Star Wars Jedi: Survivor — A Look Inside the Force

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We spoke with Respawn Entertainment about the process of designing Star Wars Jedi: Survivor—stances, maps, and personalizing Cal’s journey.

As mentioned in our full hands-on preview of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Respawn and EA have been brewing a truly epic follow-up to 2019’s stellar Jedi: Fallen Order. Cal Kestis is back, and every aspect of his next journey looks bigger and bolder than ever.

During the Star Wars Jedi: Survivor preview event in Los Angeles last week, we didn’t just play one of the most anticipated games of the year. I also had the privilege of speaking with Respawn Entertainment’s Daanish Syed, Principal UI Visual Designer, and Brandon Kelch, Technical Design Director, about the process of revamping the sequel’s aesthetic and the philosophies behind the series’ trademark elements.

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So, did you both work on the first game as well?

Brandon Kelch: I did, yeah. I’ve actually been on the team since day one of Fallen Order.

Oh, amazing. So I wanted to ask first, were there any elements left on the table for Jedi: Fallen Order that you guys wanted to bring to life in Jedi: Survivor?

I mean, coming into this game, we kept all of the same pillars that we have from the first game, like agile exploration and thoughtful combat and Star Wars story. And then we added the customization pillar, so we really dove into that. Customization in Fallen Order was thrown in somewhat last-minute like, “oh, we can just switch colours, and this is really easy, we’ll just throw that in, and it’s good.” [With Jedi: Survivor], we dove all the way in.

Daanish Syed: Yeah, the customization step was one of the main things I worked on, specifically trying to make it feel sort of in-world and immersive and diegetic and not have just menus. So, when you’re in the void, and you see Cal, and there’s shards of glass around him, it’s kind of inspired by Rey and The Last Jedi—possible versions of Cal he sees and things like that in the workbench, and having the lightsaber float up and pieces fly in and out.

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Either way, the customization was a really cool feature in Fallen Order, and it looks great in Survivor. Speaking of improvements, the new mini-map looks great, too. That Metroid Prime effect was very distinctive in the first game, so what was your approach to improving and overhauling it?

Syed: Yeah, that was huge because the first map, we definitely got a lot of feedback, great feedback about it, but sort of usability concerns, so there’s lots of little things that we did. The first map was very visually accurate to the movies. It was kind of see through and all that stuff and had textures to it. But the downside of that is sometimes it made it a little bit hard to read.

So we removed some of the textures from the map itself so that everything was a little cleaner looking. We made it more opaque, so it looked like a solid map rather than totally see-through. We added lots of little features, like a breadcrumb trail behind you, seeing where you’ve been, gates, and kind of the distorted areas where you haven’t been yet. And so tons and tons of little nips and tucks here and there to make it better, and then lots of testing. We did a lot of usability testing with it. We bring people in and have them test the map and see what problems they had. So the map was definitely a big focus, and I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

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Yeah, it shows. Although I got stuck a minute ago, and I was seeing myself going in circles with the map’s “breadcrumb” feature—I hadn’t known I was that stuck.

Kelch: Yeah! And you’re like, “maybe I don’t wanna do that.”

I always loved the first game’s “sacred geometry” aesthetic. What was the approach to improving or changing that in Jedi: Survivor?

Syed: We talked about that a lot in terms of, like, what do we want to do? Do we want to do something brand new? Do we want to stay really close to the original? We want to do something like a hybrid where we want to make it seem clear that this is part of the same franchise—we didn’t want to change the language but at the same time expand it.

So again, add more 3D elements to it, so when you pause the game, it’s no longer sort of a flat screen with Cal there. Now there’s this expansive void environment in the graphic design. We’re still sticking with the sacred geometry and just fleshing it out more.

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I really like how it looks like he’s building something up there from the ground like he’s building the Order back up in the menu screen itself. So, in this preview, Koboh has been a blast to explore. What was the approach to that as a hub world, and what sets it apart from Bogano in the first game?

Kelch: Yeah, that’s the first planet we started working on. We work on a lot of stuff in parallel the design team. It’s not like there’s enough time to go from one thing to the next thing; you have to run a lot of things at once. But Koboh has been a focus for us for sure, to just push this game, push the scope, push the expanse of it, push this kind of semi-open world design. And so, it’s been a long time in the works and it’s really satisfying to see it come together.

It’s gone through so many iterations and variations. There’s still little corners that I am not super familiar with, and I’ll see somebody out there playing, or when I was playing this to get ready, I was like, “man, I forgot that this little thing existed.”

Syed: Totally, same, there’s lots of stuff I haven’t seen yet and seeing for the first time, little nooks and crannies and stuff. It was just really exciting to make another original planet. That process of going in the design of it, the thought of it, like, what do we want this thing to be? It’s an Outer Rim planet, it’s sort of like where people go to hide—that sort of thing, that kind of fiction around it, was really exciting to dig into.

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So, I’m assuming Jedi: Survivor was considered exclusively for next-gen platforms from day one development, or was cross-gen a debate?

Kelch: Kind of, yeah, we made that decision pretty early on. I mean, there was a lot of discussion about it, but the design team was like, “next gen, we want to do all the things.” We started marching forward because we want ray tracing and we want bigger levels, we want it to be able to keep up with all the stuff that we want to do, especially from the design standpoint. We want to make the best game possible, and so, that was a pretty easy decision for us.

The last story trailer sparked a lot of theories about the involvement of a character from the High Republic, a whole standalone story initiative. Regardless, any Star Wars project involves a lot of coordination with other departments at Lucasfilm. What was it like working on Jedi: Survivor with those other teams within Lucasfilm and the Star Wars world?

Syed: This was my first Star Wars game, so this is all new to me. The thing I was struck most by working with Lucasfilm is how character-centric they are. So any kind of pitch or idea we have, we present to them. Even the graphic design, like how does BD-1’s visor look? It always comes back to character. They really care about this cast of characters and how we honor them. So it’s been really great. They’re really open to ideas. I can’t think of much pushback, that we really had to fight for anything. I think they were really on board with a lot of our stuff.

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What sets Cal apart in terms of his fighting style in Jedi: Survivor? What influences went into his style this time around?

Kelch: I’ll try to speak for the combat team, who are definitely the experts there, and pull from what I gleaned from their work. But one thing I know is that we really wanted to put some daylight between the stances. We really want them to be different, to feel different. I did really champion hard for only picking two stances in your loadout. That’s a conscious decision that comes from a combination of just streamlining the controls, but also giving the player a meaningful choice.

So if you go into a boss fight and you die over and over again, we respawn you at the meditation point, and you’re going to think, “huh, maybe I should change my stance, and then that’ll be the key to overcoming this challenge.”

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They’re supposed to function differently. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and there’s a skill tree associated with each of them. It’s about building your version of Cal, your version of the Jedi, the stance that you want to invest into and play out in this world, and then you can do it over and over again, change it up.

And that’s really, really fun to discover, especially as you upgrade those and you get even more abilities for them. I love kind of the mixing and matching, like, you find some new way to use it if you pair it with something else.

I’ve saved the most important question for last: with all of the customization options on offer, are Cal’s ponchos back at all?

Kelch: [laughs] You’ll have to play and find out!

Thanks to Daanish and Brandon for speaking with us. You can build your own version of Cal Kestis when Star Wars Jedi: Survivor launches April 28 on PlayStation 5Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

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