DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

David Gaider on developing his writing career, personal growth and taking social responsibility for sex in games

June 24, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

David Gaider on developing his writing career, personal growth and taking social responsibility for sex in games

June 24, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

Gamesauce caught up with Bioware’s David Gaider to talk about how luck got him into the games industry, his personal experiences as a writer, Dragon Age and why developers need to start taking responsibility for the social impact their games have in regard to sex.




Lucking Out

David Gaider
David Gaider

Now the lead writer on Bioware’s Dragon Age series, David Gaider has created a universe rich in history and large in scope. He’s been telling his stories not only through the Dragon Age videogames, but through the franchise’s assortment of books as well. The funny thing about him doing that? He never set out to be a professional writer in the first place. “I wasn’t trying to get into the videogame industry,” he admits.“I wrote mostly for fun, and did a lot of gaming, and a friend of mine who worked at BioWare recommended me for a writing position that opened up when they started work on Baldur’s Gate 2. So they called me, and I was curious enough to go in and see what they were about. So I lucked out—nobody really gets a job that way anymore—and I’m quite thankful.”







Even though Gaider turned out to have exactly the right skillset and interests to write professionally, he had been looking at a very different direction at first. “My dream at the time was actually to be a comic book artist, so the idea I would ever write professionally wasn’t something I seriously considered. I enjoyed writing, and especially making games, mostly table top games, and I guess I always thought it would be great to try my hand at writing a novel someday. That’s the sort of thing you always wonder, as a writer, whether you have what it takes to do. I wasn’t actively pursuing it, however.”




So I lucked out—nobody really gets a job that way anymore.

Topping Up the Well

Lucking out in getting the job is one thing, but growing into a solid position as the lead writer on a series is something entirely different. David assumed the role of game writer fairly easy and “just went right to work” on Baldur’s Gate 2, drawing from his personal experiences. “Baldur’s Gate 2 had an immense amount of writing.” But Gaider was eager. “Considering I’d spent my entire life tabletop gaming , mostly game mastering, and knew Dungeons & Dragons quite well, I had a huge well from which to draw.” From there, he mostly moved from project to project, gaining more responsibility the more they relied on him. “Eventually, when I started the Hordes of the Underdark expansion for Neverwinter Nights, they let me try my hand at being a Lead Writer and actually directing the narrative part of the process. As a smaller project, that’s a good place to try someone out, and it went very well.”




But even when your career takes off, there’s bound to be a hurdle or two. “I think the hardest part was probably needing to be creative day in and day out. You can only sustain that for so long before you need to top up the well, so to speak. I burned out hard after finishing Baldur’s Gate 2. It was especially difficult because, prior to that point, the writing had always come quite easily for me. Learning to cope and manage my energy levels in a way that was sustainable was probably the biggest hurdle. That and extending what I learned to others once I had my own team of writers to manage.”




So how do you cope? How does someone get past his or her writer’s block? “It was learning to just take that next step—even if it’s a slow one,” he suggests. “Don’t expect perfection out of myself right out of the gate. Go back and edit and iterate. Eventually you reach that point where the creativity starts to flow again.” But there is more to consider here. According to David, it’s essential to keep in mind that “…writing is a skill you need to work on and develop, especially when it comes to writing for games. It’s a different skillset from writing prose, and hoping that talent alone will get you through is probably a bit naïve. These days, you almost need to prove you have that skillset before you’ll be considered for the job, so you need to practice—either by modding or by analysing how game narrative works and iterating your own writing for it.”

The hardest part was probably needing to be creative day in and day out.

Writing

Aside from the personal struggles a writer may need to overcome, there is an aspect of teamplay, of balancing the interests of the studio and those of your own. “As a writer, you’re unlikely to be in a position where you direct where the game goes,” he explains. “At best, you’ll be able to influence it, you’ll be part of the discussion. So you try to take it where you think the story should go, and once the decision is made, your place is to make it the best you can. You consult with the team, make sure they understand what you’re doing with the story and what their part of it needs to be.”

Of course, Gaider has to make concessions here and there as being part of a team and with everybody having different ideas. “So long as you and the leads agree on the current path, your job is just to keep it on that path and not veer off unexpectedly,” he suggests. “Mostly that’s just down to lots of review.”

DavidDA2
“Though part of me wonders if, should the series ever be passed on to someone else, a part of me wouldn’t be angsting inside and constantly second-guessing whatever decisions they made. Probably.”

