[In a fascinating, in-depth Gamasutra interview, BioWare Austin lead writer Daniel Erickson discusses the philosophy and practicality of implementing massive story elements into Star Wars: The Old Republic, revealing the company's attitude to creating a new breed of story-focused MMOs.]
BioWare is a company founded on interactive narrative as much as or more than any other element of its games -- the company builds that principle into its own mission statement. But how can that be translated to the MMO space, a genre that has never pushed the boundaries of strong interactive storytelling?
Here, Daniel Erickson, principal lead writer on Star Wars: The Old Republic at BioWare Austin, discusses with Gamasutra the importance of writing for the title, including how the developers intend to tackle that important question.
Using his own personal history as a lens, he pinpoints how the evolution of BioWare's story processes have been focused for this title -- how introducing significant story into MMOs is a "surmountable problem" for a team with the right skills, mindset, and dedication.
So during your presentation kind of hinted at what your career has been. How did you actually end up at BioWare? Because that seemed like a pretty interesting story, at least from your end.
Daniel Erickson: I was working as a critic, and [gaming site] Daily Radar ended up disbanding as sort of one of the casualties of the dot‑com crash. Imagine Media -- which I believe is now Future Publishing -- decided to disband all of their internet holdings.
I had already been at a point where I spent all of my time writing editorials about game design, studying about game design, thinking about that stuff. I said, "This is really what I want to do with my life." And it was very hard to stay unemployed, to not take [journalism] job offers, and say, "No, I want to get into games. I want to put my money where my mouth is."
Luckily -- actually, through [former Next-Generation Online editor-in-chief and current Planet Moon COO] Aaron Loeb, who knew [BioWare co-heads] Greg [Zeschuk] and Ray [Muzyka] -- I got an interview with BioWare. I went up there, and it was an assistant producer job, and I said, "I love you! Give me a job! Give me a job!" And they said, "Well, this large, blank resume you have, that basically just says 'I heart BioWare' on it, doesn't really qualify you for anything."
DE: So, I didn't get the job. I did end up getting a job at Electronic Arts Canada with the NBA Street team as an assistant producer. I very quickly moved into the role of game designer for them, and then became lead game designer.
I came in at the end of NBA Street 1, did NBA Street 2 and 3, then worked on a number of smaller projects that became the SSX World Tour game. I also worked on a game that became Skate years after I was gone, which was very interesting, and a few other projects that are still floating around out there.
But at the time, they weren't getting a lot of original IP out the door. And I was notorious. The guys on the basketball stuff always teased me about wanting to put dwarves in the basketball game. Having the emotional impact of some of the scenes in Knights of the Old Republic be so strong, I just realized I was wasting my life as a designer, because my degrees are actually playwriting and history.
That's always been my passion. My passion is the interactive storytelling medium. So, I said, "Okay, I have to do this." And for whatever reason, mainly because he's just a great person, Greg Zeschuk had been in contact with me the entire time.
I was a kid who had washed out for the lowest level position you could be interviewed for, and Greg had kept track of me for four and a half years. We had sent emails back and forth when games came out. He'd gotten my opinion on things. So, I called him, and I was just frantic and said, "Hey, I need to get out of my job and I really want to do this type of game, and I don't think I have the right experience."
And Greg said what BioWare has always said since, which is, "If you're talented, we don't really care what you're doing. We don't care that you've only done basketball games, we don't care if you haven't done anything. We have tech designers and we have writers, and that's really our design department." And I said, "Well, I'm a writer. I am a writer, I've always been a writer."
BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins
So I took the test, and then I took another test, and then I came in and took a test, and then I managed to get through the extreme gauntlet of interviews. And then I did my ginormous, mind‑breaking three‑month BioWare training for writers, and then moved on to Dragon Age, and moved up and became the managing editor for Dragon Age, under Dave Gaider, which was an amazing experience.
Dave Gaider was the lead writer for Baldur's Gate II, and has got chops like you wouldn't believe. He's the lead writer right now for Dragon Age. And then, when they decided to move down [to Austin] and do the MMO, James [Ohlen], who's been the lead designer for all of BioWare's big games except for Mass Effect and Jade Empire, asked if I wanted to come down and build a department from scratch.
