MMORPG Interview with James Ohlen

James OhlenIt has been an amazing year for Star Wars fans. With the new movie release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens arriving late this year and the new Star Wars: Battlefront game launching around the same time, it couldn’t get any better. Also, the latest expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic Knights of the Fallen Empire, will open on October 27th.

Once the expansion launches, players will have nine new chapters of new episodic content to dig their teeth into and even more updates are planned after the holiday season. Gareth Harmer from, caught up with James Ohlen, the Game Director on SWTOR over on Gamescom, to talk about more information on the new expansion.

But, before we dig into that information, let’s talk about what has already been discovered. During the event in Cologne, he was shown content from Chapter 3, and this includes the Carbonite defrosting scene on planet Zakuul. The first question that he asked was how the transition would be handled?

“I don’t want to do spoilers, but I can say that the defeat of the Empire and Republic don’t come instantaneously – it takes a period of time for it to occur.” Ohlen went on to explain that he liked to look at the current game in a similar way to Episode I, II and III of the films, with IV, V and VI being similar the phase they’re entering now. “So you had the wars and everything that happened before, and then some time has passed, and then this is a new era, with new heroes and new villains. But the player is that figure that bridges both gaps. He’s almost like an Obi Wan, except he’s an Obi Wan that doesn’t die! [laughs] It’s that kind of feel.”

Ohlen’s team is good about supplying new content, with nine chapters being released when the expansion launches. After a short break for the holiday season, the studio is planning on following it up with continuous updates and it could be as often as every month.

 “We want to have a game that’s very similar to a TV series. Not a weekly TV series because we just don’t have the ability to produce a new episode every week, but we would love to do a monthly cadence. Now I can’t really promise that because I’ll be killed, but that’s where our goal is. Whenever we’ve had a cadence that’s regular and expected and that fans can trust in, that’s been very successful for us and so that’s what we want to do. We want fans to know that, no matter what, their next episode is going to land on this date. And then it’s going to continue to have the same cadence throughout the year.”

From what he saw at Gamescom, he could tell that the cutscene quality in KOTFE has improved dramatically. According to Ohlen, this is something that the team has been working on for quite some time.

 “We’ve been focusing a lot on improving the tools and processes for our cinematic designers, and we have been putting a lot of effort in our cinematic tools, and making sure that the team and the tools and the pipelines are going to be able to produce high quality cinematic content on a regular basis.”

“One of the first steps towards that was Shadow of Revan from last year, but we feel we’re there now. So yes, the cinematics that you’re going to see are probably the best we’ve ever done in the game, and you’re going to see a lot of them. And that has to do with the tools, but it also has a lot to do with the team focusing on making sure we can do the best BioWare storytelling possible.”

Also, the signature storytelling is not always about quality cinematics, but it’s also about the player having meaningful choices with consequences that actually matter.

 “We hear the complaints, we know that players feel that you had choices in the original campaigns, but they didn’t have as much of an impact as we would have liked. So we’re making sure that we put more of an emphasis on that. […] We also heard from fans that they don’t want artificial, filler content in their game, so that’s something else we’re really focusing on.”

“What if you had an epic Bioware story, a ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ you could say, like in the Old Republic universe, where it was just focused on telling an epic story where the player was the hero, and you got great choices, and everything you love about choices and cinematic storytelling was there.”

Ohlen also agreed that it will probably improve the re-playability.

 “Yes, for sure. If you have multiple characters, I’m pretty sure you’re going to want to play through Knights of the Fallen Empire multiple times, just to see how it all rolls out depending on your choice.”

The same as with other famous BioWare titles, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, a hero’s companions will change with every sequel. Some people say that other would drift away or turn into NPC’s and the new ones would take their place. This same approach has been taken with KOTFE, as Ohlen explained.

 “Maybe at the beginning they’ll be a little bit apprehensive, but I think once they see how good the story is, and the fact that we haven’t pulled an Alien 3 and just killed off the favourite characters – they’re still around and we’re going to make use of them. We know that they’re characters that people are very much attached to. But make use of them in different ways.”

“One of the lessons we learned from Star Wars: The Old Republic is that I think we were too conservative with our companions. We let gameplay decide, we didn’t want players to not have access to certain characters for gameplay purposes because we felt that would be bad in a massively multiplayer game. And now, looking back at it, there’s other solutions we could have done there while still having that ‘BioWare Choice Matters” element to the game. We can still have the player impact companions, or lose and not have companions, and it won’t affect the gameplay long-term.”

Their focus on making an amazing storyline is quite intentional. It’s also the result of regular and meaningful involvement with the community.

 “There’s two ways that they give input. There’s the communication obviously either from the forums or from the community events. But then there’s also the communication that we get from metrics that we gather on play style and everything else. Both of them really pointed to one thing, which is that story is the central theme and the best part of Star Wars: The Old Republic. It’s what all our fans wanted. If we could give them an endless epic Star Wars story, they would be happy campers for the rest of their lives.”

“That’s not to say that the other elements of the MMO aren’t important – we have a big contingent of fans in PVP warzones, we have a big contingent of fans who like the coop flashpoints and operations, and those are systems that we’re going to support because they’re a big part of an online world – but the story is really what our community would love to see a lot more of.”

When he asked Ohlen about the recent community poll on the future mounts, and the large call for Basilisk War Droids, he responded with “No promises, but there’s a good chance that it will show up.”

One surprising note is that Knights of the Fallen Empire will not have its own price tag. Instead, any player who is a subscriber will have the ability to jump into the new content when it opens up on October 27th. When you consider the high rate of planned updates, he asked Ohlen how exactly he was able to make money at all.

“There’s a whole bunch of answers there. We actually had lots of discussions, and then it became the obvious answer. Obviously, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a business, and needs to continue to roll so that we can continue to produce this great content. But, like a TV series, we want our fans to be at the same moment in time – we don’t want our fans to be scattered across all the different episodes. If you think of a service like HBO, you can binge watch and get to the most current episode, and be with everyone else, and we feel that’s important for our fans as well. So if we gated them by making content cost money, we feel that would not make a good community. So you become a subscriber, you get all the content.”

“But also, we really feel that if you have a vibrant community of subscribers and fans, you’re going to be successful no matter what. Instead of taking the short-term look and saying ‘hey, we can make a bunch of money when we release in October,’ we want to take the long term look. We want to have a healthy Star Wars: The Old Republic universe for years, and so this is a way to encourage more people to come back and we’ve really lowered the barriers of entry.”

As their conversation was coming to a close, he asked Ohlen about the long term future. Will KOTFE be the last large expansion and then the monthly updates take over? He responded with “Personally, I would love to continue doing big events every year for Star Wars: The Old Republic. So no, I don’t see it as being the last expansion. I see it as being a refocusing of Star Wars: The Old Republic, but I want to do exciting things every year. That’s what our fans want, that’s what the team wants. So if we can make it happen – which I think we can – there’s nothing saying that in 2016 we won’t have equally exciting things to talk about.