In the short space between numerous exciting projects, Gamesauce got an opportunity to speak to Blizzard’s lead writer on the Diablo development team Brian Kindregan about storytelling, changes within the movie business and why he switched to the games industry, where he worked for Bioware before ending up with Blizzard. Plus, he explains the key to his success: being too stupid to give up!
A Passion for Storytelling
Kindregan’s journey begins with his admission to the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts. “I started out with a passion for storytelling,” he recalls.”I had known for years that I wanted to create stories, worlds, and characters. Since I’ve always enjoyed drawing as well, I thought it would be great to combine the two by becoming a storyboard artist in the animation industry. I’ve always heard that the Character Animation program at Cal Arts was the premier school for animation and I was lucky enough to be accepted there.” One of the requirements is that every student creates a short film every year, which narrowed down his aspired fields of expertise. “I found I enjoyed the story creation and storyboarding process much more than other aspects of creating a film,” he adds.
Once he had graduated, getting a job proved to be anything but smooth sailing. Kindregan ended up being one of a group of the lucky students that were hired out of school as an intern for Turner Feature animation. “They were wrapping up on Pagemaster and starting Cats Don’t Dance, but after three months, our internship ended and they announced that production had been delayed, and they wouldn’t need any of us for a year or more.” So he set out looking for work as a storyboard artist, only to be told that it was a prestige position and one would have to work as a clean-up artist, then “an inbetweener” and then an animator before he could even hope to get a job as a board artist. “It should only take a decade or so,” he was told.
But Kindregan had no interest in committing to that career and didn’t really see the point of being so far removed from storytelling. Instead, he kept looking for work as a storyboard artist, eventually getting short-term work storyboarding “fairy tale knockoffs that would be sold in supermarkets and such”. He also made some money reading and commenting on Hollywood scripts, but didn’t make enough to make ends meet. Taking up a job as a window blinds salesman was the only way to pay rent, but then his luck turned. Warner Brothers was starting a new animation division and Kindregan decided to drop off a portfolio. “A few days later, they called me at my window blind sales job to offer me a three year contract as a storyboard artist,” he says. “It was absolutely one of the best phone calls of my life!”
After showing what he was made of at Warner Brothers, Kindregan went on to create storyboards for an impressive number of companies, including Disney, Universal, and Sony Imageworks. Although happy with the many different projects he’s worked on, it’s clear that working on big franchises demanded some attitude changes. “It was a case of going from project to project. The film industry is very mobile and many professionals are hired on a per-project basis. I initially found the constant change a little unsettling, but eventually realized that it kept me sharp and focused,” he says. “I worked with a wide range of people at many studios, on different films in different genres. I got to work in live action and animation, in features and television. Overall, creative people are empowered by dynamic, changing challenges.” He eventually settled into animation quite well and started teaching on the side, next to his increasingly successful work as a storyboard artist.
A few years later, however, Brian decided it was time to make some changes in his professional life. “I was working as a board artist and teaching at the same time. I enjoyed teaching very much, but I needed to be involved in creating content.” He became increasingly less engaged with storyboard work in the film industry, due to changes in the nature of his job. “The role of storyboard artist changed, and storytelling gradually became the purview of writers only. ‘Just board the script’, was a phrase I was hearing a lot. I’m not that great of an artist, and the main contribution I made to a film was as a storyteller. So even though my reputation was good enough that I kept finding work, I wasn’t as motivated about it since I wanted to do more than ‘just board the script’.” So he took his storytelling skills to the games industry and applied for a writing position with Bioware, admiring the company out of personal interest: “I was playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate II and really enjoying it,” he remarks. The jump from visual artist to writer did not seem at all odd to Kindregan, both being a means of expressing story through characters.
Bioware had clear, simple criteria for Kindregan when he applied as a writer: “They wanted you to create a game mod using their Neverwinter Nights toolset,” he recalls .”So I sat down and did just that. The process of creating that mod was an education in itself: being able to play a quest I’d written taught me a great deal about how writing and story integrate into gameplay.” Bioware liked Brian’s mod and decided to hire him, where he started out working on titles like Jade Empire. Though making the switch from film to games wasn’t that hard for him due to his adaptability, he certainly saw some differences. “On the surface, a game studio looks very much like an animation studio: T-shirts and sneakers, toys on the desk, ping pong tables. But just under the surface, it’s still software development and so it moves in a different way than film. Games are a young art form and they change by leaps and bounds each year, whereas film is a fairly well established form.”