At Daily Radar, I had run groups, and at Electronic Arts, I'd been a lead designer and run full 80‑man teams. So, I had the experience, with the combination of the experience and the writing stuff to be able to say, "Okay. We're going to build the largest writing team by a factorial [degree] in BioWare history." We had to do it from scratch, and that was a huge challenge, but very exciting.
How big is that team?
DE: We're well past a dozen.
DE: Just writers. Dedicated writers, writing for years and years. One of the things I mentioned in the other pieces [is that] we have more story content than every other BioWare game ever made combined, so it is the largest project.
We realized at one point that we were doing enough content, just dialogue, to fit in dozens of books. It's pretty mind-blowing!
Does that seem like an undue expense for an MMO? Does that require any convincing to EA? Because, given the history of MMOs, there's no empirical proof that it's necessary.
DE: Absolutely, and remember that my background comes from being trained as a producer at EA. So, one of the great things is that EA is a very different EA than it was when I worked there originally. The entire way games are made has changed, the label system has completely changed -- how you get things approved.
Electronic Arts came and purchased BioWare, because of the games and the way that BioWare makes games. They have been massively supportive, to the point of opening up the connections to all of the other people that they work with, and all of the other great, amazing triple-A developers who are now under the EA Games label.
We can talk with them and bounce ideas off and find out how to do stuff, but at no point has anyone ever come to me and said -- okay, yes, they've come to me and said, "You're budget is what?" But nobody has ever said, "Why are we doing this?"
BioWare's marching order has always been up on the wall in red and gray. When you go into orientation, it says, "To make the best story‑driven games in the world." It's been that for a decade, and they've never moved away from it.
So, when we say, "Hey, this is what it takes to make a great story‑driven game that you're going to play for eternity," then yeah, you've got to put the effort forth.
Why do you think that's still something that it seems difficult for this industry to grapple with? It's still something that most of the time is not considered to be a crucial part of development.
DE: Well, this is one I tend to laugh a lot about, because people say, "Oh, well, why aren't writers respected? Why don't they understand?" People will try to say, "Hey, it's a young industry," whatever. Writers aren't really respected in Hollywood, either, and they've got 100 years under their belt now.
DE: Right? Somebody's still going to rewrite their script entirely, and then put Godzilla in it if they think that's what's going to make the project. Commercial art will always be driven by the people who hold the purse strings, and get to have the vision.
We are extremely lucky that BioWare is run by two guys who are dedicated to the idea of story, so that's what they want to do. They're dedicated to the idea of dialogue and narrative, and that storytelling has to have great, punchy writing.
It has to get better, and better, and better, and be more like the best dialogue lines from movies, but it's done in an interactive, nonlinear system, that -- let's be clear -- 99 out of 100 writers don't even understand how to do, and never will.
So, it's hard to find the talent, it's hard to train the talent. It's hard to get the dedication from a [parent] company that's never done it, to say, "Hey, we're going to do it," but at the end of the day it is a known quantity. The difference is exactly what you're saying. Yes, no MMO has tried to do it before. So, how do you justify that?
At the same point, the only place you go in and usually find a massive success for a game is going into the whitespace that nobody is standing in. So, if you've got a company that has made its entire mark from never having a game cancelled, never having a game rated under 90% -- if that company's entire mantra and what they're known for is storytelling, it only makes sense to open it up and let them do their thing.
How much do you find you have to strike the balance between people who can turn a clever phrase, or who understand the demands of actual interactive narrative? Presumably you have to hire people who don't come right out of the gate with both of those skills fully developed.
DE: No, I've never run into it -- if you're out there, call me.
DE: What I found in my experience so far training BioWare writers is that if you are a writer who loves interactive fiction [and] you understand what it means to write dialogue and story and plot and pacing, and you love our games, then I can train you in the basics of game design that you need to know to make it work.
If you do not love interactive fiction, then what I always say is, "Would you hire a screenwriter who had never seen a movie?" Absolutely not! You cannot teach people an entire form.
We are as different from a game that is just a series of cutscenes as we are from a book, as a screenplay is from a play. These are totally different art forms. In the same way, I actually can't take a very experienced designer, and teach them to be a writer. It's a very different craft.
