The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Daniel Erickson Interview

Daniel Erickson is the lead writing director at Bioware, perhaps best known for his work on Dragon Age: Origins, and the highly anticipated upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. Mr. Erickson has also worked as a game critic for the now defunct Daily Radar website, and has production and design credit for the NBA Street and SSX series from EA sports.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us today

1. What’s the job of lead writer like? Do you mostly co-ordinate other writers and their work? Do you get to do much writing yourself?

Erickson: It varies from game to game. On Dragon Age and Mass Effect, for instance, the lead writers are critical path writers, contributing huge amounts of actual hands-on content to the game. With a writing staff the size of the one on The Old Republic I get to do a little writing here and there but most of the time I’m more of the guiding force behind the fiction content for the game. As a former lead designer, I’m also more involved in the senior design structure than I think is usual for a lead writer so my duties are a bit more eclectic.

2. How do you feel about working with a pre-existing Intellectual Property (Like Star Wars) as opposed to one that you’ve been able to build from the ground up? (Like Dragon Age) Do you have a preference?

Erickson: They both have advantages and disadvantages. I loved working on Dragon Age: Origins and being able to come up with a world the team owns is extremely rewarding. It’s also a ton of work and means you have to educate players on all the rules, expectations, etc. You can’t assume any familiarity with the content. With something like Star Wars you’ve got built in fan appeal and a huge amount of content to draw from so you can just jump in and get started which can save months or even years of time. That said, there are a huge amount of Star Wars experts out there so you better know you stuff and you don’t have the flexibility to change the way the world’s mythology works to get around a sticky design decision like you can with your own IP.

3. Have you found writing for games has challenges you didn’t expect?

Erickson: It can be difficult to work in an aspect of game design that’s so much in its infancy that many people still don’t understand why you’re there or see it as a necessary evil. I doubt programmers and artists have to justify their existence as much as writers do. Also, like design, it’s something everyone thinks they understand and can do/comment on.

4. You’ve been quoted as saying: “You can teach a writer to be a junior game designer. You cannot teach a junior game designer to be a writer.” Do you think the two disciplines should be taught and implemented together, rather than as separate aspects of game development?

Erickson: What I was saying there is that writing is a specialty discipline like anything else in games. You’re either a writer or you’re not and if you’re not, you’ll never be anything more than mediocre at it. If mediocre is fine for your game and nobody much cares about the writing than sure, give the writing tasks to a random designer who enjoys it and move on. In the same way I wouldn’t bring in a screenwriter, train them to do basic design and then ask them to balance my combat system! And yes, cross training is crucial so that all designers learn about the complexities of and respect each other’s specialties.

5. Do you have a favorite bit of Bioware writing? A particular conversation or narrative thread that you thought was exceptionally funny or epic or spot on in characterization?

Erickson: I don’t know about a specific line, but I’m proud of the city-elf origin in Dragon Age. I did a ton of research for that one; made sure I really understood the subject matter and tackled some issues rarely seen in videogames. And I tried to do it in a way that I felt was adult and mature in the actual sense of the words, not an excuse for juvenile titillation.

6. Any brief words of advice for the next generation of game writers/designers?

Erickson: Writers write. That’s how you know you are one. Run pen and paper RPGs. You’ll learn a ton about player agency and writing your stories for the audience instead of yourselves. Designers design. Make board games, make card games, learn to do basic programming and make web apps. Anything and everything you can do to test your ideas of what makes fun.

Thank you very much for your time!

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

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