A New Hope: Blaine Christine
BioWare senior producer Blaine Christine wants to reassure gamers that, when it comes to Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Force is still with them.
Garnering more than 1 million registered users within the first three days of launching, Star Wars: The Old Republic has been hailed as “the fastest growing subscription MMO in the history of [the gaming] industry” and is rumored to be the most expensive game ever developed. BioWare’s first foray into MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) also garnered its share of criticism, ranging from claims of sexism to fans who were furious about the end game content. One fan wrote, “I feel that this game has personally wounded me and has set back the genre 15 years.”
In a galaxy far, far away (Austin, Texas), BioWare senior producer Blaine Christine fights those battles everyday. Acting as a liaison between game developers, players, and Star Wars licensing, Christine and his 15-person team determine how the game will evolve, how to get an update to players every six to eight weeks, and how to do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with Star Wars’ extensive mythology and what The Walt Disney Company has coming up for the franchise in the future.
It’s not easy, especially in light of the massive transitions the game has recently gone through including the addition of a free-to-play option and launch of the game’s first major digital expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which added five new levels to The Old Republic.
Blaine Christine: I was the producer in the charge of the team that launched our free-to-play option and initiative. When we launched the game, we chose to launch it as a traditional MMO, which meant that there was a boxed product, although we did have a digital download option but you paid $50. That came with a free month of subscription. After that you gave us essentially a $14.99 subscription every month and all the trappings that go along with that.
I think that in the last few years, clearly what we’ve seen is the rise of high quality free-to-play games. By the time we launched our game, there’s already an expectation amongst the gaming fans and public of “I can go out and instead of paying you $15 a month, there’s other games out there that are very high quality that I can actually get for free.” That changes the whole dynamic of what’s out there. What we started hearing and responding to within a few months of our launch was players sort of saying “Hey, I would like to play your game, but I’m honestly not interested in a subscription model because there are other options available.” As we got that feedback, we started to talk amongst ourselves and figure out what we could do to respond to that. That’s why we assembled the team that we did and put together the free-to-play option that we launched back in November.
There’s such a large, vibrant gaming community out there that is ready to support the games they love. I think that’s what makes free-to-play possible. We actually came out and said we are truly free-to-play. We’ve built this incredible experience with eight classes that go levels one to 50, hundreds of levels per class. You can play all of them for free and those who know the game, they know there are certain things in play which make it easier for subscribers who play, but you can genuinely play all the way from level one to 50 and experience the entire game.
What we found, which is a little bit counterintuitive, is that if you have that high quality free-to-play offering, what it actually does for you is it’s just like a super cool game demo. People will get in, try the game, and then once they become engaged, they either convert and become subscribers because we still have that option, or choose to spend money because they’re so engrossed in the game they want to support it and they see cool things for sale in our store that they want to purchase.
BC: You bring up an important point. As part of the announcement when we made it in July of last year, we were super conscious to say, “Hey, people who have been with us since launch, people who are subscribers of Star Wars: The Old Republic, you’re very important to us.” So we launched this entire loyalty program that essentially grants those players free cartel coins, which is our in-game virtual currency. We give that to them every month with their subscription. We gave sort of a lump sum when we launched free-to-play to say, “Here’s a bunch of money just to play with because you’ve been a subscriber for a long time.” We really went out of our way to make sure our subscribers and loyal customers felt like they were being taken care of and they still are to this point.
BC: I think because we felt we weren’t reaching the full audience that we could reach for our game. What a subscription does is, if you take the entire spectrum of people who are willing to pay you for some portion of your game, you essentially cut off a couple of options for people. You cut off the option where people are like, “You know what? I like your game, but I would only be willing to give you $5 for it.” That’s not an option in the subscription world. All we have is you can pay us $14.99 and so you’re sort of cutting out this other revenue that you could be gaining. Then on the farther end, people that are heavily invested in the game can go in there and spend a lot of money to buy the cool mounts and all the cool things we have to offer and experience.
BC: We had a very large team of writers on this game. We’ve got a Guinness World Record for most lines of dialogue in any game. We take the writing process and the creative process very seriously, so there’s a very rigorous program for interviewing those folks and getting them through the door. Writing for a BioWare-type game where you’ve got a bunch of different branching storylines and branching options is a lot more difficult than writing a movie script where you’re like, “Here’s how it plays out. This is the single line of character development and that’s how it goes.”
Early on, and I’m not sure if we still do this or not, but we would use Neverwinter Nights because it’s something where people could create their own content. We would require [job candidates] as part of the designing process, and I think even writing process, to build something that [they] feel is like a BioWare game. It’s not a huge thing. It’s a maybe ten, 15-minute experience. We get it back and we play through their game, their mini-game that they built, and sort of get a sense of whether we feel that they know what they’re doing in terms of video game writing in a BioWare style.
BC: Because we had eight individual classes with branching and light side, dark side, and all this crazy stuff, we weren’t sure of was how much people would dive into their alt character and re-role versus sort of traditional MMO players, which clearly we knew and were preparing for. There are so many variables because we don’t know how much people are going to be engaged in the space game versus war zone versus operations versus class stories. I think we certainly wanted people to be heavily engaged in alts. They weren’t as much as we expected and therefore we sort of had to scramble to deal a little bit more with the endgame than we thought we would have to as quickly as we did. That said, I feel like we responded as quickly as we could and I think people are satisfied now with what we had in terms of PVP [player-versus-player] experience and operations and raids and all that.
BC: I found my way into production, which you can still do, by starting out in quality assurance. Quality assurance still and always probably will be a great springboard for people to get into. I’ve seen people go from quality assurance to become engineers, to become animators, to become artists, to become producers. All of that is possible, so that’s sort of the route that I took. I was in quality assurance. I became a lead. I got to know a producer really well because I was the QA lead on his project. When it came time for him to hire an assistant, he knew me and had worked with me and knew my skill set and then hired me on and I stayed in production from that point on.
Now I think it’s a little bit different because you’ve got all of these university programs where people can go and actually get trained to do these things. I think if that had existed when I went into college, I absolutely would have been looking into programs like [Full Sail University]. There’s a different avenue now and both are still valid from what I can see. It’s not like we are only hiring people out of university programs now by any means. We’re hiring talented people who are passionate about games and have the skill set that we need.
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