Interview With Senior Writer John Dombrow

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We chat with senior writer John Dombrow about life at BioWare, his love of text adventures, and his childhood dreams of being director of the CIA.

Who are you and what is your role at BioWare?
I’m John Dombrow and I’m a senior writer on the Mass Effect 3 team.

What is the best part about your job?
Having the job! When Mass Effect 1 came out in 2007, I was a BioWare fan like so many others. I ran over to Gamestop on release day and snagged a copy because all the previews I’d seen about the game looked amazing. I remember playing it and thinking “Wow, this Garrus guy is cool” or “This Wrex guy sure is a bad-ass” and then pondering all the questions that Mass Effect 1 posed like “I wonder what’s going to happen with this genophage problem?” Or “What were Protheans really like?”

So jump ahead to 2010 when I’m working on Mass Effect 3 and I got the writing assignments for bringing closure to the genophage issue, writing Wrex, writing Garrus, and writing our Prothean squadmate, Javik. And BioWare was going to pay me to do that? Wow. It was a dream come true, taking the passion I felt as a fan of Mass Effect 1 and applying it as a writer to Mass Effect 3.

What does an average day look like for you?
That depends on what stage we’re at in the project. Early in Mass Effect 3’s development it was all about meetings and brainstorming, trying to hash out the basics of a mission as we gradually worked our way towards a more detailed vision. All of that happened on paper. Then once we had approved mission documents and moved into production, the day was spent writing scenes, revising them, going to review meetings as the mission gradually took shape – artwork, level design, combat, cinematics, audio, VO dialogue –all of that started to work its way into the mission, getting more and more refined as we went. I’d play my missions constantly, assess what was working and what wasn’t, make adjustments, and so on. Then once everything was at a more finalized state, it was all about polish and bug-fixing, ironing out the kinks, trying to make it as perfect an experience as you can. The trick is you could have several missions that were your responsibility, so you’re doing all of this across multiple missions which could all be at various stages of the process. Writers at BioWare quickly learn how to juggle!

Can you tell us about one of your proudest moments working in game development?
Lately, that would be experiencing the Tuchanka genophage mission. I had spent so much time thinking about it and then writing it, that to finally see it in all its final glory, with finished cinematics, music and sound FX, was incredible. I was so proud that we’d hit all the emotional beats we had hoped to hit and successfully brought closure to a complex issue with all the characters fans had come to love. Even better, was seeing the fan reaction to the mission. As a writer you hope that maybe once in your career, no matter the medium, you’ll emotionally move people, and I was so proud to see that was happening to players when they finished this mission. And I stress “we” because a mission of that size, scope, and ambition doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a true team effort.

I had an awesome level designer, Dave Feltham, who was in sync with the story, the themes, and what the mission was all about and how to pack with all these amazing action moments. Boyd McKenzie’s artwork was incredible, and then I worked with two great cinematic designers, John Ebenger and Richard Boisvert to bring the scenes alive, along with our cinematics team that handled the Reaper vs. Thresher Maw fight. Then another writer, the very talented Patrick Weekes, who had created Mordin in Mass Effect 2, got involved in shaping and writing Mordin’s final goodbye in this mission to give him a proper sendoff (along with one last chance for Mordin to sing a song). Add the final touches with sound and music from our audio department, and all cylinders were firing. There’s pride in that – pride in knowing you and your colleagues have brought your “A” game to the table, infused it with all your own individual talents, and created something whose sum is greater than its parts.

What’s a geeky thing about you?
I like to go back once in awhile and play old Infocom text adventures. Zork, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Lurking Horror, Planetfall – I still get a kick out of them. There’s something about a blank cursor waiting for you to make your move that gives you the illusion of total freedom.

Do you have any advice for those wishing to get into the video game industry?
Find what you’re good at and then keep getting better at it. Whether it’s writing, designing levels, creating sound FX, doing concept art – you’re only as good as your product. You should play games all the time, see what works, what doesn’t, and learn from the successes and failures of others. But also be realistic – you’re not going to land your first job in the industry as Lead Designer. Be prepared and willing to work hard starting from the ground floor, improve your craft, and eventually you can get where you want go.

If you weren’t working in the industry, what would you be doing?
Banging on the door trying to get into the industry. Failing that, when I was a kid I seriously wanted to be director of the CIA. I’m not sure why, but I had this phase where that seemed like a legitimate career goal. Now I think back and wonder – huh? What was I thinking? Because I had it all planned out – I knew how I was going to win the Cold War, which countries I’d recommend we invade, where I was going to send my spies on missions, and how I was going to read all the top secret files about UFOs.

What are you currently playing, reading, or listening to?
I’m playing Skyrim followed by more Skyrim. Very addictive game. Book-wise, I’m in the middle of reading Guillermo del Toro’s third novel of his vampire trilogy, The Night Eternal. As for music – I’m pretty much a movie soundtrack guy most of the time. I find soundtracks provide the best inspiration for writing. Everything I did in Mass Effect 3 was inspired by some particular piece of movie music. And when I get tired of that, there’s always the aforementioned Patrick Weekes, who will gladly burst into song and give us all a Mordin tune whenever we ask for it.