Doing Story The Right Way: Chatting With SWTOR'S Creative Director, Charles Boyd
We talk a lot about story and how it’s done, and what stories have yet to be told.
There are a lot of things going on with Star Wars: The Old Republic right now. The game’s next expansion is on its way as is its 10th anniversary. Of course, we’ve talked a good bit about the upcoming Legacy of the Sith expansion, particularly the new combat styles that will be replacing classes and, more recently, how those changes will impact gearing and itemization – down to the removal of RNG.
But, as is always the case with BioWare games, it’s not just about the systems, it’s about the story. More accurately, it’s about the individual players’ stories, the ones they create when they make the decisions they make. So, with that in mind, BioWare not only put together a video highlighting some of the more important points in the game’s story so far (which you can watch below), but also offered us the chance to speak with the game’s Creative Director, Charles Boyd, about the game and what it’s like to be part of a studio so focused on storytelling.
MMOB: Can you offer us a rundown of the game’s story so far for those who may not have played or are a bit behind?
Charles Boyd: Yeah. So, if you’ve never played The Old Republic before, it’s a massively multiplayer game. It’s a big story-based game just like you’d expect from a BioWare game. So, interactive dialogue, important moral choices, romance, betrayal…all that kind of good stuff. It’s drama and lasers like you’d want to see in a Star Wars, all set in the ancient past of the Star Wars galaxy.
Pretty much all that recognizable stuff is there. It’s a giant war between the Republic (and Jedi) versus the ruthless Sith Empire. Of course, it’s an ongoing conflict with a ten-year story.
If you’re just coming into the newest story, Darth Malgus (probably the game’s most recognizable villain) has returned and has plans of his own that he’s pursuing in the midst of this war. So both sides are going after him while trying to fight each other. And that’s where the story picks up…and will continue to go.
Definitely, this is an expansion and our 10th anniversary, and it’s exciting, but it’s another step in the player-characters’ journeys.
MMOB: So, with SWTOR being set so far in the past, you’d have a really, really long time to go before encroaching on the film timeline.
C.B.: Yeah, I think the game would have to run about 300 years before we’d be in too much danger.
MMOB: So how did you end up working on The Old Republic team?
C.B.: I was very lucky. I applied and got in as a story writer for the game in 2006, so right when it was first getting started. I wasn’t there at the very beginning, but almost at the very beginning. It hadn’t even been announced what the game was. The announcement was just that BioWare had opened an office in Austin, TX and they were making an MMO.
I think everyone guessed it might be an Old Republic game – a continuation of Knights of the Old Republic. But no one knew for sure for a few years after that.
I was a big fan of all BioWare games, and obviously, I’m a big Star Wars nerd. So, I was really hoping that’s what it would turn out to be. I was fortunate enough to get the job and on my first day found out that that was the plan. So I was really thrilled and have just been continuing with the team since then.
I worked on the storyline for many years and still do in my role, now, as Creative Director. I feel really lucky. We have a great team, a lot of great folks. We’re all just excited to make Star Wars adventures every day.
MMOB: Had you worked for any other video game companies prior to that?
C.B.: Nope. Literally, just joined fresh out of college.
MMOB: You did get really lucky.
C.B.: Yeah. Yes I did.
MMOB: A lot of the time it’s kind of hopping from one place to another to get the one you’re hoping for.
C.B.: Yeah. It’s very unusual to be on one project for this long.
Some people may not like that. They like bouncing around a bit. Some people are forced to bounce around a bit, unfortunately. It’s the nature of the industry. I’ve been lucky that I’ve both not needed to do that and that I have not wanted to, either. I just really love what I do. So, I’m happy to have the continuity.
MMOB: Well, that kinda nixes my question about how it might be different compared to working on other games.
C.B.: [laughs] I couldn’t tell ya.
MMOB: So, in looking at some of what players can expect in the upcoming expansion, I noticed that in addition to continuing the Darth Malgus storyline, there will also be a major battle in Hanaan. So, I’m wondering, from a story aspect…I realize some of it's gameplay choices. You need big battles or these smaller engagements...but how do you effectively tie that kind of stuff together without making the story feel overblown or disjointed, or just feel like you’re doing it just to have something to do?
C.B.: I think that it helps, being that it is choice-driven and interactive because it really centers everything on your characters. So, any time we’re doing a new storyline, it needs to be relevant to your character. Like, who’s going to reach out to this Jedi or this Sith or Bounty Hunter and ask them to participate? And, who are the characters that our players are invested in and that will drive them to want to participate in these stories?
They have allies that are “big deal” generals and admirals, and Sith Lords and the Dark Council and what-not. But they also have companion characters and allies who are just soldiers in the trenches like everyone else. So, a lot of it can be driven by those relationships with those characters they’ve built up over time in other stories. And that drives them just like all of us in real life.
