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AGDC: BioWare Charts Writing For  Mass Effect

AGDC: BioWare Charts Writing For Mass Effect

September 7, 2007 | By Christian Nutt




Another key AGDC lecture on Thursday was 'Writing The BioWare Way', with the company's Mike Laidlaw talking alongside Mass Effect lead writer Drew Kapyshyn and managing editor Mac Walters on the Neverwinter Nights creators' approach to story crafting, with comments on next-gen projects included

The presentation began with Mike Laidlaw, a lead writer at BioWare. His section of the presentation was based on the early part of the production process for a BioWare game. "The point is we get our writers involved early in the process -- we get them involved day one on a project."

Laidlaw noted that the writing team is actually part of the design team, rather than its own separate team unto itself. But conversely, the writing is integral to the experience of BioWare's games, according to Laidlaw. "Design as a department is a holistic approach to both writing and implementation. Writers are responsible for putting stuff into the game. Of the 73 [designers] a third are writers, or at least part of the writing team."

Structuring Writing At BioWare

The writing team breaks down into several different roles, as Laidlaw pointed out. "Lead writers are defined as being the vision holders -- this is how the game looks, feels and sounds, this is how the story goes. They're the passionate individuals." Managing editors, a title continually decried by the speakers, are tech-focused and work more closely with the tech team to implement the writing. "Full time writers are usually newer employees -- they're not as worried about crafting the tools behind it, they're just worried about getting the text written. Technical editors are doing the big passes -- commas, punctuation, passive voice."

Through the course of development at BioWare, the game moves through a number of phases, each of which are tied directly to the dialogue writing. According to Laidlaw, "Our studio's getting big enough now we're managing four or five projects at a time. We've moved to the concept of phase-gating -- which means that until a project has reached a major milestone it's not ready to move on." The phases are prototyping, where new ideas and early setting and story work are explored. Pre-production is where systems, pipelines, and defining story arcs are set. Production is "a flood of content!"

Prototyping And Mass Effect

When it comes to prototyping, Laidlaw thinks that "there's as much value in not getting it right as getting it right. This is get it done in a day or don't get it done because it's too big. We create a goal: do something different. Create a cinematic presentation where conversation would happen in real time -- that was the goal for Mass Effect."

The game marks the debut of a new dialogue selection system that abbreviates the choices in small radial menu that stops the game from breaking its flow during dialogue sequences. "Short versions that give you the intent of line -- but not the full line. What if I had the intent of 'that sounds crazy!' [and picked that option] and then the character does a full voiceover." Besides keeping the pace up, the team also intended that people don't read and then hear the same dialogue choice. According to Laidlaw, It took 10-12 iterations to develop this system and make it work.

When it comes to pre-production, Laidlaw's difference between it and prototype is this: "We ask style questions in prototype, we answer them here." The voice of the game is developed -- its tone and shape. Its intended ESRB rating is nailed down so the writers know the kind of dialogue choices they have.

The decision on how to use journals is also made now. Laidlaw asked, "What do the journals do? What's their point? Is it something the play can use all the time or just an ancillary thing, a nudge in the right direction?" Workflow decisions are also made now. "We're not necessarily creating all the spaces for the game, but we want to nail down those spaces. Ask yourself the hard questions, force yourself to find answers -- that's what pre-production is."

Splitting Up The Game For Writing

The game is broken into acts, chapters or planets -- whatever system it requires. This helps the writers figure out what they can do in the framework of the game itself. The writing staff also generates asset lists -- characters, creatures and areas required to tell the tale. According to Laidlaw, "You're not going to get these right. But you are going to get close enough for people to work. This is where you tell people what you think you need, and they'll tell you what you can get. And then the fight starts. By the end of pre-production, the team should be ready to generate final content, and have a solid workflow eastablished with the level designers and artists."

At this point, Drew Kapyshyn, lead writer on Mass Effect, took to the stage to discuss how the project moves forward. Kapyshyn set down the law immediately. "The whole point of production is to generate and manage content. Anyone who has played a BioWare game knows they're big. They're very big. 500,000 words, average. The important thing is that each writer is responsible for his or her own area -- areas can be characters, or a planet. This gives you enough buy-in, you can bring your own voice to the table but you can still stay within the confines of the project. The lead writer and the managing editor maintain consistency across the project in addition to their writing."

