Through the gate and back again: how Dr Augustine Yip forged a career in gaming before returning to medicine
22 March, 2017
Within the medical community, there often are those of us who dream of venturing into other fields of interest, but due to a multitude of reasons, we are unable to take the first step. We were pleased to speak to one of the founders of the game development studio BioWare, Dr Augustine Yip, who did take that step and as a qualified doctor branched out into game development before returning to medicine full time. Dr Yip, who is currently working as a family physician in Calgary, Canada, kindly gave us a candid insight into what his life was like as a game developer, his personal views of computer gaming in general, and his transition back into medicine.
BioWare is a video game developer that was founded in 1994 by Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip, three doctors who had recently graduated together from the University of Alberta's medical school. The three had met in while studying Medicine and had collaborated on software for use within the medical field. After forming BioWare, they made their big break with the game Baldur's Gate, released in 1998. From there, BioWare moved from strength to strength, developing critically acclaimed games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Dr Yip however, had made the decision to leave BioWare in 1998.
The impact of BioWare on the video gaming world was not only through its Infinity Game Engine, which was used for other computer role-playing games (CRPGS), but also through its impact upon the narrative and structure of future CRPGs. Concepts that are taken for granted in CRPGs today, such as character relationships and engaging storylines, were greatly developed and refined within Baldur's Gate.
Regarding Baldur's Gate, Dr Yip said 'We were really, really proud with the storytelling and the idea that you can actually adventure. Other games tried to do it, but this was our attempt to have Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) role-playing on the computer." D&D is traditionally a tabletop role-playing game, though the system and its fantasy worlds have also appeared in novels and video games. 'A non-linear storyline that allowed you to explore everything else: it was a real point of pride."
The path in game development was not smooth, however, with occasional discrepancies between the game publisher's expectations and BioWare's vision. 'I helped create the graphical user interface, and that is a special point of pride for me. The producer--the publisher--they were called Interplay. They wanted a 'Warcraft 2'-like interface and we had to explain, sort of vehemently, that this is not that type of game. This is a roleplaying game and it is Dungeons and Dragons."
Dungeons and Dragons
It is often asked how a fledgling developer obtained the rights to develop a D&D game. 'Well here is the actual story," Dr Yip explained. 'For Baldur's Gate, we made a demo of the game and we called it 'Battleground: Infinity' and it was supposed to be different mythologies versus each other, such as Norse mythology versus Roman mythology versus Aztec mythology versus Chinese mythology; that kind of thing. That was the demo that we brought to Interplay. And Interplay had this Forgotten Realms license which was sitting dormant and was about to be lost." Forgotten Realms is a popular D&D setting, which has been licensed for further use in media such as novels and video games.
'(Interplay) said 'Yeah, we like the engine but we don't want the mythologies; we want to make the Forgotten Realms games.' We were such geeks, having played the old D&D games with the dice and everything, and of course we just jumped all over it. So they carved out a small point in time in Forgotten Realms for us."
How did his life as a game developer impact on his decision to return to medicine? 'The journey was good. It was. But business and software development is all consuming, even more than medical school.
'To be blunt, we just, we were just exhausted. Game development was 18-hour days, no exercise, poor nutrition, literally pizzas and coke for breakfast lunch and supper. You are basically locked in windowless rooms with 50 other geeks playing games and talking about games all the time. I am an avid but uncoordinated sportsman; I play tennis, ski, badminton and golf and everything else. I just knew that I couldn't keep doing this."
Another influence on Dr Yip's decision to leave BioWare was when his wife, fellow family physician Monica, and he were expecting their first child. 'Though the games were doing well, we thought 'You know what, I'd rather live a comfortable life than one filled with nothing but computer screens, geeks and rooms.'"
Dr Yip feels the role of video games has changed significantly over the years. 'Well, I mean they are so huge now, they are such a gigantic industry. I feel that--having had three kids and putting them through soccer, skiing, golf and everything else--I don't have anything against video games, but there is a whole world of real games, sports, skills and musical instruments. You know that these things matter as well. Being an excellent player for soccer games, or, whatever, any big shooter games; I am not sure that those skills would necessarily be transferable to anything else. But being able to play an instrument or reading physical literature could be more important to a person in a long run. I have no issue with gaming in general. It is just the amount of it."
We moved our discussion onto the existence of gaming addiction and its introduction in the DSM V. 'Easily could be, easily could be," Dr Yip said. 'I mean, gambling addiction... you can argue gambling in small amounts is okay, but gambling in large amounts can affect family and lifestyles. So, easily, gaming could be in the DSM classification. You can have Facebook DSM classified, and Youtube DSM classified, and everything. But gaming, for sure."
On returning back to medicine after his time in BioWare, Dr Yip reflected on his career and whether he enjoyed the decision he made. 'Oh, very much so. I have been at it for twenty years now. I have seen babies grow into adults. I have seen a generation of grandparents pass on. It has been an honour and privilege. I mean, in 22 years you can imagine the changes in therapy. My wife actually has actually branched off into psychotherapy and I have developed an appreciation of psychotherapy and its power. I have no regrets. It is funny, I have done a few of these interviews probably every two, three, four years and a lot of the interviews centre around 'Do you regret leaving the gaming sector,' and I say 'No, I don't even think about it at all.' It is not that I am avoiding it; it just doesn't even cross my mind.
'The computer world is so random, so much hard work so poorly paid, and basically only the top producers and developers make the big money. I mean, it was a blast, but honestly, it was for the person young, unmarried, no obligation, total freedom to work insane hours and with a high metabolism for carbs."
Drawing the interview to a close with Dr Augustine, who was returning to pick up his children from hockey, I thanked him for helping us on this article about doctors and gaming, and he left with 'Doctors formerly in gaming... It was a long time ago."
Following the interview, I thought upon the changes within the video games especially with regards to its reflection of the psyche. Talking to a trailblazer who developed a video game where attempts were made to move away from one dimensional place holder characters, to thinking about games today that are more confident and able to reflect the emotions which come with living; there is now a recognition within the gaming community that games which emphasise the complexity in human interaction within an engaging narrative is just as important as nuts-and-bolts game play.
However, on a more personal level, Dr Yip's story allowed me to reflect on how this person had explored his various passions and had come to a decision on the one he most wished to follow. Perhaps there should be more flexibility for us in exploring alternative career pathways, as opposed to the streamlined production factory that medicine can sometimes feel like. That way, we may have a better sense of contentment in the choices we make, instead of feeling of 'what may have been".
Authored by Sin Fai Lam