Game Design Analysis (part 2)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Available Hardware at the Time

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KotOR as its affectionately called by fans) came out in 2003 on the original Xbox, a console that had been around for a couple years already. BioWare had been developing games for the PC for years (since 1995) and were quite comfortable with the platform. Given the innards of the Xbox were a Pentium III, and thus making it a computer in a black box, it wasn’t a far stretch to make KotOR for the Xbox and then port it to the PC afterwards.

BioWare was also prepared to develop a modified engine for KotOR; a decision that was dictated by the graphical detail they wanted to include in the game – they wanted to make it as highly detailed as possible in a variety of ways, including the character models and environments, which would stress the hardware. Taking the engine they’d used for Neverwinter Nights (Aurora Engine), they made the Odyssey Engine which happened to be their first engine designed for developing console games.

Intended Audiences

I believe the game was originally marked as a T (Teen) rating during its trailer for E3 in 2003, while I grabbed it right away on release and I was 18 at the time. However, I think the E3 trailer was actually really important to understand who they were marketing this game towards:

At the end of the day, hearing that music and learning that you would be playing a Force user moulding the shape of the galaxy… there really aren’t many Star Wars fans who wouldn’t want to play the game, regardless what the suggested age rated may have said on the box. Therefore, I feel like the intended audience for the game should be anyone who enjoys anything to do with Star Wars.

Game Design & Mechanics

The game began development in 2000 when it was announced LucasArts had approached BioWare to make a new Star Wars RPG for the PC and one of the consoles of the time. They’d been given a number of options to choose from as a theme for this new game: they could make an Episode II tie-in or they could go back 4000 years before the movies, which was a time that hadn’t been properly covered already. Of course, BioWare chose the latter option, if only because of the creative freedom they could have; everything they came up with still had to be passed by LucasArts and head honcho George Lucas, but it was mostly just artistic decisions that needed to be refined.

Nothing ever made me happier at that time than to boot up my game and see the initial splash screen. It was my favourite game for a very long time, letting me choose a customised character and drawing me into a world I’d fantasised about since I was a kid. I always liked the idea you could choose what sort of character you were going to start off being, but the protagonist would always develop later on when the player chose which Jedi class to be.

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The game interface was a big achievement for BioWare and they learned a lot from their previous, expansive RPGs, namely Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinte Nights. I think a lot of the gameplay came down to navigating the menus and the fluid combat system, which were really important to the design as a whole – there were ways to upgrade your character, develop his/her skills, but the menus made all of it really straight-forward and easy to keep track of. At the end of the day, the interface needed to be easily accessible to both an Xbox and PC player, which is why I think they went through so much to make sure the design was really fluid.

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The controls were kept simple, using hotkeys to access different Force abilities and quick menus to cycle through options. I personally found the game much more enjoyable on the PC just because of the expanded controls thanks to a mouse-and-keyboard setup. However, the game was still very fluid on the Xbox, where the combat remained quick and fun – who wouldn’t enjoy fighting with a lightsaber, but the controls could easily have gone awry and made the fights entirely too challenging.

Outside of that, one interesting fact I did find out was how expansive the script was for the game. There were around 15,000 lines recorded for all of the dialogue and the script itself took up 10 5-inch ringed binders – the amount of effort put into creating a deep and interesting story seems obvious just thinking about those two facts. Choices made through the dialogue system could take you down a few different paths, moving from the light to the dark side or back again. I loved the fact that my choices also effected my team, where conversations with them were something I really looked forward to throughout the over-arching story.

Another really notable mechanic that I thought was well-executed was the companions and battle buddies themselves: you could choose to bring two of the handful travelling with you on whatever adventures you were involved in. However, sometimes only certain things would happen when you had certain companions with you. Sometimes you would get different dialogue options or the companions would react to something you’d do, which was why it was important to spread your attention across all of your companions, no matter how much HK-47 commanded your attentions.

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As a side note, he was and still remains one of my favourite video game characters to date, for so many more reasons that I have time to discuss here!

Overall, I love games like KotOR for their RPG style and immersive gameplay. Exploration was encouraged, you wanted to talk with everyone available to see what hidden sidequests might be going on, and you wanted to really believe you were a part of the game world. Camera movement was always a bit janky when fast-paced fighting action was going on and sometimes the AI itself was question in its decisions, but despite those flaws the game itself has always been praised for being ingenious and well-designed for its time. I heartily agree.

Visuals

As previously mentioned, BioWare wanted to push the visual capabilities of the Xbox and PC, although in my opinion this did sacrifice smoother gameplay in the early days of the game. However, when you stood in the middle of Dantooine and watched the blades of grass dancing subtly in the wind, you knew you were looking at something just so very visually appealing. Even the desert planet of Tatooine was a joy to spend time on, when you knew that 4,000 years later Luke Skywalker would be growing up with his aunt and uncle before his own adventures began.

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Also mentioned previously, a lot of the visual designs had to be approved by LucasArts and George Lucas directly in some cases, so there was a lot of continuity across the universe. While I’m not sure if it’s ever been confirmed whether KotOR is canon or not, a lot of the visuals lend credence to its place in the Star Wars saga – the designs, technology, societies, and environments all feel like they belong.

Although community mods have heavily advanced the options for the visuals over the many years the game has been out, originally BioWare gave you the decision to choose from one of 15 different characters as the protagonist. They were a developer that had done this in their previous games and were still one of the earliest companies to offer this option. Even if the designs weren’t the most amazing, in some cases the characters looked downright wrong, the fact that they went out of their way to let the player choose who they wanted to be a hero made you invest so much more interest.

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To this day, I still can’t decide if KotOR was AS visually advanced as BioWare claimed or if I’ve just been jaded by modern video games over the last 14 years. At the time, I loved it and always wanted to run it at its peak ability, because you could tell how much time went into the look of the game. This overlaps with the game design comment about the UI, where the menus weren’t cluttered and the character could visually change depending on what he/she was wearing. While it doesn’t have the same customising options many modern RPGs have now, at the time it was a really big deal to see there were choices.

Performance

There were a number of issues that cropped up while trying to play the game on the original Xbox and the PC port – a majority of these were graphical and at times could make the game unplayable. I remember times when the Xbox would overheat and the game would lag to an unplayable level. Once I got my PC version in 2004, with my basic in-home PC family rig, there were parts of the game where my frames would take a nose-dive to 5-10fps, just due to the detailed graphics at the time.

It was usually in locations that had a lot of foliage, such as on Dantooine or Kashyyyk, or when there was a lot of environment to render all at once, such as the underwater parts of exploring Manaan. Having looked into the engine and the difficulty BioWare had in making decisions about their graphics, at the time of making the game they couldn’t easily predict how badly it would tax the systems they released KotOR on.

Unfortunately, despite its success as a game, there were so many bugs to the point where patches and updates were a regular thing. There were parts of the game that were lacking, especially when one considers the successes that were Mass Effect (2007) and Dragon Age (2009), but the overall story and structure of the game itself was excellent for its time. The choice-driven story, which altered the lives of each of your companions as well as the main character, and plot twists made up for the glitches that were found along the way.

Scenery clipping, getting stuck in the ground, lagging, missing audio over the dialogue, and so many other things didn’t stop the game from being one of the best RPGs of the year. It received outstanding reviews and to this day still makes it to spot 31 on IGNs top 100 Games of all Time.

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