and let their character grow as they face these challenges, as they make the decisions that they have to in order to move through the story. So for me it was a chance to let the player character grow the way that we let NPCs grow throughout the story in new and interesting ways.
BM: Knights of the Fallen Empire really is an evolution of the type of stories that we’re telling. It’s definitely more tense. There’s a lot more impactful decisions to make, and there are more cliffhangers. We started early access yesterday and our players have been pouring in. We had to raise our population on two of our servers twice now, because we have too many players! Good problem to have.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from our players, and it’s because of the type of story they’re going through. They’re making comments like, “I can’t believe all the difficult decisions I’ve had to make.” Another player was complaining, they’re like, “Darn you BioWare, I haven’t eaten anything but Oreos and Goldfish all day because I haven’t been able to leave the screen and make myself a decent meal.” So it really is an intense story that hooks you and pulls you into it. Which is an evolution of the types of stories we tell, too. We really want people to feel the impact of this, and walk away and talk about it with other people that have already played it.
CB: It’s an evolution of the way we tell stories in that it’s an episodic design. So what this release is is the first nine chapters. There’s this movie coming out, I think? [laughs] We’re going to let that happen and take a little break so that we can all enjoy the movie.
BM: We are madly excited for that movie.
CB: Then in the new year we’ll start releasing more chapters month-to-month. And that’s a really cool chance for us to show the effects of your player’s decisions long term. Episode to episode seeing how things change, which characters stay loyal to you, which characters try to betray you, and so on. There are so many choices in these first nine chapters. Players are already excited about these. They don’t even know yet what’s going to happen. We’ll have great payoff even in the later chapters. I can’t wait.
BM: From the pure development perspective we really leaned into that thematic storytelling. We improved our cinematic team’s tools, we leaned into making the game have better frame rates, the planets will load faster, the graphics will look better. We really wanted to wrap our expansion around really improving the type of story we tell.
CB: This is really going beyond and above what we were capable of before.
Drew Karpyshyn recently returned to BioWare to work on TOR. How much of this is his influence, if any of it?
CB: Drew just rejoined the team, so he was not there to work on the stuff you’re seeing right now. He’ll be heavily, heavily involved as we move into our future storylines. Next year is where you’ll be able to see the Karpyshyn fruit!
BM: We are so excited to have him back.
CB: I worked with him the whole time he was here before launch, and he’s brilliant. He’s already contributed so much to our storytelling.
BM: Not only does he tell great stories, he is a pure joy to work with. He’s just an all-around fantastic guy.
You’re the only group still telling Star Wars stories in the Legends universe. How do you feel about that?
CB: Our work is exactly as it always has been. We’re very closely tied in to the Lucasfilm story group, the same people that review the books, the films, everything.
BM: Lucasfilm has been great. This whole year, they’ve been very excited and supportive of what we’re doing. They’re as excited as we are about Knights of the Fallen Empire. And because we’re set in our own time period so far before the events of the movies, we’re in our own BioWare space.
CB: We’re kind of in our own realm where we get to draw from all of the cool stuff and try to do our own cool stuff too.
Do you think that means there’s potential for your material to be recanonized, or is it more like a separate BioWare universe?
BM: If our stuff was recanonized we would be absolutely titillated.
CB: Yeah. We don’t have much direct involvement in that. As I see it, our job is to tell awesome Star Wars stories, and everything else doesn’t matter.
BM: We’re quite happy with what we’re doing. We actually couldn’t be happier.
New players will be able to start with a level 60 character, but what does this expansion bring for veterans?
CB: Focusing on the story stuff, as I often do, it’s all this stuff we’ve said about the evolution of the story. If you’ve been playing this game for years, you’re used to the way we’ve done things in the past. When you see how the story is presented in this and how it unfolds, it’s really, really cool to see the game changing in that way. But also all the other stuff all over the game that’s been improved, that players of any level of experience would get.
BM: From the moment you launch the game to the last loop drop or the last operation boss, we’ve put everything on the table. It seems really inspired by the positive response to Shadow of Revan [the previous expansion] and we knew this was the year of Star Wars and we wanted it to be big. So we were very inspired and excited by the fan response to Shadow of Revan and the once-in-a-generation of the new Star Wars movies.
We’ve made more quality of life improvements: we’ve re-itemized the entire game, performance improvements, we’ve enhanced our storytelling, we’ve added in all kinds of quality of life features for veterans, like level syncing where you can play with your friends [and] all of the content in the game is playable for their characters regardless of their level. The list goes on and on.
Individually these seem small. However, added up it’s the biggest, craziest thing we’ve ever done. We’ve changed the entire experience of leveling a character up. Your origin story is now a much faster and more focused and directed experience. And now if you’re one of those players that’s completed all eight origin stories you get a legendary portrait.
We took every operation in the game, and instead of hardcore players going in and doing the latest operation week after week, we made them all relevant for these really hardcore players. We put them on a rotating weekly basis so that there’s a fresh operation to do every week. We’ve seen this the last few days, because the players who got early access are all hardcore, and they were blown away. They really understand that this expansion is a love letter to them. And we’ve charged a price for these in the past.We knew that because this was our thank you to them for years of passion and inspiration, we would not charge an additional fee for this. If you’re a subscriber, you’ve got it. If you’re a subscriber, you get a free level 60 character, too. This is our love letter to them, and they really feel it.
We also wanted to make the game accessible and do things for the new players, so we’ve made so many new things around that experience as well, but we very much had our veterans who’d been playing from the beginning in mind when we were making Knights of the Fallen Empire.
What’s next for TOR in terms of long-term plans? Where do you see TOR in five years?
BM: We’re so excited for The Force Awakens. I have kids and I just let them see the Original Trilogy for the first time. There’s a whole new generation of Star Wars fans coming, and we have a huge, growing and thriving player base, so we are talking about what we’re going to do for the next five years.
One thing we know for certain, we’re going to listen to our players. That is why we are where we are right now. Our players tell us what they want and we listen to that, and we change a game and improve it, and we focus on what they want. And they told us they want deep and personal stories, and that’s why Knights of the Fallen Empire is here.
We’re going to continue to lean on deep and personal stories as long as that’s what our players want. The real answer is, five years from now it will be our players’ game as much as it is our players’ game today. We’ll be happy to develop and tell great Star Wars stories for them.
Charles Boyd and Bruce Maclean, thank you so much!
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.