Thursday, August 13, 2020

KOTOR 3: Why It Should Happen Now

Welcome to Star Wars Week, where we're celebrating all things from that galaxy far, far away. From retrospectives on old favorites to explainers on timely topics to Face-Offs between beloved characters and beyond, Star Wars Week features articles, videos, slideshows and more on the beloved franchise.

Poem Studios knew they were on borrowed time. Their fan-made passion project, ‘Project Apeiron’ intended to be a fully rebooted reinterpretation of 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It was to be programmed on Unreal Engine 4 -- with a rebeautified set of planets, blasters and lightsabers, offering fans and newcomers alike the immortal cycle of Darth Revan on modern machinery. There is no way to feel secure while appropriating licensed Star Wars characters, but the hope was that Disney might turn a blind eye out of respect the sheer fanaticism of the still-vibrant KOTOR community; mercy for a fandom that hasn't received a mainline sequel since the release of Knights of the Old Republic 2, in 2004.

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"We all knew that a [project] shut down was a possibility. When I first interviewed to join the studio, Taylor Trotter [founder of Poem Studios] made it very clear to me that this could all be obliterated tomorrow," says 22-year old Chris Ringenberg, who worked as a gameplay programmer on Apeiron. "The best-case scenario is that we get to finish this project, but the potential for shuttering was always on our mind."

Ringenberg's worst fears came true in October of 2018. Apeiron was already in development for two years when Disney sent a cease-and-desist to the studio. The letter applauded Poem for its passion, but also laid out a stark rebuke to the ongoing development of a fan-led KOTOR revival. Disney ordered the development team to immediately cease work on Apeiron, destroy all the assets and code they had already generated for the game, and deter from using any and all Star Wars properties going forward. The progress that Poem already made -- the foamy tides of Manaan, the pearly cityscapes of Taris, and the candlelit treetops of Kashyyk -- would all need to be flushed down the drain. The dream was dead.

The community pushed back on Disney's ruling, asserting that Apeiron could be categorized as a full-conversion mod, and therefore would be safe under fair use legislation. But that claim was on rickety ground. While the project did use the same audio files from the first KOTOR, everything else was built from the ground up on a new engine, and within a new executable -- Apeiron was a standalone game in everything but name. Even if Poem decided to go to court to advocate for the righteousness of an aggrieved fandom, they would still be a tiny, independent studio stacked up against Disney lawyers. From a purely financial perspective, that was not a winnable battle. “The legal fight would take most likely a year [if not more] and cost around $100,000,” said Trotter in Apeiron’s Discord, per Kotaku. “It’s been our internal policy to end production in this scenario.”

The team attempted to reach out to Disney several times -- hoping for something similar to the detente brokered between Blizzard and the World of Warcraft private server community -- but the conglomerate never responded to their emails. After that, it became clear that Poem was out of options.

And so, Ringenberg was left to pick up the pieces, and break the sad news to an eternally dedicated community that had already been beaten up hundreds of times before. "It didn't hit me until a week later. I was going through the project on the hard drive. I was playing some of the levels, the scenery, and engaging in some fights. We were actually pretty close to releasing a game," he says. "That was what hurt the most, how close we were. It'd be one thing if we had just started development, but if we had maybe three more months, we probably would've been able to release it."

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The Knights of the Old Republic fandom has grown accustomed to heartbreak. Those first two single-player games, one by BioWare and the other by Obsidian, were critical darlings and commercial successes. And yet, for reasons that defy any natural sense of justice, KOTOR was abandoned by LucasArts, and now EA, as the Star Wars video game license shifted hands throughout the last two decades. BioWare, of course, took a crack at an MMORPG -- The Old Republic -- a massive, $200-million-budgeted project which was released in 2011. The Old Republic was greeted with mild enthusiasm and has continued to tick away in the dark corners of the galaxy for a dedicated coterie of fans for the last nine years. But speaking as a true KOTOR diehard, The Old Republic never scratched the indelible itch that the original games did. So every summer, I, and so many others like me, crowd around their computers for the E3 soiree hoping against hope that this might be the year where the powers-that-be come to their senses, and bring down the curtain on the third instalment of one of the greatest RPG franchises of all time. Invariably, we leave disappointed. It's practically tradition at this point. [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=The%20Knights%20of%20the%20Old%20Republic%20fandom%20has%20grown%20accustomed%20to%20heartbreak."]

But despite the constant bait-and-switches, despite the fact that KOTOR 1 and 2 were programmed on an ancient engine, despite the stark reality that much of the content in the franchise has been deemed non-canon, the community for those two games remains more resolute than ever. One of the moderators who runs the Knights of the Old Republic subreddit says his forum has grown miraculously in recent times. He commandeered the subreddit four years ago, when it had about 20,000 subscribers. Today, thanks to a combination of nostalgia, ongoing fan-thirst, and the current Disneyfied Star Wars revival, that number has jumped to 71,000. All for a game that predates the first God of War. That is unprecedented, but if you've ever met a KOTOR fan, you know that their fanaticism speaks for itself.

