May 11, 2007 - BioWare is one of the most consistent development houses in the modern videogame industry, releasing hit after hit, from Neverwinter Nights to Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Importantly, the company is renowned as much for its storylines and characters as it is for its gameplay. That's no accident, as we found out when we sat down with Drew Karpyshyn, the Lead Writer on Mass Effect.
IGN: What writing experience have you had in the past? How did you get your start?
Drew Karpyshyn: I've been writing ever since I learned to read, though I got my professional start while working on my Masters degree in English at the University of Alberta. I applied to an "open call" for authors at Wizards of the Coast by submitting an outline and sample chapters of a Forgotten Realms novel. They liked my stuff enough to contract me to write a novel for them. While I was working on the novel (Temple Hill, my first published work) I saw an ad from BioWare looking for writers. Since they were right in my hometown I applied and got offered the job. I figured it was better getting paid to write than paying to go to school, so I dropped out in the last year of my Masters program to write full time for BioWare.
In addition to my work at BioWare, I've also had several novels published: Temple Hill and Throne of Bhaal for Wizards of the Coast; Star Wars: Path of Destruction for Lucas and Del Rey (a New York Times bestseller), and the upcoming Mass Effect: Revelation - a prequel novel to the Mass Effect game.
IGN: How much of the writing comes from one person, and how much is a collaborative effort?
Drew Karpyshyn: At BioWare the process is a combination of collaborative feedback and individual effort. The writers (and other key people, such as the Project Director and the Lead Designer) constantly discuss the overall story line. But each individual writer is assigned sections of the game to write. For Mass Effect, each planet has one primary writer who is responsible for the majority of writing on that world. However, all the writers review each other's work to offer suggestions and criticism, and as Lead Writer I also have to make sure there is a consistency of style across all the various levels. So on the one hand it's very individual - you write what you think works for your own areas - but on the other hand it's a very collaborative process, as everything you do has to fit in with the rest of the team and the larger overall story.
IGN: Can you give us a brief overview of the main storyline for the game?
Drew Karpyshyn: The player is Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre - an elite agent of the multi-species galactic government. Shepard's first mission is to hunt down Saren, a top Spectre agent who has gone rogue. As you chase Saren across alien worlds and distant stars, you make a terrifying discovery: the galaxy is trapped in a cycle of extinction. Every 50,000 years a race of machines wipes out all advanced organic civilization… and Saren is determined to unleash this cycle once again.
Of course, as a BioWare story there is a huge amount of depth and detail that unfolds as you play the game, and there are several twists and turns as you progress. Obviously I don't want to give too much away… players will have to find this out by playing the game.
IGN: How early in the game creation process is the script written?
Drew Karpyshyn: At BioWare our games are very story driven, so the early version of the script is usually one of the first things we complete. This is then used as the basis for our level designs, art, etc. Of course, as other elements are added to the game the script is constantly rewritten to incorporate the ideas and contributions of the rest of the team.
IGN: How do you write a script that is so open and multi-pathed?
Drew Karpyshyn: I'll admit, it's not easy. One thing you need is a good writing team. At BioWare we have over a dozen full time writers spread across all our projects, and many of us have been doing this for over 5 years, so we've really become familiar with the craft of open ended story telling. The biggest issue is volume - you have to write multiple paths of dialog and multiple story outcomes, knowing that many players won't see large chunks of what you've done. That's why we need so many writers on each project. Five different writers worked on Mass Effect, and it's taken us three years to get everything into the game. I think it's that level of commitment that really sets BioWare games apart from the competition - most other companies don't have the dedicated writing resources to do the kind of stories we do.
IGN: For many genres of games, a good story is essential. Do ever feel that game writers are underappreciated?
Drew Karpyshyn: I think most BioWare fans appreciate and understand our contribution; we firmly believe a good game becomes a great game by fusing story with game play for an emotionally engaging experience. However, across the industry most companies don't put enough emphasis on telling a good story. BioWare is one of the few companies that has full time employees dedicated entirely to writing. There are some other good game stories out there, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. I think that, overall, games haven't embraced the idea that a good story is necessary to fully engage players in the gaming experience, so there are many examples of sub-standard writing and story that have colored the general perception of game writers as "hacks". The truth, however, is that writing for games is a very complicated and difficult skill… one that BioWare takes the time to develop in talented individuals.