KotOR 2: A Study on Rushed Development

Kotor 2

(Special thanks to Fh2Hi for gifting KotOR 2 and making this possible.)

I’m not a major Star Wars fan. I’ve watched the movies, played a few games and even read a few Star Wars books back when I was younger, but I’m far removed from anything that resembles a Star Wars fan-boy.

I wrote the previous article, KOTOR: A Study in Gaming Longevity, because I was fascinated with how long the game had remained relevant in the gaming community. Sure, there are games that have existed longer and are still popular to this day but it’s a game released in my lifetime, I remember the release hype surrounding it and seeing it run Day 1. I was in a unique position to play it a decade later and discover if the game still held up or if it was fondly remembered due to the Star Wars trademark and nostalgia factor. I had no biases.

The response to the article was more than I could’ve hoped for. Fans of the games started suggesting how best to play the sequel, KotOR 2: The Sith Lords, and the discussion quickly shifted into polarizing views of which game was better.

In the article I wrote about how I discovered the majority of fans seemed to favor KotOR 1 over the sequel. After all the comments and searching a little deeper it seems like the split is more 50/50, although if you polled a group of gamers I’d still say KotOR 1 would win by a slight margin. I didn’t let any of that sway me though. I took each comment in stride as a viewpoint to try to understand and, after spending the 38 hours it took to beat KotOR 2, I think I understand where both sides are coming from.

Zerg RushFamously Rushed

One of the common themes that kept coming up in discussions about KotOR 1 and 2 was the rushed development of the sequel. Like so many publishers before and after them, LucasArts wanted to get the sequel out a year after the first game’s success to capitalize on the following Christmas season. The result was a game that was still favorably reviewed by critics but herald as not as good as the original, with many citing KotOR 2’s rushed development as the cause.

Anyone looking at release dates could tell you KotOR 2 was rushed. Its predecessor was first released on Xbox on July 15th, 2003. The sequel was released on December 6th the very next year, after being developed by a completely different company. Even if Obsidian Entertainment, the developers of KotOR 2, started a few months before the first game was released, which they did, a year-and-a-half is arguably not enough time to complete a fully polished RPG with the same size and scope as KotOR 1 or 2.

To put it in perspective, serious preproduction on KotOR 1 began during the early part of 2000. Obsidian had half the time of Bioware to create a game comparable to the first. The only leg up Obsidian had was the Odyssey Engine, which Bioware created for KotOR by rewriting the Aurora Engine they initially developed for Neverwinter Nights.

Chris Avellone Lead Designer

In a 2013 interview by Eurogamer.net, lead designer Chris Avellone (pictured right), gameplay programmer Anthony Davis, senior programmer Dan Spitzley and lead concept artist Brian Menze talked about their experiences during KotOR 2’s development.

“It was like 14 months,” said Dan in response to a question about the game’s overall time table.

“There would’ve been substantial penalties had we not made that date,” followed up Chris. “We had all the growing pains of a new studio too. It was really hard to get additional programmers on the project… and having more programming support would’ve been good.”

A lot of fans have judged LucasArts harshly on the rush it put on Obsidian Entertainment, but Chris doesn’t place all the blame on them. “There’s a number of design decisions we could’ve made to de-scope the game. We should’ve removed all mini-games. That was a huge waste of time I don’t think really added to the experience people really enjoyed from the first game. And also there was one particular problem we had with the scripting that we never should have kept pursuing after a certain point.”

LucasArts LogoChris also praised LucasArts for its assistance during development. “The contribution that LucasArts gave in terms of cinematics cannot be downplayed. They did so much of our cinematics work and our animators were so exhausted trying to keep up with what our stuff was during preproduction. The fact that we had those guys to rely on and help out with cinematics was crucial.”

As discussed in the previous article, Bioware was already an established company that made some of the greatest RPGs ever to exist by the time they got around to KotOR 1. (Baldur’s Gate II routinely maintains a top five position on almost every all-time best RPGs ever made list.) On the other hand, KotOR 2 was literally the first game Obsidian Entertainment made.

When asked about the size of their team, Anthony replied, “30, I think, and that was not for the whole time.”

