Exclusive Interview with 38 Studios' R.A. Salvatore

The act of creation is thrilling. Whether you're a painter, musician, actor, or writer, making a world come to life in a particular medium is an amazing experience. So imagine that you're creating...

The act of creation is thrilling. Whether you're a painter, musician, actor, or writer, making a world come to life in a particular medium is an amazing experience. So imagine that you're creating an entire world - top to bottom - that will be filled with thousands (if not millions) of people that are creating their own individual stories. Intimidating? You bet.

But if there's anyone that can do it, 38 Studios' R.A. Salvatore certainly has the credentials to make it happen. Every so often, we sit down with R.A. to see how the story and history of Copernicus is progressing. While the studio still can't state specifics, there certainly are some hints in Salvatore's discussion. Check it out!

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Ten Ton Hammer:
When you were originally concepting the Dark Elf Trilogy after the
success of Icewind Dale and fleshing out Menzoberranzan, were you given
any directions by TSR initially, or were you given free reign? Did they
say “Go at it? You've obviously set the precedent here, so
create what you want?”

R.A. Salvatore:
It was actually a pretty funny conversation. I called TSR and said,
"Ok, you want me to define the dark elves and their society. I have the
old Dungeons & Dragons modules that follow the Against the
Giant series (Descent to the Depths of the Earth, Queen of the Demonweb
Pits, The Vault of the Drow). I've got all that. I also have the Fiend
Folio entry for dark elves (which was like a page, if that). That's all
I've got. What else do you have?" They said, "That's all we have." and
I said, "But... but... but..."  They said, "Oh no. Go ahead.
You have carte blanche to create the dark elves in the Forgotten

So I went and got Mario Puzo's The Godfather out.

Ten Ton Hammer:

I'm serious. That was where I started developing the society
of the dark elves. Between that and the old Gygax modules.

Ten Ton Hammer:
So as your books have become more popular, do editors
and publishers take a more hands off approach with you now and just
say, "You've obviously proven yourself? You can write these books.
We've done this with you before and you know how the editing process
works." Or do they still go at your text and say, "We need to fix this,
we need to fix this, etc."?

Yes and no. At Wizards of the Coast and TSR, they have two
different kinds of books that they write. They write the books that
support the game, like the Avatar series; books that really tie the
world to the D&D mythos. Then you have the other storytelling
books like mine, and Doug Niles’ original Dark Walker on
Moonshae series, and Jeff Grubbs’ Azure Bonds and there have
been a whole bunch since, where they take a more hands off approach
because we're telling more personal stories that don't really affect
the wider world.

So with me, there have been times when they've tried to bring me more
into the bigger world. Sometimes it's worked really well, other times
it's been disastrous for all of us. It's a back and forth.

They don't tell me what to write. That's one of the big misperceptions.
I mean, if I turned in a book in which my entire group of heroes got
killed, there might be some pushback. Certainly from the marketing

Ten Ton Hammer:
Right. They want to see those sequels. More sequels
equal more readership, right?

But... if I did that, they’d let me do it. I have
complete confidence in that. They'd let me run. They're trusting my
instincts on my books. It's a good relationship. They don't limit me
very much at all. I understand the sandbox that I'm playing in and how
much I can push the limits one way or another and I don't work in a
vacuum. But I still have creative control.

Ten Ton Hammer:
So shifting gears a little bit, EverQuest turned 10
this year.

Yeah, imagine that!

Ten Ton Hammer:
Did you start playing when it was first released, or
did you pick it up during one of the expansions? Did you find it on
your own?

It was a couple of months. When I came into the game, the
highest level characters running around were in their teens.

But remember, back in EverQuest, it took you awhile to get up in the
game. It wasn't like the games today where you play for ten hours and
you're level 30.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Yeah, I remember seeing my first set of bronze and
going, "Wow. This is fantastic!"

