10 Years of KOTOR: An Interview with Lead Designer James Ohlen

written by Russ Looney on July 11, 2013 in Interviews and Special Feature

KOTOR 10 year anniversary

July 15th marks the 10-year anniversary for Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic™ (KOTOR™). BioWare™ was the development studio behind the critically acclaimed RPG which LucasArts published on the Xbox® in 2003. Aspyr Media later brought KOTOR to the Mac in 2004 and recently released the full-game experience exclusively on the iPad, making the game available for the first time on mobile devices. To celebrate 10 years of KOTOR our guest blogger Jon Carr was lucky enough to chat with KOTOR Lead Designer James Ohlen from BioWare for a Q&A on the development of the game and more. Read more below on how your favorite Star Wars RPG came to be!


Jon Carr: Can you introduce yourself to our readers and explain the role you had in creating Knights Of The Old Republic?

James Ohlen: My name is James Ohlen. Currently I’m a VP/Studio Creative Director at EA/Bioware. I’ve worked as Game Director on Star Wars: The Old Republic as well as lead designer on Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age: Origins. I was the lead designer on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In that role I handled story, level design and game systems.  


JC: You were also lead designer on Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. How did your role in creating those games influence the development and vision of KOTOR?

JO: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was built on all of the learning we gained about storytelling and level design from the Baldur’s Gate games. The Neverwinter Nights engine was used to build KOTOR, so that game had a big influence on the game systems we put into KOTOR.


KOTOR lead designer James OhlenJC: Given the large amount of Star Wars movies, games and books, how did you decide on the timeframe and story for KOTOR?

JO: We wanted a timeframe that gave us the freedom to tell an epic story where the player’s choices could impact the entire galaxy. That would be difficult during the movie era as Luke, Han and Leia were the movers and shakers of that time period. So we decided to base the game in The Old Republic era. Even though the game takes place thousands of years ago, we felt it was important that it feel similar in tone to the original trilogy, both in story and in art style.   


JC: The murderous yet amusing HK-47 Droid is probably the biggest fan-favorite character in KOTOR. Do you have a favorite character personally?

JO: Probably Carth, since that was the name of a character I played as a kid in the West End Games pen and paper Star Wars RPG.


JC: What are you most proud of in the creation of KOTOR?

JO: The story twist. I thought we managed to pull off a twist that almost had the same impact as when Darth Vader revealed to Luke that he was his father. We used the Sixth Sense as a guide for how a good twist was pulled off. One of the lessons from that movie was that you had to leave enough clues that a sizeable percentage of the audience would figure out the twist before you revealed it. If you didn’t leave enough clues, then the twist would ring false.


JC: You were the lead designer on both KOTOR and Bioware’s most recent Star Wars game, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). How did your experience with developing KOTOR affect or influence SWTOR later on?

JO: If you look at all the games on which I’ve been the lead designer, you’ll notice that there are certain recurring elements:

  • Epic heroic story arcs
  • Difficult moral choices that impact the story
  • Interesting companion characters
  • Classic class based RPG game systems

All of those elements were in KOTOR and the goal was to put all of them into SWTOR. That was a big challenge, since storytelling had never been done in a massively multiplayer online world and at such a large scale before.

Star Wars Old Republic 

JC: KOTOR is a masterpiece of RPG design and execution. Looking back a decade of RPG creation, do you think some of the magic has been lost, or have developers found new ways to innovate?

JO: I don’t think the magic has been lost all. Casey Hudson and the rest of his team have done a great job of building the Mass Effect series into a franchise that has innovated in many different ways. The guys over at Bethesda have done some amazing stuff with the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3. I think it’s a golden age for Western RPGs right now.  


JC: In your mind, what makes Star Wars® such a compelling universe for games?

JO: Star Wars leans more towards fantasy than science fiction and I think that’s to its benefit. It has good vs. evil, monsters, princesses, knights, magic items, etc. All of these make it as easy fit for the RPG genre. Star Wars is also one of the most beloved IPs in the world. Since the first movie came out in 1977 fans have wanted to live in that universe and video games are the closest they’ll ever get to that fantasy.   


JC: How did you get into Role-Playing-Games to begin with? What inspired you to start creating them?

JO: When I was ten years old, a friend of mine introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons with the adventure Keep on the Borderlands. After killing my first goblin, I was hooked. My main hobby from that time forward was pen and paper RPGs. Since I didn’t know anyone who liked to be the Dungeon Master, I found myself always taking that role. It was fun creating worlds, but the most interesting challenge was telling an epic story that my players were able to influence. I played a lot of RPG systems, but the main ones were Dungeons and Dragons, Mechwarrior, West End Game’s Star Wars and FASA’s Star Trek.  


JC: What games are keeping you busy now?

JO: I’m kind of addicted to World of Tanks right now. I liked the Walking Dead game.  

JC: Thank you for your time!


We do not have confirmation if The Old Republic will ever come out on Mac. But in the meantime you can satisfy your Star Wars RPG needs with Knights of the Old Republic, or if you are of the mobile persuasion, Aspyr now offers KOTOR for iPad! Both versions are currently 50% off for the 10-year anniversary; additionally, GameAgent members can save 75% on the Mac version (just check the game’s product page for a special coupon code!).