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E3 2009: An interview with BioWare

E3 2009InterviewMass Effect

On Thursday, the final day of E3 2009, I was given 15 minutes to sit down and have a conversation with BioWare founders Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk. BioWare had three products on display at E3 2009: Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Though hard at work on some of the highest-profile games at the show, the Drs. were able to spare some time to comment on the evolution of games, the “are games art” debate and to discuss some of their upcoming products.

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Me: One of the things I’ve seen in your games is that there’s more of an action orientation. Not necessarily more action…

Greg: Not turn-based.

Me: Exactly.

Ray: We allow for different play styles in our games. We’re definitely trying to make games that are accessible to a wider, mass market audience as well as fans who like turned based as well, so typically, we put in a mode that allows players to pause it and thoughtfully assign orders to party members. But we also want to have real-time action, you know, in a game like Mass Effect 2, we really think of it as a shooter RPG, so we’re amping up the intensity of the combat, focusing on the frame rate, making sure the precision of the controls is there, heavy weapons, AI on the enemies, really detailed animation systems, and trying to make it a really smooth experience. And that kind of lends itself well to making a great action-oriented experience.

With Dragon Age for consoles, we tried to take a similar approach where, you know, the A button swings your weapons and there’s quick actions for all the spells and things you want to load up. You can cast off a spell in a hurry or fire your bow or launch a special attack and it plays really well on consoles because of that. But at the same time, you can still do the thoughtful approach and do the tactical depth because our games tend to be very deep, almost like layers of an onion, and we want those layers to be accessible no matter how you want to play it. It’s difficult, you have to spend a lot of time on the interface and fine-tuning it for every platform and customize it and that’s why our games, we spend a lot of time polishing and making sure we get it just right to make it feel like it’s natively handcrafted for every SKU we launch.

Me: You guys started out doing primarily PC games. Do you find that the console development platform affords you different opportunities?

Greg: I think it’s just a different interface into the game. I think our stories aren’t different. I just think the way you access the game is different, you usually have to have more streamlined, cleaner interfaces on a console because the controller makes it harder. I think one of the interesting things is that we always love the challenge of trying to bring the complexity, and not daunting complexity, but as Ray said, that deeper sense that if you make certain choices you can be successful. That’s one of the big goals we have – trying to ensure that players who think and plan and approach things tactically actually get an advantage. And you can still do that on consoles. This is one of the things that most people who work on consoles just jump right to the full action and aren’t really worried about the system behind it, but we actually spend even more time on the system behind the games on the console stuff. Now obviously we’re very multiplatform and BioWare, we don’t have any particular platform favorites, but what we always want to do is make the right game for the right platform. In the case of the Dragon Age interface, we really redid that on the console version because the PC version just didn’t fit and now we have two interfaces that seem very native to their respective platforms.

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Me: Do you guys feel that you started out with Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire and you’ve moved on since then, do you feel that as you’re progressing that you’re learning more about delivering a more cinematic experience?

Greg: We were doing games, you know, 20 years ago. We started with games before BioWare and then Shattered Steel was our first BioWare game in the 90s and then Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights and have gone on from there. It’s interesting; we’ve put together a video that serves as a historical retrospective that we show to new hires in orientation. It shows little snippets of gameplay going all the way back 10 or 15 years and you can really see that foundation progressing. Really, it’s all about emotion in the end. That’s our vision. The way we pursue that, our mission is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world. We believe there’s more than one way to tell a story and we’re perusing a lot of them now, but historically we looked more at the characters and cinematic experiences. Now, we’re focusing on the narrative of the world and your narrative as an explorer as you progress through the game world and see how it changes in response to your actions. But the social narrative as fans interact on Facebook and extra game sites and social networking sites, we learn from that as well. Our stories are non-linear with choice and consequences, where players get to make a meaningful impact on how the story unfolds, which we think is pretty exciting.