Absolutely! The last story that I heard before creating a
character was that people were fighting over bronze pieces in Unrest.
So I came in soon after the game released. It was probably three months

I remember the first time I stepped into the game. It was funny because
two of my friends had been playing, so they were like level 9 or 12,
around there, and three of us decided to join in. Two of them creating
characters in Freeport, but I created a Barbarian warrior in Halas.

Ten Ton Hammer:

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boxed set

They said, "Ohhh. This is going to be hard. We've got to get
you to Freeport." And I'm like, "Ok. What do you mean?” They
said, "Well, you've got to go through some pretty bad places so we'll
come there and get you." They picked me up outside of Halas after I
figured out how to swim and stop drowning trying to leave the place.

They cast SoW (Spirit of the Wolf) on me and they said no matter what
you do, don't stop running. So we took off from Halas, through
Everfrost, and Black Burrow into the Karanas. We avoided all the big
ugly spiders and just kept running and running. We got into the gorge
of King Xorbe and just kept running. And remember, this is in the days
of dial up and pretty crappy computers. All of a sudden my screen goes
black and I'm like, "Oh no. My system crashed." So I rebooted my

And of course we didn't have Ventrillo or anything like that and we
didn't have cell phones, really. We were using land lines and since we
were using them for dialing, we couldn't really call each other or we'd
knock each other offline. It was an entirely different world.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Unless you had a second connection.

Exactly! Which I didn't. I logged back on and they're like,
"What are you doing? Why did you do that?” I'm like, "My
computer locked up."

No it didn't. A mud man hit me with mud. 

Ten Ton Hammer:
Oh no!

Yeah. *laughs* I thought my computer locked up, so I shut
off my computer. At least I didn't die.

But now I had wasted time, and they were all upset that I had wasted
time, because we had to go through Kithicor.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Right. Oh. It'd be getting close to night time.

Yeah, nighttime.

I remember after that first day, I called some friends at Del Rey
almost immediately and told them, “You need to do a book line
immediately. I could write a thousand books in this world.”

I still think, to me... and I haven't played many, so I'm probably not
the right person to ask... but to me, EverQuest remains (from a content
standpoint) the gold standard.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Yeah. There was just so much. I don't know if the
initial writers left so much unsaid that the players were just like,
"This must be this, and this must be this." It felt so big.

Why does this dark elf named Kizdean Gix keep chasing me and
killing me? I don't understand.

Ten Ton Hammer:

Loved the game. Loved it.

Ten Ton Hammer:
On your gaming front, do you still play EverQuest, or
have you moved onto WoW, or Warhammer Online? What are you playing now?

Salvatore: I
moved onto WoW... reluctantly. EverQuest had gotten to the
point where you really couldn't play alone because you were too high of
a level and they were going in weird directions. You were going to the
moon and to all these different planes. It really didn't give me that
fantasy thrill anymore. So we were ready to move on.

WoW came out and EQ2 came out and there was a real argument over which
way we were going. My friends went WoW. I went WoW with them and really
came to like WoW a lot. I really appreciate the polish, the smoothness,
the easy flow of the game. The way NPC's know why you're talking to
them so the interaction is very intuitive. The UI is beautiful; the
game is easy to play.

So on a lot levels, I really came to enjoy World of Warcraft. There are
some really good places in WoW too. I think the starter zones for
humans (Elwynn Forest, Westfall, Redridge Mountains, Duskwood) are four
of the best zones put together that I've ever seen.

Having said that though, I think I'm on the end of my WoW campaign days.

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Realms: Demon Stone

Ten Ton Hammer:
It seems a lot of people are getting burned out.

Salvatore: I
don't blame anyone for that. I think of an MMO an awful
lot like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. After a couple of
years, the characters are god-like, you can't rewind it, and maybe it's
time to go on. Once I lose the sense of adventure, it's time to change
the channel.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Moving on to your current project and projects you've
done before, how different is it for you to create a world where people
can actually visually make your characters, like when you worked on
Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone for Stormfront? How different was that
for you, writing for that game compared to any of your books where
*you* have a visualization of your characters compared to Stormfront or
38 Studios making that visualization for you? Does it make it easier or
harder for you?

