Mass Effect PC Developer Talks Ports, Piracy

Service-oriented. Outsourcee. Bootstrapper.

There is no easy way to describe a studio like Demiurge. The video game industry is a tough one for small fries, but the company has taken an almost workhorse-style approach in an effort to keep its independence. No job's too big, no job's too small.

With many independent developers like Iron Lore--a company that once contracted Demiurge--shutting their doors or being bought up, Demiurge's strategy of solving other studios' problems has lead to increasing freedom and success. It's also gotten the team hands-on time with some of the industry's most valued properties, including BioShock, Medal of Honor, and now Mass Effect.

Recently I sat down for a chat with studio head Al Reed, fresh off the launch of the company's PC port of Mass Effect. We touched on the copy-protection controversy, the challenge of porting the game, the studio's plans for the future, and flying rubber frogs.

Shack: So how's the Mass Effect launch going?

Albert Reed: It's going really, really well. Metacritic has us at 93 right now, which is very, very good. So I'm a happy camper.

Shack: How long were you guys on the project altogether?

Albert Reed: It was.. 14 months.

Shack: BioWare approached you guys with the project, but do you ever take the first step and approach companies with pitches for ports?

Albert Reed: You know, I'm sure we have. I can't think of the last time we did it, but I'm sure we've seen games on one platform and thought, "We can do this on another," and poked somebody about it. Sometimes they're reinterpretations: "Wouldn't it be great if this was on Live Arcade," or "Hey, this hasn't made its way to the Wii yet."

We always--we're gamers and fans too. I have an open door, and when somebody at the studio plays a game that they think is fantastic, or even sees a movie that they think is great, it's pretty common for them to come knock on my door and say, "Hey Al, do you know what's going on with the Wii version of this? Could we do that?" And I'll email so-and-so somewhere, and say, "Hey, is anybody working on this yet?"

Shack: Did BioWare dictate some of the changes between versions, or was that left up to Demiurge?

Albert Reed: The functionality was very much something that we spearheaded early on. In particular being able to configure the hotkeys, the drag and drop, and being able to order your squad around individually, was very much us. Toward the end they pushed us to change the look of it a little bit more, give it a little bit more of a PC-centric feel.

Shack: I'm sure this is a sticky issue, but I want to touch on the copy-protection thing. First of all, how involved are you typically with copy-protection?

Albert Reed: Very little. It's a publisher thing.

Shack: So what was your reaction when news of the 10-day restriction broke?

Albert Reed: I mean, just because it's not really something that we thankfully have to worry about.. I think EA obviously listened to what everybody had to say, and reacted to it. And I mean, we talk to BioWare every day, and I think there have been very, very few problems.

Shack: What is your take on the PC piracy issue?

Albert Reed: I think it's a big problem at the sort of financial investment side, how much companies are willing to invest in the PC versions of their game when they're worried that it's just gonna be downloaded for free. It's a problem for developers, because it affects royalties and those sorts of things. It's something that we all need to stress about and worry about. But it's not really my area of expertise. I don't know what the right solution is.

Shack: I don't either.

Albert Reed: [laughs] I wish someone did!

Shack: If you had to pick out one thing from the port that's been overlooked?

Albert Reed: The sort of out-of-game UI, the inventory screen, and how you mod your weapons, the codecs, journal. Because every single one of those screens was basically chucked and rewritten from scratch by the team here. I guess maybe it's a compliment that nobody's noticed, but it's an awful lot of work, to take all those UIs, because there are a lot. [laughs]

Shack: Are you ever nervous when changing elements of a game that was already successful?

Albert Reed: Absolutely. But part of that--I was surprised, but we're in here working on Mass Effect on the PC, and it comes out on the 360, and I'll be damned if three quarters of the team didn't go out and buy the game and play it start to finish. So we're fans too, and I think we have that perspective. And we put a really big emphasis, as does BioWare and Electronic Arts, on testing. So we put it in front of people and make sure that they're happy.

Shack: How much work went into optimizing the game for the PC?

Albert Reed: A lot, actually. We worked really hard to get the min sepc down to something that we felt that would be accessible to as many people as was possible. We think we have nice modest system requirements, but also, if you can get one of those 30 inch, 8-bajillion pixel monitors, it looks incredible.

Shack: Do you see PC system requirements as a major issue?

