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A New Galaxy: Daniel Erickson On Writing The Old Republic
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A New Galaxy: Daniel Erickson On Writing The Old Republic

October 31, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[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.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Jeremiah Bond
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I love Bioware, I really do!

Jason Pineo
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" -- the same way that once you know the moon landing was faked -- "

Sorry for the non-sequitur, but: seriously?

Daniel Erickson
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No, not really. I forget sometimes you can't see the facial expressions through the transcriptions!

Finn Haverkamp
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Excellent interview. Erickson has some great things to say; he sounds really intelligent.

David Lorentz
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This is all very exciting, but the static world of the MMO seems like a huge issue. As an RPG with a story, the experience of the individual player will be a heroic thing that inevitably leads toward saving the world in some way - as is true of any Bioware game. And in a single-player game, the world (environments, life or death of key NPCs, etc.) can always change to reflect the player's impact; but in an MMO the world really can't change, since the game needs to support everybody's quests at the same time. So where will the plot lines end? It seems they will have to fall short of having any lasting impact on the world, which makes the whole heroic story progression hard to stomach. It's less of a problem in other MMOs, where there's little story to begin with, but in a game that focuses on story, this seems like a big problem. I'm sure Daniel and his team have thought about this, but I haven't really heard an answer yet.

John Vincent Andres
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@ David Lorentz

I think Daniel addressed that idea with worlds within a greater galaxy. The story the player will be participating in will be significant to the player's particular experience. It's like mini KOTORs happening at the same time for each player. This idea is hugely ambitious and daunting, but it seems to be supported by the amount of work Daniel described the writers doing.

Depending on how this turns out I may finally be persuaded to be part of an MMO.

Aaron Lutz
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I have to applaud Erickson, Bioware, and EA (most of all) for taking this risk and actually attempting the story-driven MMORPG on such a scale. I think it's possible, but will require a lot of attention after launch as well as before. In order to have a truly worthwhile story experience, the world must be changed by you - or at least, things you do must have a lasting effect. If you kill the evil Sith Lord of Planet A, he must still be dead when you visit Planet A months later. Else, what was the point of killing the evil Sith Lord in the first place?

MMOs in general suffer from this. Why would you labor through legions of monsters to rescue the princess if, two seconds later, another player has to do the very same thing? It's redundant, and takes a lot of the "epic-ness" out of the game. I understand that MMO developers would need to create recyclable content else it wouldn't be cost effective - making a unique experience for essentially one player that can last for a year or more isn't cost effective when you have one million players to provide for, which is why they make the same experience reusable to the next player. It's not as noticeable if you only allowed each player to play through once, or if you forced the player to play alone (as with traditional CRPGs).

I think the problem will be somewhat alleviated with this approach of crafting a different story for each class, but the problem, in my opinion, won't be "fixed" until the big, risk-taking game companies look into intelligent randomly generated content mixed with unique authored story elements.