Salvatore: I
think both, in different ways. Stormfront was really more
of a learning experience for me. I mean, I was connected to the game
and I wrote the story, but it had to fit into their size requirements
and all the rest of it. Really, my involvement was minimal. I mean, I
helped them create the characters, the history of the characters, and
the story, but as a console game, what controlled that was the A.I.
that they used. You had the ability to switch on the fly between any of
the three characters, get new skill sets, and the AI of the other two
would keep them moving along. It was really quite brilliant.

With 38 Studios, it's a very different experience because I'm creating
the world, the races, and the history. I have a team working with me,
and for me, so to speak. This is a ground up project. Every bit of it
has my stamp on it. The art team, when they come up with a new concept,
they come up to me asking, "What do you think? Does this fit?" So it's
a very, very different experience.

Now it's harder because when I'm writing, even though I write so many
books in a shared world, I don't like to be bound by other people. I
like to be able to do what I want to do; what the story tells me to do.
On the other hand, it's easier because I don't have to imagine every
building, every dragon, and every monster.

When you're standing on the shoulders of giants, whether it's Ed
Greenwood in the Forgotten Realms, or the artists like [Keith]
Parkinson, [Larry] Elmore, [Clyde] Caldwell, and [Todd] Lockwood or the
artists we have here at 38 Studios, they're giving *you* things that
inspire you.

The hardest thing for me in developing a new world is that because it's
an MMO, and I'm an MMO player, I understand something. I'm also a
pretty good dungeon master by the way.

Ten Ton Hammer:

The first thing you avoid is holding people by the hand and
dragging them where you want them to go. When I'm writing a book, the
characters that I write are the ones that you will live through for the
story. In a game, an MMO, the character that matters is the one you
create. If I did a Forgotten Realms MMO, you may like being able to
interact with Elminster or Drizzt, but the bottom line is it's not
their story, it's yours. And if it's not your story, then why are you
playing? That's a hard adjustment.

Ten Ton Hammer:
How are you changing things compared to other MMOs? In
other current MMOs, you feel like the hero in the end, but at the same
time there are some godlike characters in the world, like Thrall or the
Lich King in World of Warcraft. You might end up killing them
eventually, but at the same time, as a player, you still don't feel
quite as powerful as these characters. Are you taking a different tact
on that than other MMO's?

Yes. At the beginning of the MMO, certainly, you're going to
see these characters. They're going to be impressive in their
animations and their equipment and you know they'd kick your butt, but
you're going to be one of them as our game goes along. I really can't
get into too much detail about the way we're trying to let you tell
your story in our world, but suffice it to say that paramount among it
is the ability of players to influence their environment.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Right. I gotcha. Initially when you started writing
this world, was this something that you'd been thinking about prior to
Curt [Schilling] coming up to you and saying, "I want to make an MMO
and I want you to be a part of the studio?" Had you thought about doing
that before Curt approached you?

Absolutely! Ever since I stepped into Norrath, I knew this
was going to become the next big thing in storytelling, particularly in
the fantasy genre, which translates so beautifully to the game format.
I've wondered for 10 years now, what is the author’s role in
this type of project? So I was mentally prepared to jump in and be part
of a team that's exploring that.

Now the world itself, Curt and his friends had come up with some ideas
that they really wanted to explore in an MMO. When they told me their
story, I could see what they were missing. I knew what was missing.
Instinctively, I knew where they were on target and where they were
missing. So I took their idea and added one *huge* component to it and
when I did, they all kind of looked at me and went, "Yeah!"