“As a small studio, we didn’t have any IT support really. We had no audio, all the QA was contracted … everyone at Obsidian at the time was wearing multiple hats.” – Chris Avellone, lead designer

“Another interesting thing,” Anthony continued, “is as a new studio with new engineers, and even the experienced engineers, this was a new engine for them. And we would have contractors who were working extremely hard, and I don’t meant to lessen their impact on the game, but you’d have the most innocent of mistakes that would be difficult to track down. Like our sound guy would add sound objects to the world that would really make the world come alive, but each one of those objects would get clocked and then throw off the timing of the world.”

“As a new studio where you’re still trying to learn how to scope, and you have experienced and junior team members working together, it was a real challenge. But again, loved it. Had so much fun working on that game.” – Anthony Davis, gameplay programmer

If you’re a fan of the games then you’ve probably already heard the interview before, but it goes to show that there was more to the final product than just the rushed deadline. Had Obsidian had a bit more experience before tackling a sequel as massive as KotOR 2 they may have been able to create something with a bit more polish even on such a tight deadline.

All that being said, the game still received favorable reviews, 4.5/5s and 8-9/10s. Even upon release, with all the bugs and whatnot that come naturally to rushed titles, it wasn’t critically considered a bad game. It just wasn’t considered as good as the first which, regardless of whether you think it should be or not, is almost comparable to getting negative reviews and being considered a bad game in general.

TSLRCM

Enter the Modders

The rushed development of KotOR 2 led to a lot of content being cut from the final product, including an entire droid-based planet. While cut from the game, most of the content was left hidden within the game’s code. Fans quickly uncovered bits of the cut content upon release, but it wasn’t until a project known as The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod (TSLRCM for short) began that they realized just how much was tucked away.

“Trying to pull anything out was more dangerous than just leaving it.” – Dan Spitley, senior programmer

The purpose of TSLRCM was to restore as much cut content as possible while fixing game breaking bugs to provide a version of KotOR 2 that was as close to the originally intended product as possible. The mod was created through extensive effort by a lot of people over the years, the primary credited group being Stoney, Zbyl2, Jinger, SWfan28, Hassat Hunter and VarsityPuppet.

They’re not the only notable team to tackle the task. Team Gizka, an eight member team of volunteers, worked on The Sith Lords Restoration Project, which sought to add the cut content as well while also making overall improvements to the existing game. Unfortunately the project was shut down shortly before completion.

M4-78 ScreenshotUpon completing the brunt of TSLRCM, the same team behind the massive project decided to tackle adding M4-78 back into the game. It’s an entire planet with two additional hours of content that had been partially developed before being cut from the final product. The mod required storyline creation, voice-over work, texture editing and practically all the same work that would normally be required for full development by the original team.

TSLRCM was first publicly released on September 24th, 2009, followed by numerous version updates and finally the M4-78EP on Decemeber 28th, 2012. Both mods still see regular version updates that deal with minor bug fixes and additions. Version 1.8.4 of TSLRCM and 1.2.3 of M4-78EP are the most recent updates as of February 3rd, 2015 and at time of writing.

If you haven’t already delved into the gaming modding scene, it’s fascinating. The amount of work thousands of modders do each year on various games ranging from the latest to recently hit shelves to classics like KotOR 2 and even older games is astounding. Everything from simple graphical updates and bug fixes to full blown content restoration projects are constantly being worked on and posted free-of-charge on sites like MOD DB.

TSLRCM Steam WorkshopEven Steam – which is considered by many PC gamers to have a monopolized chokehold on PC gaming distribution – recognized the impact of modders on gaming, creating the Steam Workshop in October 2012 as a way to easily provide community-created content to popular titles. As of January 2015, over $57 million has been paid out to content creators through the workshop.

Whether or not someone should charge for a mod is a conversation for another time, but a lot of the work these people do on a daily basis consists of the same amount of – if not more – work than the original developers put in. They keep games like KotOR 2 fresh, and do so often free-of-charge and with little thanks from the community.

I was so overwhelmed with feedback telling me to play with the TSLRCM mod that I decided to add it and M4-78 to the game on my initial play-through. How could I not after hearing even the original developers talk about how the content was originally intended from the start?

Sith vs Jedi

KOTOR 1 VS KOTOR 2 – A Comparative Review

I’m not going to try to pretend to review KotOR 2 without taking its predecessor into account. All of the feedback and response I saw from the first article focused on talk of which was better, and after 38 hours of game time I’m finally ready to weigh in on the conversation.

