Fifteen years after the launch of Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords; the game still holds a special place in the hearts of many fans. To commemorate the RPG’s 15th anniversary, I chatted with the game’s lead designer and writer, Chris Avellone, about all things KOTOR II. From the rushed production, his favorite elements, and the game’s lasting impact, Avellone offered me a candid look at the development of the RPG sequel…
An Exciting Opportunity
Knights of the Old Republic feels like a watershed moment in Star Wars gaming. The first role-playing game in the franchise, its story-driven nature immersed fans in the galaxy far, far away like never before. To LucasArts, it was clear they had something special on their hands, even before Bioware launched the game in Summer 2003, and they wanted to start development on a sequel as soon as possible. BioWare was eager to work on their own IP, but directed LucasArts’ attention to a new studio: Obsidian Entertainment.
Created in June 2003 by Feargus Urquhart, Chris Avellone, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan and Chris Jones, Obsidian’s founders came with a solid RPG pedigree. Each had come from Black Isle Studios, working on iconic RPGs like Icewind Dale and Fallout 2, while collaborating with Bioware to publish the Baldur’s Gate series. This relationship ultimately brought them to LucasArts’ attention.
“We were enormously fortunate to have BioWare recommend us to work on KOTOR II,” Avellone is quick to point out. “Especially as a fledgling studio – they’re the reason we got the chance to work on the sequel, so we owe Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuck] (the studio heads at the time) a big debt.”
The nascent company consisted of only seven employees at the time, thus making KOTOR II its very first endeavor. Project lead, Chris Avellone, wasn’t initially intimidated by the idea, “I have to confess, when I first heard we were doing a Star Wars game, I was underwhelmed. It’d been a long time since I’d followed what was happening in the Star Wars universe, and…my excitement had peaked with Empire Strikes Back.
“Despite my initial reaction, though, it only took a few weeks of research and becoming re-immersed back in the universe to rekindle my childhood love for the movies and the franchise (Empire Strikes Back was still great to watch). This research also allowed me to assemble some themes and questions I had about the franchise I thought would be something to carry into the game, even if I didn’t have answers for them.”
Challenges and Decisions
Obsidian faced an uphill battle from the start. The team began working on the sequel and being paid for milestones before having the full contract in place. As such LucasArts “decided it wasn’t wise to send out a build of [KOTOR] to us until that was done.” While an earlier copy of KOTOR would have saved valuable development time, Avellone emphasizes he doesn’t hold it against LucasArts for holding it back, but this left the team essentially guessing at the storyline.
Avellone explains, “When LucasArts asked for our [KOTOR II] pitch; we had to put together story pitches and ideas without knowing a thing about KOTOR beyond what was on the LucasArts website…”
Considering the complexity of KOTOR’s story, and the various characters, pitching a sequel blind was difficult. “Suffice to say, that pitch was pretty bad,” Avellone continued. “Worse, it didn’t contain a lot of the expectations players might have from playing the first game (since we didn’t know what those elements were)!”
When Knights of the Old Republic released a few months into KOTOR II’s development, the team rushed to play as much as possible. Obviously, it drastically changed their ideas for the sequel. Nearly everything from the original script was scrapped, “Not much survived between the first and second versions of the script, but trust me, that was a good thing!”
One element that didn’t change, however, was introducing a completely new protagonist, the “Exile,” for gamers to explore with. Understandably, fans were hoping to continue their adventures with Revan in the sequel, but it wasn’t feasible for two reasons. “One was there was a power issue,” Avellone explained. “Trying to reset Revan’s powers again felt like a bad move, and [expanding them] would have required more added to the system’s mechanics…
“The second [reason] is, our understanding of Revan and the plot only revealed shortly before the start of full production. There wasn’t a lot of flex time to make adjustments in the short time frame we had to make the game.”
In hindsight, Avellone admits the sequel would have benefitted from Revan’s more direct presence in the game, rather than the foreshadowing established for a third game that never came to be. Alas, time was never Obsidian’s ally.
Scheduling and Development Woes
The biggest hurdle to KOTOR II’s development was the short timetable. LucasArts was eager to get a sequel out to market as soon as possible, as in the following year! Barely a year and a half to ship out any game is difficult enough, let alone a sprawling RPG (a main reason Bioware opted to pass on handling the sequel).
“Technically, we expected more time and could have fought for more time,” Avellone says of the company’s schedule, “but a decision (both at LucasArts and Obsidian) was made to release it in the shorter time frame. Among the owners, I was the only one willing to increase the product’s cycle and willing to fight for it. On the production side, though, the other owners didn’t want to risk losing any royalties in our agreement by taking extra time.”
