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Interview with David Gaider

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Interview with David Gaider

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 13 January 2006, 09:51:35

Tags: BioWare; David Gaider

David Gaider of Bioware fame was kind enough to drop everything and answer a few questions about ... well, a lot of things, so you better see for yourself. Here is a snipet:

2. Turn-based vs real-time, your thoughts? Disclaimer: I'm not asking if Bioware would ever make a TB game or which system is better. I'm asking for your own opinion, preferences, even bias - anything goes.

I enjoy a good turn-based combat system. “Temple of Elemental Evil” did it very well, I thought, and I remember the first “X-Com” game being one of my all-time faves (though it’s not an RPG, of course). I remember when “X-Com: Apocalypse” came out, however, and it was going from turn-based to pauseable real-time combat and the fans of the series were in an uproar – me included – enough so that the developers put in a way to optionally use the old turn-based system instead. Much to my surprise I actually found that I enjoyed the real-time combat more. It was faster, and so long as I could still pause and give orders I still felt I had the ability to oversee and control everything that I wanted to. When I played “Baldur’s Gate” (which was before I started at Bioware), I found I really enjoyed the pauseable real-time combat there, too, even if it could get a bit hectic during large combats. Full real-time, however, the kind where you can’t give orders while paused – that stuff I just have no time for. It’s the main reason I don’t play most RTS games.

There is more where it came from





1. Let's skip "tell us your name" questions and start with design stuff. What's your definition of RPG? What features or design elements are important to you in an RPG and why? What RPGs, if any, have influenced you or left a strong impression?

Trying to define an RPG is bound to get someone into trouble – get any group of RPG fans together and they’re not likely to agree on the elements of an RPG that they find most important. So, with the understanding that it’s hardly definitive, I’d have to say that I look for two main things:

1. The ability to play a character of my own design, and
2. Having some ability to decide my destiny and how I’d like to go about accomplishing things.

RPG’s that don’t allow me to create my own character just don’t feel very personal to me. I’ve played many games, as well, that feel too controlling for me – they don’t give you any options other than, say, occasionally letting you wander around and fight things – as well as other games that feel far too open – they concentrate more on world simulation world than on maintaining a coherent story. There have been RPG’s at either end of that spectrum that I’ve enjoyed, but I’d say that my ideal is somewhere in the middle of the two. I’d like to receive some direction and feel that there’s a plot that’s important and providing me an immediate imperative to follow, but I’d also like some freedom to explore and occasionally choose how I’m going to solve a problem on my own, without being left to wander aimlessly or feel overwhelmed.

As far as specific RPG’s that have influenced me? “Ultima IV” was the first game I remember that went beyond having combat being the answer to everything; needing to perform tasks that concentrated on charity and compassion and such in order to become the Avatar was a great feeling. I adored “Darklands” for its setting and system (Dark Fantasy is probably my favorite genre). If anything, I just wish it had offered a little more direction and was less merciless. “Blade of Destiny” offered a lot of things I liked, too… its travel system, in particular. There are other games I enjoyed a lot, but those are probably the earliest RPG’s that I was influenced by.

2. Turn-based vs real-time, your thoughts? Disclaimer: I'm not asking if Bioware would ever make a TB game or which system is better. I'm asking for your own opinion, preferences, even bias - anything goes.

I enjoy a good turn-based combat system. “Temple of Elemental Evil” did it very well, I thought, and I remember the first “X-Com” game being one of my all-time faves (though it’s not an RPG, of course). I remember when “X-Com: Apocalypse” came out, however, and it was going from turn-based to pauseable real-time combat and the fans of the series were in an uproar – me included – enough so that the developers put in a way to optionally use the old turn-based system instead. Much to my surprise I actually found that I enjoyed the real-time combat more. It was faster, and so long as I could still pause and give orders I still felt I had the ability to oversee and control everything that I wanted to. When I played “Baldur’s Gate” (which was before I started at Bioware), I found I really enjoyed the pauseable real-time combat there, too, even if it could get a bit hectic during large combats. Full real-time, however, the kind where you can’t give orders while paused – that stuff I just have no time for. It’s the main reason I don’t play most RTS games.