First of all, I want to highlight that completion time. It took me ten hours longer to beat KotOR 2 than it did to beat the first game, and I can tell you definitively that it was because the game had more content. To be fair, my adjusted playtime accounting for the additional mods was 34 hours – and that’s highballing the time added by mods – but that’s still a 21% increase from the first game. That alone is impressive when you take into account that KotOR 1 had almost double the development time and wasn’t rushed like KotOR 2.

However, the lack of polish is evident in KotOR 2 from the word go. It doesn’t take a professional developer to tell that the game was rushed, but at least the game didn’t crash on me or corrupt save files like its predecessor did. Sure there were bugs, but overall it held together perfectly fine from start to finish, which was a nice after dealing with KotOR 1’s issues.

Combat-wise, nothing really changed, including the bugs I experienced in the first game. The AI was still as atrocious as ever, running right up to enemies when using blasters and at times not jumping in on fights until manually told. Even the same issue I had during the final boss fight of the first game still existed, where I couldn’t use a medkit without auto attacking first if the combat queue was blank.

Combat Example

I felt the pain of the ridiculous AI a bit more in KotOR 2 due to some of the combat scenarios. There were times where my team would get bloodthirsty, rushing from one group of enemies to another that were quite a ways away before I could heal them from the previous encounter. The aggro range for my companions was highly variable and hard to judge, making few combat scenarios that would’ve normally been a breeze a bit more difficult.

Upon release some reviewers tore the game apart and rated it poorly because it still had the same issues from KotOR 1. While I’m not going to knock it quite as bad, these are still issues that I can’t help but feel should’ve been fixed or at least somewhat corrected.

Many of those same reviewers also knocked the game for having the same graphical quality as KotOR 1. I personally don’t think sequels have to be better looking than their predecessors – I mean it is a sequel for crying out loud, a continuation of the previous iteration – but some of the graphical bugs were clear signs of rushed development. Weapons attached to the forearm instead of the hand, character models being so deep inside the objects they were supposedly “sitting” on that it made me question if they even tried to get it right, etc etc. These instances were at times so glaringly obvious that they took me out of the immersion.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the main difference between KotOR 1 and 2 – the characters and story. Where KotOR 1 was your traditional Star Wars plot with jedi battling against the big bad sith to save the universe, KotOR 2 was its polar opposite.

As I said in the beginning, I’m not a rabid Star Wars fan, which is probably why I loved KotOR 2s story so much more than the original. It’s heavily character driven and delves deeper into the force than simply saying “jedi good, sith bad”.

The companions in KotOR 2 have a lot more depth and are much better utilized, with many having their own personal situations where you play solely as that character for a bit. The game made me care more about other characters outside my standard three person team and wove each into the story in such a way that they felt more impactful than the companions in KotOR 1. They weren’t just along for the ride for the hell of it, each character was part of your crew for an explicit reason.

Story-wise, the biggest let down of the game was the waste of Darth Nihilus. He’s a fascinating villain who’s teased and built-up beautifully only to go out with a whimper. The boss fight was wholly anti-climactic and a waste of an interesting character who deserved a real final fight.

KreiaWhich brings me to Kreia, who’s considered by many to be one of the most interesting RPG characters ever conceived. I initially thought Kreia was an older version of one of KotOR 1’s characters, twisted and aged by the force. It took a little while for me to see why so many people find her so interesting and I have to agree she’s by far the character who steals the spotlight from everyone else in the game. Characters like her and Revan make me sad that the KotOR games aren’t canon.

As for the story as a whole, in comments from the first article people brought up that in KotOR 1 the threat is bigger and more in-your-face than it is in the sequel. They cited this as a reason the story in KotOR 2 doesn’t resonate as well with players, but I disagree. In my opinion, the threat is grander in KotOR 2. Sure, the physical threat isn’t an armada looming over your head, but the main threat in KotOR 2 is more immediate and widespread than Malak’s army could even hope to aspire to.

I think it comes down to which game is more Star Warsy. Like AlphaLupi on Reddit pointed out, KotOR 1 followed the quintessential Star Wars storytelling model. You had your Vader-esque villain, your Leia-like tough female love interest, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, and all the other tropes people nostalgically adore from the original movie trilogy.

Droid Trope

KotOR 2 is far removed from the model. It blurs the line between the jedi and sith, makes you question your own altruism and gets rid of the typical tropes Star Wars fans know and love. I don’t think the game is darker, I think it’s more matured and realistic. It really brought the Star Wars universe to life for me and did a better job of making me want to experience more than any of the movies or the previous games, including KotOR 1.

