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Writing the next Dragon Age

Sunless Sea's creator on working for BioWare from across the Atlantic.

BioWare's next Dragon Age game is supposed to be a secret - but it isn't, really.

The project doesn't yet have a name or a formal announcement, but its existence should come as no surprise. Last September, Fallen London and Sunless Sea creator Alexis Kennedy announced his signing to a mysterious BioWare project - one which would see him working alongside Dragon Age mastermind Mike Laidlaw and lead Dragon Age scribe Patrick Weekes. To BioWare watchers, it was obvious what project the writer was joining.

His appointment was notable for a couple of reasons. Sure, it was tacit confirmation the Dragon Age team was beginning to staff up. But Kennedy himself had secured a unique position. BioWare is a Canadian company, headquartered in Edmonton. He is British, based in Greenwich, and has not relocated for the job. BioWare does not often employ remote workers, and almost never remote writers: the people who lay down the earliest brushstrokes of a game's world and its characters during the earliest and most formative of its stages.

All the better for us, though, that we could catch up with Kennedy and see how things were going. It has, to address the elephant in the room, been a trying period for his new employer. BioWare is still licking its wounds from the recent, bruising reaction to Mass Effect Andromeda. The company's next project to release will be its recently-delayed and untested new IP, codenamed Dylan. Meanwhile, Dragon Age is still in its early stages. How was he fitting in?

Alexis Kennedy.

"It's an unusual arrangement," Kennedy admits, chatting via video call from his London home. As a (very) remote worker, Skype is something of a necessity for him - although with different divisions dotted across North America, it's not unusual for BioWare to communicate with its staff from afar. "It's a multi-studio company spread across Edmonton, Montreal [which developed Mass Effect Andromeda] and Austin [home to Star Wars: The Old Republic]," he continues, "though yes - it doesn't have guest writers, as a rule."

Before his start date in February, Kennedy was busy with all manner of other projects: story DLC for Stellaris, writing for an under-wraps historical game ("due to be announced soon but I can't say anything more on right now"), and releasing his own project Cultist Simulator ("which got a bit of a grumpy response from people used to seeing pages of Simulator games on Steam"). Oh, and writing a column on Eurogamer about punching video game Nazis. For Kennedy, working solidly on a big triple-A project like Dragon Age has been a big change.

"There are huge differences between all of that and what I'm working on at BioWare," he says, pausing - "which I can now legitimately say is in the Dragon Age franchise although it has been known for a while. Notionally it was a secret but, because of who I was working with, everyone who cared knew. And then the day I started, Mark Darrah [executive producer of the Dragon Age franchise] tweeted saying 'welcome to the Dragon Age franchise', so I thought, well, I guess that's official now then."

Kennedy writes during UK working hours, fitted around childcare. His day starts catching up on emails and IM conversations from Canada overnight. After that, he fires up "the toolkit" - the software used to write BioWare's games - and gets to work. Meetings with BioWare generally take place in his late afternoon, when the studio's Edmonton mothership has awoken and had its morning coffee.

There are upsides and downsides to the arrangement, Kennedy says. On the one hand, he's free from the distractions of an office environment. On the other, he misses the ease-of-communication this brings. "It can be like communicating with astronauts in orbit around Saturn," he laughs. "If I have a question, I'm not going to be able to get an answer until Edmonton wakes up, so I have to plan very carefully what queries I need and be good at switching tasks if there is a blocker."

Previously, on Dragon Age.

Any informed Dragon Age fan could have a good guess where the franchise is now headed - if not by the end of Dragon Age Inquisition then definitely after its excellent final DLC Trespasser, which acts as a bridge to the future. Trespasser's final moments saw a dagger literally placed into a map of the Tevinter Imperium, a much-referenced but never visited new region of the Dragon Age world.

"What I can say is I have been given considerable autonomy to work on a storyline bit of lore which is well-segregated from other parts of the game," Kennedy teases, "which makes a lot of sense with me being remote. And yes, if you've seen a lot of my work before you will probably not be surprised by the choice of subject matter. It's familiar stuff."

Let's face it, a portal through the Fade to Kennedy's familiar beat of steampunk London is probably unlikely. My money, then, would be on something to do with the Qunari race, a group fairly separated from the main Dragon Age races and which Trespasser implied would soon play a larger role.

"I don't want to exaggerate the degree of the chunk [I'm writing]," Kennedy quickly adds. "It's more analogous to Patrick Weekes writing [Mass Effect character] Mordin than me being told to go off and write a whole different country... It's nothing that grandiose, but it is distinct. It's a bit of lore which has not been addressed much to date in Dragon Age."

Each quest tied to this section of the game is planned out by Kennedy over a four-day cycle. "I have one wall of my flat covered with whiteboard vinyl," he explains. "One day will be breaking the story on the whiteboard wall for a proper scrawly arrows serial killer effect. [After that, it's] one day creating a skeleton of the quest with placeholder text in the editor; one day fleshing out dialogue; one day for contingency and admin."

