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!

R.A. Salvatore

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 Realms.”

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

Ten Ton Hammer: *laughs*

Salvatore: 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."?

Salvatore: 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 people.

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

Salvatore: 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.

Salvatore: 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?

Salvatore: 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!"

Salvatore: 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 after. 

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: *chuckles*

Menzoberranzan boxed set

Salvatore: 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 computer. 

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.

Salvatore: 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!

Salvatore: 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.

Salvatore: 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.

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

Ten Ton Hammer: Exactly!

Salvatore: 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.

Forgotten 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: *laughs*

Salvatore: 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?

Salvatore: 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?

Salvatore: 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!"

Can there be a better dream?

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 in.

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?

Salvatore: 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?

Salvatore: 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.

Salvatore: 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: *laughs*

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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