Albert Reed: Part of it depends a little on where you are in the console cycle. There's always those first few months when consoles come out and they're faster than PCs on the average, but the nice thing is now.. there was a fair bit of optimization just because the architectures are different, but once you get clear of that, you get the opportunity to scale it up, instead of having to scale it down.

Shack: When we last talked you guys were coming up with ideas for an original Wii game. How is that going?

Albert Reed: We have a killer game idea, which I guess everybody sort of has, and we're looking for financing right now. There's concept art on the walls, and design documents, and milestone lists, and those sorts of things being worked on.

Read on for more, including thoughts on the state of independent developers, word on another original project, and more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: You've worked with Iron Lore in the past. They just recently had to shut down. What is your take on the state of the independent development community? Healthy?

Albert Reed: The game business is a really, really hard business, because it's creative, and I think a lot of times the business aspects are overlooked. We have that bootstrapped mentality, where we don't have any outside money, so if we lose money, we go out of business, full stop. We don't have a sugar daddy paying for everything in the background. So I actually think that's a big reason that we've managed to be as successful as we are, because we run a real..

Shack: Tight ship?

Albert Reed: Yes, very, very tight ship. We buy expensive computers.. and crappy desks. [laughs] Good chairs.

Shack: How large is the studio?

Albert Reed: 35 [employees]. We have two projects going right now. Well, Mass Effect. And then we have the unannounced project we can't talk about. And then we're working on.. it was demoed at GDC actually, a game that will be bundled with the Emotiv headset.

Shack: Oh right. Can you explain what the Emotiv is?

Albert Reed: It's uh.. wow. It does a number things. We view it as a game controller that reads your mind. [laughs] Not to put too fine a point on it.

Shack: How does it work, anyway?

Albert Reed: I have no idea how it works! [laughs] I know it's EEG, which is an old, kind of reliable technology. There is some magic that interprets it, which is what the geniuses over at Emotiv have unlocked for us. And yeah, it can do a whole bunch of things, and we're making a video game with it.

Shack: Can you tell me anything about the game itself?

Albert Reed: Not yet. Soon, actually. It'll be very soon.

Shack: Maybe at E3?

Albert Reed: Uhh, I don't actually know, we don't have an exact date yet.

Shack: And I assume this will be a PC project?

Albert Reed: Nothing announced yet. Sorry, I keep having to say that. I'm really excited for the day where it's a Demiurge project, and we're in control of it, because I think a lot of the confidentiality stuff is overblown in the games industry.

Shack: There are a lot of studios out there that are being bought up by larger entities, BioWare included. Do you guys see yourselves staying independent in the face of this?

Albert Reed: It's not something we're trying to do. We greatly value our independence. It lets us work for anybody who's interested in hiring Demiurge to make their projects better, or create their games. So it's not part of our strategy, but I freely acknowledge that the industry is rampant with consolidation.

Shack: So as an independent company, would you prefer to be still providing a service role in the future, or do you see the studio wholly creating its own games?

Albert Reed: It's actually a little bit of both. We really, really enjoy working with big intellectual properties that we don't own. Getting the opportunity to work on Mass Effect is pretty fantastic. At the end of the day, we want to be sure that we're giving games to consumers. So that's one of the things that was great about Mass Effect. BioWare entrusted us with this gem they had created, and we got to listen to BioWare's fans, and create a game for them, and for the people who want to play games on the PC. So for us it's definitely a focus on products, not services. But part of creating a product is in service to the consumer, and sometimes in service to the property holder.

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Shack: So after 14 months, are you in for a bit of a break here?

Albert Reed: Oh, no time off. [laughs] There's always more to do. You know, I think Demiurge is a studio that has far more projects than we could ever take. We're definitely bottle-necked by our ability to find great people. That's what we struggle with the most here. So we are always very, very busy.

Shack: Is it a relaxed atmosphere in the office, or does everyone just get down to work?

Albert Reed: [laughs] I think, this shows in the work I guess, it's a very controlled environment. We're very regimented in the way we go about doing things, for a game company. We're probably at the wild and crazy end of your typical company.

Shack: So no Nerf fights?

Albert Reed: Actually, I don't know where they came from, but we have these rubber frogs that you can slingshot across the office. [laughs] But aside from that, it's very professional. You know, aside from the flying frogs.