Star Wars: The Old Republic Developers Look Back on 10 Years, and What’s Next

Star Wars: The Old Republic Developers Look Back on 10 Years, and What’s Next
The conflict between the Sith Empire and the Republic burns once more. (Image: Bioware/EA)

Star Wars’ Expanded Universe has lived on in myriad ways since it came to an official end in 2014, when Lucasfilm and Disney wiped the slate of continuity clean. While some elements and characters have rejoined canon, and re-releases of classic EU comics and books give chances to re-explore what was, one enduring EU stalwart is ready for more: Bioware’s choice-driven MMO, The Old Republic.

As the MMO turns 10 this year, The Old Republic finds itself at something of a strange crossroads. Unlike many Expanded Universe products, its status as a living, ongoing online game allowed it to escape the end its fellow EU stories were confronted with when Disney and Lucasfilm announced their plans to reboot Star Wars canon, pared down to, at the time, the original and prequel movies, Clone Wars and Rebels, and a handful of new Star Wars publishing items. A decade later, The Old Republic endures, having become a free-to-play game. Many of its ideas and influences can be now felt in current Star Wars projects like the High Republic transmedia initiative, itself its own tale of that “more civilised age” before the Republic fell.

The Old Republic’s connection to its spiritual successor, Bioware and Obsidian’s beloved duology Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, The Sith Lords, has seen its legacy live on in projects like next year’s KOTOR remake, and even lingering rumours and wishes that Lucasfilm will revisit the era with new cinematic projects. Even as the company’s relationship with the EU has re-warmed — mostly through the chance to merchandise the past with re-releases and Star Wars’ greatest love of all, new toys — The Old Republic has largely been left to its own devices, telling its own continuation of an era thousands of years before the films, one where the Sith Empire and the Republic have waxed and waned in a cycle of conflict. Which means its developers, coming into its latest expansion — Legacy of the Sith — don’t really have much of a challenge when it comes to how to keep The Old Republic and the era it represents alive. Their concerns are, naturally, more about how to keep players invested and active in shaping the story of characters they’ve been playing for the best part of a decade, in a story that lets them determine a lot of moments, big and small.

“It’s got to be that there’s so many choices and options, right?,” Charles Boyd, one of the creative directors on The Old Republic at Bioware Austin, mused of the game’s biggest challenges at a recent press conference to discuss Legacy of the Sith and The Old Republic’s legacy itself. “We do have the benefit of 10 years of story, and 10 years of branching options and storylines, and characters and classes having separate experiences — which is awesome, because whenever we’re like, ‘What do we want to do next?’ we have all this stuff we can look at and say, ‘It’d be cool to continue that piece,’ or ‘Here’s a new thing, how can we ground it in something players know?’”

Image: Bioware/EA Image: Bioware/EA

But that freedom can also be a blessing and a curse for The Old Republic’s writing team. There are a lot of threads to pick up on — whether they come from the original, class-specific story arcs the game launched with a decade ago, or more more broadly from recent, largely centralised plot lines like those found in Knights of the Fallen Empire and its successor, Knights of the Eternal Throne. But that means there are also myriad inflection points of player choices along the way in those arcs to consider, too. “More than anything, we want players to feel like they’re having a Dungeons and Dragons tabletop experience — where it’s you and a DM and it’s tailored to your choices and past experiences, your future choices and all that. That’s really hard to do when you’re not in the room,” Boyd said. “It’s definitely a challenge when you try to foresee what players will want to do in any given situation and build a story around that without exploding the scope of everything. So, finding that careful balance of player agency and respecting your choices, of playing off your choices, while also telling a cohesive, continuous storyline going forward, it’s my favourite part of building this game — but, it’s also probably the most challenging, for sure.”

That will come to a head when Legacy of the Sith arrives as the game’s latest expansion next month. Not only does the new expansion include a bevy of major mechanical changes that allow players to adopt the combat styles of other classes to change the way they play their own character, narratively the expansion will set both Republic and Sith-aligned heroes alike against one of The Old Republic’s most iconic characters: the Sith Lord Darth Malgus, who has been foe, uneasy ally, and now rogue agent over the years since players first met him. Malgus first returned to The Old Republic in a major way in the last expansion, Onslaught. But the Sith has now gone rogue with his own plans to uncover ancient powers beyond the Republic and Sith Empire’s control, even as the two sides find their cyclical war growing even hotter coming into Legacy of the Sith. There, the Empire invades the watery planet of Manaan in an attempt to force the neutral Selkath people into supplying their medical prowess — as the exclusive home of naturally occuring Kolto, the healing liqud that preceded the Bacta tubes we see in the original Star Wars movies — to the Imperial war effort.

Image: Bioware/EA Image: Bioware/EA

“Darth Malgus is probably our most recognisable character, our Sith Lord, he first appeared in the cinematic trailers that preceded SWTOR, so he’s been around longer than 10 years in the players’ minds. He was a warrior for the Empire, he ended up breaking away, trying to do his own thing. Didn’t go so well because the players stopped him. He was presumed dead for many years, but being more machine than man, he survived and has returned to the story in our storyline for the most recent expansion, Onslaught,” Boyd teased of where Malgus has been — and where he’s about to go in Legacy of the Sith. “[He was] seemingly working for the Empire until he managed to break free, yet again, and now he’s gone rogue. He has his own plans. No one knows exactly what they are, but we know they’re not good. So players are eager to discover his secrets, and stop whatever he’s planning before he can pull it off.”

As players prepare to hunt Malgus once again, and even with that strange limbo it finds itself in in relation to its “canonical” cousins a decade on, the SWTOR team still has plenty of ideas about how to keep its pocket of the galaxy far, far away alive. Legacy of the Sith is a celebration of everything that has come so far for the MMO, but it’s far from the end. “We’ve laid out with EA the next couple of years — our five year plans,” Keith Kanneg, The Old Republic’s project director, said of the game’s future. “‘What do we want? What do we have? Where are we going?’, that type of thing. Really, this is a foundation year for us, even though it’s 10 years into our life cycle. We looked into it and said, ‘If we want to last another 10 years, we have to do a lot of improvements, a lot of changes, find where we’re going, where our story is going’ — so, where do we see it [with Legacy of the Sith]? Kind of the start of the next 10 years.”

“That’s exactly how I’d put it, too. We want to build on all this amazing storytelling and the choices the players have made to make their character unique up to this point — and keep that going,” Boyd added. “How many games get that opportunity to tell that continuous, branching interactive narrative? But then, at the same time, [we] recognise we have a 10-year-old game, so let’s update some things. Expand options as a player. Carry the game forward into the future.”

Legacy of the Sith, The Old Republic’s latest expansion, will launch on December 14.