Anne Cusack, Mct
The Old Republic is touted as a leap forward, creating a new standard for gaming, just as "Star Wars" changed film history.

AUSTIN, Texas — It may be the largest entertainment production in history.

More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being written.

Nearly 1,000 actors have recorded dialogue for 4,000 characters in three languages.

The narrative is so huge that writers created a 1,000-page "bible" to keep the details straight, and the director recently asked a colleague not to spoil moments he hadn't yet seen.

It's not a movie or a TV series. It's Star Wars: The Old Republic, the most expensive, ambitious and riskiest video game ever produced.

Created out of a 60,000-square-foot converted warehouse next to a cooking school on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, The Old Republic is proof that while box-office, network TV ratings and music sales are slumping, games are holding their own, thanks to steady growth from online games. Revenue from games played online last year topped $7 billion, up from $6.5 billion in 2010, according to Parks & Associates.

Even among its interactive peers, The Old Republic is touted as a leap forward. Much as the first Star Wars movie in 1977 changed film history, its makers hope to create a new gold standard for gaming.

"We want to do to other video games what talkies did to silent films," said Rich Vogel, co-director of the studio leading the game's production.

To recoup its investment, The Old Republic's publisher, Electronic Arts Inc., will have to snag more than 1 million customers willing to spend $60 to buy the game and an additional $15 a month to play for years on end.

The game, released in late December, already has more than a million registered users, but many could leave after a free 30-day trial.

"The real test is whether they can retain subscribers in the long run," said analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co.

At the Austin home office of game developer BioWare, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, more than 400 designers, programmers, writers and artists have immersed themselves in the imagined Star Wars universe, surrounded by maps of the ice planet Hoth, armor designs for bounty hunters and even a five-day weather forecast for Princess Leia's home world of Alderaan.

Art has been outsourced to Russia, Estonia and China. Motion capture filming is done in L.A. and Vancouver, Canada, with voices recorded in New York, London and Paris.

"Coordinating it all is like teaching elephants to do ballet," said Greg Zeschuk, who co-founded BioWare with Ray Muzyka.

The Old Republic's builders are trying to fundamentally change the online gaming experience. In most such games, players, alone or in groups, go on generic quests interspersed with narrative moments. But what players see and do in The Old Republic is shaped by the players' own decisions. On one mission, an imperial agent in search of clues can flirt with a female character or threaten to kill her — and then do so, after she talks.

Those choices take place in the context of eight distinctive storylines inspired by movies and written for different character types whom players choose at the beginning of their adventure.

The idea for the game has its origins at a 2005 meeting between Vogel and BioWare's Zeschuk and Muzyka, two Canadian physicians-turned-game developers. After attempts to adapt "Lord of the Rings," "A Game of Thrones" and Marvel comic book superheroes such as Spider-Man, the team signed a co-publishing deal with "Star Wars" creator George Lucas.

The filmmaker, who declined to comment for this story, blessed the idea of setting the Old Republic in Star Wars pre-history and gave Muzyka and Zeschuk virtually free rein. His Lucas-Arts' staff stepped in only to soften content they found too risque, such as scenes involving sex slaves.