That being said, I can completely understand why Star Wars fans wouldn’t like KotOR 2 as much as the first. It broke the mold that is, in essence, Star Wars. (At least what it’s been portrayed as from the initial trilogy and KotOR 1. I can’t speak on the books, comics, extended universe, etc.)

The story isn’t without flaws though. KotOR 2’s pacing is abysmal, especially compared to the first. They both have the same skeletal structure. You start with an introductory, then move on to a choose-your-own-adventure list of four planets to explore however you like before triggering the final straight shot to the end. KotOR 1 did a great job peppering in main story elements as you progressed through the planets, which kept the general pacing on track. KotOR 2 did not.

Trying Too Hard YodaThere were also moments in KotOR 2 where it felt like the game was trying too hard to be complex. Every little side mission seemed to need to have twists and turns, which got tiring after a while and forced you to either skip content or put off the main story for too long. Some quests started feeling like chores to accomplish, with no real payoff and no contribution to the main story or universe as a whole.

With it all said and done, I personally like KotOR 2 more than 1 and wish LucasArts had given Obsidian Entertainment the time they needed to make the game they wanted to make. The echos of what could’ve been are peppered all over the game, from the crafting addition to the restored content we actually get to experience nowadays thanks to the tireless efforts of the modding community. It could’ve been a benchmark game for console RPGs – more so than the series already arguably was – and might have led to a great third and final chapter we’ll never get to experience.

Kotor 3 Tweet
GM for BioWare’s Edmonton & Montreal studios

On the Topic of KotOR 3…

I think it’s safe to assume at this point that we’re going to get a KotOR 3. Ever since Disney got the rights to Star Wars back in 2012 they’ve hit the ground running. They announced development for Star Wars Episode VII with a 2015 release schedule as soon as the deal was inked and here we are about to get the movie people have waited for since Return of the Jedi and the Battlefront game that fans have wanted for almost a decade now.

Disney Acquires LucasFilms/ArtsI’m not a big fan of Disney for personal reasons, but the company was smart and knew what it was buying. They quickly defined canon versus non-canon for the universe and started pumping out new canon with books and comics, getting the over arcing story under control and on track.

The KotOR games that exist today are not part of canon, which is why I don’t think KotOR 3 is going to be called KotOR 3. I think we’re going to get an in-depth RPG from Bioware – which was named in a Star Wars gaming deal Disney made with EA in 2013 – reminiscent of their latest iterations of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but it’s not going to continue the story left behind by KotOR 2. Even if they still call it KotOR 3 for marketing reasons, I believe it’ll be a departure from the series.

And I’m okay with that. The point of the games is an in-depth RPG experience and story set in the Star Wars universe. Gaming has come a long way in the last decade since KotOR 1 and 2 were developed so it only makes sense that any follow-up nowadays would be a night and day comparison to its predecessors. The new canon situation alone makes it practically unthinkable that the story would continue where KotOR 2 left off.

There’s still no official announcement on the game, but keep your ears open after Star Wars Battlefront 3 hits shelves this November. I’m willing to bet the next iteration, whether it’s actually called KotOR 3 or not, is coming down the pipeline in the next couple of years.

It’s just good business.

Afterword

Thanks for ReadingThank you so much for reading. I know this could’ve been broken up into a couple of separate articles – and I did break it up to make it easier to digest and hopefully flow smoothly from one idea to the next – but I thought it served the game best as one in-depth piece.

I know it’s a lot to read, especially in a day-and-age where even the most praised gaming sites stick to 100 – 300 word news blurbs rather than write actual articles, but I hope you found it interesting and got something out of it even if you’re not the biggest KotOR fan ever. And if you are then I hope you feel like I did the franchise justice regardless of whether or not you agree with my opinions.

For those wondering, the final word count ending at “business” came out to 3515 words, not counting section titles.

As always, comments and feedback are greatly appreciated regardless of whether they’re constructive or not. (I’d prefer constrictive criticism where possible but I understand passion takes over sometimes.)

Sincerely, thanks for taking the time to read the whole article and let me know if you’d like to see more in-depth articles like this on other games or topics.

Until next time, may the Force be with you.

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One thought on “KotOR 2: A Study on Rushed Development

  1. Reading your thoughts on these games is making me want to play them. Too bad we are coming up to the new game season, no time for old classics for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

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