Interview: BioWare Heads Talk Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic

It's a little mindboggling to think of how big BioWare has gotten over the past few years.

On the one hand, the company is developing two major RPGs in Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2. That alone would be impressive.

But on top of those games, BioWare is also tackling a new Star Wars MMO--a project so daunting, and potentially lucrative, that it almost dwarfs the more traditional efforts.

At last week's Game Developers Conference, I caught up with BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk. While I could have easily spent my limited time asking about just one of the games, I tried to cover all three with a few questions apiece--starting with the old-school RPG being demonstrated next door.

Shack: The PC version of Dragon Age seems very PC-centric, in that it has plenty of buttons and things. How are you porting that over to the console without losing functionality?

Greg Zeschuk: Yeah, I think what we do is--you probably saw the reverse version happen with Mass Effect PC. We were able to kind of amp it up a little bit. The way we describe it is, each version of the game is lovingly hand-crafted for the platform for which we deliver it.

So we've got the PC version pretty much nailed, and I think what we have been doing is thinking about how we adapt--we want the content to be the same. The fundamental experience is very similar, but the way you access it of course is different. So what we'll be looking at is how do you capture as much of the functionality in the game that's on the PC right now in the 360 and PS3 versions.

Also we have an analog to that too, where you look back to Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, how that played with over-the-shoulder... actually kind of a similar level of detail in terms of the game systems. So it's going to be a function of just picking the right ways to depict it. Our job isn't to overload the player with so many button presses, but try to make sure we're using the controller smartly and making it easy to play.

But I think the other thing too, just at a fundamental level, the overall console experience tends to be a little bit different, so we'll probably tweak difficulty and gameplay, that stuff. There are a lot of factors.

Shack: It seems like it would be less challenging to port it to console than if the game were truly turn-based. The real-time, over-the-shoulder "mode" seems very console intuitive.

Ray Muzyka: The great thing is you can play Dragon Age all real-time, if you just set the AI and your partners to be... like I want this guy to be an archer, I want her to be a mage that's more defensive or a healer, and just kind of go.

I've been playing a game a lot recently just behind the shoulder all the time on PC, and it plays really well. You can play, really almost--if you're the center of action, you have people around you that are doing really smart things that accompany you on the journey. And you can switch to them at any time if you want to possess their abilities, and kind of act as them, but you don't have to micro-manage moment to moment. You get different results if you do.

If you want to go top-down and play it more like a real-time strategy game, you can play it that way too. But it plays really well. It's interesting--in the office, we have a group of people who love playing it more as a top-down tactical, and we have a group of people that play it more as a hybrid that kind of jump back and forth. I'm really one of the camp now that is playing it behind-the-shoulder and playing it as more of a third person, intimate kind of thing. Which is probably more how the console players are going to naturally gravitate. And it plays really well.

Greg Zeschuk: Sometimes it's two groups [of developers] fighting together too. "No, tastes great! No, less filling! Top down, shoulder!" Wait wait, you're all right. And they go, "Oh, that's right. That's how we built it." It is designed for that. It's interesting--we got a lot of feedback from people who were very passionate about one of the views, to the point where we got them each good. So that's what we planned for in the first place.

Shack: Why did you choose to push the PC release of Dragon Age to the fall? Did you need more time, or were you looking to line it up with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases?

Ray Muzyka: I would say it's a combination of factors. One, we certainly make good use of any additional time we have to polish, iterate. But as you can see, hey it's like March, and you're looking at a game basically, and that's the real code, that's the build, that's the game. So it's looking great.

But we're definitely making use of the time to make it even greater. I also think this is a landmark in fantasy. This is dark fantasy, something that's really differentiated. And the people at EA and BioWare EA that we've shown it to, everyone is getting really excited about the opportunity that Dragon Age presents. Like EA looks at it and says, "Holy crap, this game is going to be big. It's an event. This is a landmark." And we want to make sure that we actually make the most of that, and really back it all the way, build up and make sure that it's got the opportunity to really be as big as it could be.

So the combination of factors were, BioWare always focuses on polish and quality. So we're going to make every spare minute we have to make it better and better. But we also recognize the importance of commercial success in our games. So we want to achieve the best of breed in both. And the good news is the fans are going to win, because we're making this game incredibly high quality.

We're also investing in it as a platform, making sure there's this deep integration of the online community, with the post-release content and user-generated toolsets. And just the polish of the underlying game itself is going to be pretty amazing. And we're launching it on three platforms in the fall.

Shack: Do you have any plans regarding DRM for the PC version?

Greg Zeschuk: We have plans, but they are currently secret plans.

Ray Muzyka: We want to make it a great experience. That's the goal.

Shack: How about digital distribution?

Greg Zeschuk: I mean, nowadays it's pretty much expected.

Ray Muzyka: Retail is still important. We know a lot of fans get the game that way and want to support our retail partners too. But digital distribution is increasingly the way a lot of fans are going.

Greg Zeschuk: Mass Effect PC sold quite a large portion digitally. I think you've seen the PC space, more and more people are obviously going that way. So we'll make sure we do some sensible stuff.

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Shack: Let's skip over to Mass Effect. Initially you guys promised players would be able to pick up their saved games in the sequel, but the trailer seemed to contradict that a bit.

Ray Muzyka: That's what it looks like, doesn't it?

