With the recent news of a Knights of the Old Republic remake, we thought it'd be fun to return to this look behind the curtains of BioWare's groundbreaking original. This piece was originally published in December 2017.
There are spoilers ahead for Knights of the Old Republic.
How do you follow a game like Knights of the Old Republic, the most famous original Star Wars tale a video game has ever told? Forget about Obsidian's sequel for a moment and imagine it was BioWare staring at a piece of paper wondering how to follow a twist like Revan's. Because once upon a time BioWare was - and it came up with an idea.
Yoda. Not the actual Yoda, because canonically he's untouchable, but someone a bit like him; we know so little about Yoda's almost nonexistent species even someone in his likeness would have the same effect: trust. "We felt like Yoda was the ultimate - everyone trusts Yoda," James Ohlen tells me, lead designer of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
James Ohlen was also lead designer of Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age: Origins, and director of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the online game. These days he's creative director of BioWare Austin, and he's working on Anthem. He's BioWare through and through.
Yes, Yoda would have been the perfect tool for deceiving you.
"It feels like Star Wars, an episodic movie series, needs cliffhangers and twists, so we wanted a twist from the start"
"The initial twist in the first two-page concept we had for Knights of the Old Republic 2 was you were going to be trained by a Yoda-like figure," Ohlen says, "someone from the Yoda race. That character was going to train you in the first part of the game but then you were going to discover this Yoda figure was actually not the good Yoda you expected...
"He was training you to essentially be his enforcer, a Dark Lord to conquer the universe, and he was going to become the main villain." Dun dun duunnn!
But this KOTOR 2 concept never made it any further. BioWare bosses Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk called it off. "It was a very smart decision on their part," Ohlen says. "In order for a company to be successful and control its own destiny you need to own your own IP, and we didn't own Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars. Mass Effect was something we decided we had to do instead of another Star Wars game."
Everyone from the core KOTOR team moved onto Mass Effect except James Ohlen. He had another crusade to pursue. "I was the only person who left to eventually start concepting on the Dragon Age universe and game," he says. "I was like, 'We need to make a Baldur's Gate! We can't give up on it - we need to make something inspired by the Baldur's Gate franchise!'"
From the death of BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic 2, Mass Effect and Dragon Age were born.
Originally, Star Wars was only one of a few licenses BioWare was considering. It was the year 2000, the turn of the Millennium, and BioWare was trying to figure out what else it could do.
"Strangely enough, before we picked Star Wars, I remember Ray [Muzyka] coming into my office and throwing a couple of books on my desk and telling me to read them because we were negotiating with the authors," Ohlen recalls. "And one of them was the book A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.
"That never went anywhere," he adds, "but that's how I started reading it - after the first book I was like 'holy s***!' and ran downstairs to the bookshop."
(Coincidentally, Obsidian also seriously considered A Game of Thrones a few years later.)
BioWare settled on Star Wars because it was, and probably is, the world's most well known fantasy. Publishers know it, banks know it and shoppers know it. "And," Ohlen says, "we were all enormous Star Wars fans."
The game LucasArts signed up for, however, was quite different. "When we first signed the deal, all that was known was it was going to be a Star Wars role-playing game done by BioWare," he says. "What LucasArts had initially expected was us to do a paintover of Baldur's Gate, and it was going to be a 2D, side-scrolling Star Wars game."
But to BioWare, Star Wars meant movies. "It wouldn't feel true to Star Wars if it wasn't cinematic." It meant bringing the camera down behind the player and showing a full 3D world. It meant cutscenes and fully voiced characters. More than any other BioWare game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic paved the way for the cinematic style we know BioWare for today.
The Star Wars movies also presented a problem. "We wanted to be able to tell an epic story," he says, "because that was always something we fought for. Even during the Baldur's Gate days we were being pushed to do a very down to earth, non-epic story, and we were like, 'No! You're going to be the son of the God of Murder and it's going to be epic.' We feel like with escapism, you want it to be larger than life.
"But with Star Wars it's harder to tell a larger than life story during the movie era because all of the big events - Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader - happen in the movies."
The solution came from a Dark Horse comic series called Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi, set thousands of years before - and well out of the way of - the Star Wars films, in an era known as the Old Republic. All BioWare had to do was bump the timeline forward a bit in order to implement technology more familiar to the films - "the comic books had Lightsabers with cables attached to a power belt, and starships with sails" - and hey presto! it had a perfect setting for its own story about a ragtag group taking on an empire.
The next thing BioWare needed was a twist. This was of utmost importance. Of all the moments in the Star Wars films, Ohlen's favourite is Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker he's his father at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. "It feels like Star Wars, an episodic movie series, needs cliffhangers and twists," he says, "so we wanted a twist from the start."
There were a lot of boxes a twist needed to tick. "We needed a twist that was incredibly epic in scope, that when it happened it was like, 'Whoa! that is going to have a big effect on the galaxy'; we wanted a twist that was personal and meant a great deal to the player; and we wanted a twist that made you feel better about things, a twist that made you cooler."
What if...? Eventually someone hit the nail on the head. "The initial idea of the player as the villain came from Cam." That's Cameron Tofer, who was going to be the executive producer on the game, but who left BioWare to co-found a small studio called Beamdog nearby (a studio which enhances some of BioWare's old games). If Tofer hadn't left, Casey Hudson wouldn't have stepped in to fill his executive producer shoes, and if Hudson hadn't stepped in then he might never have gone on to spearhead the Mass Effect series in the way he did. It might never have happened!