Me: Do you feel that that’s the natural progression of stories in games? That there’ll be more ways for users to shape the experience that they play?

Ray: I think that’s at least a part of it. From the very beginning, we’ve always allowed the player to personalize their experience, and that’s always been one of the goals. It’s exciting to have the technology to be able to give players the tools to be able to create their own experience. With Dragon Age, those tools are already out there. Giving people that power to tell stories to each other is really exciting. We like to tell stories in our games. Everyone loves a good story. It’s the fundamental level, the primary form of all our entertainment. It’s exciting to be in a position where you can both entertain and provide tools for players to entertain themselves.

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Greg: We want stories as well that, or the narrative of the explorer or the progression narrative, or the dialogue between characters, to really make you feel something. That’s where that emotion piece comes in – when you get that chill down your spine when you walk into a really cool situation, where you’re kind of looking around like “Wow, no one else has been here.” Or you feel that sense of fear, visceral fear as you see an enemy ahead of you that you’re pretty sure has a shot at defeating you and you’re not quite sure if you’re ready for the challenge yet. Or maybe you start to feel like the characters in the game that you’re interacting with, that you actually care about these virtual characters that you’re interacting with. If you invest time in them, if you actually care what happens to them, then the experience is similar to a great book or movie. I guess we see games as art is the ultimate thing. We think art can move people and emotion is our vision as a studio. We want to move people through the stories that we tell.

Me: Continuing on that, “games as art” has been in debate since Ebert made his claim that they aren’t –

Greg: Has Ebert ever played a game? Probably not.

Ray: I think he played Street Fighter. Even that has some artistic value to me.

Greg: At the least, I don’t think he’s played recent games. He hasn’t seen the evolution of games, their progression.

Me: Do you think that it’s art in the eye of the beholder then? That it’s not going to necessarily “movie art” or “book art.”

Greg: I think it’s a pretty healthy, normal debate. The old guard who haven’t tried a new medium, like when movies started up, people probably wondered “what are these black and white movies with no sound?” Then they added sound and color and then they got better at direction and cinematography and now, 100 years later, we’re actually into the actual cinematics. There’s such diversity in the spectrum of movies now that it’s hard to argue that they aren’t art. There was probably that debate 50, 100 years ago when people were just starting with the very first primitive movies. We’re now 30 years into video games and we’re getting to the point where, we have our camera built. We have a stable camera platform. You walk around the show and the diversity of the games here at this show this year is amazing. There are some really great games on all the platforms. And not just next-gen platforms, PS3, 360, Wii, absolutely there’s great stuff for PC, but handhelds, iPhones, browsers – all kinds of wacky stuff that you never expected. Games are flourishing. I think there’s incredible diversity and genuine artistry on display out there.

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Ray: I’d also add that one thing that’s been happening in the last couple of years that’s really starting to hit is an appreciation and acknowledgement of games as one of the key media forms. Before there were books and magazines and movies and games were kind of a stepchild of something of those. But now, when the great directors of movies start a property, they’re thinking, “what’s my interactive media” i.e., game solution. It’s suddenly a part of the big decision and it’s not as much of an afterthought. It’s exciting to see how the Hollywood guys are coming back into this business and doing so in a thoughtful way and partnering with those who have done it well. I think it bodes well and a good acknowledgement of the business. As Greg said, the Hollywood guys see that the camera is built and that they can start using it. They know there are a lot of people that know how to use it and they want to make great stuff with us.

Greg: One of the reasons why we see games as so exciting is because they’re interactive. I don’t see interactivity being a barrier to games being considered “art.” I see that as an accelerator. It enables you to do really cool things because you can be the actor and the director at the center of the experience at the same time. That’s pretty amazing. A lot of other forms of media –

Ray: It doesn’t have to be passive. What’s the basis of that? There’s none.

