BioWare-Brent Year 6 (Fall 2004 – Summer 2005)
This is the sixth of ten posts, one for each year that I worked for BioWare.
And Along Came Jade
So there I was busily working away on Dragon Age, settling into a good routine when one day I’m drawn into a Serious Discussion. Now these are always worrying, they usually mean something is up. Later on when BioWare was sold, first to Elevation Partners, and then later to EA, these Serious Discussion would become more common place. But back here, mid-way through my career with BioWare, they were still relatively rare.
This particular discussion turned out to be one of the best moves for my career, though at the time it was a bit frustrating. See, when projects get close to being finished there’s a push, a pulling in of manpower from across the studio to help the project complete.
But wait, I see you shaking your head. “What are you talking about Brent? You’re on Dragon Age and that’s not going to be out for years.”
I’m talking about Jade Empire, BioWare’s first foray into making a true action RPG. It was a brand new engine, and more importantly a new type of combat system that the company was working on and they were nearing their completion date. And they needed help. So I was transferred to the project to help work out some kinks in the combat system.
I think I gained a lot more by the process though, than they did. I got console experience on the XBOX (everything else I had worked on had been PC based). I gained a strong understanding of what works and what doesn’t in an action-based combat system, and I was exposed to a lot of cool ideas, some of which didn’t end up making it into the final product, some did. Some would find new homes in Dragon Age.
What I was doing mostly at first was understanding how things worked and trying to improve the communication process. I did a lot of documentation and offered the occasional advice. Eventually I was also the person who pushed for several cuts to the combat system, creature lists, and so on. The workflow being used wasn’t ideal and required a lot of manual effort and hand-tweaking to make creatures work properly. Some had to go and it was easier for me, as a newcomer to the project, to push the cuts through. Most of what was cut though I think ended up being released on the PC version of Jade that came later, so everyone’s hard work wasn’t completely tossed away.
After a couple months on Jade I was done with my combat work and would soon be back on Dragon Age.
Or Maybe not…
Just as I was packing up and getting ready to move back to an office on the Dragon Age floor, I found out I was still needed on Jade. They wanted help with scripting on the last couple chapters. So I stuck around for a couple more months. At first I was pretty lost because I hadn’t actually done any real level design work for quite sometime, being a manager for the last couple years, but the scripting language was similar to Neverwinter so it wasn’t that huge of a hurdle and what I learned from working with the Jade Empire toolset would eventually help greatly as we developed the toolset for Dragon Age.
It was also fun.
I played through Jade Empire several times, studying how things worked elsewhere and I think Jade turned out to be the BioWare title I’ve done the most full playthrus on. I also created my first ever cutscenes. These would also turn out to be my last (yeah, I’m not much of a cinematics kind of guy).
But for a second time I was finally moving back to Dragon Age.
I had learned many lessons with Jade Empire that I was very eager to apply to Dragon Age so initially I spent most of my time communicating those lessons to the rest of the technical team but in the summer of 2005 my wife and I had our first son and I took a bunch of time off.
And in that I learned another very valuable lesson — never take time off!
Never, ever, ever.
Because when I’d return I’d find out that something huge, huger than ever before, had happened and it would change things forever*.
More on that, next time.
* Well, maybe not quite forever
Previous: BioWare-Brent Year 5
“BioWare-Brent Year 6” copyright 2009 by Brent Knowles
Ha, interesting, I’d like to chat with you sometime about the JE combat system. I enjoyed the game, especially because of the worldbuilding, and also had fun with the fights. It felt like a nice combination of RPG & action. I did find toward the end that every boss battle was rendered easy by continually freezing them up (forget what it was called) and then just beating on them — didn’t work so well with multiple attackers, but even the final fight was easy this way. It was more fun when I could resist this cheat, but I don’t have that much willpower. . .
Yeah there were definitely issues with power balance… I can go into more detail this summer… for me the most abused power was actually the ability to jump though!
I just hated it when testers came into my office with smug looks on their faces, saying, “You know that boss you spent days working on… guess how I beat him…I jumped!”
There were some who became so proficient with it that they got through most (if not all) battles without ever being touched by an enemy. I find this even in some recent action titles — once you master the ability to jump (if its not regulated in some way) that the game becomes trivially easy.