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GDC: R.A. Salvatore On Building Worlds,  Copernicus

GDC: R.A. Salvatore On Building Worlds, Copernicus

March 11, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

March 11, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
More: GDC

R.A. Salvatore, the popular fantasy author best-known for his Forgotten Realms novels starring Drow Elf Drizzt Do'Urden. For the past several years, he's been working with Curt Schilling's 38 Studios to produce a game codenamed Copernicus, an MMO.

With the disclaimer "I'm not here to tell you how to create a world. I am certainly not here to tell you how to design a game. What I am here is to tell you the principles I use when I create a world," Salvatore began a journey through his gaming and writing careers and espoused core concepts of his world building methods.

"The first thing in an MMO is the size of the world. Any discussion of game design is about hitting sweet spots. For me, one of the most important things in an MMO is the size of the world," said Salvatore. "[EverQuest] is still the game that I look to as the best world in a game," due to its size and scope.

As an avid EverQuest fan, Salvatore also said "I've come to believe that one of the problems of gamers going forward if we're not careful is how mechanics will take all of the pain out of the games." At 38, he's gotten in many arguments about death penalties -- EverQuest can actually de-level you if you die.

"If you take out of a world two things: the pain of losing, it will diminish the accomplishment of winning. And if you take the element of chance of out it, I won't enjoy it," said Salvatore. "You need that in games. It's harder to do that in a computer game, because your phone lines will light up. Never listen to your customer service guys when you're designing a game."

When playing games, in fact, Salvatore believes that "complaining is part of the fun. And if you eliminate the downside of a game, when you accomplish something, what's the point?"

Salvatore told an anecdote about how he accidentally got his character killed after completing a quest -- forcing him to spend 30 minutes re-leveling his character. Though it sounds unpleasant, it's a cherished memory because of the emotional rollercoaster the whole experience put him on. "Instinct would say that it shouldn't be like that in a game, but I disagree. What stories would I have to tell?" asked Salvatore.

When it comes to world building, said Salvatore, "Whether you're going to be a fantasy writer, a fiction writer, or any kind of writer, or a game designer, I firmly believe you need a strong understanding of history. And I mean civilizations... and how they work, and how they don't. Because people will recognize that."

When he was originally asked to write the Do'Urden stories, there was very little basis in TSR's literature for the Drow Elf society -- he had to create it from whole cloth. Though he'd used them as monsters in his own D&D adventures, he quickly realized that would not provide enough context to work from.

Said Salvatore, "you can't have a society that's just a bucnh of vicious, maniacal killers. It wouldn't survive. So I had to to come up with a structure... This is the most important thing in world building. You have to understand that you are asking the player or the reader to suspend disbelief. You are asking them to take a bunch of things for granted. The less that your'e asking them to pretend this happens, the more you're making it make sense, the more immersed they will be in your world."

Where do you look for inspiration? Salvatore revealed his source: "The dark elf city ... Is based on the the Mafia crime families in Puzo's The Godfather." It's unexpected, he said, but "the point is, it makes sense. It works."

Salvatore also told the story of building the world for Demon Wars, a book series where his publisher gave him as much time as he liked to do that work. Salvatore said, "I had an idea of using gemstones and/or minerals as my catalyst for magic in this world. So how do I go about building the world? If this is the source of magic, what does that mean to the people there. Who will control it?"

His final idea was to "put a ring around this planet that would have all of the minerals and gems in it. And things will align when they'll sometimes rain down. And it started coming together."

However, it's crucial to note "This is all backstory, it's not in the books." In fact, he said, "I'm never going to tell you any of that when you get the books, but it happened... It's all past history, it happens 800 years before the book takes place."

The important thing is to then consider -- what would have happened? In his history, a pirate figured out how to use the stones and brought them back to land. "What would happen in a fairly medieval type society if something like that happened? Remember, these are people who saw everything in the stars. The stones, therefore, become the basis of religion in this world. The monks in this world believes that God told him how the stones worked. Did he? That's for you to decide."

Building a world is the stepping stone to storytelling, said Salvatore. "I'm going to tell a story about some particular characters... I just built them a vehicle to do it." 

When he first played EverQuest his reaction was -- "I could write 100 books in this world -- this is huge. This is so cool!" He spent several hours traversing the world the first time he played -- naive to the consequences of his actions, as the MMO genre was totally new to him. "This one adventure where I never swung a weapon was one of the coolest experiences I had in my life and I thought to myself, that's world building."

At this point, Salvatore said, he decided that "games are going to become the next great storytelling medium." His question: "What's the author's role going to be? I wanted to know what an author was going to be able to do with these games."

Almost four years ago, he got his answer in the form of a call from Curt Schilling. "Curt tells me 'I want to build a computer game.' I knew he was like me, he got it. 'I want you to design the world for it. I want you to come in and help us create this world for an MMO.' I think that's a phone call I had been waiting for about seven years."

"As they were telling me, my mind started spinning. I knew how this was going work. So we put together 38 Studios."

What's the most important thing to accomplish? "How are we going to create a world? Suspension of disbelief. What we did was we built a 10,000 year history of our world. That was what I insisted on. We need a huge history for the world. We need deep threads. So we're all going to be painting on the same canvas. Suspension of disbelief."

Salvatore said, "We spent six months just on that part of it. Who are the races? What roles do they fill in the economy and society of this world? Why do these guys hate those guys? With all of that, all of this should make sense to the player."

This is important, said Salvatore: "[We're] not giving you these big text blocks -- nothing like that. Just the attitudes [of the characters] make sense. The economy makes sense. All of those little details make the world more believable to you. And if the world is more believable to you, you can suspend disbelief."

Salvatore closed with an example from Copernicus that has never been made public before. "I think it pretty much exemplifies the philosophy of Copernicus," he said.

"in any MMO, what happens when you die? Death isn't permanent in the game. It's one of the things you have to take for granted in the genre," because player characters have to be consistent, said Salvatore.

But "instead of just using that as a given, another thing for you that you have to accept that is the way it is, we built it into our game. In the beginning of Copernicus a device has been perfected, called the Well of Souls. When you die the well of souls will bring you back from the dead if you've met the conditions for the Well of Souls."

Now consider the implications -- that's the key, said Salvatore. "Why is that important is because we tell all of the content guys to think about it. To keep in mind, at all times, what does that do to a world? What would happen to our world tomorrow if they came up with an immortality pill? What does it do to the king? What does it do to the religions of the world? What are the implications of this mechanic in the world? How does it play out? What quest lines can we put out to make this make sense?"

"There's a reason for it and more than that, there are implications to it," said Salvatore. "Think about the power of the people who turned the well of souls in these various cities on, especially if they could turn them off. What would it do to the soviet union and the US in the 1970s if a third party had that power over them and said 'stop fighting'?"

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