Being the boss of Dragon Age

Mike Laidlaw can still remember his first day at BioWare, even though it was over 15 years ago. He even remembers the date he answered the phone and found out he had got the job: 23rd December 2002. Laidlaw was used to answering the phone; at the time he was working at Bell, Canada’s largest telecommunications company, in the province of Ontario. When Laidlaw first joined Bell’s call centre, he worked the phones. Later, he got promoted to lead a team on the phones, “which was somehow way worse than being on the phones,” Laidlaw told me last March, the day after his star turn at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I went in and said, I’m sorry, I’m quitting. I’m not coming in tomorrow. They said, ‘you can’t quit two days before Christmas! If you quit you’ll never work here again!’ I said, ‘that is pretty much the plan, yes.’ So I walked out, and a bunch of people high-fived me because – yay! – I got out.”

Mike Laidlaw, ex-creative director of the Dragon Age franchise at BioWare.

We’re upstairs at Zero Zero, a pizza and pasta place just a 10-minute walk from the begging mothers and the babies they cradle who sit on the sidewalks that connect the buildings that host GDC, the world’s largest gathering of video game developers, a place thousands come to share, to learn, to network, and, occasionally – although I sense through gritted teeth – talk to press people such as me.

Laidlaw is instantly affable, entertaining and interesting. He is willing to talk about things, which might sound like an odd thing to mention, but in this business, it is a rare joy indeed to speak to people who are willing to talk about things. I get why they do not, why developers are hesitant to say too much, because when they do, the fans sometimes come calling – as they have at Mike Laidlaw at points during his career.

He is a confident speaker – I had expected that after studying his performance during his GDC talk on team and project management to a packed audience of video game storytellers – and, clearly, he is well-known within the video game writers circle. Laidlaw’s introduction is by a man who sounds very much like a friend, or at least someone he has known for a while. The introduction sounds more like informing the audience an old friend has arrived for dinner, rather than an explanation for why they should listen to him speak.

And Laidlaw is a stickler for detail. He remembers much about his time at BioWare, the fabled role-playing game developer that has been twisted and turned this way and that over the years. He remembers people, what they have said to him, what he learned from them, the mistakes, the regrets and the joy. He will sometimes look to the side and smile, then chuckle as he remembers something important, something that’s worth remembering, and then speak of it with the seriousness it deserves. I don’t know why, but at points during our lunch I picture dialogue options just at the bottom of my peripheral vision.

At half eight on 3rd February, 2003, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 28-year-old Mike Laidlaw walked into BioWare’s Edmonton office to join its writing team. There was no-one to greet him. But, he remembers, his new co-workers had already brought in breakfast – a tray with cupcakes and yogurts and fruit and bread. Laidlaw discovered at BioWare, you could make your own breakfast.

Someone walked past and stopped to say hi. “Are you new?” the mystery person asked. “Yeah, I have no idea where I’m supposed to be.” It turned out, the mystery helper was Richard Iwaniuk, BioWare’s then director of finance. Laidlaw described him as “super easy going” and “the guy who was the hardcore negotiator – I had the greatest bromance with Richard because he was so kind on that first day.”

“Do you know what project you’re on?” Richard asked.

“No. They didn’t tell me.”

“Okay, I’m going to guess you’re on Jade Empire, so I’m going to show you where the lead designer’s office is,” Richard said. “I think he’s here, but you might want to grab a plate first.”

Jade Empire was an original Xbox exclusive that launched in 2005.

BioWare back in the early 2000s was not the BioWare we imagine now, the BioWare that works for Electronic Arts, the maker of FIFA and Battlefield and Madden and The Sims. Laidlaw’s office was in a building in Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue, “a really nice college-ey district, but we were overstuffed, let’s put it that way.” Laidlaw mentions BioWare’s HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) more than once. It suffered, he says. There wasn’t enough power. He calls BioWare’s IT team heroic for the work it did before BioWare moved into its next office. BioWare Edmonton has just moved again.

Laidlaw had a writing background, having gained a BA in English from the University of Western Ontario and a three year stint reviewing video games at a now defunct website called The Adrenaline Vault. Laidlaw expected to work with a writing team on something Dungeons & Dragons related because BioWare had recently released fantasy RPGs Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. He knew BioWare was making a Star Wars game somewhere – what turned out to be 2003’s superb Knights of the Old Republic – and so thought – hoped – he might be put to work on that. D&D or Star Wars, surely. “That’s cool, I knew both of those things,” Laidlaw thought.