Tofer's initial idea was fleshed out by Hudson and lead writer Drew Karpyshyn, "and the twist," Ohlen says, "was in the very first two-page Word document for the game". Revan, however, wasn't. He might be gaming's most famous Sith Lord but the twist, unequivocally, came first.
BioWare didn't spend much time on Revan at all. "Darth Revan was less of a character because he was going to be the player, so we didn't actually want to develop him too much," Ohlen says. "Darth Malak was the one we spent more time giving a character arc to and a background to and a personality to." And no prizes for guessing which wheezy movie Dark Lord he's modelled on with his large stature and robotic jaw, albeit with splashes of red instead of all black.
Revan's name took all of about three seconds to conjure. "The funny thing is, people on message boards will try and guess at the incredible depth we went to name the characters," Ohlen says. Could Revan be an old English spelling of 'raven', and mean a dark-haired and thievish person? Could Revan come from the noun "Revanchism", which means "a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory"?
"What they don't realise..." Ohlen adds with a chuckle. "Maybe I shouldn't be revealing this because it wrecks the mystery!
"I think I flipped through a book and there's a villain in one of my D&D campaigns - a lot of the names came from my old Star Wars campaign I ran as a teenager - called Revanac, and I was like, 'That's not very good, I'll just lop off the last part.' Revan, boom, done."
There was one Star Wars movie character BioWare knew Knights of the Old Republic couldn't do without - and one whose inclusion would have a far reaching effect on both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.
"One of the cores to Star Wars is the Millennium Falcon," Ohlen says. "The Millennium Falcon is as important a character as some of the main characters like Han Solo and C-3PO and all the rest. We wanted to have the Ebon Hawk be your own Millennium Falcon, we wanted it to be a core of the game. It was, essentially, your home base."
"We had to cut an entire planet"
Being in the Ebon Hawk made you feel like you were flying around space, but you weren't, it was an illusion - you only ever saw cinematics of the Ebon Hawk flying down onto planets or away from them. It was also an area you could have, as Ohlen says, "more intimate conversations and character moments".
"It worked out really well for us," he says. "It was a good place for you to roleplay with your companions and to make the world feel bigger than it actually was." The idea stuck and BioWare would use it again and again. "The Normandy [in Mass Effect] was modelled after the Ebon Hawk; even your travelling campsite in Dragon Age: Origins was modelled after the Ebon Hawk."
But not everything worked out well. "We had to cut an entire planet," he says. "We were going to have a planet called Sleheyron," which was also from his old D&D campaign, "and we actually did the content and built one of the levels for it. It was going to be a gladiator world run by the Hutts. But we were forced to cut that world.
"We also had more endings," he adds, "but the endings were expensive so we had to get them down. We were going to have multiple endings based on all these different choices you were going to make," a bit like at the end of Dragon Age: Origins, "but it just didn't make sense. The ending had to be a big, epic cinematic moment with space battles and all the rest, so we cut it down to two."
The dice-rolling D&D mechanics weren't a great fit for a cinematic Star Wars experience either. "Some of the things were forced on us by circumstance," he says. "Knights of the Republic would have been a better game with a better combat system, but I don't think we would have been able to finish the game if we hadn't been able to leverage so much stuff from Neverwinter Nights."
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released in 2003, made by fewer than 100 people. "It was actually one of the more enjoyable development experiences," Ohlen says. "When we started we were like, 'We want to make the greatest Star Wars game ever made!' BioWare, we're very competitive, so at the beginning of any of our projects it's always 'we need to just blow it up!' But by the time we got to the end, we were all exhausted."
They'd ask themselves: "Did we even make a good game?" But they were too close. "I had played it through it too many times, like 200 times," Ohlen says. "When you say a word over and over again it ceases to have meaning - it was almost like that for me."
Kieron Gillen, now a comic book writer, reviewed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for Eurogamer - and he didn't mince his words. Had BioWare made a good game? "Knights of the Old Republic is the best Star Wars game since X-Wing and/or Tie Fighter, if not ever," he wrote. "Got that? Great. Now get this."
Obsidian, a friend of BioWare's, would make Knights of the Old Republic 2, and independently managed to come up with a strikingly similar story idea. "I've learned that there's only so many ideas in the world," Ohlen says with a shrug. (BioWare's Jade Empire recycled the traitorous Yoda idea, too.)
BioWare returned to the Old Republic era years later with huge online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, which promised to contain several games' worth of stories. But it never quite scratched the KOTOR itch (recent expansions Knights of the Fallen Empire, and Knights of the Eternal Throne, came closest). Perhaps it's why the hunger for a new Knights of the Old Republic is still so strong - why a chorus of "We want KOTOR 3!" erupts at every mention of 'Star Wars' and 'game' and 'story'. EA closing Visceral Games and "pivoting" the single-player Star Wars game in development there hasn't helped.
But how likely is BioWare to ever return to Knights of the Old Republic in a proper single-player way? Where is there any room alongside the all-encompassing development of Anthem, a multiplayer game of the scale and ambition of Destiny? It doesn't look hopeful, yet Ohlen doesn't snuff out my hopes like I thought he would.
"Given a chance to work on Star Wars in the future, I would definitely enjoy that," he says.
"What I would do is empower other people to tell their Star Wars stories, be the mentor who helps them bring their vision of the ultimate Star Wars story to life. KOTOR was very much a passion project, a love letter, in my mind, to the original Star Wars trilogy and particularly to The Empire Strikes Back. That's something I don't think I'd do again, but there's other people's love letters to Star Wars that could be quite amazing.
"Could BioWare do another Star Wars game?" He thinks for a moment. "That would be really awesome. The entire industry would love to see that, so hopefully it happens."