My Life,  The Lazy Designer

BioWare-Brent Year 5 (Fall 2003 – Summer 2004)

This is the fifth of ten posts, one for each year that I worked for BioWare.

Conquering the Hordes of the Underdark

As summer 2003 turned into fall, the Hordes of the Underdark team was hard at work on the second Neverwinter Nights expansion. We were fast approaching our deadlines and I was able to poach writer Drew Karpyshyn from Knights of the Old Republic and have him join the team. The extra writing manpower, plus all the hard work from the existing team members powered us through and Hordes went gold in November. I am still very proud of the effort we put into Expansion Pack 2 — the story, the experiments we did with writing dialog differently, the high quality cinematics and the new technical systems we added. We were playing with many new concepts, many of which would see their way into BioWare’s next generation of role-playing games — Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. At the same time we really raised the bar of what could be done with the Neverwinter system.

In the end I think everyone could agree that even with some of the delays and the slight increase from original manpower, the right decision had been made when we decided for a story/system-based expansion rather than a purely content based expansion (which had been seriously considered initially).

The Dragon Age

When we wrapped up Hordes, the team disbanded and moved onto various other projects. I had already been going to the planning meetings for Dragon Age and transitioned easily to the project, which was still in the early stages. The team had created an internal demo and they were now busy prototyping ideas and designing the world. I became the lead technical designer (I would eventually become the lead designer, a few years down the road, and Yaron Jakobs would inherit the lead tech mantle).

James Ohlen had already done most of the rules planning — how the rules should work, what the core mechanics were and so on — and had fleshed out initial creature and spell lists. Though these would change over the years they would keep a lot of that original feel. I went about writing simulations to investigate how the rules could be balanced and doing design work on how the item systems should interact with the rules. As well I (with Emmanuel and Yaron) would oversee a lot of the design requirements for the various tools designers would eventually need. And a whole lot of system prototyping was being done — I think around this time Emmanuel pitched the ‘injury’ system, for example.

From the get-go the rule system was made to be computer friendly. What this meant was that as much as possible we would try and prevent exceptions — Dungeons and Dragons is full of exceptions with a lot of obscure knowledge scattered across various books (and various player’s brains). Exceptions can cause a lot of frustration when coding… and increase testing requirements (A creature that is immune to fire except on even numbered days is an example of an annoying exception). Designers at BioWare do tend to like exceptions however (they give the rules flavor) and are often willing to move those exceptions into data or the scripting language. The scripting language is the layer between the code and the designer tools that is used to make things ‘come alive’. In many ways it is much like code, giving designers a fair degree of power over how the game behaves. In those early days we played around with where in the rules complexity would have the biggest pay-off — the spell combination system was one example where we felt exceptions would add value, another was the large-creature system (i.e., loads of custom art, animation, programming and design work went into building the more complicated creatures like ogres and dragons).

Anyways the rules were decidedly ‘computer only’ but Yaron and Emmanuel and a few others were brave enough to try their hand at playing the rules with pen and paper… it was a painful experience but it did serve to show rules imbalances that were not appearing in my simulators. I’m very curious to check out the Dragon Age pen and paper system being developed by Green Ronin — it will be interesting to see how they ended up interpreted the rules for pen and paper. Once I pick that up I’ll probably post a little review here.

Anyways, work proceeded on Dragon Age — which at the time was known as Chronicles (we didn’t even have Grey Wardens yet!). We also didn’t have a lot of dragons, if any, at this point — that would come later. It was early stages stuff, and the first time I had been involved, if not from the beginning on a project, very close to it. Lots of ideas were being tossed around as the core design principles for the setting, gameplay and story materialized. It was an exciting time and though Dragon Age – Origins is a great game, it is just the tip of the iceberg that will be the Dragon Age franchise.

But there was still a lot of work ahead before even that first game would be complete.

Previous: BioWare-Brent Year 4

“BioWare-Brent Year 5” copyright 2009 by Brent Knowles

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