PGW 2011: Interview with Alexander Freed
Alexander Freed is probably best known for his writing duties on the Imperial Agent class story, but he also authored the Blood of The Empire and The Lost Suns comics as well as Flashpoints, side quests, and other in-game experiences players will encounter in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Darth Hater caught up with him at Paris Games Week to delve a little deeper about what it takes to write engaging interactive dialogue for the game and across different media.
What advice would you give someone who actually wants to make interactive storytelling their career?
Alexander Freed: Obviously learning the basics of storytelling, and more than the basics, because that is the foundation you're working from. So if there isn't a way for you to work in a very strong, very critical environment on game writing, then work in prose, work in film, work in something else where you are going to get feedback and criticism. If you can get that sort of feedback and criticism in a game environment, fantastic! But honing the storytelling basics is huge. Learn how to write dialogue. It doesn't matter what medium you're in. If you can do snappy dialogue, then you can probably adjust to writing snappy dialogue in a different medium.
Hit the jump for the interview in full.
Congratulations on this most recent comic. What is next for you?
Alexander Freed: *Laughs* Well, what's next is mainly shipping the game! In terms of outside of that, no current plans for another comic. It is really up to Lucas and Dark Horse though, so if they want to do one, then I'm totally game.
Is there a comic that you were more endeared to?
That's a tough one. I mean, they were very different, and they were intentionally very different. I really enjoyed getting into all of the deep Sith-y stuff and the Sith mysticism in Blood of the Empire, and doing sort of a more tragic story. But because I spent so much time on the Imperial side for the actual game, it was really nice to do a Republic-focused story for Lost Suns, so I favor them in different ways.
Can you walk through the creative process of working with Leland Chee at Lucas? How do you make sure the canon is in place?
Obviously the first burden is on me; I'm going to do my research and hopefully not get anything wrong in the first place. Lucas is very diligent. They will look through everything and give feedback. For the comics, it was a pretty good relationship, because obviously I know the Old Republic, so there weren't going to be a lot of issues on the BioWare setting element part of the story. We worked with Lucas to find what sort of story do you want to tell here, what are the characters that we want to use? It was pretty smooth all around.
How, if at all, has the process of creating story for the Old Republic changed as you transition from pre- to post-launch?
Well, the longer the project went on, the less writing we did. It became more about going back and making sure that everything is as it's supposed to be; the writing matches the art, that the art matches the writing, the mission design, and that all the pieces fit together. So we really spent a lot more time on those sorts of tasks in the last year or so than we have on generating completely new content.
Generating completely new content never stops, and as we're moving into the post-launch period if we're successful, this game is never going to stop needing new content or material. This is a BioWare game so the writing team's always going to be a part of that, and hopefully applying the many lessons that we're learned over the years to serve the next few rounds.
Speaking of lessons: is there anything that happened where you said "this is how I want this to go," and then it went to test and players wanted something different? Is there flexibility incorporating player feedback into the content of the writing? Because that is kind of a unique writing situation that you're in compared to somebody who writes in other media. In that situation, you write it, it gets edited, and it's out there. And here, you actually get feedback. You actually might have to change it. Has that ever happened?
It absolutely happens. It usually doesn't happen that late in the process or at the point where you're in the final months getting ready to ship the game. If players hate the Imperial Agent honestly, it's sort of too late to go back and completely rewrite every mission, redesign every area, or re-voiceover every bit of dialogue, but certainly there's lots of iterative testing inside BioWare early on. Things change all the time because of that. Entire plots get rewritten.
And usually by the time it gets to public testing, we're much more confident in the material. The feedback is still very important, but if changes are needed, then they're usually adjustments and not rewrites. For example, someone might say there are too many conversations in a row in this section, and ask if there is a way we can space them out more, or maybe cut one or shorten one? Is there a way to remove the mission entirely in some cases? If it's just hated by everyone and it's a side quest, then yeah, we'll rip it out. We did that with a few. So yeah, things change all the time, depending on where you are in the process.
Were there some changes in the Imperial Agent story or world arc that you influenced and you're kind of proud of?
For the Agent, I think the tone was pretty clear from the beginning; once we actually started writing, we pretty well stuck to the idea behind the Agent. For other materials like Flashpoints or side quests, we'd bring in outside influences all the time. You read a book, see a movie, or you play another game, and you go, "that character was really interesting because they did these things." Or there was this really interesting way of conveying information, and you try to apply that to the next thing you write.
What is your personal writing process?
I take a very sort of top-down approach to writing. A lot of the writers do it differently; some like to start with one particular scene or one particular character. I try to start with some overall theme of what I want to do; some general concept of "this is going to be a revenge core story in the desert, and it's going to make a good story because of these things." And then start defining it by asking myself, "What are the tools I need to tell this story? What places are appropriate to visit? What sort of characters can bring out the themes I want to deal with?" And then at that point, what are they actually doing? How do we get from place A to place B? And I essentially go at it slowly to flesh out an outline until it eventually becomes actual dialogue. I'm sort of one of the more mechanical/methodical writers at BioWare. Other people have very dramatically different methods, but we all find what works for us.
Is your process more of a math formulaic kind of thing or similar to a freeform improvisation?
Somewhere in between. It isn't a "the exciting event needs to happen in the second sequence." I'm not terribly fond of that sort of thing. I tend to look at everything in the story as pieces rather than falling in love with a character or a scene or a place. I just try to rearrange the pieces to get out whatever overall thing I'm looking for, rather than starting with "this is an engaging character, this is someone who, I think I'm going to want to deal with in six hours worth of quests. So you know, what sort of quests naturally come out of that character." I don't do anything naturally; I have something that I want to make, and then I construct it.
What is the difference creating something like a Flashpoint, which is small and cozy and contains more dialogue compared to something like an Operation?
One of the big important things about Flashpoints -- and even more so in the Operations is we really try to consult with the combat team and the team that designs the Flashpoints and Operations very early on because they are very much a showcase for all of the game's most interesting and innovative combat and level design elements. The worst thing that a writer can do at that point is come up with something, hand it over to the team, and then the team had this whole set of new techniques that they developed and none of them actually worked. You either get a Flashpoint that really isn't what it ought to be, or you get all of these very strange techniques crammed in something where it really wasn't meant to be. So we do lots of consultation early on with a team like that.
Not using an actual example here, but we know that we want to put a boss who calls three rounds of adds and is really good at healing all those adds is going to be what makes it interesting. At that point, you go, "What sort of character would that be? What sort of droid or monster or whatever?" So yeah, the more something is supposed to be a showcase for all the teams, the more you have to work with all the teams. With a class quest or a single side quest, there is a lot more "what do we want to do with it?" and then the other teams will find a way to make it interesting.
What is your favorite Flashpoint or Operation?
I'm very proud of the Black Talon. It was one of the very, very first Flashpoints that we wrote, and also one of the first Flashpoints that was actually ready in-game. We showed it for a long time, and because it's the first one and I think it came out pretty well, it is something that I can look back on and say "Hey, that may be the first time we did this." You're always very critical of your own writing, but I'm pleased with how that one came out, especially given the inexperience with that sort of writing. It has every reason to be bad, but it's not that bad!
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