Nearly everything from the original script was scrapped, “Not much survived between the first and second versions of the script, but trust me, that was a good thing!”
Obsidian wasn’t about to back down from a challenge but looking back, the decision was ultimately one they’d come to regret. “[It made] business sense, obviously, but it came as a hit to our reputation for KOTOR II and future projects. I’ve always felt the short-term gains of royalties for an unfinished product can reflect poorly on a studio (especially a brand-new studio) and it’s not worth the cost of what you can achieve in the future. Honestly, the royalties we earned didn’t do much to help the studio as a whole in any event.
“Overall, I think if we’d bitten the bullet and taken a few more months, it would have been good for us and the studio as a whole. Again, it was our first product, and the pipelines you establish with your first game can end up being the example/drumbeat you follow for all future projects. That isn’t great if they’re released with a lot of bugs.”
Beyond the tight schedule, Obsidian was dealing with problems related to being a newly formed company. Aside from lacking a full team (eventually they’d number around 30 people for The Sith Lords), the absence of in-house IT and QA support was a major hindrance. Arguably, the technical limitations may have been more frustrating than the time crunch, as Avellone explains:
“Design resources (which are far more important when you already have a working engine) were cut and constrained in multiple respects…We [had] very few programmers and designers to help flesh out content versus being redirected to UI requests.
“Getting the UI redone was something championed higher up within the studio, though, so we made do with less resources elsewhere. But losing the programmers we did to get that aspect of the game done seriously hurt us. Worse, when the UI got delayed, the UI resources we were hoping for on the content side didn’t materialize when we needed either.”
Avellone ultimately blames KOTOR II’s buggy launch on the company’s eyes being bigger than their stomach. Despite having plenty of content cut, Avellone admits they should have narrowed the scale of the game sooner, “On my end, design-wise, we could have down-scoped earlier. Cutting the mini-games and reducing the companion roster would have benefited the project. I had to write almost all the companions, except for Mandalore and Bao-Dur (who was written by Michael Chu [who’s now] at Blizzard, heading up Overwatch).”
Avellone emphasized LucasArts’ help in getting The Sith Lords ready. During development, they sent their own QA people to Obsidian to help in-house and helped with getting the cinematics in working order.
The game’s engine wasn’t cutscene-friendly either, and there was a lot of time spent on crafting reliable triggers and scripts for them. That’s why many of the extended story sequences take place aboard the Ebon Hawk, where the developers were able to better control the placement of characters and their triggers. “It would have been better,” Avellone says, “had we recognized that [coaxing reliable cutscenes out of the engine] would be too labor-intensive and found another way to communicate what was transpiring in those scenes.”
Lasting Impact of the Story and Characters
Even while relaying the problems and disappointments, it’s clear Avellone speaks with a fondness for the game, the efforts of his team, and the overall experience. It’s easy to look back at the problems, but regardless of the bugs and cut content, it’s a story that struck a chord with fans. It featured characters who personified deeper themes players would remember long after the credits rolled. Despite its flaws, there are many fans who would happily argue the story in KOTOR II had a story with a much bigger impact.
The Sith Lords is a darker tale about dealing with the devastating aftermath of a war between powerful forces. The lines between good and evil are far more ambiguous, and your companions frequently question the longer lasting moral implications of your decisions. The game’s story (truncated though it may have been) is one that makes you think through every action and decision your character makes.
This story philosophy is entirely by design, and found its origins from Avellone’s viewing of the Prequels, “For me personally, the prequels raised some questions about the Force and its effect on the galaxy (and the Jedi) that made me a little scared. That fear added narrative fuel to the story and those questions helped drive the plot.”
One of the driving factors of the game’s themes were the villains and how they continually brought your worldview into question. “[We] presented a certain point of view from the antagonists, but left the interpretations up to the player. We wanted the players to examine and reflect on their own view of the Force, especially considering it was an RPG.”
Which Characters Would You Want to See Jump Into Official Canon?
“While Kreia’s story I think is done, Revan’s could go for a long, long time and still be as compelling as in the first game. I liked Visas Marr and Atris, but I think my positivity on Atris might have been more inspired by some of the cool cosplay that came out using her Jedi robes design!”
As the title implies, there’s more than one villain to deal with in KOTOR II. There’s Darth Sion, who’s literally held together by pain and rage; Darth Nihilus, who is so consumed with power he’s more phantom than physical; and, eventually, Kreia, who guides you along the entire journey. While they’re all important, Nihilus was the “face” of the game’s marketing and one of the best remembered aspects of the story.
