SDCC 2010: A SWTOR Managing Editor who doesn't solve problems by killing all the kittens

We all know that know that story is the fourth pillar for The Old Republic. We also know BioWare has the reputation for having some of the most compelling stories in the gaming industry. In fact, story is written into its mission statement: "BioWare's vision is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world." So it is no surprise at all that when the team came to Comic-Con this past weekend, it consisted of mostly writers.

Massively's Dan O'Halloran nabbed the Managing Editor on SWTOR, Alexander Freed, for a conversation. Freed has scribed much of the story and dialogue for this epic MMO, as well as been the writer for the exciting adventures of Teneb Kel in The Blood of the Empire webcomic.

Continue on after the break to catch Alexander Freed's insight into what the different types of quests will be available in SWTOR, what compelling choices players have to make, and what it takes to write for a project of this magnitude.

Massively: Since we can't talk about space combat because it comes out in PC Gamer, let's talk about quests.

Alexander Freed: We've got four different kinds of quests. We've got our class quests, which is what we've really focused on when we've talked to the press about story. It's traditional BioWare storytelling in an MMO space. The other three types of quests that we've got are all group quests.

We've got world quests which are essentially like the side quests that you'd see in Dragon Age or Mass Effect. They can be played in a group. That is where you see our multiplayer dialogue system in action.

Then we've got our flashpoints, which are our big, discrete, self-contained, fully-intended-for-group content -- not really intended to be soloable -- showcases of combat and storytelling in a group setting.

Then we've also got our world arcs, which are essentially long, connected sets of world quests telling one complete story with recurring characters. [These arcs are] really kind of showcasing multiplayer dialogue within the open world, so you can be doing them at the same time as you are doing the class quests. They are not in a separate space like the flashpoints are.

Will we see major characters, like the Luke Skywalkers of the time, in the world arcs?

You will see very major characters in the world arcs. You will also see them in class quests as well. It's not like all the important stuff happens in the world arc. We talk about having the eight class stories, then a big, ninth, galactic story -- the story of the war as a whole. A lot of that is what you're going to see in the world arcs. You're going to see big conflict between Republic and Empire, with a lot of the major players of the setting getting involved either as allies or as enemies. The world arcs are meant to play off the overall stuff that everyone is going to see as they progress through the game.

A bounty hunter and a Sith warrior are going to play through the same world arcs because we want them to group together. We want them to have that multiplayer dialogue experience. That being said, that doesn't mean that everything will be the same. [It will depend] on your group make up [and] on what class you're in. A bounty hunter may come to Drummond Kaas and get involved in the world arc essentially because someone's offered him a job. He has built a reputation by that point, and that's what he does: he takes jobs for money, whereas a Sith Inquisitor may get involved in a different way.

Characters within the world arcs may react to you differently based on your class. So [let's say] I'm a trooper and you're a Jedi Knight, and we're talking to a world arc character. He seems kind of afraid of the Jedi Knight for some reason. I'm there as the trooper, and we're all having this discussion. But he's reacting much differently towards the Jedi Knight because maybe he met him much earlier in his own class quest and dealt with him in a way that the quest-giver wasn't so thrilled [about].

So the quest-givers can react based on past interactions?

They can, [but] we don't want to punish the rest of your group because of something you did in your class quest 20 hours ago. But certainly, characters will talk about you based on your class-quest actions. A lot of it is flavor for the most part. You're not going to see, for the most part, [that] I've made some choice in my class quest, so therefore my group doesn't have this set of options or is forced into a particular path. You'll see a lot of that branching into class quests. But in world quests and world arcs, we really want to encourage people to found groups of total strangers and play with the confidence that this is going to be fun. We don't have to say, "Looking for group of Jedi knights, 16 light-side points, and didn't mouth off to General Whoever."

And what are flashpoints exactly?

The flashpoints are very similar to world arcs in that they are focused on group story-telling experiences. But the flashpoints are set in their own instances, whereas the world arcs are going to take place across entire planets. The flashpoints are not designed to be soloable, and they are also designed to be repeatable. They are also much shorter than, say, a world arc, and certainly shorter than all your class quests. They are designed to be, I think, one- to two-hour experiences.

Take me through how you would write a quest.

For the big story pieces -- for the world arcs, for the flashpoints, for the class stories -- we do sit down with story first. What sort of story do we want to tell? What sort of themes do we want to hit on? What sort of characters do we want to bring into it? What else have we done that may be too similar to this? What do we want to contrast with? Is class X doing something similar to this? Do we need to save that for class Y? What do we want to make available for all classes to go through? What are the big moments we want to make sure everyone gets to share in? So we look at it from the story perspective first.

