Thursday at GDC Austin featured several excellent presentations, but the cap to that day's writing track was without a doubt BioWare's discussion of their writing processes, tools, and the creation of the Xbox 360 title Mass Effect. The talk detailed the numerous revision processes their work goes through, as well as the shape of their writing team across a project's lifetime. Read on for notes from the session, and impressions from the short amount of in-game footage they showed during the event.Just in case you've never heard of them: Bioware is a games developer based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. They recently opened BioWare Austin, a studio dedicated to the development of their as-yet-unnamed (*cough*KOTOR*cough*) Massively Multiplayer Online Game. They're also working on the slightly surreal Sonic the Hedgehog RPG for the Nintendo DS.
How They Do It
The core of the BioWare writing process would sound familiar to most programmers: iterate, iterate, iterate. To that end, the company aims to get writers involved in a game's creation early in the process. They make it a point to have a writer in the room during the broad concept stage of game creation. From an org char perspective, writers are a part of the design department. Currently the company has 73 designers on 5 projects, with 26 of those folks being members of the writing team. Titles on the writing team include lead writers and managing editors, writers, and technical editors.
Projects are broken out into three distinct phases: Prototyping, Pre-Production, and Production. Prototyping is primarily early story and setting concepting, looking for new ideas, trying to figure out how to do things in a different way. They ask how they can explore the IP they're working on while staying true to the core concept. This is the 'cheapest' phase of the work, by far. Pre-Production, then, is about nailing things down: defining characters and story arcs, and working out systems and work pipelines. Production is the longest phase by far, with several distinct sub-phases making it up. This is all about generating the guts of the game, and the goal is to know what the company is going to make before they get here.
The prototyping phase is also the phase with the least number of people involved. Whoever has been tapped for the lead writer position, as well as the managing editor, will lead the charge on the writing portion at this stage. The primary goal of this phase from the company's point of view is to create and refine the technology that matches the project's vision. Phrases that apply to the technology also work with the writing here: dirty and ugly is okay. Stupid ideas are entirely worthwhile. Because changing things at this phase costs effectively nothing, writers and designers are encourage to experiment as much as they want to arrive at a novel vision of the project's goal.
The goal for Mass Effect, as an example, was to "Create a cinematic experience where conversation occurs in real time." Jade Empire, a previous title, did conversations the 'traditional' way. Responses to NPC dialogue were fully displayed on screen, and the player could read the block of text and choose the one most appropriate to their disposition. In contrast, Mass Effect has players choosing from among short sentences that hit at the emotion of a response, rather than the specifics. This allows the tension and interest in a scene to be maintained without bogging things down in piles of words.
Prototyping for writing is primarily all about themes. What motivates the action for the game? What are the 'big words' that can be used to describe the plot? (Mass Effect might include words like Hope and Space.) What is the very highest level of the plot arc? Who am I? Where do I start? What am I doing? One of the writers makes sure to point out that an equally important question is: whose ass do I get to kick?
At this point in the game's life-cycle, the team is ramped up to a group of 4-5 people, with a handful of writers joining the lead and managing editor. This is also the point in the game's life-cycle where the team goes to a lot of meetings. The reason? Now that there are lots of broad strokes set down, there are a mountain of questions to be answered. These questions are more specific in nature than those touched on in the Prototyping phase. For example, what is the 'voice' of the game to be? BioWare games tend to be fairly serious, but there's often room for humor as well. Will the game be aimed at Teens, or will the title shoot for an 'M' rating? What will the format of the game's quest journal be like?
This is also the stage where the team devises the workflow pattern they'll be using in the Production phase. Details like how and when information has to be passed to level designers and artists, what tools the team will be using, and even nit-picky details like resource naming conventions are all nailed down at this point. Within the writing team, story arcs, sideplots, characters, acts, chapters ... they're all divvied up to individual members of the team to own. What exactly these 'chunks of content' are varies from game to game. Some folks are assigned the task of working out asset lists; character inventories, creature inventories, area inventories ... essentially, what needs to be described and eventually created? Ultimately pre-production is a balancing act, seeking to find out what the team needs vs. what it can get. "By the end of pre-production the team should be ready to generate final content, and have a solid workflow established with the level designers and artists." This is a direct quote from the presentation, and was accompanied by a laugh: this is a pipe dream, a blue-sky fantasy. In reality, the teams are never quite at this point when they hit the Production phase.
BioWare titles are huge, from a writing standpoint. Most are in the neighborhood of some 500,000 words, with more than a million possible in some of their games. The work for those thousands of words is divided across the writing team in specific areas of responsibility, be it by chapter, planet, character, or plot. Each assigned writer then 'owns' that part of the game. The have a lot of control over what happens with that part of the story, and that ownership gives each member of the team a 'buy in' to the game ... as well as accountability. The lead writer and managing editor, meanwhile, are responsible for maintaining the consistency of the game's 'voice' across the entire project.
Writers complete several passes on their area of interest, working on something like a narrative prototype in the first pass. The prototype bridges the Pre-production work with the Production work, with 'pawns' placed in their representative box levels. The goals here are basic things like "how do we move the PC from one area of the game to another?", and "Is there a chance they could get lost?" As a group, the writing team focuses on the technical structure of the story. How the story unfolds as the player moves through a level is the ultimate prize, and planning this out often involves assistance from a technical designer and level artist. Even at this stage, the actual work still involves rapid iterations and high end narrative flow. Dialogue is often 'temp' or placeholder material, and writers are encouraged not to get bogged down in details.
