I understand you are lead writer of Bioware’s Dragon Age. However what does being lead writer mean? That you have more responsibilities (more work both annoying and rewarding) or is the title mean you have final say over the plot of the game? Does it entail working closer to the programmers then other writers? I guess my question is what does being lead writer of a video game mean? — fan question
I get asked this question in various permutations quite frequently— and, even when I’m not asked it, I get the impression that people have wildly different interpretations of what it might mean.
So, okay. Bit of a boring post if you really have no interest at all in learning what a Lead Writer for BioWare actually does. If you do, then here you go.
First thing you’d need to understand is that there’s no single definition in the game industry as to what a “Lead Writer” is or does, or indeed even what a writer does at one company to the next. Some companies bring in writers after the rest of the game is designed, often on contract, to add a story and dialogue. Others have writers who also wear other hats, as level designers or even programmers. Only a few have full-time writers who only write, and who participate in the game’s design from the get-go— though that number does appear to be growing.
Second thing you’d need to understand is that the position at BioWare has changed over time. Back in the days of Baldur’s Gate 2, there was no such thing as a “Lead Writer”— all creative decisions and management were handled by the Lead Designer. As the team sizes grew, it became too much work for the Lead Designer to manage the entire design team directly— so some of the work began to be off-loaded to “sub-leads”. At first the Lead Writer was just the sub-lead responsible for keeping an eye on the overall narrative, making sure it flowed throughout the game and alerting the Lead Designer if something needed to change. Over time, more responsibilities were off-loaded to the sub-leads, until the Lead Designer became a position that is as much co-ordination of his sub-leads as it is creative leadership.
Make sense? No? Okay, let me strip it down a bit. At the top of the chain is the Project Director (Mark Darrah, in the case of Dragon Age). He co-ordinates his senior leads: Lead Designer, Lead Artist, and Lead Programmer primarily. Those senior leads in turn co-ordinate their sub-leads— for Design that’s Writing, Cinematic Design, Level Design, Combat, and Systems Design.
Those further up the chain provide direction to those further down the chain. Those further down the chain provide info on their particular specialty to those further up. So the Lead Designer will provide me, the Lead Writer, overall direction. I, in turn, will tell him what Writing needs and what we’d like to do… and he’ll take that into account along with what all his other sub-leads are asking for and make decisions as to who gets priority. Naturally he does this while getting direction from the Project Director above him, who is making decisions while consulting with his other senior leads.
It sounds very neat, though it’s really not. It’s messy. We sub-leads work together very closely, and are constantly trying to work out between ourselves what we need from each other. Sometimes there are conflicts our Lead Designer needs to make a call on. Sometimes our Lead Designer comes along with a direction change, which could be his own idea or something that’s come down to him from above. Either way, the sub-lead’s job is to implement that change to the best of our ability. Or to push back, if we think the change won’t work or implementing it would require things we don’t currently have. Often that means compromises. It always means meetings— meetings, meetings, and more meetings.
So the short of it is that, no, I don’t have final say on the plot of a game. The Writing team would be the first group to suggest what that plot might be, and we’d do that having received direction from above, but that proposal is going to go up the chain and then come back down with changes— and is going to need to incorporate desires from other parts of the team.
So if someone pictures being Lead Writer as a scriptwriter or the person who dictates what the creative vision might be— then, no, that’s not the case. Not at BioWare, anyhow. I as Lead Writer have a lot of influence over the game’s story, sure, and the more something is entirely a Writing thing and doesn’t involve any other departments, the more I will have say over it, but ultimately I am a coordinator for the writers under me and an arbiter of how my writers are going to work together. Without me, the writers would be going in many creative directions— so I keep them on task, and am the point of contact for everyone else who needs something from us. I am also the guy who sticks up for Writing’s interests (which ultimately boils down to “the interests of the story and the setting”) when it comes into conflict with other departments.
Beyond this, I also have my regular writing tasks. I have marginally less than the other writers, as a lot of my time is taken up being in meetings and other administrative tasks, but I need to do writing on my personal plots and characters just as the rest of my writers do. If being a Lead Writer ever reached the point where I was solely a coordinator and administrator, and wasn’t actually writing any longer, I don’t think I’d want to do it.
Ultimately, if you want to simplify it even more, I spend my day doing my writing tasks and chatting with the other writers about what they’re working on— sometimes arguing and making decisions over direction, and looping in the Lead Designer when it’s a decision above my pay grade. Sometimes the Lead Designer comes in to tell us about a change that’s needed for X reason, and we argue. I write some angry emails, go to a lot of meetings, act like a cheerleader to get other people excited about the story, re-write whatever I’m working on a dozen times (and inform my writers that, yes, they need to re-write whatever they’re working on yet again— joy of joys), fix an endless list of bugs that only grows as the project goes on …and ultimately wonder how we manage to get anything done at all.
We do. Eventually. There’s a point in the project where an actual game will start to magically manifest. And you can play it! And all those things you cut which seemed so detrimental and awful and how-does-the-story-even-work-anymore don’t seem like they were quite so bad because everything is still pretty awesome.
So… yeah. That’s what being a Lead Writer at BioWare is about, more or less. Sometimes the other writers give me a look like “I have no idea why anyone would want to do your job.” Which is funny, because it seems like everyone on the outside thinks my job must be the best thing ever.
And it is! Most days. I mean, once the game is on the shelf and all, you have that singular moment of thisisthebestjobever. But it’s not quite what most people think, I’m sure.