GDC10: R.A. Salvatore talks Copernicus

One of the great joys of game journalism is the opportunity to talk with a large cross-section of creative minds, all of whom share a passion for the art form. It's even more fun when you get to talk to something of a living legend, as Massively did today when we had the chance to interview multi-million selling author R.A. Salvatore at GDC 2010.

For the three of you who've been living under a rock since the late 1980s, Salvatore is the creative force behind 22 New York Times bestsellers, including the The DemonWars Saga, Star Wars: The New Jedi Order - Vector Prime, and the Dark Elf series, whose protagonist Drizzt Do'Urden is one of the more celebrated fantasy characters in the genre's history.

We sat down to talk with Salvatore about his role at 38 Studios, and how he's bringing his unique storytelling abilities to their top secret Copernicus project, an MMORPG sharing the same universe as the Project Mercury single-player RPG announced yesterday at the Game Developer's Conference. Hit the jump below for the full interview.
Massively: Let's start out by having you describe your role at 38 Studios.

R.A. Salvatore: My first title, and still my title as far as I'm concerned, somebody decided to change it (I don't know who, but I yelled at them later), was Creator of Worlds. I was the C.O.W. My job was to come in and take these...Curt [Shilling, 38 Studios founder] and his friends from Everquest had come up with some ideas and wanted to do their own game, and [my job] was to take these ideas and put a story around it, and put a world around it, and so my job was to basically come in and create a world that makes sense for an MMO.

So you're pretty much in charge of all that?

Well I'm at the thousand foot level looking down, and at this point I hope a lot of the people working on the story and the zones...they're at the point now where if we have a disagreement, it's not 'Bob says so, so that's what it is.' Which is the way it is supposed to go. They've taken as much ownership of this as I have, which is great, that was the whole plan. So if I see something now that I say 'I don't think I like that, this has got to be this way,' well we'll have this big fight, and we'll work it out. But it is a fight among peers, which is a lot better than a top down. Because you know, you're building a world, it's huge, you can't just have one view point.

You've written for games before. You're currently writing for the single player game and the MMO, right?

I'm not really writing for the single player game, I'm overseeing, again from that high perch, just to make sure. They've got Ken Rolston, Mark Nelson, they've got all the talent they need down there. These guys are amazing, they're writing for the single player game and I'm making sure that it smells like our world.

Do you find it an extra challenge writing for an MMO versus a single player game?

Well when I wrote for the single player, yeah that was a very linear story that I was telling, and I was creating the characters, that was the Forgotten Realms Demon Stone game that I did with Atari. It was very linear and with an MMO, it's really more world creation and then the story aspects of it that I contributed beyond that, which I really can't talk about, yeah, you have to anticipate much more the reactions you're going to get, knowing full well that they're going to be all over the place.

If you do X, how does it affect the person who just wants to explore on his own and doesn't really care about leveling? How does it affect the person that wants to do nothing more than fight other players and PVP? How does it affect the person whose sole goal in this game is to get the best gear? You don't know all the answers, so you have to be very agile in the way you build it, and the other aspect is of course, how are you allowing the players to be the heroes? That's the biggest question, because when I write a book I give you the characters, you walk down the road and live vicariously through my heroes. You play an MMO and the only hero that matters to you is the one you rolled up, and the ones your friends rolled up.

That's very true, there are some games that don't let you be the hero, you're part of a team.

One of my biggest frustrations with Everquest, a game I loved dearly, was that to get your epic you needed eighty really close friends. It didn't make sense to me.

It's good to hear you say that.

Well that doesn't mean I'm going to have any say over the mechanics team, and how they're going to make you get your epic. They may say you need 150 friends for all I know. It's funny how fast the mystique wore off, by the way. The first few weeks I could say anything and they'd listen, now, they just tell me to shut up. [laughs]

Going along with that, writing fiction novels can also prepare you for this as well. Is there any certain aspect of writing novels that prepared you?

The more they believe it, the more they'll be immersed in it. The more they're immersed in it, the more they'll care about it. And then you win.

Absolutely, whether you're writing a book, a fantasy, or it doesn't even have to be fantasy, whether you're writing a novel or a game, the whole point is to immerse the player, make them forget they're reading a book, make them forget they're playing a game, and the way you do that is the same: suspension of disbelief. That's the point I hammer constantly. The more it makes sense to the player or reader, if this race acts generally this way then their society makes sense, they will believe it. The more they believe it, the more they'll be immersed in it. The more they're immersed in it, the more they'll care about it. And then you win.

And I imagine, to go into the future, that you're prepared to keep expanding with more story, I imagine you have a giant story and we're only going to see this much of it at first.

You're going to see a big story. Absolutely, it's a living breathing world, and remember you're talking to the guy who's been writing Dark Elf since 1987. People say, well how many books can you do? Well how many books could I write about King Arthur and his court, if you make the world that real there is a million stories to tell. So yeah, I see lots of possibilities.

This is probably the most asked question but is there any kind of date for Copernicus?

I can tell you with absolute certainty that the game will not be coming out in 2008. [laughs]

[laughs] Well that's the scoop right there. There was tentative talk about 2011, but with MMOs especially that's one of those things where it is released when it is done.

You know I read on a message board the other day, a friend of mine, another writer from TSR sent me a link to a guy on a forum saying I was overrated. This guy said I didn't create Drizzt, he was actually created by one of Gary Gygax's buddies in the seventies. So I think you can find tentative...whatever you want to find these days. But before that goes to print, yes I created Drizzt [laughs]. It's amazing some of the stuff you read [online], I usually have fun with it.

Yeah, you have to. It's been an honor to sit here and talk with you.

Thank you.
This article was originally published on Massively.