The word "prototype" poked its head up again here -- in the form of what BioWare calls a narrative prototype. As Kapyshyn explained, "It's sort of a transition stage from what Mike [Laidlaw] was talking about, to the final project. We'll take pawns and place them into a representative box level. What this is, is the geographic layout of any given area."

This is where game flow starts to be decided -- like making sure NPCs who offer quests are close enough to the goals of those quests. "These prototypes allow us to work on technical issues with story content. Often this involves people from other departments. The key to the narrative prototype stage is rapid iteration and the high level narrative flow. The dialogue is 'Hello. I am Quest Giver One. Your task is to go find the princess.' We would not ship this."

Once the narrative prototype is done, it moves to a senior staff review. Any senior staff member, from any section of the company, might be involved. "We have a lot of intelligent people at BioWare -- as writers we realize that story transcends what we bring to it and we're looking to get that feedback." At this point, the writers begin to look for ways to move the story without using dialogue -- like cutscenes, ambient action, level art or gameplay. Kapyshyn explained,"It allows us to take the basic story we want to tell [without] big blocks of exposition. Hopefully enough of you are experienced in writing to realize that reducing word count is a good thing if you get to put the same amount of content in."

From Prototype To First-Pass Writing

Once the narrative prototype is locked down, a project will move onto first pass writing. Actual game dialogue is written from this point forward, and writers must begin to be mindful of how choices affect the game world. "It's important for the writer to know that if I've talked to the princess, her jealous sister won't talk to me. The writer is responsible for tracking this and making sure it's working in the story. If you see something that's too complex for you to [work with] it's probably too complex for players," Kapyshyn believes. The end result is a playable level with full dialogue in a text-only format.

Kapyshyn moved into what comes next. "At this stage we move onto what we call the peer review stage. Peer review is a very important part of the BioWare culture. When a writer's finished his pass, all the other writers are going to play through his level and offer feedback. After all the writers have prepared their feedback, say a week, we'll get together in a group setting and deliver that feedback... and collaboratively work to improve the writing in his area. It's not necessary you come to an agreement on everything, but it is important to get all of that information out there. The rewrites are based on that feedback. Very significant rewrites can occur because we're dealing with text -- text is cheap."

"The rewrites at this stage vary widely in scope -- major plot trees can change; or minor changes." In the case of major changes they repeat the peer review stage. When they finish that, they move onto senior review. Once a game level gets to the senior staff Kapyshyn noted that "The feedback is very focused and directed for the most part." Because of deep writer involvement at all stages of development, major changes aren't sprung on the writing team now. "This is usually a very minor rewrite pass."

Onwards To Copyediting And Voice Acting

Once this pass is completed, text is turned over to an editor for copyediting, checks to make sure the text is consistent with the IP involved, and a little bit of punching up. Then the text moves to QA. Kapyshyn explained the uniquely involved QA process at BioWare. "One of the things [they're looking for] is bugs. Is there a way to break the plot? It also ranges to comments and suggestions," such whether plot elements are too predictable, whether characters are likable. "You may have read it 15 times and it doesn't feel fresh to you anymore... that's why having QA read it is so important." Most of BioWare's QA comes from its fanbase, which Kapyshyn considers ideal. "If one person doesn't like it, we may not take action. If 10 people hate it, we better do something." Once QA is complete, dialogue moves into voiceover, which is produced externally.

Post-VO, rewrites are required, Kapyshyn warned. "At this point you might have the actor do a little ad lib on a line. They always try to give us the original read, because we always have the final say. But if you hear the ad lib and you think it's really good, you now have to change the text." Also, if a line just doesn't work, and the actor was forced to rework it, the text has to be tweaked. At this point changes are almost impossible -- this is why there are so many rewrites prior to recording.

Once the dialogue recording is completed, the game moves into what BioWare calls the cinematic pass -- emotional variants assigned to characters. "There might be seven different 'angrys' attached to this character. It's very limited in what we can do, but it's good for when the experts come on. We'll also do first pass camera angles. Music tracks are often hooked up at this point, too. We do this all through the same tools writers use." This is turned over to the cinematic design team, who make it all work right. "We, at this point, have to realize we're more hands off. The cinematic designers will come and ask for clarification on why certain decisions were made, and then fix everything. Cinematic bugs are QAed at this point, and the project moves upwards in the food chain to be signed off on. "It's the key to making BioWare's games so memorable -- the iteration. All writers here should know that rewriting is great writing."