Greg: It can be very active and external and internal. Games, because they’re technology fueled, or because there is strong technology linkage between games and how they’re deployed, you can have external linkages with social networking. You can have an internal and external story; you can have dynamic active choices as well where you influence the outcome. And yet you also have a story arc at the same time, and that’s pretty amazing when you think about it. You get to be the actor in the center and the director and also a participant, a viewer who kind of watches the story unfold through cinematics.

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Me: It’s really in many ways no different than reading a book then and creating a fantasy world in your mind, except that you’re visually experiencing someone else’s imagination.

Greg: The imagination is really powerful. When you think back to the early games, text adventures, you had to do that a lot. You had to imagine the world. And now, we’re at a point where it’s almost like the world is there and now you can actually walk around and actually do whatever your imagination tells you it wants to do. You can actually see it and make it happen. It’s almost a higher level of influence, which is pretty interesting. And also, people can be co-creators of the experience, so if you feel like you want to make some, we’re releasing the toolset for Dragon Age so our fans can make content. There’s a beta going on right now where our testers can create more content for our fans. That’s another dimension of art. People can make movies obviously but –

Ray: We’ve given them the paintbrush.

Greg: Yeah, we’re giving them the paintbrush so they can paint their own canvas and share it with the world which I think is pretty amazing as well.

Me: That’s been something that you guys have done frequently in your past games as well. Do you think that’s becoming a necessary part of the experience these days?

Greg: It’s one way of accelerating connective and social networking. It forges strong community linkages. Post-release downloadable content, through user-generated content, through episodic delivery, through all manner of different things. It’s certainly one way, a very powerful way, to get some of the creators involved and also expand the platform. We see our games almost as a platform now, where we launch a Dragon Age and we release post-release downloadable content so people can continue their journey and if other people are making content alongside us, it just makes that journey that much more interesting and rich.

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Me: One of the things that I noticed during this E3 is that it seems like the emphasis is on refinement. It’s like Greg said, the camera is built and now it’s finding ways to deliver the maximum experience. One of the things that I noticed while watching Mass Effect 2 is that the game in many ways looks very similar, gameplay-wise, to the first, but you can see a lot of subtle tweaks to the cinematography and the direction of the cut scenes. The camera moves around, there are more dramatic shots.

Ray: We always use this as sort of a joke, but it’s true in the sense that, with Mass Effect 1, it was a real challenge fitting the entire galaxy on one disc. And in many ways, it was a race to the finish line. Whereas Mass Effect 2, we’ve had the opportunity to take the technology that we built and tweak it and there were a lot of things that we refined. For example, the frame rate is a rock solid, there’s no hitching, it’s just 30 plus [frames per second] the entire time. The lighting is actually different – we’ve actually changed the lighting effects during conversations to make it more dramatic.

Overall, we’ve been able to refine it. That’s one of the most exciting things for us in doing this sequel. We haven’t done a sequel in years. You know, the last sequel that we worked on was, like, Baldur’s Gate II. We’ve done a couple of expansions after the games, but full sequels, this is one of the first ones in a long time. It’s been fabulous working on this. We’ve been able to hone our craft. Another advantage is that we’ve had fabulous teamwork on this. Pretty much the exact same people are working on this, so when you get in a situation where you’re improving on something with the exact same bunch that built the original, it just gets better and better. Eventually Mass Effect 3 will come around and it’ll be even more compelling. It’s kind of scary, really, because we did pretty well last time, but Mass Effect 2 is even better.

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I agree with you too though, walking around the show floor, and seeing some of our competitors products, you see that the bar just keeps going up. It’s amazing.

Greg: It’s a good time to be in the industry, if you’re a gamer. I find the competition to be really interesting. Like Ray said, it’s an exciting time because the bar keeps going up and it’s challenging us to do more and we know we have to continue to evolve our craft to stay at the forefront. I think it’s really healthy for the industry.

Our interview came to a close with handshakes all around. Make sure to check out all of our coverage on BioWare’s E3 offerings, including our previews of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

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