The following excerpt comes from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, available on Amazon from Boss Fight Books. Featuring all-new interviews, the book chronicles the history-making partnership between BioWare and LucasArts that led to one of the greatest Star Wars video games ever made.
When LucasArts first announced Knights of the Old Republic in a July 2000 press release, the publisher described the project as “the first Star Wars role-playing game (RPG) for PC and next-generation video game systems.” This was just four months after Microsoft had unveiled its plans to enter the console arena with the first Xbox. The game’s release window was slated for 2002.
But between Interplay going bankrupt during development on Neverwinter Nights and KotOR’s massive scope, the Xbox version of BioWare’s big Star Wars game was ultimately delayed to July 2003; the PC edition would land in November. That was assuming, of course, everything went as planned.
There’s a sequence in Revenge of the Sith where Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi have just slain the Sith Lord Count Dooku and rescued Chancellor Palpatine (yet another Sith, unbeknownst to them). The galaxy-spanning conflict known as the Clone Wars is coming to an end, and all that’s left is to bring the Jedi-hunting cyborg General Grievous to justice. The warship they’re on, the Invisible Hand, is in freefall above the planet Coruscant. Its droid crew have either abandoned ship or been destroyed. A barrage of turbolaser fire has breached the ship’s hull, and gravity’s beginning to pull the Separatist flagship apart.
“Can you fly a cruiser like this?” Kenobi asks.
Anakin says, “You mean, ‘Do I know how to land what’s left of this thing?’”
Re-entry rattles the vessel as they burn their way through the atmosphere, leaving a trail of scattered fragments in their wake. Like the Titanic, the ship splits crosswise, and its aft section breaks loose completely.
“Not to worry,” Kenobi says. “We are still flying half a ship.”
Game development’s a lot like that scene, unfortunately, and titles are often shipped half broken or incomplete due to the pressures and constraints placed on studios. Knights of the Old Republic had the benefit of a generous production timeline, but BioWare still had to jettison some of its content before launch.
“We did cut an entire planet that we’d actually developed and built part of,” says lead designer James Ohlen. “That was a difficult decision because the art for it was being built by one of my best friends, Dean Andersen. Having to cut his world was particularly painful. But it was simply a time thing. It was a gladiatorial world where the player was going through sort of a Planet Hulk–style plot. The player would get stuck fighting their way up through the ranks until they won the tournament and escaped off-world. But that was too much to do in the time we had, so it got cut.”
Over the years, data miners have tried to glean as much info as possible about the lost planet, which was called Sleheyron. The modding community has also made several efforts to restore some of it — you can see video of one of the attempts above — but there’s really not much left to recover; it’s mostly fan-fiction fodder at this point. However, Sleheyron is still mentioned briefly in the game.
According to a November 2003 forum post by writer David Gaider, Sleheyron’s quest lines were mostly finished when the decision to cut the planet was made. Like Tatooine, Taris, or Nar Shaddaa, Sleheyron was under the influence of the slug-like gangsters known as the Hutts. (“One of them was named Suuda the Hutt,” Gaider wrote. “He was very catty.”) Fans can still see an approximation of this scenario in Marvel’s Star Wars #10 (2015), by Jason Aaron.
In that comic, Luke Skywalker is placed in a gladiatorial event on Nar Shaddaa to die for the amusement of a Hutt who’s obsessed with Jedi artifacts. Mention of Sleheyron itself can also be found in Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens Beginner Game, a stand-alone tabletop RPG released in 2016. Early screenshots published in 2002 by IGN offer a rudimentary glimpse of the lost world, which most closely resembles The Last Jedi’s casino planet, Cantonica.
“Those decisions are not too difficult,” former LucasArts producer Mike Gallo explains. “It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re gonna do. This planet, this environment — we can’t afford to build it. But there’s some quests here that we’re gonna move to this planet.’”
“Generally, that kind of shit is gonna get cut in design before we ever start digging in,” says concept-art lead John Gallagher. “That happened on every game; there were plenty of areas that got smoked out in Baldur’s Gate. And [usually] that happens in design, where it’s cheapest to have it get killed. By the time it gets to [the artists], it’s pretty much decided that it’s locked. So there’s an advantage to that process. Some studios are a little more organic and fluid, and you can get burned pretty good, but we were pretty structured even back then. Ray [Muzyka]’s a big believer in heavy, heavy front-load on design. You make all your decisions there. Once you have your design doc locked, then it’s a death march, and you get the damn game done.”
KotOR’s development closely followed Muzyka’s plan-then-create strategy. “I don’t think there were any real tough decisions we had to make in terms of what was gonna be part of the game and what wasn’t,” Gallagher said. “We were all pretty dialed in on what we wanted, and we had the density of a dying star in there. The vast majority did end up in the game, because it’s quite a dense experience in terms of visual beats. We pushed the engine to the edge of its efficiency. I think we were at a hundred and five percent overclocked, probably pushing more than it should have rightly handled, but we lucked out and got a lot of stuff working.”
With deadlines looming, though, other pressures began to mount.
“I kind of moved up to Edmonton in February of 2003,” Gallo recalls. “Basically, I lived up in Edmonton from February until about mid-June. I came back for a couple weeks, but spent about four months up there. Essentially, it was just making sure that we were getting stuff delivered if there was anything that the team needed. Getting into arguments, getting into fights about bugs, and all this other stuff. And we were all — you’re so close to it, you’re terrified. We were terrified! Because we knew that so much was riding on it.
