It may be the worst kept secret in recent gaming history, but that hasn't stopped LucasArts putting on a big show to unveil its new MMO from BioWare, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Dozens of journalists have been invited to the company's San Francisco HQ, including many flown all the way from Europe. Executives from BioWare, EA and of course LucasArts are all putting in an appearance, along with creative directors, storyline writers, gameplay programmers and an army of PR people. In fact, the only notably absent person is George Lucas.
A press conference is held in the impressive on-site cinema. A trailer is shown, along with a video of "pre-production gameplay footage". There's a question-and-answer session, followed by roundtable presentations, executive interviews, a tour of the building and a trip to the gift shop (think Javva the Hutt coffee mugs, hundred-dollar Indiana Jones hats, Yoda costumes for dogs and receipts that bear the legend, 'May the Force Be With You').
With all that stuff going on, you might think the dozens of journalists will come away with a thorough understanding of Star Wars: The Old Republic. You might be wrong. The phrase "We're not talking about that today" is wheeled out again and again, and after a couple of hours it feels like the list of things they're not talking about today is longer than the list of acceptable subjects for discussion.
Here are just a few of the things they aren't talking about today: the story delivery system, grouping, space combat, the number of classes, travelling between planets, player housing, how long the game's been in development, how many people are working on it, PC exclusivity, subscription fees, the release date. Best quote of the event: "We're not talking about anything that has to do with space today."
It's clear that what would be discussed was determined well in advance, and that everyone has been thoroughly briefed. This launch event is not about sharing details or answering specific questions. It's about sending a precise, and rather short, message.
The message, in essence, is this: with Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare is doing things differently. This game is not Star Wars Galaxies 2, nor is it Knights of the Old Republic 3. (Actually, according to BioWare, it's KOTOR 3, 4, 5 and beyond, but more on that later.) It may be set in the same time period as Knights of the Old Republic, but it's an MMO as well as an RPG. It will include the same features you'd expect from traditional MMORPGs, but BioWare is throwing new elements into the mix.
"We're huge fans of the MMO genre," says BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka, speaking in a post-press conference interview. "We're looking at the things that great MMOs do so well - exploration, character progression, combat, raids, PVP, PVE and all the things that fans of the genre have come to expect.
"We're adding something to that. We're adding a pillar where you get to play solo or multiplayer, and go back and forth between them via a meaningful story arc," he continues. "You make choices that matter and have consequences, and you feel like you're making a difference as you progress through this world."
According to Daniel Erickson, who's one of the writers helping to construct that story arc, this is what sets The Old Republic apart from other MMORPGs. "For whatever reason, when people took the RPG and went to make the massively multiplayer RPG, they left out the fourth pillar - story," he says. "Obviously, that's not something BioWare's ever done. So if we're going to make an MMO, we're going to make one with all the pillars there."
The story is set some 300 years after the events of the KOTOR games, and 3000 years before the Star Wars movies. Following years of war, the old Republic and new Sith Empire have reached an uneasy truce - so uneasy, in fact, that it falls apart soon after the game begins.
But that's only the main story arc. The specific narrative you experience will depend on the character class you select. The only classes we're talking about today are Jedi and Sith, says LucasArts executive producer Tom Nichols. When asked if there will be an option to play as, say, a bounty hunter, he simply replies, "Perhaps." However, Nichols does go on to add, "What we reference is the iconic roles from the movie, such as Boba Fett or Han Solo - that's our goal, to provide experiences like those key iconic characters."
They're also striving to provide experiences that are quite different for each class. It's not like the old days, explains Erickson, when BioWare was making games like Baldur's Gate. Back then, they had to come up with a generic storyline that would work whether the player had chosen to be a druid, wizard, warrior or whatever.
That's no longer the case, says Erickson - and as a result, the class narratives in SWTOR are "the most unique stories we've ever told". What's more, even if you play through the entire game as a Jedi, then do it all again as a Sith, "You will not see one repeated piece of content. Not one quest, not one line of dialogue, nothing."
This also means there is more story being told than ever. In fact, Erickson reveals, "We did the calculations and we realised, a long time ago, we had passed the point where we would have more story content than every BioWare game made to date, combined. That's all the Baldur's Gates, Neverwinter Nights, KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, all the expansion packs. All those combined do not touch our content amount."
So. There's the main game setting, and a range of stories within that setting. Then there's a third layer, which is to do with the choices you make and how they affect the story that unfolds. According to BioWare's Greg Zeschuk, decision making is much more complex in SWTOR than in most MMOs.