What we do is probably about half game design -- and I don't mean BioWare in general, I mean the writers themselves. But, it's junior game design, if that makes sense. Mainly, it's just understanding how it all works, so when we put it down in the world, it makes sense and it has the right pacing.
So, because what you need to be is an expert writer and a junior-level game designer, I look for the one with the passion for the actual format, and then we train up for the other [half].
How long has BioWare actually had its defined three-month training program for writers?
DE: One of the things James [Ohlen] has talked about is how disciplined our writing staff had to be. It used to be a little bit more casual. It's something we've developed a lot in the last four years or so. We run in a very systematic way. Again, coming from the magazine experience, I run a very editor‑in‑chief-impelled sort of writing staff.
One of the things that is very important, if you've got a dozen or more people writing in a project, is that a player cannot move from one space to another, and realize he's changed writers.
So, not only do writers all have to be trained the same way, but then I see every piece of content, every single piece of content at every single stage, and make sure that we're all keeping to a voice and a tone, the same way a good magazine editor would.
LucasArts/BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic
To that end, do writers sort of end up slotting into particular class roles, where this guy is much more likely to write for the Jedi because he's developed that voice?
DE: That is absolutely the case. People have different specialties as well. Some people are extremely good with funny. Some people are extremely good with a particular class note. Some people are born to write the Sith. And some people aren't.
When you go back to the magazine analogy, very rarely would you grab the fashion writer and ask them to go ahead and cover the sports game.
On the note of MMO design versus single-player RPGs, do you consciously hire people from both avenues? You're talking about the game, in terms of communicating the story, drawing more from the single‑player tradition.
DE: Well, we can't really draw from the MMO tradition to communicate the story.
DE: Right. But how we're communicating and approaching everything else very much does draw from the MMO tradition, the notable exception possibly being the visceral nature of combat, which is something that we always talk about. Our lead combat designer is Damion Schubert, who does a lot of talks at GDC, and that sort of thing.
Very often, we talk about the fact that you shouldn't be comparing us to MMO combat. You should be comparing us to game combat. There are a lot of excuses for it, but there's no reason that combat should not be big and exciting and look like Star Wars. Outside of that, though, we play a lot of MMOs, and we love a lot of MMOs.
So, MMOs have managed to do the other three pillars of RPGs very successfully in big, expansive worlds. We learn a lot of that from that stuff. And the story stuff, we learn from what they've done, and then we bring a whole lot of the experience of what we've done.
As someone who has played MMOs but isn't an MMO guy, sometimes it seems to me that many of the individual elements of MMOs end up being less deep versions of elements from other games. The story might be completely adjunct, the combat is kind of static compared to what you'd get in a game that's actually about combat, and so on -- that they wouldn't hold up if they weren't in an MMO.
DE: I think, across the board of the industry, you're going to see that changing. What we're seeing is a game genre that has been very expensive, trying to do something that's so big. For example, will the helicopter flying in Grand Theft Auto ever be as good as in the Apache [flight sim]? (laughs)
DE: Right? Like, when you try to do more, your system gets less [capable]. Absolutely. But as the market grows, and one of the great things we've seen is new MMOs very often are expanding the market. They are not cannibalizing other games.
The market is much larger than we think it is. More people are come online, and more people are playing these games, more people are interested in them. I think what we'll actually start seeing is the bar rising in all of these departments, because it only takes one game to come out and do great online combat for people to say, "Oh, well, I'm not putting up with that anymore."
That's how game design works.
DE: Absolutely. Somebody's going to push the bar. And probably in the first game, people are going to push the bar in very particular places to begin with. Plus, it's always easier to say, "Hey, let's do that [existing thing]," than it is to say, "Hey, let's create something out of whole cloth."
And because the genre is so young in its modern incarnation, a lot of things are still being created from scratch. This means a lot of experiments, a lot of bold pioneers who are going to go out and die in the wastelands.
There will be a few people who are going to get really lucky and successful and say, "Hey, look at this great thing we brought to the genre." And then everyone else will try to do it, as well.
Internally is that how you guys are thinking about this game?
DE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, that's the goal, right? We want people to play this game and say, "Wow! I never thought there would be story in an MMO, and there is and I love it and I'm going to play this story forever." That's the big exciting part, right?
