Will Star Wars game reshape the online universe?
AUSTIN, Texas - It may be the largest entertainment production in history. More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being...
AUSTIN, Texas - It may be the largest entertainment production in history.
More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being written. Nearly 1,000 actors have recorded dialogue for 4,000 characters in three languages.
The narrative is so huge that writers created a 1,000-page "bible" to keep the details straight, and the director recently asked a colleague not to spoil moments he hadn't yet seen.
It's not a movie or a TV series. It's "Star Wars: The Old Republic," the most expensive, ambitious and riskiest video game ever produced.
Created out of a 60,000-square-foot converted warehouse next to a cooking school on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, "The Old Republic" is proof that while box-office, network TV ratings and music sales are slumping, video games are holding their own, thanks to steady growth from online games. Revenue from games played online last year topped $7 billion, up from $6.5 billion in 2010, according to Parks & Associates.
Even among its interactive peers, "The Old Republic" is touted as a leap forward. Much as the first "Star Wars" movie in 1977 changed film history, its makers hope to create a new gold standard for gaming.
"We want to do to other video games what talkies did to silent films," said Rich Vogel, co-director of the studio leading the game's production.
To recoup its investment, "The Old Republic's" publisher, Electronic Arts Inc., will have to snag more than 1 million customers willing to spend $60 to buy the game and an additional $15 a month to play for years on end.
The game, released in late December, already had more than a million registered users in January, but many could have left after a free 30-day trial.
"The real test is whether they can retain subscribers in the long run," said analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co.
At the Austin home office of game developer BioWare, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, more than 400 designers, programmers, writers and artists have immersed themselves in the imagined Star Wars universe, surrounded by maps of the ice planet Hoth, armor designs for bounty hunters and even a five-day weather forecast for Princess Leia's home world of Alderaan.
Art has been outsourced to Russia, Estonia and China. Motion capture filming is done in L.A. and Vancouver, Canada, with voices recorded in New York, London and Paris in English, French and German. Quality assurance testing takes place in Romania, Argentina and India, while technical operations are run out of Virginia and the customer service center operates in Ireland. A regular plane shuttles employees between Austin and Electronic Arts' headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif.
"Coordinating it all is like teaching elephants to do ballet," said Greg Zeschuk, who co-founded BioWare with Ray Muzyka.
"The Old Republic's" builders are trying to fundamentally change the online gaming experience. In most such games, players, alone or in groups, go on generic quests interspersed with narrative moments. But what players see and do in "The Old Republic" is shaped by the players' own decisions. On one mission, an imperial agent in search of clues can flirt with a female character or threaten to kill her - and then do so, after she talks.
Those choices take place in the context of eight distinctive story lines inspired by movies and written for different character types whom players choose at the beginning of their adventure. Players who choose the smuggler will see hints of "Big Trouble in Little China," for instance, while the trooper's tale is loosely based on "Band of Brothers."