Mac Walters has ever remained a busy man in gaming since he began work on the Mass Effect series. Crossing over into the comic book world, Walters helped shepherd (or is it “Shepard”? nyuk nyuk) the early Dark Horse Comics tie-ins to the vaunted role playing game series from BioWare, before recently taking the reigns himself. Now, as he continues on a year-long arc of Mass Effect: Foundation, we talked with the writer about the transition from games to comics, what his future goals might be, and tried to squeeze something out of him about the next two games he’s working on.
Newsarama: Mac, as the comics have progressed, you’ve gotten more involved, coming now to this long thirteen issue arc that’s written entirely by you. What has the transition been like going from being a plotter to a full writer?
Mac Walters: It’s been fun! Dark Horse has always been encouraging and told me that if I wanted to try it, I could. A lot of times, it was either my own lack of confidence over whether I wanted to take that on, because it is a different skillset, also time! So a lot of times we’d do the 8-pagers for Free Comic Book Day or online, and I did a couple of those. That was a good way to test the waters, see what it was like, if I could actually do it to a degree that they liked it.
When they were looking at doing another series, and not just another 4-issue one. I knew that there would be a large overhead for just reviewing it – even when we use guys that have been doing them like John Jackson Miller, they know their stuff, but I still have to spend a fair amount of time reviewing it, making sure it’s IP correct, that sort of stuff. So I thought, well, Mass Effect 3 will be done, I’ll be between games, I’ll have a little extra time, so if there was ever a time to try it… let’s do it!
As always, Dark Horse has been awesome, helping me out along the way. It’s been a little more of a challenge eeking out the time to do full issues every month, on top of a full time job already. But it’s been a lot of fun!
Nrama: What’s BioWare’s stance, when you’re trying to work on this, but also starting out on a couple of new games?
Walters: (laughs) The games come first!
Nrama: Well yeah, it seems like starting out on a new game, a new direction for the franchise would be more intensive than another straight sequel…
Walters: Yeah. It’s a new studio, as well, well Montreal’s not new, they’ve celebrated five years already, so they’ve been around awhile, but this is the first major sku, first major project they’re working on. So all eyes are on them to make it reach – we’ve set the bar high on Mass Effect. So we want their achievements to be higher! So I agree, it’s been really intense working on that.
We’re also trying to build the team there, so that they can be independent. Finding writers who understand the way we make games can be very difficult to do, so that’s been a longer process than I thought. So when I thought I had a year off between games, I didn’t really. (laughs) It’s been interesting trying to juggle all of that – plus I’m working on our new IP as well. But it’s all fun.
Nrama: Is it a switch in your head when you’re going from the very non-linear, branching dialogue of a game and the linear story of a comic?
Walters: When I first started doing it, for sure, I had to think about it more, had to really make that switch. Now, it’s easier – not that I’ve perfected it by any means. There is sort of a mode that I feel comfortable moving into. It’s like the difference between driving stick and automatic, and I’m comfortable in both now, I’d say, but it’s definitely a different mind set.
Even, as an added challenge, the fact that we’re not focused on Shepard’s story, in the comics. We’re telling stories of other individual characters. Even in Foundation it’s sort of this omniscient view, “Ok, we’ll just follow the character around,” but then you can have the conceit where someone is looking through files, and you can tell story that way, jump around a bit.
Nrama: I know that at BioWare, the way you guys split up the writing duties on games, there’s a lot of “by-character” work, where individual writers will have 1, 2, 3 characters. Now that you’re getting to write some of the characters who you haven’t done a lot of dialogue for, what’s that been like for you?
Walters: Yeah, I’ll be honest, it gets pretty challenging sometimes. I’ve probably written something for all the characters – every writer has, because you end up writing the first pass of all the dialogue on your level when you’re doing it, then whoever is responsible for each character will come in and work on it from there.
So if I’m doing the end mission at the end of the game, chances are I’m doing some dialogue for all the major characters at that point. But someone else will come in and clean it up, make sure it’s accurate. But there are certain characters that I’m less familiar with.
The Ashley Williams comic was a perfect example. I think that’s issue number 3 of Foundation. I actually got stuck on that one! I wrote it and just didn’t feel like it was Ashley, it didn’t feel right. So I actually went to the writer who wrote Ashley in Mass Effect 3 and asked for ideas and thoughts. I took some of those ideas and ran with it. It’s fun, I like being challenged.
Nrama: Is it weird to steal the “ownership” of those characters from your employees/coworkers?
Walters: Not really. Any writer at BioWare, myself included, would be pretty quick to admit that nobody is precious about their own stuff. The way it works, any minute, someone else could have to come in and finish your character or finish your level. You get pulled to something else in the game, or you go on to Dragon Age while we’re finishing on Mass Effect, and someone else has to come in and do it. Everyone has to be versatile, but we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I haven’t, for instance, really written Garrus since Mass Effect 2, but since I wrote him in Mass Effect 1, he’s still my favorite, and I can go back to him. But you have to be willing to give it up and move forward.
Nrama: I know you obviously can’t get into details of the way the game franchise is branching off, but in more of a general sense, what has it been like starting fresh, and getting to re-evaluate and re-explore the Mass Effect franchise?
Walters: You know, it was, I think “challenging” is the biggest word. We’ve been saying for four or five years that the trilogy would be Shepard’s story and it would end with Shepard, there’d be a definitive end to it.
It’s kind of like in Mass Effect 2 when we said, we’ll let you kill off all these people and yeah, it’ll cause problems for us later, but let’s not worry about it! Then we got to Mass Effect 3 and said, “oh no, what have we done?”
