GDC 2012: A peek behind SWTOR's project management curtain

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|03.08.12

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GDC 2012: A peek behind SWTOR's project management curtain
Star Wars: The Old Republic - Nal Hutta
GDC is often described as the most cerebral of the various gaming conventions. E3 has its big reveals and booth babes, PAX has its fan-friendly hands-on sessions and general geekery. GDC, though, is mainly by developers and for developers, and last night's BioWare panel was a good case in point.

The session ran for well over an hour (not counting a brief Q&A at the end), and it focused largely on the daunting management tasks inherent in a project like Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Star Wars: The Old Republic - the view from Taris
Production director Dallas Dickinson and executive producer Rich Vogel took turns in front of the mic (and behind the PowerPoint clicker) in a talk that ranged from how BioWare defines success to how you scale your resources to the brutal design and content choices required to make a AAA subscription MMO.

The pair began by outlining a few high-level goals, which included one million subscribers and innovation in the form of marrying story with traditional MMORPG gameplay. Vogel emphasized BioWare's desire to capture the "core" MMO audience while simultaneously expanding outward toward the more casual audience as the game evolves.

Vogel and Dickinson also shared some mind-boggling numbers relating to SWTOR staffing, as the game's development cycle featured 30 producers, 40 platform engineers, 80 programmers, 75 designers, 140 artists, and 280 quality assurance positions. How does one approach a ginormous project management task of this magnitude? Mainly by sticking to a rigorous triage process and thinking outside of the box when it comes to internal conflicts and team-building procedures.

Most projects tend to separate developers by disciplines, Dickinson explained. For example, the engineers will go off and do their thing, the artists will do theirs, and the content designers will be in their own little worlds. When development challenges arise, finger-pointing among various camps is inevitable, and Dickinson said that BioWare was able to get a handle on this (and improve communication) by building interdisciplinary strike teams that then owned particular pieces of content.

So instead of shuffling all the artists off to one building, BioWare had a team of engineers, artists, and programmers all working together to complete a particular high-level task (say, the complete construction of a planet from start to finish, including world design, quests, audio, etc.). After a seven-week crunch period, the teams would reconfigure and move on to the next deliverable.

Vogel gave perhaps the most interesting insight of the night when he outlined the unenviable task of telling a developer that his favorite system would end up on the cutting room floor. You can't be afraid to cut features early and often, he explained, and though it's never enjoyable, it simply has to be done when you're working on a project of this (or really, any) size.

It sounds simple in theory, but Dickinson said that BioWare's SWTOR team began operating at peak proficiency only a couple of years ago (and of course, the project has been ongoing since 2006). He said the studio managed "very badly at first. We grew quickly and we had the growing pains to match." It also "helped to have the world's most popular IP," Dickinson quipped.

Massively sent four resolute reporters to San Francisco to bring you back the biggest MMO news from this year's GDC, the largest pro-only gaming industry con in the world! From games like The Secret World to PlanetSide 2, we're on the case, so stay tuned for all the highlights from the show!
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