Moving from smaller, text-heavy titles to a juggernaut such as Dragon Age has been a big change for Kennedy. When writing Fallen London there was nothing stopping him taking a day or longer to write an entirely new segment on a whim. He could dream up an idea to allow the player to become a poet, or branch off a questline so players could suddenly undertake a spot of merchant banking. Working on text-oriented RPGs allowed these flights of fancy. Working on a game where everything is voiced, designed and animated is a different matter.

Coming Qun.

"Something I've enjoyed at BioWare - possibly because I'm a masochist - is the constraints," he laughs. "I knew they were constrained by being fully voice-acted. But I hadn't realised how much of a constraint it is. It's much easier to breeze through [writing] huge quantities of text when you don't have to worry about it being voiced. It's very difficult to put the player's name in dialogue - which is why you have the names Shepard and Ryder in Mass Effect, or the title of Inquisitor."

Writing a word-heavy RPG like Sunless Sea "you can hose people down with words and some will stick," Kennedy says. Writing a bigger budget role-player "you have to stand closer to your audience and put each word in their top pocket," he adds. "There's a hard limit on the amount of words you're allowed to put into something. You have to choose those words more carefully. It's thrilling."

After finishing a chunk of writing, Kennedy and the other Dragon Age writers will then share their work with the rest of the team to gather feedback. It's like a "friendly roast", Kennedy describes. "The writer under review has to listen while their peers take turns round the table describing the things they liked and disliked. A key thing is the rest of the team are instructed to be friendly, as the writer is in a very exposed position, but the person who is being reviewed does not have right of reply until the end. It's great, if your work is being dissected it's constantly tempting to say 'no, but -'. Just sitting and listening gives an immediately better quality of feedback." Kennedy laughs: "I suspect I'll probably need to make some changes after it's been through my peers' claws."

Kennedy is near the halfway point of his writing time on the game, although the project will continue in production long after his words have been finalised. Just in the past few days there have been job postings for all manner of roles - level designers, programmers, a lead cinematic animator, a senior technical animator - all of which could be for BioWare's aforementioned Dylan but have been shared on social media by Dragon Age team members. Just how big is the Dragon Age team now within BioWare? "It started out small..." Kennedy says, pausing. "I have to be careful what I say. Obviously, BioWare has completed one public project recently so that has freed up some resource. The team is growing."

And what about that other project? Mass Effect launched just two short months ago, and the reverberations are still being felt. (My conversation with Kennedy took place before the recent report of BioWare Montreal's downsizing.) "It's fair to say BioWare has heard the responses, but more than that is out of my wheelhouse," Kennedy states on the matter.

Dread or alive.

Our talk turns to times Dragon Age has stumbled - but also when it has really shone. "Trespasser is one of my favourite things which came out of the Dragon Age franchise in the last few years," Kennedy says. "BioWare is, like every other developer, not perfect. Not all of the studio's work is 10/10 but it is consistently good and often extraordinary. And I think BioWare is treated unfairly in a couple of ways that not many others in the industry are." BioWare arguably leads the industry in the inclusion of LGBT+ characters, for example, but this also opens it up to criticism when it doesn't get them right. "BioWare takes shit from both sides. It brings the ire of more socially conservative players, but it also means, because BioWare has done more than most developers, unless it continues to do more than most developers, it gets stick for it. BioWare has to tread a careful path between doing enough and doing too much - you're going to annoy someone somewhere down the line.

"Another thing is, a lot of people go through a 'pissed off with BioWare' phase," he continues. "I have a theory - some people will say 'well, it's because BioWare isn't good as it used to be'. But I've heard people say that since Mass Effect. The kind of games BioWare's made, some of which are enormously beloved, give people really intense experiences and close relationships with characters. People have their first really intense RPG experience with Baldur's Gate, or Mass Effect 2, and then they're always looking for that experience to be repeated. But that experience can't be repeated, because the person who played that game, the you of three years ago, no longer exists, and they are never going to be as impressed by a big budget RPG with a half dozen characters who you don't have as close a relationship to as you did in the past. There's a risk that a BioWare game is someone's first love, and what comes next will always have to live up to that."

No pressure, then. "I worry much less about other people's reaction," Kennedy says of his own work on Dragon Age, "but only because I know how much I care. I will always regret not having done a better job, however good a job I do. When I hear my words in someone else's mouth my first reaction is always 'fuck: why did I put in that semi-colon'." There's no word yet on when we'll see his work, however - "the project will continue after my departure," is the only thing Kennedy will say on the matter.

Kennedy comes across as smart and quick-witted, frequently self-deprecating ("I've described myself for a while as the guy you get when you can't get Chris Avellone," he quips at one point). And he's already thinking of the future, beyond the end of his BioWare tenure. Kennedy has a solid plan for more freelance work, before an eventual goal of founding another studio. And even after his stint on Dragon Age ends, Kennedy still hopes to remain involved with further polish down the line ("obviously it's preferable if you have the original writers come back and work on things if needed," he says, keen to revisit the project again if required).

For BioWare fans who have shared in the studio's recent rollercoaster of fortunes, any word on Dragon Age's future is welcome - however far off the next game still may be. For now, however, it is being built, and Kennedy is enjoying working (very) remotely for, and learning from, some of the best in the business.

Image credit: diagk.tumblr.com