Once we have a story outline that we're really happy with, then we start getting into the gameplay of it all. Then, we start looking at this quest beat by beat. Where are there going to be conversations? Where are there going to be action sequences? What sort of locations are we going to need? At that point this starts to come into discussion with the people who do world design [and] lay out the planets, in order to make sure that this is going to work as a compelling game experience, and that we can actually build it properly.

It obviously doesn't work if the writers say, "Yes, I want a 2000-foot-tall spire reaching into space from the planet's surface that you can then do a catwalk across space into an asteroid from." We need someone to tell us, "No." I would probably play that, but it would probably cost what an entire planet does [to build]. We need people to keep us sane. Sometimes [the] world design [team] will say, "That sounds fantastic. Let's actually build that. We've got tricks to do that. It's not going to eat three years of work." And sometimes they say, "Not so much." A lot of the times, they will have really good suggestions [like]: "If you do the quest this way, then you're really separating the players who are doing this from all the other players. We've kind of set up a path through the world. Why don't we find a way to broaden the points of interest, so that we've got people -- not walking a straight line -- but at least staying within an area where they're still going to see people? You're not segregating people who are doing on particular quest." That is never fun in an MMO.

Then the process keeps rolling forward. It gets written. It gets scripted. It gets play-tested. Eventually, you've got yourselves a quest. Hopefully, it's fun. If it's not, it gets cut and changed.

When talking about choices and dark side, how amoral are choices going to be for our characters?

It's very important to us that you are able to play a very, very moral light-side character on the Empire side. Just like it's important to us that you are able to play an apotheosis of depravity on the Republic side. That said, one of the fun things about doing this game as opposed to a Mass Effect or a Knights of the Old Republic or a Dragon Age -- [is that] in all of those games your base assumption is you're out to save the galaxy or whatever, and although you can do horrible, horrible things, it all falls within that context. One of the things that is fun about writing some of the Empire classes, and even some of the Republic classes [like] the smuggler, is about setting up the "default" a little differently.

So if you're an Imperial class, you may be asked to go do a pretty bad thing. If you're playing the light-side [Imperial], it is your job to find a way to make that palatable and to actually bring some good out of that. Sometimes it's going to be a matter of directly disobeying who's giving you [the quest]. It is going to be harder in some places [to do this]. If some random Imperial Army officer with a gun asks you to do something and you're a Sith warrior, you probably don't have to do it. You can look at what he's asking you to do and say, "Yeah, yeah, I don't want to solve that problem by going and killing all the kittens. I'm going to solve this problem by rescuing the hostages." If a Dark Council member asks you to go and kill all the kittens, you're still going to have to find a way around doing the atrocity, but you're going to have to do it in a much sneakier way.

But if you want to go full-on dark side, you can do some pretty terrible things. That's part of telling a compelling story and giving you good choices. Yeah, if you want to be the bad guy, you can be the bad guy. You will see consequences for that. You will see people suffering for the things that you do. That's how to tell an emotional story.

How did you come to BioWare?

I've been on this project since the beginning. I came to BioWare for the project. Before that I mostly worked in the sort of traditional pen and paper roleplaying games industry. I did work for companies like White Wolf, Guardians of Order, and Eden Studios. On the side, I did short prose fiction, and sold [it] to magazines and anthologies and that sort of thing. Sort of combining my game-design background and my fiction-writing background, going into video-game writing seemed to be a fairly natural step.

What is your favorite storyline to write?

I am the writer who has done the most on the Imperial agent class. That was by choice. I really liked the Imperial agent. I thought it was a fun concept. I've spent a lot of time with that one, and really enjoyed it a great deal. I think that the agent is very grounded within the Star Wars universe, yet has a perspective on the Star Wars universe -- particularly the Empire -- that we don't see a lot. He's an ordinary guy with incredible, massive training, but he has to live in this world with super-powered people with lightsabers. He has to live in an Empire that worships the Sith, essentially. He has to keep this whole thing running, keeping in mind who's above him [and] what's going on around him. Then, of course, there are the secrets, the double-crosses, the double agents and the triple agents. All the espionage stuff is always fun to write.

My other pet subject that I like to do is the ultra-mystical stuff, as well. When we've got an open-world quest that's got heavy mysticism, you know, Force-y stuff involved, I'll often try to grab that one for myself. I'll be: "Yes! Force-y mysticism! I like that!" I never get to write that on the Imperial Agent.

What is your favorite Star Wars book or comic?

I have a favorite Star Wars comic: Star Wars: Legacy by John Ostrander. I'm a big Ostrander fan from his non-Star Wars days. It was fun when he started to do the Star Wars stuff.

Thanks for speaking with us.

It's been fun.

Be sure to catch the first issue of The Blood of the Empire written by Alexander Freed available through Dark Horse comics in October!
This article was originally published on Massively.