Mike Laidlaw Interview
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Last year, Mike Laidlaw departed BioWare after spending 14 productive years with the studio, during which he worked on Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. And if you're interested in any of these games, you can now read this massive Eurogamer interview with the man, where he discusses his entire BioWare career, from assembling his own desk to being a creative director on a major AAA series. A few snippets:
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 came out in April 2005 to mixed reviews. Laidlaw says he was proud of the game, its setting and writing, but acknowledged its flaws: the combat "never quite gelled", and the game suffered, he suspects, from expectations set by Knights of the Old Republic, a game that had come out just under two years earlier ("the people who had played Knights of the Old Republic were like, well this is like Knights of the Old Republic but it's not".) Analysis of the production began and it led to the beginning of a commitment to try to reduce crunch, Laidlaw says.
Sales were fine, he says, but "not Star Wars good". Jade Empire's primary platform was the original Xbox and the game came out right at the end of its life. Its release date had been delayed enough that the Xbox 360 was announced just a month after Jade Empire launched, and sales tanked on all original Xbox exclusives. "That was unfortunate," Laidlaw says. "If I could go back with a time machine I'd be like, no no no, there's so much we have to change. But that's life. Hindsight's like that."
Laidlaw did, however, work on parts of Mass Effect that made the cut: three alien races who were described as "non majors". This meant they couldn't be like the game's major alien races, such as the turians or the asari. The Mass Effect concept art team gave Laidlaw between 30 and 40 aliens they'd created. Laidlaw picked three, named them and developed their culture. They were the volus, the hanar and - my favourite - the elcor.
As a Mass Effect fan, I get a kick out of picking Laidlaw's brains on the creation of these three alien races. He designed the volus to be the space accountants to the turian military war machine. This is a symbiotic relationship; the volus, who are rotund, wear exo suits and have alien asthma, clearly cannot fight. The hanar came to be because Laidlaw thought it would be nice for Mass Effect to have some degree of spirituality. And then the elcor, the dour alien race who stand on four massive legs and explain what they're about to say. Laidlaw wondered, how do we make them different but coping? He wanted the rest of Mass Effect's galaxy to totally get them. They were never ousted or treated like an ostracised sub-race - that's just how they talk. "I'm a Star Trek guy," Laidlaw reveals with some courage. "I love Star Wars, too. But I grew up on Star Trek. And that inclusive future is really exciting. So I was like, let's go with that. I got my oar in." I mention the elcor reminded me of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. Laidlaw counters: "except their only emotion wasn't depression. They had more going on. But yes, the delivery was absolutely Eeyore."
Laidlaw worked on Mass Effect for six months before he was put to work on the sequel to Jade Empire - a game that never came out. "We don't really talk about it in too much detail, but there was one," Laidlaw says. Laidlaw joined forces with Mark Darrah, now executive producer of the Dragon Age franchise. The pair, as part of a small team, spent over a year working on Jade Empire 2 as more of a prototype project while the majority of the studio focused on Mass Effect. It had real potential he says, but the art direction was a stumbling block.
Jade Empire 2 was in the process of being shut down when Laidlaw was asked whether he'd be interested in working on Dragon Age. At this point, the core of the fantasy RPG had been designed, but the team needed someone to steer it from where it was to a place where it might get a sequel, where it might end up as a franchise. Laidlaw was told his writing background would help. That life philosophy he mentioned earlier pops up again - it was another "scary moment", and so Laidlaw said yes and moved onto the team. When he arrived he found a design that had been "brilliantly done", but there was much work left to do and a lot of bugs to prioritise, a process developers call "triage". Dragon Age needed medical attention, and Laidlaw was the first aid kit.
Georg Zoeller, the German technical designer Laidlaw had become friends with during his time on Jade Empire, walked into Laidlaw's office and said, "if you're the lead designer, we have a problem." Zoeller had a question about status effect visual effects: how would the game display them when someone has six buffs on them? This question, and many others like it, were Laidlaw's problem now. Laidlaw's solution, by the way, was to create a prioritisation system that worked out how important each status effect was and displayed it accordingly. ("How important is it that I know right now that I have plus one to strength? Probably low. How important is it that I know I'm on fire? Probably very high.") The first three status effects, ranked by priority, would be the ones that would display above a character's head. "The programmer and the designer were like, okay, yeah, that works! That was hour two."