But how much does Gaider care about the stories he creates, about staying on those paths? There are writers who can stay invested in their universes for ages, like Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. Does he see himself keeping the Dragon Age universe alive for years to come? On one hand, he still sees a lot of Dragon Age stories that need to be told, but on the other, he isn’t quite sure he necessarily needs to be the one telling them. “Though part of me wonders if, should the series ever be passed on to someone else, a part of me wouldn’t be angsting inside and constantly second-guessing whatever decisions they made. Probably.”

But what if handing over a franchise’s world of stories to someone else is not just up to you? What if a steady income weighed as much as your creative desires? Certain writers can get stuck between the interest of the company to keep a universe alive and the will to move on for the sake of their own creativity. “I suppose at some point, whether you’re a fan or a creator, you have to decide if the project is still what interests you,” Gaider says. “I don’t think any artist lives solely to make a buck, but it seems foolish to think that the business aspect can just be ignored. What’s more important at any given time is debatable, of course, and sometimes decisions can be disheartening.” It is clear that some honesty and self-reflection is needed here for any writer. “Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to whether you still want to get up and go to work every morning,” Gaider suggests. “The moment that stops being true, you should probably move on, for everyone’s benefit.”

As a writer, you’re unlikely to be in a position where you direct where the game goes.

Dragon Age

With Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening, The Stolen Throne and The Calling, Gaider laid a strong and story-rich foundation for the game’s universe, which Asunder expands upon after the events in Dragon Age II. Compared to all that, Dragon Age II was relatively lightweight on its story. Gaider is quite clear on the reason for this, though. “Dragon Age II was a shorter game, primarily due to the shorter development time,” he explains. ”I don’t know that it was conscious so much as that was simply what we had to work with. Certainly it’s always an issue to over scope your project—you always have big ideas, but if you let those run away with you, you end up with a project that runs out of resources and that can be just as bad.”

There are other parts of the world Gaider admits he’d love to explore further. “Back when I created everything, we didn’t know where the first game would take place,” he admits. “So I seeded a number of conflicts in various places, conflicts which could take center stage for an entire game if need be. So it would be nice to visit those places and pick up on the potential that’s been sitting there ever since. Like the war between the Tevinter Imperium and the Qunari. I think that would make for a great game.”

Sex in Games

David at GDC13
“I think the conflict we’re experiencing is because videogames moving into the cultural mainstream is a relatively new thing; for a long time, videogames were solely the province of teenage boys.”
I do appreciate that I work for a company that’s willing to push the boundaries

At the Game Developers Conference San Francisco, Gaider talked about the position of developers and the responsibility they carry when it comes to sex in games. “I think the conflict we’re experiencing is because videogames moving into the cultural mainstream is a relatively new thing; for a long time, videogames were solely the province of teenage boys,” he argues. “While that’s no longer the case, the perception that this is the case still lingers for the audience, the industry as well as the public at large.”

The fact that a lot of developers don’t think about the impact their games make doesn’t sit well with him. “You can’t use the excuse you’re making ‘just games’ without any need for social responsibility, and yet also say that gaming should be taken seriously by the mainstream. You’re asking to have your cake and eat it, too.”




These statements are very interesting coming from Gaider as a Bioware employee, seeing as how their mature approach to sexuality has often been labelled as controversial. “I don’t believe that BioWare is perfect in this regard, but I do appreciate that I work for a company that’s willing to push the boundaries—not because that’s the safe thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do. As soon as we brought up the subject of sex, it became obvious that we were saying a great deal about what was acceptable and who we thought our audience actually was. As much by what we didn’t include as by what we did. Some people consider our choices controversial, that’s true, but I’ve seen just as much if not more positive feedback from the fans themselves—which is incredibly gratifying.” Gaider takes a proactive approach to it all: ”I suppose one could wait for “general acceptance” and wait for the winds to change sufficiently until everyone’s doing it, before you dive into that pool. The problem then becomes: who’s going to take that first step? Hopefully the games that do it and do it well will lead the way, and ideally they’ll benefit for having done so.”

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Vlad Micu

Vlad Micu is managing editor of Gamesauce.org. He previously has been a freelance game industry professional for over five years and traveled around the world while running his company VGVisionary. Starting VGVisionary during college, Vlad was able to work independently as a pr & marketing consultant, event manager, industry journalist, speaker and game developer. He just returned from Bangkok, Thailand, where he pursued his dream of making video games as the game producer at arkavis, an up and coming casual game studio.

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