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Digging into the exciting and unlikely fan-made KOTOR reboot Apeiron

"Yes it is very ambitious, exceedingly even. But doable? Yes, very much so."

The Unreal Engine 4 reboot of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, known as Apeiron, sounds too good to be true. BioWare's treasured 2003 role-playing game brought not only up to date visually but also mechanically, with new content on top. Yet there are pictures and videos of Apeiron and it looks great.

But there are also red flags. We're talking about an entirely voluntary workforce taking on an ambitious reboot, not a simple makeover. Perhaps more importantly, Disney, the rights holder, hasn't said yes. It hasn't said anything.

Armed with doubts and excitement I tracked down the leader of the Apeiron project, Taylor Trotter, for a chat over email.

"Yes it is very ambitious, exceedingly even. But doable? Yes, very much so," he began. "And while we want to add some new stuff and really streamline some of the game mechanics, people forget that, while this seems daunting, most of what takes so much time are things the original has already done: user interface, voice acting, art direction, game writing, skill trees, dialogue, game flow. All these things that take months and months to plan, even years in some studios ... are done and all we have to do is build on top of that."

What has been done, then? Six months of "true work", said Trotter, and most of it by him alone - he being an inexperienced and self-taught game designer, although a motivated one at that. Currently there are two others on the team but the plan is to expand to 15.

"Yes, everything is voluntary," he said, "but in the last couple of months the problem definitely hasn't been finding people. We've had an enormous outpouring of people wanting to help. The hard part is finding the right people ... I need someone to do a job for me, treat it like a real job, and behave like it's a job, because it is. The obvious downside: I can't pay you. Anything."

A "short stack" of resumes has been set aside but he's still on the lookout for more volunteers, particularly 3D/character modellers and animators, so if that's you and you fancy it, get in touch (I said I'd ask).

Game areas Tatooine, Taris and Endar Spire are all well underway, he said, and then it will be onto Dantooine, Kashyyyk and Manaan. There's a basic combat system up and running, too.

taris

Taris new and old.

endarspire

Endar Spire new and old.

tatooine

Tatooine new and old.

The new content Trotter has planned includes Lightsaber crystals and hilts "that can really be customised", as well as restoring planets cut from the original game. "But past that we can't go into detail," he said.

Altered content, meanwhile, should really be considered "updated" content, he said. "The Odyssey engine was fantastic and even after more than a decade it feels great, but with the tools we have at our fingertips we can add in new gameplay the original was constrained by," he said.

"A simple example is the iconic Force choke. With the physics we have in place now, imagine gaining the powers of the Dark Side and Force-choking your opponent, then hurling them towards you as you ignite your red-hued Lightsaber into their stomach and they fall lifeless to the floor - the other swoop gang members running away in fear."

Quite taken to a flight of fancy, isn't he?

"That kind of fluid animation and AI behaviour are very much possible with what we have now, and we would be remiss not to take advantage of what we can," he added.

"On another note we love some of the cut content that was in the original game, small things like ... meeting Deadeye Duncan on Manaan."

If you want to know more about what content was cut from the original game then the list of content restored in the KOTOR Restoration mod is a good place to start.

Importantly, combat will remain as it was: in rounds. The way it worked in KOTOR was that combat would begin and the game would pause, and you could queue up types of attack that the game would then work through in rounds. It gave it a semi-active feel.

"We still plan to have the original round-based combat in place where you will be able to pause the game and pick your attacks," Trotter said. "However, given the technology, if you want fast-paced combat, you can swing your Lightsaber first then ask questions later."

Perhaps that signals the addition of proper real-time combat.

"There is still a massive amount to do," Trotter acknowledged, "but this doesn't intimidate us, it fascinates us."

When, then, does that mean Apeiron be done, released for us to play? He skirted mentioning a completion date, probably wisely, but he did offer a rough estimate for a playable alpha.

"So our goal, and this may change - and let me say that again, this may change - is we are looking to have a very basic playable alpha sometime during Q4 2016," he told me.

dantooine

Dantooine.

What of the thorny issue of Disney holding the IP? My eyebrow nearly hit my fringe when the Apeiron website's answer to "is this legal?" was "we believe so". It's a free mod Trotter hopes Disney doesn't take issue with, basically.

I asked him whether anyone had actually spoken to Disney about it and he dodged a direct answer, which probably means no. Instead he said, "Star Wars has a long history of fan-made [content] ... There is even a Lucasfilm official award ceremony each year called The Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards ." And last year Knights of the Old Republic: Broken Souls won Best Visual Effects, he said.

"So to us," he added, "it's an obvious long-standing tradition in the Star Wars community, fans reaching out and showing what kind of art they can bring to the table, and we hope to follow in those footsteps. We don't see this game as stepping on anyone's toes."

I, however, see that as wishful thinking, and risky, and a hell of a lot of hope to base the security of a project on.

"At the end of the day I love what I do," Trotter said in response, "and I love making video games, and I get to create art everyday for my favourite concept ever: Star Wars. Each day I get to continue to learn and evolve as a game director is fantastic.

"If the world falls into an apocalypse tomorrow and everything I've worked for falls into the void, so be it. That sounds very bleak but if that day comes there won't be a way to fight it.

"The only way I would feel this whole thing is a negative experience is if we actually create the game and fans hate it - that is a day I fear. That's what keeps me up at night when I'm up late working on levels.

"But," Trotter said, brilliantly, "I have to remind myself that fear is the path to the Dark Side."

Will it ever come out? Honestly I don't know. But I wish him the very best because I very much would like this dream to come true.

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