How a ragtag band of modders restored Star Wars KOTOR II
Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords holds a strange place in the Star Wars video game canon.
KOTOR II was critically acclaimed on its 2004 release, with weird and morally ambiguous characters who felt more at home in a Fallout game than the George Lucas-verse. But it didn't receive the same universal praise as its predecessor.
Firm deadlines led to many bugs, and complaints that the story felt “unfinished.” Its plot wrapped up very quickly and ended on a mysterious cliffhanger; modders later discovered entire storylines that were included on the disc but had not been implemented. Most players assumed that KOTOR II would remain an unpolished gem unless Obsidian was able to revisit it and fill in some of the gaps.
Then on July 22nd, all of that changed. Publisher Aspyr Media, responsible for porting games to non-Windows platforms including OSX, Linux, iOS and Android, updated KOTOR II on Steam for the first time in 10 years, and with it came a crucial patch note: support for Steam Workshop mods, and with that, The Sith Lords Restored content mod.
Now any KOTOR II player can install this fabled mod with a simple button push, and play the storylines that were previously abandoned. The work of one dedicated modder community has fleshed out a flawed masterpiece, and their work is sure to bring newfound attention to this game. (It's already drawing praise from KOTOR II’s lead narrative designer, Chris Avellone.)
"I don’t feel like I ever ‘own’ a game I work on. It’s something to be shared, improved upon, and whenever possible, seen from a new perspective that gives the title new life. – Chris Avellone"
The mod includes numerous bug fixes, new areas, and dialogue options that flesh out the story in the main game. It was actually in development since before 2009, when it was first released in open beta by modder Zbigniew Staniewicz, aka Zbyl, with his modding partner Darth Stoney.
Staniewicz was a big fan of the KOTOR series, and wanted to play the cut content as soon as he heard about it. “I also thought ‘finishing up’ the game would make me super famous, but I may have overestimated the size and reach of the KOTOR community,” he jokes.
Staniewicz and Stoney’s first versions of The Sith Lords Restored, built on the back of research and work done by other modders, added what they believed to be part of a known list of cut content found on the disc. “It turned out our list didn’t include even half of the trivial stuff left out of the game," he says. "It was always exciting and at times surprising to realize how much more there was buried in there.”
More than just fixing bugs
Staniewicz was joined by modder Hassat Hunter as development on The Sith Lords Restored continued. Hunter started out in the mod community bug testing and teaching himself the dialogue editing tools for KOTOR before signing on to work on The Sith Lords Restored.
Hunter’s passion for fixing KOTOR II's bugs grew into a desire to dig out all the unknown story content and present a “true” version of KOTOR II to the players.
“We didn’t just want people to experience the cut content, we wanted to give people the KOTOR 2 that should have been," Hunter says. "I don’t think anyone expected to still work on it five years later, or that eventually we’d take up a greater scope, albeit in steps.”
Doing this kind of restorative mod work isn’t just a process of cleaning up bugs and extracting unused models though. As Staniewicz and Hunter describe their process, it becomes clear that they wound up doing plenty of design work too, building on Obsidian’s work from a decade prior.
Doing this kind of restorative mod work isn’t just a process of cleaning up bugs and extracting unused models.
“For example in the very first closed beta of [the mod], you could finish the HK assassin droid factory without firing a single shot," says Hunter. "That just didn’t fit the story of the HK droids though, not to mention that it was extremely boring. The factory went through a lot of transitions, but I think the current version works very well.”
Much of the restored content reflects the core of what made KOTOR II so unusual as a Star Wars game. HK-47, a murderous assassin droid from the first KOTOR, began his life as a fan-favorite character in the context of a more traditional hero’s story (or villain’s story depending on the player’s choice), but like many other plot points from the first KOTOR he and other characters evolved under the moral lenses Obsidian took to the Star Wars universe. KOTOR II spends a large amount of its cut and uncut content examining how droids shape the world of Star Wars, and how the way most species treat them leaves them in a perfect position to perform acts of villainy or heroism overlooked by most.
KOTOR II’s lead narrative designer, Chris Avellone, has loosely kept up with modder’s progress over the years, with the HK Droid Factory being one of the biggest pieces of content he’s glad players can experience. “While we had HK-50 and HK-51 droids in the game, I always…intended the player and even HK-47 itself to feel offended by their presence,” he says
"This was intended to make the final confrontation with them all the sweeter when HK-47 gets to turn the tables on its upstart “successors” by using their programming that they inherited from him as a weakness," he adds. "There’s a ‘panicked’ sequence in the excised content where the HK-50s figure this out, and I always meant it as a scene to make the player grin."
Elsewhere, Kreia’s cut lines reinforce her as a character who possesses traits of both the Jedi and the Sith, constantly judging the player no matter which side of the Force they give in to, and the Sith are shown more to be a complicated, nuanced political group rather than an embodiment of raw evil. All of these ideas are far removed from their film incarnations, and are not even the kind of storytelling that Disney has endorsed in its video game tie-ins realesed after the Lucasfilm acquisition.
The Home Stretch
Hunter says that Aspyr approached them a month before it planned to push out KOTOR II on Steam (mostly to open up ports for Mac and Linux), but wasn’t able at first to properly say why they were interested in talking to the KOTOR II modders.
When they learned of Aspyr’s plans though, Hunter and Stanwiecz dove in to patch the mod to be Steam Workshop ready.
“They pretty much laid down for us what we had to do to make [the mod] work for the Steam Workshop so everything could go as smooth as possible at release," says Hunter. "And now hopefully we can get rid of all the remaining bugs and annoyances still in this version, and be in the unique position to fix things we couldn’t as modders. I can’t say that we or anyone else expected this to happen at this time or date, so that was a pretty nice surprise.”
For its part, Aspyr Media's primary goal was to include Steam Workshop among a large batch of featured updates, including controller support, Steam Achievements, and playability on Linux and other platforms. Product manager Michael Blair explains that they knew the mod would be a huge feature to have on launch, which was why they reached out to Staniewicz and Hunter to get them on board.
"In order for our QA team to test 'live' content from months of working on this update, we moved our Steam branches from beta to live 2 days before launch," Blair says. "During that time, we allowed the mod team access and instructions on how to get their mod up in the Workshop, and ensured it remained hidden from public view. Our team then tested it before we hit 'go' on the launch.'"
Obsidian’s only involvement in the game’s update seems to be unofficial. Hunter says Obsidian lead programmer Adam Brennecke voices a character on the planet M4-78EP, but that connection came from chatting with him during a Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian's latest RPG) promotional stream, not any official endorsement.
Regardless, Hunter and Staniewicz both are floored by the positive feedback that they’ve received for their work, and are glad more players can make their mod a core part of playing KOTOR II. For his part, Avellone remains thrilled by the collaborative spirit of the modders pulling his old work out of the shadows.
“I love it, and I have much respect for the Total Restoration mod and any modders willing to experiment with gameplay and narrative aspects to our titles,” he says.
“I don’t feel like I ever ‘own’ a game I work on, it’s something to be shared, improved upon, and whenever possible, seen from a new perspective that gives the title new life.”