"If you look at the stable of BioWare games, there are things that we do differently. The fundamental thing is the sense of choice - those [other MMO] games don't really have a sense of choice," he says.
"Your only choice is, do I take this quest or do I take that quest? If I want my bag of loot, I've got to do what the guy tells me. You don't have a question at the end like, do I kill this guy or do I let him live? It's not a question of deciding what the options are. MMOs have traditionally been about doing what you're told to do."
Ray jumps in to explain that BioWare's taking a different approach. "We're going to make sure all the story arcs are really interesting, fun to play through, and make you feel like you've made a difference, you've made a choice that actually affected the outcome," he promises.
Many of the choices you make will revolve around the light or dark side of the Force. It doesn't matter whether you've chosen to be a Jedi, a Sith or any other class - you can make decisions that might not fit traditionally with your character class. A Sith, for example, could choose to save a life instead of taking one.
However, said Sith would need to be prepared to have that decision questioned and criticised. In SWTOR, you can acquire AI-controlled companion characters who not only stick by your side but observe and comment on your actions. Your relationships with them can vary significantly and they serve a range of different purposes, as Nichols confirms.
"Companions can provide assistance in combat. They can provide comic relief and banter. They can alert you to things they're sensing, like nearby enemies. They might comment on decisions you're making that may seem to conflict with your class," he says. And that's not all.
"They may become your best buddy. You might build a romantic relationship with them. They might get pissed off with decisions you've made and leave, or betray you, or try to fight you. So they're another immersive element in the game, and again I think it's something unique we're bringing to the genre."
Just how unique, though? Aren't companions just an advanced form of the pets you can acquire in World of Warcraft and its ilk? "They've been compared to pets, but they're very different," argues Nichols. "They're much more immersed in the story and provide a different aspect of gameplay. I would think of them more as... Well, companions is the perfect word." For an example of the kind of relationship you can have, he says, think of Han Solo and Chewbacca: "They have personal stories, but they're also buddies."
You could argue that the most important reason to play MMOs is to share your adventures with real-life buddies. By introducing AI companions, isn't BioWare missing the whole point of MMO gaming - the social aspect? Not according to Zeschuk.
"The social experience is really important. We've got some interesting ways to have players interact within each others' stories, and that leads to results you probably haven't seen before," he says.
"Social gaming is something we don't want to forget. If you want a solo experience, you can do that. You can also really get involved with other people and do cool stuff together." Plus there are other advantages, he adds, such as when you're preparing for a group encounter - you can fill any role gaps with AI companions, and avoid having to wait around for human players.
So The Old Republic is designed to be an MMO for those who like to go solo as well as those who like to buddy up. It's also designed, Zeschuk adds, to suit players who might only play for half an hour at a time, along with those who enjoy marathon five-hour raid sessions. "The thing for us is to really cater to all those different types of players, and make sure there is something there for all of them," he says.
But what about those players who were hoping for a KOTOR 3 in the style of the previous games, rather than a KOTOR MMO? "We're passionate about this franchise, but in our minds we're doing KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9," Muzyka offers.
"This game is that big. It's huge in terms of the content, the story, the things you get to do. It's set in that same part of the Star Wars universe, with all the things that MMO fans have come to know and love - exploration, progression, customisation, combat. But with a story as well."
"As more gets revealed about what we're actually doing, we suspect those people will be very happy," Zeschuk chimes in.
That may take some time, however. According to Nichols, the next batch of information about SWTOR won't be released until "early next year". Until then there's nothing more to go on than what's been revealed at this press event - i.e. nothing much.
But perhaps that's unfair. Had the announcement of Star Wars: The Old Republic been a real surprise instead of a long-predicted event, there might have been a bit more excitement when it finally came - perhaps enough to draw a veil over the lack of juicy details.
However, there are still so many questions to be answered about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Questions about how the interface will work, what the combat will be like, how much it'll cost to play... We're not talking about any of that today, of course. The even bigger questions, such as whether complex storylines and AI buddies will work in MMOs, won't be answered until the game is released - and that could be years from now.
Ray Muzyka is certain about one thing, though. "When this comes out, it's going to be the best game BioWare's ever done," he says. "We're excited about that." If you're a Star Wars fan, a BioWare buff, an MMO player or all of the above, you probably should be too. Excited - and curious to know more.