Funnily enough, after working on Jade Empire, he went back to work in film to direct the first two seasons of a CG animated show for public television. It didn’t take long for him to realize directing wasn’t all he’d hoped for. “I was too focused on the managerial aspects, which removed me from the actual content creation that I loved so much.” Luckily, after a few years back in film, his good friend Drew Karpyshyn, a game scenario writer himself, asked Kindregan to come back Bioware to write for Mass Effect 2 and he “jumped at the chance”.
Having finished his work on Mass Effect 2, Kindregan once again decided to leave the company, though this time for as much of a personal reason as it was a professional one. “One of the reasons I’d gone back there was to work with Drew Karpyshyn,” he explains. “When he announced during development of ME2 that he would be leaving Edmonton to go work on the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO in Austin, I found myself open to the idea of a move. At the same time, my wife and I realized that we are both coastal people at heart.” Since Bioware’s headquarters are in Edmonton, Alberta, they felt themselves too far removed from the ocean. It wasn’t an easy decision, however, and knew that he would only leave the company if he got to go to “another developer with the same commitment to high quality games”. This narrowed the list down “considerably”.
Having made up his mind, he decided he wanted to join Blizzard’s Starcraft team. “It seemed perfect, I had always loved their games and they most certainly understood quality and . . . StarCraft,” he says. Kindregan emphasizes that it was only his enthusiasm for the IP that determined his decision and not the prospect of better pay or a better position. “I didn’t go to Blizzard as a lead writer. I was hired as a senior, but quickly found myself doing lead work there. They promoted me shortly after that. In general, I would not recommend taking a creative job solely for a higher title. I’d look for a company, team, IP, and project that all get you excited. If those elements are good, the job will be worth it regardless of your title. If they aren’t, then a title won’t help you.”
Even with his love for Bioware and the work he’s done there, “they have amazing, dynamic IPs, some of the characters I wrote on Mass Effect 2 feel like old friends”, he’s always fully immersed in the universes he’s working on at the time. “I am lucky enough to live in the fictional lands of StarCraft and Diablo. They are so fun, dynamic, and rich that they occupy my mind and creative interests. I love every game universe I’ve had the privilege to work on, but I’m always most excited to be working on the universe I’m in at the moment. If I am not excited to be there, that’s a sign that I should change!”
Empowered to Keep Growing
Not a man for sitting still for too long, Brian explored his opportunities with Blizzard itself after finishing Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. “At that time, the Diablo team had been looking for a lead writer for quite some time. All told, I felt like we’d gotten the StarCraft story on to a good track with Heart of the Swarm, and that I could do the most good by moving over to Diablo. I am very excited to be playing around in the Diablo universe and helping this talented team shape the future of the story.” Thankfully, Blizzard empowers their employees in this regard and encourages development where they can. “There are many discussions about career paths and growth, and they encourage continued education. They bring in guest speakers and allow employees to share their knowledge via a series of internal talks called ‘/learn.’ I’ve presented two of these in my time at Blizzard, and hosted one as an interviewer.” With Blizzard expecting nothing but the best from those who work there, Brian feels “very empowered to keep growing!”
Surely, specific choices and precise planning determine such a successful career? Nope, but here’s what Brian has to say on the matter: “Every person I know whose career has taken them to a fun and creative place got there in a different way. So the bad news is that there’s no set path. The good news is that there’s no set path! I always tell people that the key ingredient is: you should be too stupid to give up. You’ll meet many people who will tell you that you’re not good enough, that it’s not a ‘real job,’ that they don’t want people like you, that you can’t make a living at it and the list goes on. But if you’re too stupid to give up, it will bounce right off you. You’ll meet people who you will think are more talented than you, smarter, faster, better, and more creative. But those people will often give up, and you can always be better than they are at being too stupid to give up. That’s what worked for me!”
How Hard Could It Be? The Story of a Cinematic
At this year’s GDC, Brain talked about the role cinematics play in the storytelling of videogames and it’s pros and cons, speaking from his experience with Starcraft, which is notoriously reliant upon this tool. The mentoring role Brian takes on shows the teacher in him hasn’t gone for good. “I’d love to teach again, but it would definitely have to fit in with my schedule at Blizzard. I realized long ago that I always need to be on a job where I am creating content. If my schedule ever stabilizes enough to allow me to teach and still write for Blizzard, I would jump at it. Meanwhile, I very much enjoy speaking and lecturing on the things I’ve learned over my career!”