SWTOR Former Developer Daniel Erickson Talks About Game Development
Former Bioware developer Daniel Erickson went on Reddit and commented on some of the game’s development process.
Here is the reddit thread: https://www.reddit.com/r/swtor/comments/98dckp/built_a_little_early_career_shrine_in_my_office/
- I was the first designer on the project, the original lead writer and the first named lead designer (James Ohlen was functionally director and lead designer when we were a smaller team). I designed all the multi-player storyteller systems, planned and led all the chapter 1-3 content, led all the VO, and did the spiritual but not the numbers design for both crafting and the free to play conversion. Plus I wrote and came up with Huttball which I still giggle about.
- We never properly priced out the cost of the Darth Malgus statues so lost money on the collector’s editions. Custom packaging, big ol boxes, etc. Also we got basically the most expensive people around to build that admittedly awesome statue. We could have made it up on volume if that was the standard game but of course that doesn’t work with limited editions. Part of why super complex board games mostly disappeared then came roaring back with Kickstarter once they could have an already bought in audience of a size possible to do a real factory run.
- At the peak of Bioware Austin SWTOR development, they had 200+ developers with about that many more working offsite, freelance, etc
- We started talking about the MMO when we were still making DAO and James’ vision was far more BioWare than MMO. Basically a huge, sprawling, ever expanding BioWare storyline with a multiplayer marketplace, social spaces and PVP. Like Netflix or HBO we were okay that people might unsubscribe for a bit then come back as new content appeared. We have their emails, they have the game, the worst part of marketing is done. “Hey, here’s the next Mass Effect chapter, want in?” seemed like a perfectly reasonable route and we wouldn’t have to start over every time.
- As we were sold twice (first to an investment company then to EA) the pressure for this to be the mega hit meant the finger kept being pointed at WoW. The problem of course is when you say “Okay, first we copy the most successful MMO of all time, THEN we…” you’ve pretty much set yourself up for misery. If you stand in the hallway of the first three chapters and don’t look around too much on the sides you can feel what James and I both originally wanted to build but there was no path forward on spending basically all of BioWare’s money and risking everything on a game nobody had ever seen. We actually did try some action combat stuff (saber locking was awesome…until a third person jumped in to shank you) but there were just too many battles to fight at once so we backed off to something safer.
- The game didn’t do as well as EA hoped because they wanted to unseat the king (WoW) with the same product instead of leaning into what BioWare was great at. But that never happens and any time your business model is “let’s be the best selling game ever or we lose” well, you can imagine. Guild Wars would not be considered successful under EA’s model.
- Writers for the class stories: A couple classes had shared duties due to time constraints, staff changes, etc. more of them, however are one person. Sith Warrior: Neil Pollner. Imperial Agent: Alex Freed. Sith Inquisitor: Rebecca Harwick. Trooper: Charles Boyd. Jedi Consular: Jo Berry.
- Hero Engine: That engine. Whew. When I wrote the book on the making of the game I tried to get our original lead engineer, Bill Dalton, to talk about HeroEngine and the lawyers removed every other word he said so I had to ditch the section.
- Getting DAO made was the hardest thing I’ve seen in my career from a marketing perspective. Marketing: “We don’t get it. What’s sexy here? What’s the hook?” Us: “Uh, every time we poll our fans they say they want Baldur’s Gate. So, uh, we’re gonna make Baldur’s Gate.” Marketing: “We don’t know how to sell that.” I did presentations on Dark Fantasy (remember there’s no Game of Thrones on TV yet), we threw some blood all over the place, pointed at the sexy people (hilarious with those graphics), etc. Eventually we basically just wore them down but they were never into it even after the success. Which, and I’m speculating here as I was gone from that team by then (as were all the key leads from DAO), is likely why DA2 and Inquisition both kept trying radically different directions.
General Game Developement
- When I went to an interview to direct on Assassin’s Creed (and this was years ago, after AC3 came out) they were extremely proud that “Someone’s always working on Assassin’s Creed!” They had the main studio in Montreal, a studio in Singapore, a team I think in France, something in China, etc. It is not unusual for a major GTA level title to have closer to 1000 people than 100 people now. Just hit that “credits” button and watch it scroll. Development team sizes were about 40-60 for AAA during the changeover to Playstation 2, almost 20 years ago. Now mobile game dev team sizes look like that for AAA. Part of the reason there’s so little experimentation in content but massive experimentation in monetization is that there’s no price elasticity in games: Players don’t want to pay more than $60 if the game costs 12 million or 200 million to make. 10 years ago the guidance we got at EA was a box game needed to sell 7 million units to be worth the effort of doing it, I imagine that’s much higher now.
- Post EA takeover I did some soul searching, helped a couple companies get new creative divisions or project concepts off the ground. Moved into mobile to learn more about data and direct consumer interaction (lessons we were woefully ignorant about when we launched SWTOR). A year ago I formed my own narrative studio. Alex Freed (Imperial Agent writer, Twilight Company novelist) came over to be my writing director and you may have seen the news that Drew Karpyshyn (original Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 1&2 lead writer) left BioWare to come join us.