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Star Wars: The Old Republic's Galactic Starfighter puts the RPG into dogfighting

BioWare Austin's forthcoming expansion to the massively-multiplayer online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, is a space dogfighting game with a foundation rooted in role-playing titles, according to lead designer Michael Backus.

At a recent preview event, the BioWare Austin team showed off levels from Galactic Starfighter, which is an expansion that solely focuses on deep space dogfighting.

Galactic Starfighter will launch on Dec. 3 for current The Old Republic subscribers. "Preferred Status" users — anyone who has made a purchase in the game's online store — will gain access to the expansion on Jan. 14, 2014. Everyone else will be able to access the expansion on Feb. 4, 2014.

Space combat is a relatively small feature in the base MMO, with most battles taking place on ground, and the on-rails space missions being limited in their scope. Galactic Starfighter takes these space missions and grows them into free-flight, player-versus-player experiences with intense combat, dynamic maneuvers and an in-depth role-playing game progression system.

According to Backus, development on the expansion began a year and a half ago when the studio formed a team of four developers to figure out how it could bring the iconic space battles from the Star Wars universe into The Old Republic. The team sought to capture the feeling of being an X-Wing fighter pilot, navigating through space debris, capturing operation points, destroying turrets and attacking and defending against other fighters in enormous 12-versus-12 battles. As the team got closer to achieving this, it brought on more developers and fleshed the dogfighting game into something of an RPG in itself.

"The Old Republic is a role-playing game, so we wanted [the expansion] to feel like it was a feature in the RPG," Backus told Polygon. "There were a lot of things we could have done to embrace a more flight sim feel, but we wanted it to have an RPG progression."

The development team wanted Galactic Starfighter to make sense in the context of The Old Republic. Rather than having the expansion feel like something tacked on and unrelated to the base game, the team ensured that the worlds remained connected and the gameplay retained RPG elements.

At one level, the expansion is RPG-like in the way it lets players customize their ships. Players can choose between different models and upgrade paths. Every ship has a skill tree, and players can spend requisition — in-game experience points — to unlock new components, to upgrade existing components and to unlock companions.

Every companion character from the base game is also available for players to choose as a ship companion in Galactic Starfighters. These companions are who you hear when you're fighting in space.

There's also the introduction of Variance, which allows players to choose ship models that play to their strengths.

"There were a lot of things we could have done to embrace a more flight sim feel, but we wanted it to have an RPG progression."

"When you play as a healer, you don't always play a healer the same way as someone else," Backus said. "If you're DPS, you don't always play DPS the same way. People want to be ranged versus melee. So we wanted to take that premise and embrace it.

"We knew that not every scout is going to be the one who's going to want to dogfight. Not every person who plays a scout is going to want to take on objectives or detect enemies. So we brainstormed as many different styles of play as we could, and said: 'What Variances really make sense?'"

The result is the variety of ship types players will have access to. So if players choose a scout ship, within that category there are different models that will play to the strengths of different play-styles. The ships are shaped differently, they have different stats and descriptions and some have components created specifically for a gameplay type. Like in any RPG, it's about giving players control to customize their character, their ship and how they choose to tackle the game.

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