GDC 2010, and LucasArts is bussing journalists from the bedlam of the Moscone conference centre to its plush, tranquil campus on the Presidio, on the other side of San Francisco. We're ushered through a side lobby as spacious as most company's front doors, then past a huge hand-painted mural of Indiana Jones surveying the nearby Golden Gate Bridge while AT-ATs stalk over the San Francisco skyline. Discreet on the outside but for a small Yoda statue, the Lucas offices aren't afraid to revel in their heritage once you're through those hallowed, high-security doors.
We're here to see the latest exercise in building on (and profiting from) that heritage - and probably the biggest, most expensive and momentous such exercise since the last Indiana Jones film, or even the Star Wars prequels themselves. With World of Warcraft as its target, EA as its publishing brawn and BioWare as its RPG brain, Star Wars: The Old Republic is easily the most significant MMO launch since WOW's, and potentially nothing less than the biggest game in the world.
What we get to play today is a mission demo not dissimilar to the Sith Inquisitor showcase from late last year. This time, however, we're at the controls of a level-six Republic Trooper, an armoured rifleman and grenadier and good-guy precursor to the iconic Stormtrooper.
Although the combat basics will be familiar to any player of traditional MMORPGs - hard targeting, skill clicking, cooldowns - it's faster-paced and punchier than most, with the player-character able to take on a mob of enemies at a time and survive.
It seems to have been rebalanced somewhat in the last few months - or at least, the Trooper is a little less destructively overpowered than the Inquisitor was. I don't die, but my health bar gets whittled down dangerously low by extended scrums with four or five of the separatists I've been sent to fight. "We don't want you to have to wait until you hit the level cap to feel powerful," Jake Neri, a producer for the game on the LucasArts side, tells me. "We want you to feel heroic and powerful right from the get-go.
"People who were in love with Boba Fett are going to want to play our Bounty Hunter, and we need to make sure that Bounty Hunter feels like that expectation of Boba Fett. The jetpack is there, you've got flame-throwers and stim darts and carbonite and things that are really compelling that you've seen Boba Fett do in the movies."
In this fairly low-level mission, the Trooper has been sent to quell a separatist uprising on the planet of Ord Mantell. Fighting his way through a scattered opposition, he meets an imperious (though not Imperial) female alien double-agent who informs him that the separatists have a powerful bomb that they intend to use in a civilian area.
It might sound a bit like BioWare's just dropped a Fallujah allegory into the expanded universe, but although we're blasting our way through militaristic firefights in a desert setting and using cover, it's still unmistakably Star Wars, thanks to those echo-chamber zaps on the soundtrack and the chunky, stylised, faintly retro interpretation of the original trilogy's legendary production design.
The Trooper uses earn-and-spend action points rather than the mana-like pool of Force. The basic-but-still-pretty-effective blaster rifle attack builds them up and then his other abilities spend them: a concentrated damage-over-time stream of rifle fire that pins and stun the enemy; a light grenade and a heavier "sticky" one; and a rifle-butt melee blow that knocks the Trooper's opponent to the ground. To rest and recharge during fights, hit a button and the Trooper does a Marine-style rifle twirl animation while his health builds. It's a simple selection for a low-level character, but true to Neri's word it feels powerful and fun and a perfect fit for the character class.
Like the Inquisitor demo, it's a strictly single-player experience. We all play offline in separate instances of the same mission. As RPG gameplay goes, it's slick, accessible, pacey and enjoyable - but in common with everything LucasArts, EA and BioWare have shown of The Old Republic so far, there's nothing massively-multiplayer about it. They've shown an appealing and obviously high-quality game, but they simply haven't shown us an MMO yet.
I quiz Neri about it. What does LucasArts - which has already had its fingers burned in this genre with the under-performing, U-turning Star Wars Galaxies - want from an MMO using its most precious intellectual property?
"I think what we wanted to do was create an amazing story-driven experience," he answers. "We believe, as a company, in story. We had great success with BioWare in the past with KOTOR [Knights of the Old Republic] and we wanted to continue that. We wanted to deliver a smash in the space, for sure.
"I think, first off, in order to enter the space in any sort of serious manner I think you need to be different than what everyone else has done. I think that's probably the reason why we believe so much in story."
That much they've already demonstrated. But what about the features that MMO players expect, and that make the games massively multiplayer in the first place: a structure for player-versus-player combat, a broad spread of challenging content for groups, social areas, trading, crafting and the wide spread of relaxing ancillary activities best described as "downtime" - the unglamorous but vital glue that holds these worlds together, makes them as hypnotic as they are?
"We haven't talked a ton of details on in-between activities," Neri says, truthfully. "We've just said that we do understand that in this type of game you do need to have that type of secondary behaviour, things like crafting, harvesting systems, things like that: mechanics that players can draw themselves into when they're not fighting. So, not too much detail on that right now, but we understand the expectation and we're going to make sure that the game supports that type of behaviour as well."
OK, how about player-versus-player? "I think that there's sort of a religion building up behind are you going to be Imperial or Republic, are you Jedi or are you Sith," says Neri. Indeed, it's exactly the same easy hook for antagonism that WOW has used so effectively with the Horde and Alliance. "I think that's naturally going to come to a head, so we will support PVP in some form for sure." But, you guessed it, not too much detail on that right now.
Group content, then. "We've talked pretty lightly around that," says Neri. "We want to make sure that we do support group experiences. No real detail on what our group size would be or what a dungeon or raid would look like, but we have a full understanding of the requirement of having that. We will support groups, there will be multiple-size group support."
Neri - and the LucasArts and BioWare machines powering this vast undertaking - are making all the right noises, but saying nothing. 17 months after its unveiling, we are still taking The Old Republic's qualities as an MMO on trust.
To be fair, what has been shown of the game so far is pretty convincing, and just because BioWare's not ready to reveal its answers to these challenges doesn't mean it doesn't have any. What's more, Neri shows a reassuring awareness that a hit MMO needs to deliver a broad range of play styles - a vital fact of which many existing and quite experienced MMO developers seem to have only a slender grasp.
"It's certainly not about forcing people to play one way or the other," he says of the game's story focus. "That's the interesting thing about MMOs: you throw hundreds of thousands - or if you're lucky, millions - of people on these games and everybody's experience is different. Your game has to be flexible to support a lot of them. That's one of our challenges, that's anyone's challenge that's making these games. What happens when lots of people start playing it? It's going to break somewhere, and you've got to be prepared.
"People play these games for different reasons, you have to have a breadth of activity for people to participate in, and so we'll be talking a lot about that... We hear a lot of folks say, 'Is this just going to be a single-player game?' We're making a massively-multiplayer game."
We believe you, Jake. But with so much riding on The Old Republic - not least the hopes of legions of Star Wars fans that they'll finally get to live out their fantasies - we'd just really, really like to see it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is due for release in spring 2011.