3. Class-based vs skill-based. Same applies: opinions, preferences, bias, value for you, etc.

I don’t really have a preference, here. I’ve seem both systems done well and also done poorly. If anything, I tend to find learn-by-doing systems to be the most flawed, but a skill-based system doesn’t automatically mean learn-by-doing so it’s not an inherent weakness. It seems that class-based systems are more common with party RPG’s – probably because class-based systems lend themselves to identifiable roles more easily, but I could imagine a good skill-based system working with parties, as well, so it’s not a must.

4. All Bioware role-playing games, for one reason or another, were class-based. I'm sure that was an insightful experience. Did that affect your understanding of classes in a CRPG? Did that give you any ideas we might see in future games? Development and power level of a class, the number and balance of classes, unique abilities, different builds within a class, etc?

I think that experience taught us what our fans like to see in their classes, and as well what pitfalls we should be trying to avoid when designing our own class-based system. Overall, I’d say I lean towards having less breadth and more depth when it comes to classes – I’d rather see less actual classes, for instance, and focus more on having many different development options within those classes. That’s simply a personal preference, however. D&D didn’t do too bad of a job of identifying fantasy archetypes that are fun roles to have inside of a party, though I (and any D&D fan, I expect) could probably argue endlessly on the particular merits of any given class and how many options or lack thereof was given by the D&D system to take a class in different directions.

5. Single player vs party-based. Again, all Bioware RPGs were designed as party-based. While you could play "solo", it's not the same as playing a game designed for one character. As a designer, do you see any values in a single-player setup and mechanics? Do you see any appeal in the "alone against the world" type of games?

Sure, there’s value in playing with a solo character. For one, the player (and the designer) isn’t going to have to worry about what those extra party members are doing. If the player doesn’t control them directly, you have AI issues… and even if the player does control them directly, all those extra bodies are going to create issues insofar as pathing and balance.

Even movement becomes an issue: with a solo character, you can allow things such as stealth, climbing and riding to become a focus of gameplay – you don’t need to worry about whether the rest of the party is being left behind or whether they all need to be riding horses as well and cluttering up the screen.

I do find, however, that as soon as you step away from the party mechanic you run the risk of forcing the player to become more of a generalist. Either you must offer more distinct paths or the character must become a jack-of-all-trades in order to be at least adept at any situation he encounters, since there are no roles filled by party members. It’s not a weakness, of course, just it becomes an issue in that case. In my opinion, the best thing about having a party is the it affords me the opportunity to write characters that travel with you. Not everyone likes that sort of play, but they don’t have to – for those players that enjoy the characters and the camaraderie, there’s not much that can beat it.

6. Considering your experience with party-based games, any professional growth in that area? Party dynamics, relationships forging, NPCs' motivation for joining, PC's motivation for accepting, etc?

I think I’ve learned a lot about what makes for a good NPC romance, what works and what really doesn’t, but that’s a whole topic of its own. I also think there’s plenty of room to go beyond romances and have NPC’s develop as friends and even rivals, have more interactivity in the PC-NPC relationship beyond the default of it developing down a set path, that sort of thing. That’s an area of personal interest, though, I suppose.

7. Going with party mechanics again, in Knights of the Old Republic some NPCs had unique abilities, which made playing without them impossible, thus forcing players to have them in the party (only T3-M4 can open the Sith base, only Mission can open that force field, etc.) At the same time, the nature of those abilities was hardly unique: all characters had access to Security or Computer Use skills, yet your skills, no matter how high, would be useless in the above mentioned circumstances. Do you feel it was the best way to make NPCs more important?
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8. The last "party" question. Planescape: Torment vs Baldur's Gate 2. Both games featured strong, yet very different and distinctive party design & mechanics. What are you thoughts about PST party mechanics? Did you see anything that might fit into and improve your own style?

The big difference with PST’s party members was that you could speak to them directly, thus allowing you to speak to them and develop your relationship with them on your own time – as opposed to BG2’s NPC’s who, while they had a lot to say, you had no control over when and where those conversations would take place. We’ve already incorporated that element since, of course.

9. Text in RPGs. How much is too much, assuming that there is such a thing as "too much text" in RPGs? Chris Avellone has recently stated* that dialogues sometimes get in the way of fireball casting & other exciting activities. What are your thoughts on this matter? Also, what do you think about augmenting visuals with text descriptions?

