I had the chance to sit down and talk to Mark Wilson, a previous designer at BioWare (Dragon Age Inquisition) and Team Bondi (L.A. Noire). Mark was one of the many great cogs in the BioWare machine, a company that isn’t afraid to leverage lots of big talent to make big games, while also working to create some of, at least what I believe, most interesting and in-depth levels a non-action game can have in LA Noire.
The thing about Mark that catches my eye the most is that he’s worked previously on a plethora of MUDs, some of which I had played in my early gaming career (Dragonball Universe as an example). When I was but a young man, I didn’t have a PC capable of playing some of the cooler games on the Internet, but one application ran perfectly fine – Telnet.
I got a few minutes to ask Mark some interesting questions about Dragon Age Inquisition, LA Noire, and his history of how he broke into game development from something as simplistic (especially now thinking back) as a MUD.
Getting into the Industry
Mark Wilson started his career in high school, playing MUDs. He was introduced to a Star Wars MUD by a friend’s brother and while playing, he noticed there was a bug, which admittedly he might have exploited a little bit, but he said you know, we should report this. The administrators didn’t have time to fix it, so he took it upon himself to download the codebase, learn C, and submit a fix.
From that point he never thought video games would be his career, even though he continued to work on MUDs, playing and creating them as a hobby. He switched back and forth on various things, mostly within music, until one day he met the General Manager of LA Noire at a convention, which got him in on that team, which led him to eventually working at BioWare on Dragon Age Inquisition, originally as a level designer, and then into technical designer.
Similarities between Small Scale MUD Development and Major Project Development
I talked briefly with him about taking his experience with MUD development and things he learned that worked / didn’t work into something bigger, like working on a project as large as Dragon Age Inquisition. For those of you who weren’t online in the late 90s/early 2000s, MUDs were literally the indie game scene for online gaming. You either made a MUD or a game in RPG Maker. The tools that are available to indie game developers now are far above and beyond what was available back then.
He found that a lot of game editors work similar to the way that MUDs do, and he successfully took that experience from one phase of his development work to the next. Back in the MUD times, you’d often build items and triggers and other usables that could be reused, even if it was in a different context. That experience replicated nicely when it came to level design and reusing various content to flesh the world out. Toolsets like this allowed a relatively small set of designers to create a large amount of content for Dragon Age Inquisition.
Dragon Age Inquisition’s MMO Inspiration
“Absolutely, a lot of designers were avid MMO players. Long time WoW players, we were all into all sort of games, FarCry 3 or 4, The Outpost, lots of games were inspiration. For Level Designers, Guild Wars 2 were a sticking point, the whole team played Guild Wars 2. The incidental caves where you could dive underwater, no other reason to go there for this little tidbit or moment of interest. The Inquisition Team tried to replicate a lot of that, which is what made it like an MMO. There are so many incidental stories across the world. For me Fallout 3 had a similar setting. Having a party there sharing the experience makes it feel like an MMO. It wasn’t a high level design decision, but it just emerged organically.”
Everyone at Ten Ton Hammer agrees that Dragon Age Inquisition is pretty much a single player MMO and it’s nice to see we aren’t the only ones who agree. While definitely nowhere near a bad thing, it’s interesting that there was that sort of layer where a lot of the development and design team did see the merits of some of Guild Wars 2 aggressive (but very positive) design decisions, such as the Vistas / Jumping Puzzles / easter egg bonanza throughout the world.
It’s also an interesting reminder that a lot of games, literally every one of them, in this modern era have a lot of inspiration from other games, not because people are on purpose copying them, but because they run into these inspiring and noteworthy ideas and enjoy them, and naturally want to recreate those experiences / enjoyment as they’re working on a game. It’s definitely something to think about whenever you run into something and go “oh, wow, that’s from X, neat!”
Circle of Influence – Moving from Small Time to Big Time Development
I asked a question that produced a very interesting answer, because of a discussion I had later at Dragon Con with Mark Jacobs and Andrew Meggs. I asked specifically what was the hardest part of moving from working on MUDs to something like a BioWare game, and the answer highlights one of the biggest things I think I learned at Dragon Con:
“The biggest difference from a small team to a big team is the circle of influence. If there is a problem in a MUD I can sit down and fix it myself, I just fixed that bug with my own hands and it’s magical and amazing experience when involved in a game. With Dragon Age Inquisition with a team of 100s of developers, to fix anything or create anything requires a lot more than one person. Being able to contribute in multiple streams is helpful, but you always have to work with other people. In smaller projects from start to finish you can add a new command or a new room. In a big team, nothing goes starts to finish as just your idea. It’s harder, but very much worth it.”
I think it’s interesting, because a lot of those starting out in game development do so as a solo thing – they load up an engine and start creating content. As their games grow, they bring in more and more help. No longer do the freebie models work, you want someone who can use Blender. You want someone who is good with sound. You want someone to help with content. Before you know it, you have a team going. Now grow this by the 100s and that’s what a professional large scale AAA environment is.
This actually is something I’ll discuss more in-depth later this week, but in the interview with the Camelot Unchained guys, they brought up the point that for them, having to work through a large team of developers would delay getting various fixes and updates into the game, which lowered the experience for the players on Warhammer Online. For an MMO, this time can really sour the experience, whereas in a single player game this is where a company leverages its strength, drawing from the experience and talent of a large pool of people, without having to worry about the development delays.
I had a very pleasant and interesting conversation with Mark Wilson and we’d like to thank him for taking his time out of a very busy convention for him to speak with us. I think it’s very positive to consider that almost anyone can get into the gaming industry if their passion is there. For Mark Wilson, it started with MUDs in high school (the same as it was for me) and eventually landed him on working on one of the biggest RPGs in recent history. So anyone out there who thinks that fooling around with something like Unity is a waste of their time, remember that for many game developers, it always started with a passion, and then led to a position.
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