“The day we first submitted to Microsoft, I also found a major crash bug in the opening tutorial, and we had to pull the submission. So, I mean, there’s always those moments of terror, right?”
“It was a nightmare,” BioWare cofounder Ray Muzyka told an interviewer. “I think we found 39,000 bugs. That’s the most bugs we’ve ever had in a game.”
In April or May of 2003, as the team neared the home stretch, Gallo sat down with Casey Hudson and some of the other project leads to discuss a final timetable for testing the Xbox version of the game and readying it for launch. BioWare was prepping a build to deliver to Microsoft’s Xbox lab for intensive focus testing, LucasArts was expecting a report on the team’s progress, and July 2003 was right around the corner. During the meeting, Gallo presented Hudson with a schedule intended to ensure the game shipped when LucasArts needed it to, while also leaving sufficient time to test the final product. To BioWare, the timeline sounded impossible. Hudson was not pleased.
“So we had a little bit of intense negotiations around that the next day,” Gallo says. “I wasn’t confident that we were gonna be able to fix all the bugs that we had in the time remaining, and the team really had to kind of go into super-crunch mode to make it happen.”
Despite that argument, Gallo developed a deep admiration for Hudson, noting that the young project director went above and beyond the responsibilities of his role as a creative lead. “He is one of the most talented people that I think I’ve ever worked with in this industry,” Gallo says. “Casey was the guy. He was the glue that held it together. He knew the ins and outs of the characters, the story, the music, the art direction, the art, the tech. He was truly the creative visionary of that project, along with James [Ohlen].
“James was primarily responsible for story and story structure. He’s one of those guys who’s very much on top of things. I mean, he is an expert in his field. It was always a positive experience talking to him. He’s a pretty quiet guy, in a lot of ways, but he was always smiling and trying to think of cool things to do, and how they were gonna structure it and build it.”
Gallo was also awed by Karpyshyn’s output as a writer. “When I spent all that time up there, we used to laugh about Drew, because he would go off and write a four-hundred-page book over a weekend. ‘Oh, I’ve got a book I’ve got to write.’
“For me, those are the things that are amazing. To see a team working like that — I will never forget it. We worked overtime, but BioWare had a pretty strict schedule toward the end to protect the team [from burnout] as much as possible.”
Still, the final week was a blur of nonstop playtesting and bug-fixing. “Everyone on that team was in the office playing the game until the sun came up,” Gallo remembers. “I was walking around at like 4:30 one morning, and there was an artist who had been finished with his work for weeks. And he was just playing through it to find bugs. I’ve certainly worked on teams that were great, before and since that, but it was something special.”
It was an enormous relief when the team officially turned the game in to Microsoft, but there was still a lot of work to be done to deliver the PC version.
“The PC edition was a crazy finish,” says Gallo. “Back in the day, we actually used to have to put people on an airplane and then fly them out. We had to have one of our localization guys take the German masters and fly the replicator into Germany because there was no way to get the discs there in time, and it was too big to send over the internet. Now you can transfer fifty gigs in thirty minutes, and I’m sure that most developers have fantastic upload and download speeds. But back then, we literally were like: ‘Okay, if we start to transfer this, it’s gonna take like forty-eight hours. If we can put you on a plane and have you there in twelve, we’re puttin’ you on a plane.’”
Crunch only worsened as the PC release got closer. “Towards the end of the PC version, we were working several all-nighters,” Gallo says. “I was in a meeting with all of our ops people at LucasArts, and at one point one of the guys whispered to me: ‘Mike. You were talking, but you would fade out for five or ten seconds and then pick up again.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours.’ He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, that’s what we do.’”
It’s easy to imagine how, under such stressful conditions, creative differences and interpersonal tensions might have come to a head. Needless to say, not everyone at BioWare saw eye-to-eye all the time. “But regardless of that,” says John Gallagher, “what we ended up with in that dialectic was some phenomenal work.”
This creativity was enabled, in part, by the team’s after-work hangouts. Throughout production, the team often left work together after dark, exhausted, hungry, and looking to blow off steam.
“The area that BioWare was in was Whyte Avenue, and they were in the upper floors of a building that was right in the middle of all this, you know, night life,” Gallo says. “At the end of that street was the Alberta hospital, and then the University of Alberta, so there were tons of clubs and bars and places to eat. Usually, it was myself and the QA team that was down there with me from Lucas, but a few times we went out with some of the guys from the [KotOR] team and hung out, and just had food or drinks. And we pretty much did that almost every night after work.”
“We got paid once a month, and the following Saturday after payday — because we got paid on Friday, usually towards the end of the month — we would all go out drinking and dancing,” Gallagher says. Dozens of artists, designers, producers, programmers, and testers would trudge through the snow to the Whyte Avenue pubs, get a buzz going, then wind up at the nightclubs. Dizzy and drowning in bass, their vision blurred, they’d form a circle on the dance floor. And, one by one, they’d take turns busting out their best moves.
“The fuckin’ funniest shit. Just dynamite,” says Gallagher. “And the bonding that happened during these bizarre exercises lasts a lifetime. People never forget that. You know, you’re in the war. And it’s not until much later — I’m a regular featured guest at comic-book cons now, and comic culture obviously flows back and forth fluidly with video games. And it’s not until people tell me that Knights of the Old Republic changed their life, that it was the game that inspired them to go into the games industry, or to pick up a pencil and start drawing …
“You never find that out, of course, when you’re cloistered away in your bunker. Or when you’re dancing.”
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