What A Writer Does At BioWare

Again, the presenter changed. Mac Walters, the managing editor on Mass Effect, took to the podium and drove the PowerPoint slides. At BioWare, a writer's main tasks are these:

Story: story development, character development, theatrical writing
Plot management: states and conditions, journals
Scene direction: voiceover, staging and cameras, animations and gestures

He then began to explain the designer's toolset which the writers use -- which is based on the tools that ship with Neverwinter Nights. "I want to create a very simple dialogue file from scratch. In the production phase, this is where the writers will be spending a lot of their time. When we write a game we want to give multiple responses -- to give the player a choice."

He then demoed typing in three responses. The tool offered choices to show where the response on the conversation wheel -- and the alignment, such as good or evil. "The player will see 'of course' in the good position and then hear 'Yes, I'll help you find your sword.' We keep the default ones pretty neutral for the players who just keep hitting A." The tool keeps you aware, by highlighting text, if you accidentally have two responses of the same alignment. There's also drag-and-drop editing of text lines into the trees so lines can be manipulated and moved easily.

The dialogue is fed into another tool, the Story Manager. This tracks states -- Walters have the examples "'I've spoken with the NPC', 'I've heard his quest', and 'I've accepted his quest.' These states default as false." The system can also manage your plots -- to see which have the player has already experienced -- which allows the writer to debug on the fly. "Everything that's in Story Manager... will appear in [the dialogue editing tool]." This includes examples such as being given money, or a character joining the party.

Getting Writing Tests Into Mass Effect

"One of the nice things that's in the background of this tool is that we can take all of our dialogue and export it as scripts -- that a director or an actor would be familiar with. Once I know the VO is in the game, I can actually hear the VO. It's a great way to check if it didn't match what you wrote, or if it's bang-on. You'll have to check that each node sounds logical coming from the angry response, or whatever." Camera control is also included in the tool. There's a procedural system that extrapolates it from the dialogue and generates angles based on basic rules, but the writer can change from within the tool. "The other thing that we can do is set basic facial emotion in here."

He continued: "We've got Matinee running in Unreal [Engine 3]. You can go into any line and see how it's going to run in the game. This is really the domain of the cinematic designers, but as the writers we have to be fluent in the technology so we can give sound advice and sound direction." Using Unreal he also changed the player character's gender on the fly, for checking how the scenes play against both genders.

Conclusion: The Q&A

Questions and answers followed the tools demonstration. Kapyshyn offered several interesting points based on the audience's questions. According to him, Mass Effect is designed to have a clear path, but exploring the dialogue offers more side events and bonus items. "Players do have a chance to rifle through the dialogue. It's really a matter of trying to hit that happy midpoint of the audience. We can only go by our own gut and the fan reaction."

On BioWare's philosophy on moving into smaller-scale projects, "One of the keys for BioWare is that we want the game to be an event game. If you're paying that 50 or 60 dollars, you'll get the 25 hours" but there's plenty of extra content for players who want much more. And when it comes to quality, "We do take pains to work with the animators and VO people to get what we want."

When asked why Mass Effect offers two genders for the main character -- given the expense of recording two sets of dialogue, Kapyshyn offered an artistic perspective. "I think with BioWare, I don't think you can look at it as a dollars versus increased sales decision. BioWare doesn't look at it that way. Our fanbase expects to be able to create their character -- to customize and create their character they want. For us, we believe it's a matter of quality. Now, you do have to look and go 'is it prohibitive?' We did, and it isn't."

On writing for next generation games, Kapyshyn was extremely positive. "One of the things I've learned as a writer myself -- with more advanced cinematic acting stuff, you're able to tell a better story more quickly with less words. So you're able to put in more story with more words. It's less writing, but it's more reliant on the writing. Dialogue used to be long exposition text dumps, but [it] can now be conveyed in a more cinematic style. What we found with Mass Effect is our writing is better because of the tools. And it will be appreciated by a wider audience. People who would skip through the writing will stop and watch Mass Effect. It's tighter dialogue and people will get more out of it. It's funny -- we get more for less."


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