Earlier this month we nipped over to sunny Slough to the offices of Activision to chat to BioWare, who were busy demoing the forthcoming PC version of Xbox favourite Knights Of The Old Republic.
Although the game is essentially the same in most respects (see our glowing review for why that's a good thing), the interface has been tweaked and improved to take advantage of the keyboard and mouse (no surprises there), the graphics are that much sharper (again, as you'd expect) and the variety of character skins has been increased. Aside from that PC owners can expect more or less the same great game that has had thousands of Star Wars-philes evangelising. In fact, the Xbox version was the first ever Xbox-"exclusive" game to top the UK charts.
Anyway, the PC version is out on November 28th. Until then, have a browse at what lead designer James Ohlen had to say about Star Wars, his passion for RPGs, RTSs and how he skilfully avoided talking about future projects...
Eurogamer: Can you introduce yourself to our readers and explain your role on Knight Of The Old Republic?
James Ohlen: I'm James Ohlen, director of writing and design at BioWare and I was the lead designer on KOTOR.
Eurogamer: Which games have you worked on before?
James Ohlen: I was lead designer on Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 and Neverwinter Nights.
Eurogamer: Was it a major challenge working within the restrictions of the Xbox?
James Ohlen: While I'm a PC fan at heart, I'd have to say that developing for the Xbox was a lot of fun because the Xbox is a really powerful machine. It's only got one configuration, and out of all the consoles it's the easiest to work on. Our programmers love working on it. The Xbox is really good platform for developers and it's also the most powerful in terms of graphical capabilities.
Eurogamer: What's it been like working within the framework of a licensed property rather than your own original IP?
James Ohlen: It's actually been quite fun. I'm a huge fan of Star Wars - as is every member of the team - and it was kind of like a dream come true for all of us to be able to work on a Star Wars game, especially a role playing game.
Eurogamer: How old were you when the original Star Wars came out?
James Ohlen: I would've been three or four. I never actually saw the original Star Wars in the theatres, but the very first movie I ever saw in a movie theatre was Empire Strikes Back, and since then it's remained my favourite movie.
Eurogamer: Are you a fan of the original set more than the most recent?
James Ohlen: I really like Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. Return Of The Jedi - y'know, the Ewoks really annoyed me. Episode I and II were 'alright', but they don't have the same feel as the original movies. In the original movies you had the evil empire, which was all powerful and always chasing down the heroes - which we've really tried to recreate in KOTOR, but in Episode I and II, the heroes just have too many resources to hand. They're just never in any danger it seems.
Eurogamer: Why did you choose to set it 4000 years prior to Episode I?
James Ohlen: LucasArts actually gave us the choice. We could choose to set it in the current movie continuity or 4,000 years in the past, and we decided to go with 4,000 years in the past because it allowed us to have a lot more freedom in the creation of the story and the look of the game. If we were to have based it in the time of the movies, we'd have had to worry how our stories interacted with the movies, the novels, the comic books, and the other videogames , and since there are hundreds of those it would have put a lot of restrictions on what we could do.
Eurogamer: Where do you go with KOTOR as a series - any plans for a sequel?
James Ohlen: That's something for LucasArts to decide... I don't really know what's going on with any potential sequels.
Eurogamer: Were you surprised about the mainstream success of KOTOR?
James Ohlen: Yes actually. Because we've only made PC RPGs, we were concerned... what we were doing is that we were taking a PC-style of RPG and bringing it to console and we were worried that fans of console games and console RPG wouldn't accept the PC RPG but they have, and so that's been very exciting. Plus, because since it's a PC style game, it makes it a lot easier for us to make the PC version of KOTOR.
Eurogamer: When you designed the game as a whole, did you always have in mind that you'd be working on a PC version as well?
James Ohlen: Yes. Actually the contract we originally signed had us working on a PC version first and then the console version, but then when Microsoft and Xbox became involved, those priorities flipped and we delivered the Xbox version first.
Eurogamer: ...And Microsoft came along with a big wheelbarrow full of cash and said: "Please make it on Xbox first"...
James Ohlen: I don't know anything about the contract [smiles].
Eurogamer: Recently BioWare delivered the first information on its new RPG, Jade Empire. Are you involved with that?
James Ohlen: The lead designer is Kevin Martins, who was the co-lead designer on Baldur's Gate II and was also the lead designer on Throne Of Baal, so he's quite experienced with RPGs. I myself am working on the unannounced, untitled, with no publisher, PC game [laughs].
Eurogamer: Are we likely to find out about this before the end of the year?
James Ohlen: [Squirms] I can't say. I can't talk about that game at all [laughs].
Eurogamer: Are you quite far into that project in terms of design? Have you designed the game already?
James Ohlen: Again [waves hand] I can't. I'm sworn to secrecy on that one. My bosses would kill me if I said anything!
Eurogamer: What games are keeping you busy at the moment?
James Ohlen: Hmmm... To tell you the truth I'm a massive fan of Real-Time Strategy games. The game that I'm playing right now is Rise Of Nations, which I think is an underappreciated RTS. I'm also looking forward to Empires Of The Modern World - I love that historical RTS. RPGs? I'm interested in seeing what Peter Molyneux does with Fable. He's bitten off a lot of... y'know... it's quite an ambitious game, but he's quite good at playing off those kind of games so I wanna see what he does with that; so that's probably the game I'm looking forward to most.
Eurogamer: How did you get into Role Playing Games in the first place? What were you playing as a kid?
James Ohlen: I played Dungeons and Dragons; that was my favourite Role Playing Game. I was always the Game Master. Then the Star Wars West End RPG I also played, and I had to be the GM again. Actually I always had to be the Game Master as no-one wanted to be the Game Master! I played those games all the way into college and then I became part of BioWare.
Eurogamer: Did you get into videogame RPGs at the same time?
James Ohlen: Actually to tell you the truth I didn't like a lot of the videogame RPGs because I was always trying to get people to play in my pen and paper campaigns, so they were competitors. Some of my players wouldn't show up to a session, and they'd be like "Wow, I was playing that new Goldbox D&D game" and I'd be like "What are you doing? You have to come to my D&D sessions!", and I didn't actually have a powerful enough computer to run any of those original Goldbox titles in the Ultima series anyway.
Eurogamer: So what brought you over to the Dark Side?
James Ohlen: Again, it wasn't RPGs that got me interested in computer games…it was action games and RTSs... I played Doom and WarCraft II. WarCraft II is my all-time favourite game. After that I got into some of the RPGs. I'd have to say my favourite RPG so far is probably Planescape or even Arcanum.
Eurogamer: James, thank you.