This is kind of like that. Now we finished Mass Effect 3 and say “what have we done?” We said it was the end, what does that actually mean? How do we actually start again? Where do we start? Obviously, it’s a huge universe, there are so many different places you can tell stories. Even within the timeframe of when Shepard was alive, if you want to stay in that era there are tons of stories to tell. Then there are times before Shepard, there are times after Shepard, there are other places in the universe.
Nrama: And you’ve established that many of your characters are hundreds and even thousands of years old!
Walters: Yeah, exactly! I’ve always found that the proverbial writer’s block, you’re staring at the blank page and thinking “where do I start…” It’s funny, despite all of the things we’ve established, it’s such a huge universe to explore that there was a bit of that paralysis by analysis that we could go anywhere. There was a lot of that discussing, we had to set the parameters. “Okay, this is where we can tell an interesting story.” We started examining that, then people got excited about it, and that’s kind of where we are now. We have established where it’s going to be and when and now we’re just getting into the meat of the high-level overarching story for the game.
Nrama: Is it helpful to you, then, getting to start with a largely new team for the new Mass Effect?
Walters: Yeah, I was like when we get new people on the project, not just in writing, but on any part of the project, because they bring a new perspective with them. A lot of the people who are now working on content were actually fans of the franchise themselves when they came on – they hadn’t actually worked on it, they came on as fans. So to now be working alongside someone who wasn’t a part of “putting the sausage together” on the first trilogy, and they’re kind of oblivious to that…
Nrama: But they’ve put in 500 hours in this universe…
Walters: Exactly! Exactly, and they have their view of it. I can’t get that from anyone else.
Nrama: Well if that’s who you’re hiring let me get my résumé out real quick… (laughs)
Walters: (laughs) Yeah, exactly! It’s literally impossible for someone who’s been working on a game franchise for eight years to go in with that mindset. Even if you try to put yourself into a mode of “I need to think of a player who has never seen this before” or “I need to think of someone who’s just a dedicated fan,” I can never actually put myself in that position.
Nrama: And likewise, getting to develop a new IP for your other project – what are you taking from what you have done with Mass Effect over the years; what lessons did you learn from that decade that you’re bringing with you into the new project?
Walters: You know, it’s going to be a BioWare game. There’s going to be a strong story in it. And for me personally, and I don’t think a lot of people will disagree with this, but strong story starts with deep characters, interesting characters. I think while that’s not the basis for a game, it’s the basis for a lot of the game.
The other thing we learned over the course of the Mass Effect trilogy is to not put story so much in the front that you end up sacrificing gameplay or fun. In the past, BioWare has sometimes, to a fault, relied on story, or led with story. Instead, we want to make sure we’re thinking “what kind of fun game are we making here,” and trying to marry those two things together even more. Here’s some interesting story concepts, but are we still making something that will be fun to play? So those are the big lessons, without getting into our secrets and things (laughs).
And also we’re looking at other games that are doing such a good job. The Walking Dead from Telltale Games is one.
We’re also in that phase that Mass Effect 1, 2, 3, our mantra was always the sense of “evolution over revolution,” because you have to stay in the bounds of what makes it a Mass Effect game. So we’d make some changes and improvements, but we weren’t making massive jaw-dropping changes to it. But when you’re starting a new IP and it doesn’t have anything to do with Dragon Age or Mass Effect or anything else, the world’s the limit. So we’re looking at what story-telling looks like in games, and learning from ourselves and other people as well.
So where do we take that? Hopefully into something fun and exciting!
Nrama: Bringing it back, what can you tease about what’s coming for the rest of this Mass Effect: Foundation comic here? I understand you’re pretty close to finished with your work on it?
Walters: Yeah! I have just finished my work on it. I mentioned being busy earlier, so the last few issues someone else is going to come in and do some of the scripting on it as well. Writing two games, starting up two games, like you said, is hard. So for the final two or three issues we’ll be doing the old format, where I’m writing the story, then they’re doing the scripting. Everything up until then, up to issue 10 I think, I wrote alone. Then I waved the white flag and said “help!”
It’s a lot of work! I have a lot of respect for the people who do this full time.
As far as the actual comics, the idea for this was to use the new character from issue 1, Rasa, and use her as the conceit to explore the stories of characters we know and love as well. So her story is woven through here and there, but really so we can tell Ashley’s story and Wrex’s story and everyone else. We started doing that with Homeworlds but didn’t get to do it with every major character.
Nrama: Now that you have a decent amount of comic book work under your belt, is it a medium you’d like to explore more, maybe even for some creator-owned stories?
Walters: Yeah, I have often talked about doing either my own stuff with Dark Horse or maybe, you know, we have a new IP coming up! Maybe we’ll get to explore that! We’ll see. Time will tell. At this point, I have to really focus on the new Mass Effect and the new IP. The nice thing about the comics is that it’s always nice to create in a different way, to tap into different parts of the brain.
Nrama: When will you be able to talk more about these other two projects of yours?
Walters: That’s a good question. You know, I think we’ll see – obviously Dragon Age Inquisition is next up to bat. So as that moves forward, then we’ll start talking a little bit more about what’s up next! Not having to say “New IP.” Then we’ll move on to the secret name of the New IP, then we’ll move on to the real name of the New IP.
One of the things we’re actually talking about doing, one of the producers had this idea, is documenting all of this on video – so then we’d have developer diaries that go all the way back to the real beginning. I would’ve loved to have gone back and seen what the hell we were talking about at the beginning of Mass Effect 1.