Mike Laidlaw, who recently stepped down as creative director at BioWare, took a break from his new consulting firm to talk to GDC about what he’s learned about writing and narrative design from his many years with the legendary game studio.
“Trust” is the theme he framed his talk with. “The key thing is to establish trust” in a team, he said, drawing on what he did in corralling BioWare’s writers to work as a team.
“Making sentences out of words appears to be the same skill-set as writing and storytelling. It’s not,” he said, but added that above and beyond that is the overriding need to “win the hearts and minds of your team,” whether as a director or a rank and file team-member. As a foundation, you have to schedule things properly. He managed to make the concept of scheduling a fascinating exploration of the fundamentals of game development.
“A writer can casually write ‘and the universe explodes,’ and it turns out… that’s really hard to render,” Laidlaw said, as he emphasized the importance of working with “downstream teams,” like editing, VO, cinematics, localization and QA, all of which depend on the writers to produce something viable to workshop. As he described it, his games began from the ground up with writing, where an approximate draft was needed before anything else could be done.
You can mitigate time loss by targeting cinematic and performance capture content locks first--meaning that in order to schedule responsibly, you would write for things that had a very high dependency on downstream departments. In addition, all major characters need one piece of marquee content early to ensure that the VO casting “sticks,” ensuring that a perfectly characteristic scene is ready to go and used by the VO team to cast the right actor. He also suggested working closely with translators and clearly tagging each piece of content with the status of every parallel bit of work it depends on.
Laidlaw went into detail about “Crumple” plans, which are, essentially, strategies to reduce the size of a game, scaling it back to realistic expectations. “As a writer, you have said ‘I’m not precious, I’ve created something that can survive an impact,’” he said, likening this to a car that has ‘crumple zones’ to absorb impacts during a crash. He argued that even a tightly plotted game, where everything that happened was “critical content,” could still stand to be reduced by about 25 percent in scope. By contrast, for a more expansive game, like Inquisition, he argued that no more than 25 percent of such a vast and open-world game should be “critical” content.
Equally essential to good scheduling, in Laidlaw’s view, is articulating a clear theme for your game. Inquisition was about “faith and what happens when that faith is challenged.” Centralizing such a snappy “vision touchstone” is essential to getting comfortable with making elevator pitches, a process that allows you to quickly sell every major moment in your game.
“An instantly graspable thing that allows you to… create a shorthand that gets everyone on track,” he said, noting the example of the Temple of Mythal scene in Inquisition was pitched as Dragon Age meets Indiana Jones, a simple and memetic idea that gave everyone a standard around which to rally, giving the players a sacred place where they had a choice of respecting or desecrating it.
For Laidlaw, developing a vision was essential for creating a framework for feedback during BioWare peer review of the evolving game. That, then, created a spine for a structured system--peer review followed a precise set of rules at BioWare.
“Multi-discipline fixes are the best fixes because everyone plays to their strength, which is why other departments were always at reviews,” he noted, saying that this particularly helped with preventing a major problem with writers where we tend to solve thematic issues with more words. “Oh, this character is sad but the text doesn’t make that clear. Well, animation can make her cry and change her posture, you don’t need to add more words.”
Another important rule was that junior writers were able to hear and give feedback to peers and leads alike, where “celebrity” writers were put on the same level as new blood. This, Laidlaw says, made the constructive criticism of peer review useful to everyone.
“Be transparent, be open, and then, be vulnerable,” he said. “Feedback you get from your team is feedback you can use to change.”
Once again, emotional intelligence was prized, “make efforts to earn the trust of the team around you. Make clear that what you do is not just put words into sentences, you write.” Leadership, even, requires vulnerability. This, he said, “is probably the lesson that I learned at BioWare.”