Instead, a copy of Outlaws of the Marsh, considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, a stack of kung fu movies and a “giant” design doc were left under his desk. Day one: read this, take those home and watch them, start reading this classic Chinese literature and go! “I was like, okay! That’s surprising.” Laidlaw had been put to work on Jade Empire, an action role-playing game based on Chinese mythology that came out on the original Xbox in April 2005.

Laidlaw had to build his own desk – a flatpack job from Ikea. He mentions the HVAC again – “it suffered so much it was 35 Celsius in my office, but it was negative 30 outside, so I had to strip down. My boss at the time, [lead designer] Kevin Martins, he looked at me and went, ‘so you’re a farmer? This should be okay for you.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, it’s like a haymow. I’m good.’ He’s like, ‘cool, well, keep at it and then read the stuff.’ I’m like, ‘alright, I will do that.’ So I built everything up.”

Laidlaw was promoted to co-lead writer just a year into the job. He remembers that day well, too. Martins offered him the promotion during a chat on a beach. He needed someone who could focus on interdepartmental organisation. Jade Empire was the first game where BioWare did its own casting and recording for voice over and localisation. Previously, this sort of work was done by the publishers BioWare had worked with, such as Atari and LucasArts. There was a lot to think about, a lot to order, a lot to manage. Laidlaw, it turned out, was pretty good at all of that.

Jade Empire was billed as coming from the developer of the 2003 game of the year: Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic.

This is the kind of stuff you don’t often hear talked about in video game presentations to press, or streams online to players. This is the fiddly stuff, the things that connect the dots, the things that make sure the dots are where they should be in the first place. Laidlaw mentions figuring out pipelines for voice over. “How do we make a script an actor can follow that’s coherent? How do we organise our team to be delivering with these new deadlines in mind?” This isn’t just cracking the whip – it’s working out what a whip looks like, how to make one, and then using it so it gets the job done without leaving too bad a bruise.

I am surprised to learn this about Laidlaw’s work at BioWare because I had an image of him in my head as some kind of fantasy loremaster – the kind of person who writes the tomes video game worlds are built from. The kind of person who tells other writers that, actually, I think you’ll find that person wouldn’t be doing that then because they’re off there doing something else.

I was wrong.

“I very quickly realised there were so many good writers and I was never as strong a writer as they were,” Laidlaw admits. He mentions Patrick Weekes, a BioWare writer, as someone who “could write novels around me”. “But I was always pretty good at organising and wrangling the data around writing and giving you direction and prioritising.” This is why Laidlaw was promoted to a co-lead position, or a coordination role. He paints it in terms I might understand: “almost like a really senior editorial role, in a way.” This first promotion set Laidlaw along a path that would eventually lead to creative director.

As co-lead, Laidlaw got to do things like negotiate with BioWare’s art team and talk to the concept artists. “I made a million mistakes, as you always do,” he says. But Laidlaw learnt much about the realities of triple-A video game production during this time, how it works from department to department, person to person, role to role.

Development of Jade Empire was “intensely challenging”, Laidlaw says. It was BioWare’s first console-exclusive project. It was its first action game. It was its first controller-driven game. It was an all-new intellectual property in an all-new setting. The game’s leadership team, which included Jim Bishop, Mark Darrah and Matthew Goldman, had less experience than the leadership team on Star Wars. The crew that worked on Star Wars had worked on Baldur’s Gate 2. There was more that was new with Jade Empire, more that was risky. As we speak, Laidlaw touches on the thorny issue of crunch at BioWare. “There were a lot of spinning wheels as we tried to figure out the VO,” he says. “There were periods that were pretty intense, like crunching and demos and stuff like that.”

Laidlaw, though, remembers some of his time working on Jade Empire fondly. “Highs and lows,” he says. It afforded him his first trip to E3, the video game super show where publishers gather to willy-wave their hot new products in front of press, the public and the expectant gaze of investors. Laidlaw worked the Microsoft floor in the BioWare booth, and was thrust into his first on-camera interview because Ray Muzyka, one of the founders of BioWare and for years one of the faces of the company, was busy and thought he’d do a good job.

“I was like, oh my god, okay. Alright!” Laidlaw says, before recounting one of his life philosophies: “when something scares you, you should probably say yes unless you can come up with a very compelling reason not to. That was just, I don’t know if I’m good enough, but apparently, Dr Ray thinks I am, so you know what? I’m going to give it a try.”