Game Reviews,  My Life,  The Lazy Designer

BioWare-Brent Year 1 (1999)

This will be the first of ten posts, one for each year that I worked for BioWare.

After graduating the summer of 1999 from the University of Alberta I set out to look for a job. You know, to pay that massive student loan I had.

I sent about fifty resumes out, mostly programming jobs. But one of the places I applied to had a kind of goofy name. BioWare. It just kind of rolls out of the mouth, eh?

The job blurb stated that it was a gaming company. That sounded fun. I remembered applying to Sierra years ago (and getting rejected) and figured that it wouldn’t hurt to apply. Additionally I found out that Cameron Tofer (now running HermitWorks), a guy I had went to college with up in Grande Prairie, was working there.

They said they wanted some kind of programming writing hybrid. Preferably of the human variety, but they were open to anything. So I sent some stories with my resume.

Now what really sucked and why I will always always hate Telus (one of Canada’s stellar telephone providers) was that all my roommates moved out and canceled my phone service. And Telus said it would take a few months before I got a new phone line. Seriously. Yes, I lived in a mall, but how hard was it to connect a new line. So I bought a cellphone, and not one of those small ones that started being trendy. A big, mid-80s, brick like cellphone. I still have it. My kids hit each other over the head with it.

One day it rang. It was BioWare (well, not obviously the company, but I think it was Greg Zeschuk, one of the co-founders of the company). I was invited in for an interview.

I had a longish, multi-part interview (boy, was I overdressed — Greg Zeschuk, who was my tour guide for the interview process was wearing shorts and walking around barefoot).

One highlight of the interview was writing a bubble sort on the whiteboard in Scott Greig’s (the programming director at the time) office. That was fun. They asked me questions, I gave them answers. I got to brag that I had a published Dragon article. They took me for lunch and we didn’t talk about anything relevant to my job interview at all. I didn’t know if that was good or bad.

Anyways, they hired me.

See mom & dad, playing Dungeons and Dragons did get me a job!

I started work with BioWare in August 1999.

My first day was especially memorable since it never happened. I was all nervous and excited and took my hour long commute across the city (never had a vehicle back then) to get to work and…

It was closed. See, August in Alberta gives us a nice little holiday and that happened to coincide with my first day of work. The doors were all locked up, I had no way to get in. I had a couple initial thoughts standing out on Whyte Avenue (where the office was located back then).

1. They hadn’t actually hired me. It was a joke and everyone was behind those locked doors, big smiles on their faces.
2. BioWare had shut down. After all they had only put out two games to this point (Baldur’s Gate and Shattered Steel). Maybe they hadn’t survived.

In either case I was kicking myself for declining a higher paying programming position with another company (they wrote software for farmers, I think). Using a pay phone (yes, those used to exist at one time — I was too embarrassed to take my cellphone out in public) I called the office. Ring. Ring. Ring.

Finally, an answer. It was Marc Holmes, I think, then the art director on an unannounced project — Neverwinter Nights and he told me nobody else was at work, to go home, and come back the next day.

So I did.

I was trained initially by Kevin Martens and James Ohlen, who were the Lead Designers on the in-progress title Baldur’s Gate 2. One thing I remember is James’ fondness for naming things inappropriately during the training process… we eventually had to send a memo around asking people to stop doing that because even when such elusive items as the dagger of shit were not given out in the game, crafty gamers still found them.

I was also trained by John Winski and shared a small office with Mark Darrah and his collection of creepy toys.

During this first year I learned how to write dialog (rather poorly, it became apparent, few of my plots made it into Baldur’s Gate 2 but I still think my dialog remains on the characters in the Planar Sphere), script dialog, and do loads of data entry — the actual nuts and bolts building the things people talked to and killed in the game. Since I did this kind of work for free on my own, being paid for doing it was a bonus.

I also received my first and only negative employee review. The basic gist was that I wasn’t getting things done fast enough. Well, that kind of pissed me off, so I really thought about why that was happening.

At that time BioWare used the Infinity Scripting Language, and while the language itself was interesting, the method for using it was, well, pretty dumb. See, all the coding for the logic in the game was being written in notepad, or whatever other text editor the designer had access to. Then it was compiled via command-line. Finding errors was complicated, deploying it to the resources was complicated.

For those who don’t code, this is a really inefficient scenario, except for a few, crazy extreme programming types. For the rest of us who like syntax highlighting, and easy error detection, plain text programming is brutal. Take my word for it.

So I wrote my own visual script editor (This would be just the start of a long love/hate relationship between me and the tools needed to make games). It was eventually deployed to all the other designers creating content and proved a rather useful tool. A link to a download can still be found at Planet BaldursGate (No longer available.)

After that I stopped getting bad reviews :)

That first year was a very fun experience and perhaps a slightly inaccurate view of the gaming industry. We were a small team, working on a solid engine that seldom crashed, and were mostly focused on creating a content rich experience. We were all about building something fun, and weren’t overly concerned with anything but that.

Probably the super highlight was when the clever writers took my Skin Dancing story and grafted it onto an existing serial killer plot to create a pretty awesome subplot. I also remember reading a forum post one day where a fan suggested adding party containers (which were missing in Baldur’s Gate 1) by reusing the store interface. So we did that, and it was a cool, low cost feature. I was very engaged with our forums back then. I also did a couple interviews/articles, which was awesome, being one of the newest members to the team and being given such an opportunity.

It was not all fun and games, there was a lot of hard work and long hours (though no sleeping at my desk — that would wait until Neverwinter Nights). I’m sure my wife (we got married midway through the project) hated it, but I was having fun, though I still have nightmares about scripting David Gaider’s Underdark plot. That thing was so complicated — when I drew out the flowchart of possible interactions I almost cried. I have to script that!?!?

Back then the individual designers were free to populate their areas with whatever they wanted, so I took the liberty of including a lot of the D&D characters from my youth (i.e., the alter egos of my high school friends). One of them, Andorian, the minotaur, still raises questions on the message boards. I love the speculation involving him, people thinking he belongs to a hidden quest and so on. Sorry to disappoint, he’s just the D&D character of one of my friends and I had nowhere else to put him.

Baldur’s Gate 2 was released September 2000, just a year after I had started. And what a year! I won’t ever forget the feeling of pride, seeing Baldur’s Gate 2 on store shelves — nothing since has professionally ever come close to that (except for maybe this).

Even as a junior designer I felt I had made a contribution to BG2 and will always remember that first year fondly.

“BioWare-Brent Year1” copyright 2009-2011 by Brent Knowles

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


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