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Can there be
a better dream?

style="font-weight: bold;">Salvatore: From
there, I put together my team, my old Seven Swords team, and added
my kids. My two sons joined in. We created a 10,000 year history of the
world for the MMO so that everyone that comes into the company sees
these deep threads so they understand why the races are where they are,
who they are, what their relationships are to the other races, the
commerce of the world, why it's this way, why these races have this
deep-seated ancient hatred, etc.

So what happens is, the mechanics team, the content team, the art team,
are all painting on the same tapestry. And it's working. I know it's
working because when we first started, the art team came up to me and
said, "What do you think of this concept?” I'd be like,
"Well... I think this is kind of missing this because of this with this
race. This might not quite fit because here's where they came from,
here's who they really are." When the content team would tell me the
stories they were adding to the more recent histories or the story of
the game itself, I would say, "Yeah, but..."

This was a year and a half ago. Now, my reaction is almost universally,
"Wow!" because they've all bought into it. They all understand it.
They've all taken ownership of the world. So they know who these races
are, what they look like, what they feel like, what they smell like,
what motivates them. They know that as well as I do. Everybody's bought

Ten Ton Hammer:
Is that something you typically do with most of your
stories, create this 10,000 year history or is it something you had to
do for this MMO just because it is such a vast scope compared to the
limited scope of a book?

With the Forgotten Realms, obviously most of it was already
there. Ed [Greenwood] had gone through the same process, starting when
he was 8 years old, creating the Forgotten Realms. I'm not even making
that up.

With Demon Wars, I really did go back and build societal structures,
several hundred years of history, modeled very much after our world
with the added ingredients of magic and other races that I put in. This
is the first time I've done it to this level.

I really think if you look at the content of what we've created, you
would be *stunned!* A Wiki that is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds
of pages of the lore of the races, the history of the races, the
history of the world. I've never done anything like this.

Ten Ton Hammer:
It'll be fascinating to come in and see it, just
because, from a writer's standpoint, seeing what a team of writers can
do when presented with a uniform structure. How many people do you have
working underneath you?

There are about 65 people here at the studio, but on the
content team... six on the content team, which includes another writer
who has been brought in, doing some wonderful work. Several of them are
writers, but we have one who is specifically adding lyricism where it's
needed, so to speak.

We have a mechanics team of 5 or 6 people that I interact with on a
fairly regular basis. One of them is my son, so I have a lot of insight
into what they're doing all the time. One of the people on the content
team is Mike Leger who actually worked on the Menzoberranzan boxed set
with me and has been a member of my Dungeons & Dragons group
since 1989.

Ten Ton Hammer:
That's a long time to be playing D&D together.

Yeah. It's pizza night. Then the art team I think has now,
between the animators and the artists, like 14 or 15, and I interact
with them, particularly like with the character team and the
environment team, on a regular basis with them as well.

Ten Ton Hammer:
So as a final question, as work continues to progress
on Copernicus, what has it felt like to you to really watch it emerge?
Because obviously, I've read in your interviews, and personally as a
writer, when you make an outline for a book, by the time you finish
your manuscript, lots of things have changed. It might even change from
version to version. How has it been to watch such a big story emerge,
take shape, and flow off the outline?

Salvatore: I
get exactly what you're saying. Picture that on steroids.

Ten Ton Hammer:

style="font-weight: bold;">Salvatore:
I mean, you have the needs of the game. My job lately, has
become more that of a kind of "sage". So we'll sit in the content
meeting and the last time, Steve Danuser who's in charge of that entire
area (he's like my direct report), Steve handed it over to me because I
told him I wanted to remind people of something. So I pulled out this
green binder. That green binder was the original presentation of our
world to the original members of 38 Studios. I said, "Don't forget the
charm of what we were trying to do."

So my job is to constantly remind them of the "how cool would it be
if?" attitude we had when we first approached this so we don't get put
in the box of just being another MMO. "Well this is how we're doing
this because this is how it's always been done." 

That's not what we're here for.

It's been an incredible ride!

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