Like we have all these classes, and all these classes have their own content, and all this content connects together as you're playing through the different classes. Now you're getting to see and understand different parts of the world that you might have not understood previously.
So by the time you're playing the third class, you can say, "Oh, I get that! That's because of such and such." And you feel smart and you understand the mythos and the world. And hopefully, it will create something that just amazes people and they've never even considered before.
And on the other side, for people who are like, "Wow, God, I really wanted another BioWare game," they have just gotten a little slice of heaven.
Again, as you've noted, the story in MMOs tends to be very segmented, and it doesn't feel like a thread that your character is actually progressing through.
It sounds like, the way you're describing it, it's almost more of a challenge in terms of content and commitment rather than actually being a big game design problem. Is that the case?
DE: There are numerous game design problems, but I would not say that they are insurmountable game design problems.
DE: But, I also understand that writing seems easy to me and sculpture seems hard, because I can do one and not the other. So, I don't really have a good way to gauge how hard these problems are. I know there are things we've had to address and we say, "Okay, this can be done."
The first team that was ever allowed to fully staff up was the writing team. When we [at BioWare Austin] were a very, very tiny company we were already hiring writers. And the writers are there first, and they're saying, "Hey, well, the team is figuring it out."
So, [creative director] James Ohlen is saying, "This is what I want the game to be," and we're in there filling in the space. And we're saying, "Okay, this is the background, and this is what's going on." And we're doing this as the programmers are starting to think about basic architecture.
Long before any content is there the context has to be there, the stories have to be there, and that's a huge amount of dedication, and it's a huge amount of power to give over to something.
The other side of it, is James happens to be a very story‑driven, story‑aware game designer. And if he was not, and he was aware he was not, then working on a game like this or bringing in a writer and giving them that much power might be threatening.
It seems like a lot of the focus is on the sort of class distinctions. Are you looking to do anything ambitious in terms of a central plot or is that something that's falsely significant?
DE: Oh, absolutely. And that's one of the things we talked about, right? The Empire versus the Republic is the plot of our game, in the overarching way that the same thing was the plot of Star Wars.
But how do you avoid the problem that every MMO has, which is that things don't actually really change when it comes to the shared experience that all the players are having?
DE: Well, again, one of the things that's really important is that the galaxy is huge. Things can be changing that are amazingly important to your world. What you're doing and what's happening that doesn't necessarily affect every part of it.
And there are actually amazing, huge changes happening in [places] all over this game world that we don't know about. We always approach the RPG space as if the thing that's happening in Africa isn't affecting New York, it doesn't mean anything. And it's just simply not true for storytelling.
I guess that's more relevant in MMOs because there really are people all over this universe that are actually real players. Are you indicating that you might come in contact with different story elements simply by encountering them?
DE: Definitely -- you would go and start talking to somebody and they would tell you something about the galaxy that you had no idea was true.
They would tell you something about the way the Sith Empire was structured, the way of what's really happening behind the Jedi Council, that you'd be like, "Whoa!" And in fact, once you knew that -- the same way that once you know the moon landing was faked -- it changes your whole perspective on everything else you hear.
Again, it's why I go back to playing the different classes. It gives you this great cumulative effect of uncovering what the bigger overarching stories are and what's happening in the large power structures. These are also things that you'll be getting involved in later on.
So, I mean, are you looking at the possibility of, through updates or patching or so forth, having big central tenets of the story revealed?
DE: Can't talk about it at all.
Fair enough. But, presumably, you will be retaining a writing team to focus on post launch.
DE: I am hoping not to be fired when we launch. That is my hope.
I don't know if there are any kind of final thoughts you had, but...
DE: No. I think, the big one is just that it is a surmountable problem. There is not a reason you cannot do a story in MMOs. It is simply a case of whether you have the talent, the drive, and, honestly, the humility to go out there and say, "We're going to have to do this. We're going to have to try it, and we're going to have to revise it and revise it and revise it and revise it, and test it, and get it in front of MMO players, and get it in front of RPG players, and learn, and have people yell at you and say terrible things to you."
Being the first in any space is always hard. But, if you've got the right people for it, and you know that that's what you want to do and you are being well‑supported, as we are, then...