You know. When our friend calls us up and asks us to move a couch, we’re a lot more likely to than if it’s just a stranger.
MMOB: Kinda depends on the couch…
C.B. Cont.: So we’re really lucky that we have this really great, long storytelling tradition to fall back on and all the characters we’ve introduced over the years. It gives us people to bounce off of, conflicts to bring back up, sometimes romances…and what-have-you to help the player feel more engaged and invested in what’s going on, that just the plot.
The plot is important, but I think people mostly connect to characters most passionately.
MMOB: In designing for something where you’re trying to allow players to make choices, particularly in MMOs where typically everybody’s special, not just special but “the special person”, how do you approach making those choices feel effective and that what they’re doing is important so that they’re not just the same as other player characters?
C.B.: So, there’s two different (Well, probably more than two. But for the sake of time, we’ll go for two.) ways I look at it. One is when designing it, “What kind of impact can this choice reasonably have?” We do need the story to go forward, we do need the players to keep going. So we need to make sure that it feels impactful but that it’s not going to completely sidetrack everything. So you have to find a delicate balance of impactful cool choices that we can keep paying off and keep reflecting and occasionally going big on a choice and making it have a bigger impact and really split things up more, in a targeted way.
But, there is a limitation. I always say “there’s only so much canvas to paint on”. So we have to be mindful of that.
The other aspect, and the other key way to make sure that a choice is impactful, is to try to tie it to characters. We try to tie it to people that your player character cares about. Superman is almost never in danger. But Superman cares what happens to Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen and any random person on the street, really, because that’s who Superman is.
So it doesn’t have to be that it is your character, necessarily, who is the one in danger or the one directly affected. It can be that it’s a character you really care about – positively or negatively. Like, if this is your chance to finally get one over on that character you really hate but you’re going to have to give up something else to do it, that can be interesting in and of itself. And it can be really great, especially for a Sith character.
So when you can ground it in a character, and your relationship with characters, I think that can help you get past the issue of everyone being so accomplished and special. We want to make sure they’re still grounded in the choices.
MMOB: Obviously since the story takes place well before the other Star Wars media, you have more flexibility. But, what do you do in terms of incorporating content from existing media into the story? Or do you not worry about it?
C.B.: I think part of what makes Star Wars so popular and so beloved is that it is this giant universe where an alien that showed up in the background of one scene can later be a really important central character…and all of these little, interesting details can come back around and be really important or have their own adventures or lives in a part of the galaxy we never see but is hinted at. For instance, the fact that we have a TV show about The Mandalorian. That was so obscure.
All of that stuff is there for color. All of that stuff is there, for me, to help tell a cool story. But it’s never necessarily the goal to be like, “Okay, we’re going to reference this, this, and this. Because this was in a movie recently and this is my favorite comic book from 20 years ago. If those opportunities come up or tie in well, then great. It’s something to use. But, you want to make sure you’re telling a good story first and not just throwing lore out there. It needs to have some cool drama.
MMOB: That is true. So, obviously, you’ve been a fan of Star Wars for a really long time. So, I have to ask, as far back as your fandom goes and with you being a writer. Did you do fanfic?
C.B.: None that I would admit to. But probably, it would be safe to guess that I did, yeah.
Growing up, the focus was the expanded universe, before the special editions had come out or any of the prequels. So a lot of the storytelling was happening in novels and video games. And, it was just really cool that they were all connected. It just drives you as a player or a reader and inspires things. Like, you’d wonder what it would be like for this character to be in that universe or wonder if two people ever met. It seems like they know some of the same people. And certainly in Star Wars that happens more often than you might expect.
MMOB: Yeah, you just kind of trip over somebody who knows somebody. For as big of a universe as it is, you just kind of have these tight-knit circles, and everybody knows everybody.
C.B.: I think that’s sort of the fantasy element of it, right? Galaxy-scale conflicts with very personal, interpersonal drama and direct conflicts.
MMOB: Similar to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
C.B.: And that’s kind of how I look at what we do. Like, you alluded to, legends versus current canon. We are in the ancient past. These are the King Arthurs of the Star Wars universe. To the characters in the story [meaning current canon films, etc], these would be legendary events that they’ve heard about or talked about, or read about.
One thing that I love about that notion is that because this is a choice-based game, stories can happen differently and events can unfold differently. They can all be different versions of the legend. Which to me is really cool.
MMOB: And it’s how legends work.
C.B.: Exactly. How many versions of King Arthur are there? So, I love that take on it.
So yeah, this [canon lore] hasn’t slowed us down much.
We'd like to thank Charles for taking the time to spend with us for this interview.
Star Wars: The Old Republic's Legacy of the Sith Expansion will arrive during the holidays, ready to carry players into 2022.
About the Author
QuintLyn is a long-time lover of all things video game related will happily talk about them to anyone that will listen. She began writing about games for various hobby sites a little over ten years ago and has taken on various roles in the games community.
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