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Will Shen, the lead quest designer on Bethesda's upcoming sci-fi RPG Starfield, answers a series of community question in the latest episode of the promotional Constellation Questions web series. If you wouldn't mind knowing more about Starfield's approach to randomized quests, faction membership, and reactivity, you should check it out:
And then, you might want to follow that up with a more traditional interview with the man. Here it is:
Hitting his 12th year here at Bethesda Game Studios, Will Shen previously worked on the Far Harbor DLC for Fallout 4 as Lead Designer.
You may also recognize his work in Fallout 3 (dialogue in the settlement of Big Town), quests in the city of Markarth, and even some notable Daedric questlines: "Black Star", "House of Horrors", and "Taste of Death" in Skyrim. Will now looks to a universe of possibilities while working on Starfield.
What does a normal day look like for you as a Quest Designer at Bethesda Game Studios?
I'm responsible for writing, scripting, and general implementation for the Main Quest as well as reviewing our quest content in general. My day is usually half answering questions from the Designers or other departments about how the game is supposed to function and solving all the little problems that come up when we actually try to get our ideas to work. The other half of my day is spent staring between my two monitors: one has our toolset (the CreationKit) up and the other has a document up with all my dialogue. I visualize the main quest a lot in my head before I commit it to the game through the CreationKit. I'm often pressed for time between implementation and helping out elsewhere, so having a complete picture in mind makes it easier to create content between answering messages and attending meetings.
What lead you to become a Quest Designer?
I actually first started as an Intern on Fallout 3. I was specifically told "don't expect a job after this" in the interview (and they were right!). But I kept hanging around with all the friends I made after the internship was over and went to all the public events I could when the game launched. Eventually, I had more experience elsewhere and I applied again to work on Skyrim. I was a terrible Designer out the gate, with big ideas that I kept falling short on. I knew I was heading down a path to a short career, so I threw out all my notes, checklists, and feedback and just started playing my content over and over as if I had just purchased the game. That's when something clicked, and I began seeing what a player would want from the quest content moment-to-moment. I've basically been doing that ever since.
What was your favorite project you’ve worked on?
I was the Lead Designer for the Far Harbor DLC for Fallout 4. DLC is a fun time because everyone on the team has been doing nothing but polishing and getting the game ready to ship, so there's a lot of energy that's ready to go as soon as DLC planning starts. The short time frame also gives you constraints and pressure, which can actually be a real boon to creativity because every problem becomes more critical.
There's a part when you're working on a long project where you start seeing what it could be. It's right between the uncertain part where nothing works and the hyper-focused part where you're just trying to finish. That's where the real magic happens. In that crucial period where you can change things, but you can't change too much.
What are you working on next that you’re excited for everyone to see?
I can’t wait for folks to play the Main Quest and meet all the members of Constellation, the key faction for the story. We really wanted to capture that sense of shared adventure and optimism that was part of early space exploration going back to the Moon landing and the Apollo missions.
Are you approaching quest design any differently in Starfield than in past BGS games you’ve worked on?
I think for Starfield a lot of quest design was going back to our old-school RPG roots: lots of dialogue choices, referencing the player’s skills and background, a variety of combat and non-combat activities, and highlighting our brand-new setting in a way that signals where to go for what kind of stories you want to experience. We really tried to draw on all of our previous titles to build quests we were excited about.
What types of stories grab YOU when you play games?
I like weird stories that explore the fringes. So obviously Disco Elysium stood out to me when it was released, and Cult of the Lamb which came out just recently. A lot of experiences you might think a player will hate on paper, work with the right context and encouragement on the game’s part. So Disco has incredibly embarrassing things the player can say and Cult of the Lamb asks the player to use their adorable followers like pawns. Both of those only work within the full experience of the game.
Big shoutout to tabletop RPGs, especially Shadowrun, which inspired me to start telling stories that other people share in creating.
Are there general themes you like to explore (or even revisit) when crafting new worlds?
Choice is always a big one. Both the choices players will make, but also what choices the people and the world can make in response. So when I’m writing things out, I usually go “okay, the player just did X, how would their allies and enemies respond? What’s the best move they could make? If they can’t make that move, why not?” There’s always some better option you might miss, but if it makes sense at least from the game’s perspective, you’ll hopefully get the feel that the story is responding to you.
Do you have a favorite quest interaction so far?
Early on, we had a big list of single sentence ideas for quests. Just things that seemed interesting or exciting on their own. “Conduct a tense negotiation in a dangerous, crowded bar” was up there as one of my favorites. I have a few favorites in the main quest, but there’s a lot of spoilers there. I love the beginning of the Ryujin Industries questline. The quest designer in charge of that story did a great job turning a seemingly ordinary activity (an employment interview) into a memorable moment.
Are there any new features that you’re most impressed with or excited about in Starfield?
Everything we let the player build is super cool, and I think players that like to get knee-deep into customizing will spend the whole game just doing that.
Does Starfield present you with any special opportunities that you haven’t had previously when designing quests?
Definitely space itself, both having ships and space travel but also having the opportunity to talk about metaphysical questions like “what’s the universe made of? What next for humanity?” and so on.
What advice do you give someone who wants to be in this industry?
A lot of what you'll do in a career is determined by luck, circumstances, and other people's efforts working across the whole team. So I would say give up on thinking "it has to work this way. I have to get X job at X studio or I'm a failure" and instead start focusing on "what do I have? how can I make what I have work as far as it reasonably could?" If you're open to possibilities and able to not take setbacks or even success too seriously, you'll find yourself eventually. And that's ultimately what you want. More than a job, you want to know who you are and what you can really do.
Thank you so much Will for taking the time to answer our questions. And if you haven't had a chance to see the latest Constellation Questions featuring Will, you can check it out here. A big thanks to everyone who submitted questions! If you want to work alongside Will Shen or anyone else at Bethesda Game Studios, visit our careers page and apply today!