After this very initial stage, the senior staff review the prototype writing elements. Everyone from the lead writer to the project director might be involved in these reviews, depending on the importance of the writing to the story. This group is also looking for ways to advance the story beyond dialogue, thinking along the lines of cutscenes, ambient action, level art, and gameplay. Once this stage is approved, the writer moves to the 'first pass' stage.
On the first pass, a writer puts down the actual dialogue for all characters in his part of the story, using their robust conversation scripting tool. They embed basic scripting for plot state variables into the conversation using the story manager tool. The rule is that if an interaction or conversation is too complicated for these tools, it's too complicated for the game (and ultimately the player). The end result of the first pass is a playable level with all dialogue delivered in a text format. At this point it's sent on for peer review. This review is the cap for each pass, where other writers on the team play through the level and offer comments and feedback to the creator. The feedback is delivered in an open group setting, moderated by the managing editor to avoid bad feelings. After the group session, rewrites are planned based on the feedback from the writing team, with the individual writer and lead writer collaborating to see these put into place. Often major changes to the plot can occur at this stage.
The second pass of writing incorporates feedback from the peer reviews and rewrites suggested in the first pass. These changes can vary widely in scope, from small plot elements being nipped or added all the way to major character changes. Major changes to the story at this point necessitate another peer review like the one that capped the first pass writing. Minor details are signed off by the lead writer, and don't require another major discussion. At this point the bulk of the writing is more or less 'done' from the individual writer's point of view, and is sent on to the senior review phase.
At this point key stakeholders in the project evaluate the dialogue with an eye toward the game as a cohesive whole. The project director and lead designer are usually the two that do most of this reviewing, and provide very specific feedback on the writing. Instead of sweeping changes, these suggestions are tightly directed to keep the writing, plot, and characters in line with the rest of the game. The writer incorporates the senior review feedback. which usually only requires very minor rewrites. At that point the dialogue is passed on to an editor (who is not the managing editor), who checks the work overall for basics like spelling, grammar, and adherence to the intellectual property the company is working with. At this point the dialogue moves to Quality Assurance.
QA plays through the game with the dialogue in place, not only testing out the gameplay but the dialogue as well. QA is the first set of eyes outside of the writing team and stakeholder group that has read the material. They provide a useful 'gut check' on the way the writing feels. The writers incorporate QA feedback into the dialogue, and this may require more discussion with the lead writer about minor changes to the text. At this point, changing anything is very expensive from a manpower perspective. Rewrites as a result have to be much more limited in scope. With yet another pass at the writing done, it finally moves on to full realization in the Voice Over stage.
Scripts of the dialogue are printed out and sent to the studio, where actors play out the parts the writers have created throughout the creation process. The dialogue is recorded, processed, and added into the game, where it's once again reviewed by key members of the development team. Even at this stage, it's still possible there may be some rewrites. Some lines 'read well' on paper, but don't work that well when spoken out loud. The writers here note that this is why it's so critical to read your work aloud to yourself as you go. Rewrites at this stage are almost always about polish, or related to the actor's performance. Actors will sometimes ad-lib an addition to the script that works better than what was written. Sometimes just the opposite will be true. Either way, what's spoken and what is in the script have to match up, and changes are made on either side. At this point it's very expensive to make any changes to the script, as it requires more time in the studio for actors.
During this timeframe, the cinematic pass is completed. Writers use the conversation toolset to do the groundwork for this pass, and are able to select things like camera angles, character emotions, music tracks, and related information to accompany their dialogue. During this phase of production, cinematic designers go in and make things actually look good, by adding custom animations, facial expressions, and unique camera movements. When the Final QA and stakeholders sign off on a part of the game at this point, a writer's work is completely done.
The writing group uses two tools to maintain the huge amount of information needed to make a BioWare game. Their primary tool, the conversation tool, keeps track of the thousands and thousands of words written for every NPC/PC interaction. They're visualized as trees, and allow writers to understand a conversation in finer detail than might otherwise be possible. This is the tool that allows writers to lay down basic emotional states for each character as well, to set the scene for the cinematic designers. Once voice-over work is completed, writers can go back and listen to the performance via this tool, to make sure what was said matches up with what was written. Basic camera movements can also be assigned, and even viewed if the scene is available to the tool. The plot manager is the other tool that the writers use ... but it apparently is almost useless away from a network, and very little could be said about it in a public setting.
The piece of Mass Effect's story used throughout the demonstration was the conversation had between Commander Shephard and the Krogan named Rex. Just after Shephard completes a mission, the Krogan calls the soldier over to converse about the player's activities. It was another example of the way the company approached storytelling in this game. Players have true freedom to ignore the alien, in which case they'll be missing out on a nice payment. If they do talk to the Krogan, and keep a civil tongue, they can end up with the mercenary joining the group. Further down the road, the choice of whether or not to have Rex in the PC's party has an (apparently) large impact on the way the game's story resolves. The footage was also notable because the Commander Shephard shown in the footage was a woman; though the company has long said that you have the option of playing as a female character, to my knowledge this is the first time footage with a female protagonist has been shown to the public.