"The rate we've been hitting certain milestones has only been increasing further and further," he says. "Take that for what it is."

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So how does a small nation generate new talking points and discussion threads about a dyad of Star Wars adventures that have been disowned for eons? It isn't easy. Both KOTOR 1 and 2 have been strip-mined for parts in the decades they've been around, and it's not like there's an ultimatum on the horizon. But the community works with what they have. Someone posts a picture-perfect cosplay of Bastila Shan, someone else offers their foreboding fan art of the Sith homeworld of Korriban. Other times, they just stare at a few screenshots that capture KOTOR at its most mystic and arresting. The sand dunes of Tatooine, rolling peacefully into the distance, with a stillness that evokes the quiet galactic yearning of the first film. "God, I would do anything for a remake of this game with modern graphics and cutscenes," writes one poster. You and me both, buddy.

Yes, there have been other Star Wars games that capture a variety of different Star Wars fantasies. The Battlefront series does a fantastic job of replicating the film's many celestial warzones. Tie-Fighter and X-Wing allowed players to delve deep in the nuts and bolts of what it meant to be a fighter pilot. And last year's Fallen Order, with its globetrotting story and well-polished combat system, was about as close we've come to a genuine KOTOR successor in recent memory. There is no question that in 2020, it's very possible to have a good time playing a Star Wars video game. As anyone who's lived through the Kinect era knows, that wasn't always the case.

But despite that, nothing quite captures what made the BioWare and Obsidian games special. Both those studios excel at world-building, and you can find life in every inch of the KOTOR games, particularly in  the many eccentric bit characters that surround the hero's journey -- hypnotizing us with long conversations with our offworld crewmates in our ship's hanger, or admonishing us with the plight of a few ragged moisture farmers on Dantooine. Star Wars, as a universe, thrives on the fringes; as kids we soaked up the many squishy aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina, imagining their names, their homeworlds, and their lives when they weren't in the background of a Jedi's quest. In KOTOR 1 and 2, we got an intimate view of the people in the vast background of Star Wars. Together, we learned that life in this galaxy was so much more interesting if you spent some time exploring it.

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"In KOTOR, the world-building set up a living breathing universe, " says Ringenberg. There were thousands of people affected by your actions, and you actually saw what that looked like. That hasn't been seen in a Star Wars game, or many games in general, since then."

Ringenberg speaks to one of the central tensions in the KOTOR community. According to the moderator, some people on the subreddit desperately want another game in the series. Others have made peace with the two games they have, and while they hold out hope for some sort of conclusion to the story laid out in those first two games, they'll be content no matter what. But a third contingency doesn't fall in line with either of those perspectives. "[They] actively do not want to see a new KOTOR game, be it a sequel or a remake," he continues. "Whether they're dissatisfied with present Star Wars as a whole, the video game industry, or whatever other reason."

If there is to be a new Knights of the Old Republic, who is to say that the game will operate within that same spirit? The proclivities of the games industry have changed so much since 2003. Is a purely single-player Star Wars RPG still feasible?

"Too much has changed. The things audiences expect to see when they play, the things the developers expect to create when they're making the game, the things the executives expect people to want and so order developers to do -- the entire face of the industry has completely changed," continues the moderator. "So I don't think it's possible for us to get anything like KOTOR again, at least not until the industry changes again. Cynical? Glass half empty? Maybe so. But I'll always be very happy with what we got." [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=%22%22So%20I%20don't%20think%20it's%20possible%20for%20us%20to%20get%20anything%20like%20KOTOR%20again%2C%20at%20least%20not%20until%20the%20industry%20changes%20again.%22"]

He's right to a certain degree. There is no question that we live in a world that's skewed further away from the archetypical experience that KOTOR epitomized -- I mean, even Assassin's Creed is a "living game" now. But this business is also eternally surprising. Already, we've seen shockingly faithful, long-belated sequels to Shenmue, Planescape: Torment, and MechWarrior arrive on American shores. A brand new Psychonauts, Skate, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are well on their way. One of the most anticipated games of the year is Cyberpunk 2077, which is very much a big-budget, single player RPG. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards fan service. It will take the right studio and a lot of good faith, but a new KOTOR game can work. After all, the community is still here. All it needs is a publisher to hold up its end of the bargain. [poilib element="poll" parameters="id=9137399b-30c0-411b-8f77-7ef0ba35fae7"] [poilib element="accentDivider"] Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.


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