I asked Avellone how the villain was conceived and what helped inspire his overall look/character. “Brian Menze and I used [a number of] references. Among them was the character “Faceless” in Spirited Away. The final result of Nihilus’ appearance was closer to Faceless than I think was intended (it’s hard to get away from that mask pattern if there’s even a hint of it, plus Nihilus uses a lot of voluminous black in his design).
“Strangely, we also argued about Nihilus’ nose a lot. I didn’t want any hint of facial features beneath the mask to make Nihilus seem more like a force of nature than a human being, but the nose kept popping back in there, usually in marketing materials.”
The result of the various problems was a plethora of cut content. There were loftier plans for the game’s overall story and character subplots, many of which were written and recorded with actors. “Obviously, the end game sequence was cut short and a lot of the intended final conflicts were trimmed down into smaller sequences…Some sections of the script were cut short, but I’m glad the original text and voice over was in the source files. While I got raked across the coals for having those VO files remain in the engine to be found, I’m glad they [were there] for modders to make use of.”
Avellone is of course referring to The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod fan creators released in 2009. The mod’s goal was to give the cut content left within the game’s code a chance to shine; including bug fixes, extra dialog options, missions, and even alternate endings.
While he’s glad much of that content was finally able to be enjoyed by fans, Avellone is quick to point out, “I don’t feel it should ever be the work of modders to fix and restore missing content, we should have found a way to do it ourselves, but the will and the desire wasn’t there, unfortunately.”
To the Future
While many classic game franchises in the current generation have received the “Remaster” treatment, the Star Wars games have been slower to adopt the process…But they are starting to make progress. Earlier this year, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast received surprise ports to the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 (with Jedi Knight III coming early next year) and fans have enthusiastically responded.
In 2015, Knights of the Old Republic II received a surprise, official, update on Steam. Among the updates was 4K/widescreen support, and integrated access to download the Restored Content Mod. While this makes it super easy to play now, I asked Avellone if he thought there was any chance of The Sith Lords getting a more dedicated Remaster for consoles.
“I’d be more than happy to see it be remastered on consoles, for sure; although it might require a lot of technical and artistic oversight to make sure it all works seamlessly…Some remasters can’t be made simply because the game might be too difficult to compile, the code wasn’t backed up, or the build process for the game barely worked without chewing gum and rubber bands to keep it running.
“In short, I’d love the vision to be shared as long as it’s shared responsibly with the consumer, especially after the bugs (some of them gameplay stoppers) in the initial release version.”
While The Sith Lords was Avellone’s first foray into Star Wars, it wasn’t his last. He most recently worked on script elements for the recently released Jedi: Fallen Order. Avellone was thrilled about returning to the galaxy far, far away: “When Respawn invited me to work on the project and told me what the time period was, I was immediately flooded with ideas for that era. The time frame has a lot of great drama and conflict taking place after Order 66, and also provided a chance to have the player experience from a personal and up-close perspective.”
Avellone on his Jedi: Fallen Order Research:
“There was a great Dark Horse series by Randy Stradley called Dark Times that was a big inspiration for me in getting in touch with the post-Jedi era – and showcasing the challenges that Jedi face in a galaxy overrun by the Empire.
Avellone makes it clear, however, about the collaborative effort that went into Fallen Order’s story and his part in it all, “I was fortunate to be part of a great writing staff. I wasn’t the lead writer, I assisted with writing specific scripts, and story and character feedback. The true thunder belongs to the Respawn writers, project lead, and lead narrative designer.”
Overall, Avellone came away feeling satisfied by the work he’d done with Fallen Order. “I reconnected with my childhood sense of wonder by working on Star Wars again,” he explains. “My ideal is that I can give something back to the franchise that had such an impact on me and guided my love of sci-fi and space opera from my youth to the present-day.”
The Test of Time
Knights of the Old Republic II endured a troubled production, but fifteen years later is still a story embraced by many. Even with its flaws, The Sith Lords holds a special place in the hearts of Star Wars fans and gamers alike. The many pitfalls in the rushed schedule could have rendered any other game a footnote in pop culture, yet KOTOR II has endured the passage of time surprisingly well.
When asked if he’d like to return to the Old Republic era for more storytelling, Avellone didn’t hesitate, “I am always there, willing to lay my Lightsaber before whoever may need my non-Force writing skills for ANY Star Wars game… The deeper into the Unknown Regions and the dark realms of the Ancient Sith, the better. I’ll do it more than justice.”
As Yoda would say, “Always in motion, the future is” so perhaps we’ll get to see Avellone return to this era down the road. In the meantime, we can still enjoy The Sith Lords and hope its story and characters continue to delight us for more years to come.