I think having text in big chunks can often be daunting. While I can’t speak for Chris’s meaning, I do agree that dialogue shouldn’t weigh down the story. It should be concise enough to get across what’s needed – for those who want to explore the dialogue in more detail, the ability to do so should be there, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. The challenge for writers as we move to more cinematic levels of art and animation, I think, is that we must learn to avoid heavy exposition and verbosity as movies do while also offering depth of interaction for those who are looking for it.
Using narrative to augment visuals adds a lot in the right circumstances. I think it worked well in “Planescape: Torment”, as a for instance, though in that case it approached the narrative level of a novel. We used it to a lesser degree in “Hordes of the Underdark”, and I thought it added a lot. The problem with using narrative now probably has more to do with the graphics level that is expected in modern games.

I’ll avoid the whole “uncanny valley” argument and say that the more that you show the less that you can effectively describe. One could probably argue that moving to a level of detail where you see every bead of sweat and every emotion animated for you to see leaves less for the imagination to do, and that this is a bad thing, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be.

Used well, such detail could prove just as effective as the narrative in building atmosphere – though being more of a reader, myself (duh), I have my doubts. Seeing some of the animation technology that’s developing for the next generation of games, however, I have to say that it’s very impressive and makes me think more as to how it could be used to make my dialogue work in tandem with it rather than thinking about using text to cover the lack of it.

10. Multiple plot choices. Almost 3 years ago you spoke against them, stating that complexity would increase exponentially, thus causing other problems like more bugs and spending "more time to do less". Does this mean you think multiple plot choices is less? Can you elaborate on what you meant?

Added complexity doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth doing. When you have limited resources to work with, however (and that will always be the case), you’re going to have to pick and choose what you’re going to focus on.

As to what I meant originally, I was simply pointing out that plot choices (as in actual branches in the story) add more complexity than simply the time it takes to write them. You also end up using more resources for a story that, to the player going through the first time, seems no longer.

As an example: let’s say you have a 10-hour long story that branches into two completely separate paths halfway through after 5 hours. No matter which path someone takes, the story is still only 10 hours long – but even so there’s still 15 hours worth of work required to accommodate both paths, and added complexity because now you must account for both states in the last half of the game.

Not to mention that, from a developer perspective, no matter what you do, there’s now 5 hours worth of work that many players are never going to see. How many resources can you justify putting towards options that not every player encounters? A balance needs to be struck between having depth and having breadth – and considering that the overall length of games is being pushed lower and lower as it is due to the rising cost of art, it’s really hard not to try and squeeze as much length as you can out of the resources you have available. Leaning too much either way is going to ultimately dissatisfying.

There are things you can do to try and minimize the cost of branching plots – you can re-use art resources, have bottlenecks for dialogue and plot that prevent them from becoming too scattered, include lower-cost options which are more aesthetic as opposed to gameplay-oriented, etc. – and like I said sometimes it’s very much worth it. The original comment was in response to a poster who suggested that not having more plot choices was simply a sign of designer laziness, as they cost nothing.

11. Bioware's standard design is a linear main quest surrounded by many side-quests creating the illusion of non-linearity. Yet there was a main quest fork in BG2, giving you an option to side with either the Shadow Thieves or the vampires to progress the main plot. Why was that added? Was it an experiment to test the "exponental theory"? What was players' feedback? Do you feel that it was a positive feature that improved the game or was it a waste of time?
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12. You stated once that you "prefer low magic systems in general". Can you tell us more? What do you like? Why? What advantages does it give you as a designer?

It’s simply an aesthetic preference. I like settings where magic is rarer and thus more awe-inspiring, personally – if it comes too freely than I don’t feel it’s valued as much. There are examples of both high magic and low magic settings, however, that I enjoy. A low magic setting doesn’t give me any advantage as a designer per se other than lending itself more easily to a particular type of feel.

13. Choices & Consequences. One may argue that Bioware games were more of adventure games with stats than role-playing games due to linearity and cosmetic choices. Yet recently you made some comments about giving characters "reasonable" options fitting those characters and consequences that go with those options. Are we talking about a new design direction here or the same level of choices seen in Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic? If it's the former, what caused such a change?
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Thanks to David Gaider and Erik Einsiedel for their time and efforts. Sadly, Dave didn't have time to answer all the questions, but we love him anyway.


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