Born in Edmonton in 1971, Drew Karpyshyn is an acclaimed writer of novels, screenplays and video games. After graduating from college with a degree in English, Karpyshyn answered an open call for novel ideas set in Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms universe. His submission eventually led to his first novel, Temple Hill.
In the spring of 2000, Karpyshyn began working for BioWare, the video game company responsible for the Baldur’s Gate series. During his 12 years with the company, Karpyshyn contributed to an illustrious list of games including Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.
Retired from BioWare since 2012, Karpyshyn now resides in Austin, Texas. To learn more about him and his work, visit www.drewkarpyshyn.com.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I had a pretty ordinary suburban childhood. I was always interested in fantasy and sci-fi, and I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. Fortunately, my parents were always very supportive of my efforts, and they encouraged my love of reading and my interest in things like Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
Like many kids born in the ’70s, I grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy, so that has obviously been a huge influence on me. And I always loved fantasy novels — Eddings, Brooks, Tolkien; all the usual suspects. But I was also a big fan of horror, and my favorite writer is probably Stephen King. You can actually see some of his influence in my writing today — there are many points in my Chaos Born trilogy where the sword and sorcery fantasy style begins to slip into something closer to the graphic descriptions associated with a horror novel.
When and how were you first introduced to the world of Dungeons & Dragons?
I was about twelve when I first played D&D. The older brother of a friend introduced us to the game, and I quickly went out and bought the old Red Box set. Soon after, my friends and I were spending most evenings after school in my basement playing the game.
How did you initially become involved with Mass Effect, and how did that game’s story (and that of its sequel) evolve from the early conceptual meetings through its release?
I was part of BioWare’s core development team for the Mass Effect franchise, along with a handful of other people from the original Knights of the Old Republic team. When we started working on Mass Effect, we basically had a blank page to do any kind of sci-fi we wanted. That’s a daunting task, and it took us roughly six months to narrow it down to the universe fans know from the game. Then we spent another six months slowly fleshing out and building up the universe, getting feedback and input from other people as they were added to the team and we ramped up production. In the end, we spent nearly a year getting the setting and story locked down before we began actual production on the game.
BioWare games frequently allow the players to make choices that influence the gameplay. As a writer, what sort of effect did this have on your approach to telling the story?
Branching narrative — like the kind we use in BioWare style games — obviously makes telling a story more complex. We need to account for all the decisions players make, and each decision adds to the amount of content we need to create. This could quickly spiral out of control, but over many years and multiple titles, we’ve grown skilled at knowing which decisions we need to focus on, and which decisions can have a smaller impact on the outcome of the story. You want players to be able to control the experience in a way that lets them get the type of story they want, but as the writer you still need to be able to direct the story down a small number of main plot lines so you can keep the narrative moving forward. There’s no easy way to do it: it just requires a lot of time, effort and experience.
What do you miss most about working at BioWare?
Definitely the people. BioWare was a great collection of creative, intelligent individuals who all shared the “geek” gene. It’s a great thing when you come to work with people who have the same interests as you do: games, movies, fantasy, sci-fi. It really felt like a community more than an office. And even though I’ve left the company, many of my closest friends are now people I met while working there.
How does the process of writing a video game differ from that of writing a novel?
Writing novels is a very solitary and personal experience. You sink or swim on your own, and you spend most of your time locked away in your writing sanctum battling the words on the computer screen. Video games are a much more collaborative effort — you have the camaraderie, support and resources of an entire team to help you out, but you have to sacrifice a lot of creative control. There’s much more give and take on a video game, but when everything comes together the results are spectacular. So I wouldn’t say one is necessarily better than the other; they’re just different.
When writing a novel in an existing universe such as that of Star Wars or Mass Effect, what is the process for getting your story approved?
I don’t know if my experience of writing novels for existing franchises was typical. My role as lead writer on Knights of the Old Republic got my foot into the Star Wars door — without that experience, I doubt they would have ever spoken to me. But once I started writing Path of Destruction — the first Darth Bane novel — they pretty much let me do my thing. Back then, I was the only writer working in the Old Republic era, so I didn’t have to worry about making my story fit in with the massive amount of EU material that was already out there. I did submit an outline for approval before I began the actual novel, but there were no real issues or changes. That was pretty much how it went for the rest of my Star Wars novels, too.
For the Mass Effect books, I was already on the inside. I was lead writer on the first two ME games, and I was part of the core design team that created the universe. So I was given a lot of creative freedom in the books, and I was able to flesh out things from the games and build on them. Again, I submitted outlines for approval, but they were pretty much rubber-stamped since I had already discussed my ideas with the higher-ups while working on the game.
What was the inspiration behind your Chaos Born series?
The Chaos Born trilogy is my take on the classic sword and sorcery fantasy novels I read as a teenager — The Belgariad, Sword of Shannara and the Dragon Lance books, just to name a few. I loved these classic fantasy stories, but I’ve put my own spin on them; my style is a little bit darker and a bit more action-oriented. Obviously, there is a lot of grim and gritty fantasy out there now, but I think my books lean more towards the fable/legend/myth side of the spectrum that was more common in the ’80s rather than the hyper-realism that seems to be in vogue now.
If you had the opportunity to appear on Jeopardy! again, would you prepare differently?
The biggest thing I learned on Jeopardy! was that it’s all about timing on the buzzer. Most contestants know most of the answers, so it all becomes about hitting the buzzer at the right time. Hit it too early — before Alex finishes reading the question — and you get locked out. Hit it too late and someone else beats you to the answer. In the first round, I was rolling, but in the second round I got a bit too excited and I kept jumping the gun. I wouldn’t really prepare any different — I knew enough answers to win — but I would try to remain more calm throughout the experience.
What’s the best golf course you’ve had the opportunity to play, and if you could play a round at any course in the world, which would you choose?
I’ve played Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which is often ranked in the top 10 courses in the world. The experience was everything I hoped for — 30 mph winds and a crusty old Irish caddie who looked to be about 90. I don’t remember what my score was, but it was HIGH. But as fun as that was, if I could play one course it would have to be Augusta National, where they hold the Masters. I’d probably shoot 90+ out there, but I’ve watched every Masters since Jack Nicklaus won in 1986, so I’d love to see the course in person.
What are you working on next?
I’ve always got a few irons in the fire. I’ve just finished writing Chaos Unleashed, the final book in my Chaos Born trilogy — it comes out in July. I’m currently putting together a small collection of short stories that I’ll be self-publishing in the spring, and then I’ll be working on a couple of stand alone novels — one a historical fiction action-adventure tale set in Elizabethan England, and the other a contemporary sci-fi story with a bit of an X-Files vibe. Hopefully one (or maybe both?) of those books will be ready to go for 2016.