Ray Muzyka: Everything we've said before about keeping your save games, keeping the continuity of the trilogy, is absolutely true. Everything we've said in the teaser is absolutely true as well. What does that mean?! How can it fit? That's a surprise.

Greg Zeschuk: We're full of secrets and mysteries.

Ray Muzyka: And you know, the fans are talking it up. We're excited by the reaction, because we released it knowing it would provoke that kind of reaction. And you know, it's a teaser, right? But we'll have more to show soon, and I think the fans are going to be very satisfied.

Shack: Would you say that Mass Effect 2 represents a major tonal shift for the series? Or is this a more traditional continuation of the story?

Greg Zeschuk: I think one way to describe it is the dark second chapter. That's one element, and that's the tonal element, is a little harder edged. I think from a pure development side, it's actually super exciting for us, because much of the time spent on Mass Effect was figuring out how to fit all that stuff on one disc in the 360 sense. And kind of, "Wow, it fit." And by the end, we actually had everything working, all the systems going. But during the course of development, we were mostly trying to build that stuff.

[With Mass Effect 2] we've been able to iterate, refine and look at the fan feedback, and do all the things to really tighten the game up. And there's a few key areas we're very high level working on it. One is just the overall shooter feel, and all the stuff to sort of further optimize the feel of the game. Story and integration--it's a tighter unit. It's hard to explain it, but it's a little less sprawling and a little more focused, but still creates exploration. BOOM video 1507

Shack: My favorite part of Mass Effect was just exploring a major hub and solving problems. Or creating problems.

Ray Muzyka: What we're doing with the uncharted worlds is, we recognized that there's a lot of cool things you can do with them. One of the things we can do with them is still make them optional, but to make them important, make them totally integrated and add value to the game.

So in every case now, all the optional content is still optional, you don't have to do it. But if you do, your main story arc is going to be that much more satisfying and compelling. And we're really focusing on making the exploration richer as a result.

It's a tighter experience. More personal. It's darker. It's a darker tone. We feel like there's--it's not humanity's kind of naive entrance onto the galactic stage, where you're the tip of the spear of humanity, representing this sort of, "Oh, what's it all about? There's aliens, that's cool." Now you know there's something that's really dark, and the Reapers who've come and did some major destruction. Now you're left with, wow--

Greg Zeschuk: Your harsh introduction is over, and you're like okay, now what?

Ray Muzyka: This is not easy times. It starts off with a bang right away.

Shack: The other thing I loved about Mass Effect was the hard sci-fi feel. I mean, you had the moon in the game.

Ray Muzyka: That was one of my favorite moments. Just going to the moon and finding CCP. Not everybody saw it. It's like, this is cool. It's like one of those aspiration fantasies of seeing the Earth in the sky. Yeah, I love that moment.

Greg Zeschuk: I think the team from the very beginning, we went through this process, kind of setting our goals of the kind of sci-fi we wanted to create. Because, you look at the concept of sci- fi, there's a huge range there. There's super hard science, and some of it is very esoteric and time travel and all this confusing stuff. But there's an entire range that we've targeted--there's space fantasy over here, but then there's that set of plausible, believable, but still fantastic. And I think that's really where we wanted to set our goal. We said, okay, it's like 300 years in the future--could it be like that? Yeah, there's nothing so crazy that it couldn't be like that.

Ray Muzyka: The other end of the spectrum is hard sci-fi, like Larry Niven, stuff like that. But it's not space fantasy, it's not hard sci-fi, it's somewhere in the middle.

Greg Zeschuk: It's almost like realistic sci-fi.

Shack: Why the first quarter [2010] release? Was that a reaction to the traditionally bloated holiday release period?

Ray Muzyka: At BioWare our approach is, we make sure our games are great, and we release them when they're ready. And EA has been a great partner in support of that, because they know the commercial success of games they're going to experience is really related to the quality.

Shack: Do you know whether the PC release of Mass Effect 2 will be delayed beyond the Xbox 360 date?

Greg Zeschuk: No idea.

Ray Muzyka: We've confirmed we're working on PC.

Greg Zeschuk: We still have to work on software optimization and stuff, so...

Shack: Jumping quickly to The Old Republic.

Greg Zeschuk: That one's pretty good I hear.

Shack: [laughs] There was some noise about microtransactions a few months ago. Is that something you're still considering for inclusion in the game?

Ray Muzyka: Yeah, I mean it'd be intriguing. It'd have to be congruent with the game world. We haven't talked about the business models of TOR yet, so we're not confirming or denying anything on that front.

But you know, subscription models are something that the vast majority of fans in that space in North America and Europe prefer, and it's certainly something we see as an important business model. But you know, microtransactions, other forms of business models are intriguing too. We're looking at a variety of things, but we're not ready to confirm or deny any specifics yet.

Shack: It seems like certain types of microtransactions might fit well with the sort of single-player approach to an MMO that you're going for.

Ray Muzyka: We want something different from play sessions, where people can play through a story and feel like it's their own journey and story arc. But yeah, I mean, there are certainly ways to accommodate that within a subscription model too. And microtransactions don't always have to be game-changing elements. They can be things that add value, but are optional. So there's a variety of ways to pursue it.

Shack: There was also some noise about a console release, but all you've confirmed is PC right now. Are you ruling that out at this point?

Greg Zeschuk: We rule nothing out, but there's no comment. [laughs]

Ray Muzyka: The only version we've talked about is PC, and that's our focus.

Shack: Thanks guys.