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From an early Mass Effect mauling to hanging with A-list demon lords, Sword Coast Legends’s narrative director Jay Turner shares his journey.
After graduating from New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology in 1998 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and screenwriting, Jay Turner did what most people looking to break into the games industry did: he upped sticks and moved to California. First landing a gig at Gamepro.com and GamePro magazine, he eventually joined BioWare as an editor in 2004. Building up an impressive CV, he worked on Jade Empire, Dragon Age, a very early version of the Mass Effect script (“It all got tossed out”), and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, before heading back to Dragon Age.
“ Dragon Age is the closest I’ve come to working on D&D before Sword Coast Legends,” he says. “It was definitely inspired by BioWare’s wish to bring back that Baldur’s Gate feeling. They wanted to make a Game of Thrones/D&D-type title using their own IP, so they could really go wild with it.”
Joining the team working on Mass Effect 2 took Turner to Montreal, where he helped start BioWare’s new studio in that city, before a job as principal writer at Visceral ( Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, Dead Space 3) lured him away
“I then got a call from Dan Tudge at n-Space asking if I wanted to be involved in an awesome D&D game with a Dungeon Master, and would I help write the story? I went pretty crazy over that thought and took the job as principal writer and narrative director.”
What are the first steps in writing the story for a game like Sword Coast Legends?
In this case we had a series of brainstorming sessions with all the key stakeholders in that story: so the executive producer, lead designer, lead engineer, and so forth. It really was a group process. We all put our heads together and thought about what makes a great game story and what aspects we would like to see in it. Our executive producer had some things he wanted to make sure we touched on or areas of the Forgotten Realms that we should send the players to, while the art director had some ideas for environments. Then I went back into my writing cave and made a story with a path that made sense of all of that, with some cool characters and events that would unfold and keep the player interested.
The idea isn’t necessarily to tell the player our story, it’s to give the player something interesting to drive them through the world and through the game. We have to balance the depth and breadth of the story with making sure that the gameplay is going to be fun and that we’re not leading the player by the nose.
Did the story change much during that process?
It’s the old saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. I wrote down an outline that was originally very different from what we wound up with. But it started there. We had some review meetings and talked about the characters and started doing some early concept art. In this case we created a whole story outline and a pitch video that we were showing to publishers.
We put it in front of Wizards of the Coast to find out what they were doing with the property. At the time nobody knew what Forgotten Realms in fifth edition was going to look like, except Wizards, and they were still putting it all together. It turned out that the game’s details didn’t fit with where Wizards were taking fifth edition. So we took the themes and the details of that story that we liked and rewrote it to fit their vision. I think it’s a stronger story for it.
What was the collaboration between n-Space and Wizards of the Coast like?
We had to be in close contact with them at all times to make sure that we were all on the same page. They provided us with a document that laid out the kinds of stories and characters they’d like to see: make sure that your characters are diverse, make sure that your stories don’t touch on this or that, and make sure trigger situations don’t go too crazy-dark like the Saw movies! Keep it D&D. From an art point of view, they also had some rules on what kind of range of skin tones a gold dwarf would have versus a shield dwarf, and stuff like that.
We had to meet their guidelines but at the end of the day they gave us a lot of free reign to make the story we wanted to tell. And we did get the lowdown on what’s happening in Luskan at that point in time and what the major players in the Forgotten Realms are up to, so that we didn’t do something that Drizzt is supposed to do in his novel, or claim that Luskan is a fluffy town full of unicorns and rainbows when it’s actually a pirate town after the Sundering. So there was a lot of back and forth. We even created a faction called the Gilded Eye and Wizards liked it so much they said they plan to make it canon. So it was a two-way street.
Was it good to see Wizards of the Coast embrace what you had created?
Even more exciting, Wizards was at the PAX event and its Rage of Demons booth had all the canon demon lords who have been there since the original days when Ed Greenwood created the Forgotten Realms. So there was Jubilex and Demogorgon and all those well-known demon princes. Right among all these major A-list celebrities was Belaphoss, the character we created for our game, looking like he’d grown up. It was really nice because we’ve had our heads down making the game and we didn’t know what’s getting out there and what wasn’t. Seeing what we created for our little game showing up in official D&D products is huge for us. We’re just a bunch of old D&D geeks.
How important was it to even have a standalone story, as a big part of Sword Coast Legends will be the ability for Dungeon Masters to create their own stories?
We’ve always had two main visions for the game. The first core vision was to bring the feeling of playing D&D at the table to a videogame. So all the bantering, laughing, taunting, and complaining about the DM, we wanted all that to feature in the game and I think that comes across really strongly in the DM mode.
The other vision was to have a good single-player story that made you feel as if your character was part of the world, like people did when they were playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale or even Dragon Age: Origins. We wanted to harken back to that nostalgic feeling of playing a story campaign in a classic D&D videogame, but update it with all the modern gameplay conveniences that people have come to expect.
Will downloadable content (DLC) be a big part of the game?
More than just DLC, the vision is to have ongoing support of the product, but story content is definitely a major part of the DLC. In addition, content drops will include new classes, races, and items, and we’ll be updating the DM tools. Not all of that stuff will cost the players anything, and if we’re improving an existing DM feature we might just patch that in. We’re planning to support the game as long as people want to keep playing it.
The Neverwinter MMORPG videogame supports the big D&D campaigns, such as Elemental Evil and Rage of Demons. Will Sword Coast Legends follow the same path?
So far we’ve created our own content that aligns with those stories. Our storyline deals with a big demon named Belaphoss, which you may extrapolate was somewhat inspired by Rage of Demons. We’ll work alongside Wizards and align our product with them where it makes sense. We don’t necessarily have an imperative to match what they’re doing one for one but it’s better for everyone if we can lean on each other.
You’ve created a whole set of characters for the game. What went into that and did those ideas get changed along the way as well?
I’ve worked on past games where the whole roster of companions were invented. The idea is you need a fighter, a mage, a cleric, a ranger, and so on, and they are created independently and then fitted into the story. And as we were writing Sword Coast Legends we knew there were two or three characters that were important enough to that story that it would be good to have them around for the whole game, so they were created specifically to be companions for the player.
With others we realised they were actually very compelling characters so we expanded their roles to make them into companions. It’s almost like you run into an NPC in the tabletop roleplaying game and you like them so much you ask them to join your party. Wizards is actually very excited about our companion characters and getting them involved in things, and our cleric Illydia is going to be on the cover of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.
Have you included any famous D&D characters?
Working with famous characters in the Forgotten Realms is tricky because there’s so many cooks in the kitchen for those. For example, if we want to use Bruenor Battlehammer we need to know exactly what R.A. Salvatore is planning to do with him at any given moment. So for the core game we are obviously going to be in the same universe as those guys but you may not see famous people taking major roles. We did announce one particular Forgotten Realms celebrity who will be showing up in the Rage of Demons DLC, wielding two scimitars.
As Wizards have seen the fantastic job we’re doing, they’ve started saying they’re willing for us to use more characters. That’s a really great feeling because a lot of times in licensed products you have to fight tooth and nail to get access to those. There are some situations where you meet up with a character who might be mentioned in the Out of the Abyss book and Wizards were like, “If you want to, you can have the players fight them and kill them.” Wizards felt confident letting us have fun in their playground, which was really cool.
Sword Coast Legends launches on October 20, 2015 for PC, Mac, and Linux. It has also been announced for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.