BioWare founders: 'We're not done yet'

Right after our demo of the PC version of Mass Effect, we had the chance to sit with BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk for a quick catch-up on recent events. The two men were overjoyed to talk about Mass Effect's success and critical reception, as well as the uplifting effect the EA buyout has had on the company.

The impression the two give are of guys who have just been given a chance at the brass ring. Their comments, intimating that BioWare itself is now a micro-publisher, praising their new co-worker's common sense, hint at a new era of opportunity for the company. We've already posted the audio from the interview, but for a full transcript of our discussion just read on below the cut. You can get a better sense of Ray and Greg's cheery outlook, see them again discuss the reason Mass Effect on the 360 had the UI it did, and watch them stonewall on a question about their in-development MMO title.

The bottom line, unsaid in the interview itself, is a clear message: "Fans shouldn't worry. We're not, and neither should you." Here's hoping that they've got the right of it.

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Thank you both for your time. Mass Effect is obviously a fairly landmark title for BioWare. The technology you've made in this game, I imagine, is going to show up in other games.

Ray Muzyka (RM): We have a great, great team, they really, really care about making great experiences and have passion about quality.

Can you give us a sense of how you feel about Mass Effect's reception?

Greg Zeschuk (GZ): Really good, actually. The sales have been excellent. In the context of last fall, the competitive landscape was crazy. I think there was one week where like ninety games were released great games were released at the same time. I think we did really well. I think we're the sixth or seventh best-selling game on the Xbox; we're also one of the top couple IPs created in the year. Just that, right there, we're extremely happy. For many years BioWare has made a lot of great games and actually created franchises out of other people's properties - thinks like Star Wars and the Baldur's Gate series. Finally we have one that has a really big impact - we made Jade Empire and that was really successful, but Mass had a ... massive impact. The PC one is coming out and we're really happy about that, and we have a nice technology base for future projects.

RM: We're not staying static, you know? We're taking the PC version and we're really targetted it, maximizing it, customizing it to make it just tuned to the platform, that's really important to us. We laid a great foundation on the 360 and we feel very proud of that. We're very happy with the commercial and critical acclaim, but we can still make it better.

Speaking on that point, how come the turnaround was so quick to the PC? There was a little bit of a lag there with Jade Empire, and I think a lot of fans were expecting to have to wait longer than May to see that on the PC.

RM: Well, partly maybe as a response to that, we knew the fans were pretty excited to see that when we did the Jade PC version, like geez how can we ... We were focused pretty much on the 360 version so it was an exclusive development. Near the end we thought, let's satisfy the PC audience too because they're very important constituents for us.

Was the decision made before the 360 version came out to port it to the PC?

RM: I don't know when the exact timing was, we were exploring the idea at the time but I don't think we committed to it until the game was out on the 360. We're always exploring ideas, figuring out what it would take. Watch it, announce it.

We've seen how the game was technically refined, were there any ways in which the game's story was refined in the move to the PC?

GZ: We've got some things, I'm not sure if we really have talked about those things yet. We may have something in our back pocket. The main focus for us was to improve on what was already in Mass Effect; the story was so well received. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was perfect, there are always things you can tweak on. So the focus was let's put some effort in, let's put some effort where we think we want it devoted.

That was onto things like readjusting the controls, give the PC audience the opportunity to try the more run-and-gun action opportunity, better resolutions, better interface. Things are just a bit more streamlined on the PC - personally that's where we grew up games so we're still very dedicated to those kinds of games, right?

We don't ever want any BioWare game to come out on any platform and for someone to say "oh, that's just a quick little throw-together version." We're very particular about doing it right, about doing a good job. So really, you get this much effort and you want to put most of that effort into the user experience in terms of how interface and things works. How they interact with the game.

RM: It's about talking to fans too. We played it - probably finished it three or four times before we shipped the 360 version.

GZ: Oh yes.

RM: Little bit of this, try that ... but ...

GZ: We played the beginning of the game about 50,000 times.

RM: About a hundred times, yeah. I dunno how many times. When we finished the game I did one play through I was probably about 95% plus. I know I didn't do some of the things but I tried to visit every world. It took me about 50 hours to go through and do all that; you certainly didn't have to do that. You can get through much faster if you just shoot through the game's core story. The amount of content that's in the game is just a huge amount that's already there. A lot of people haven't seen it yet, it's a very big universe. You can really side all the side permutations, new worlds start to open up, and you can do a lot of different things. It's all how you want to play it.

You mentioned the UI improvements to the game, which are pretty fantastic. As a big fan of the 360 version of the game my only big criticism was the UI. Can you speak to why some of the components we saw in the PC version of the game weren't available in the Xbox version?

GZ: It's interesting. Sometimes we just are doing so many things when you're working on it that you don't even notice anymore.

RM: You get used to it.

GZ: Yeah, you get used to it. Like we said, we both played it a lot. We're both really pleased to get all the items, all the guys.

RM: I noticed it when I maxed out my items a couple of times.

GZ: Yeah. I think it's weird. An interesting thing happens when you build a game; you're experience the same thing over and over and over - you get used to it, and on top of that Microsoft has really strong usability and playtesting facilities.

RM: We made a lot of changes based on that, like a lot of changes.

GZ: And the interesting thing with Mass Effect and the interface is that this stuff didn't come out because people have to play so long that they had to get to the item management stuff.

RM: And, of course, the PC version is after the fact. So we're actually listening to the feedback and trying to make the game better. That's plain and simple what we're doing.

GZ: We catch most of the stuff.

RM: You know, we were exploring PC as an idea, but to really crystalize as as an idea it took what you're now seeing to be what it is. We're taking the feedback, press feedback, fan feedback, usability testing feedback, team feedback and we go "Aw geez, we didn't realize ..." and we can fix that. We can make it better.

GZ: Sometimes people play games in ways you don't expect, too. It's really interesting.

RM: I love looking at fan feedback, usability, press ... we actually do like Metacritic ourselves, we go through every review that's listed and track the scores - harsh ones as well. There's value in every opinion, right? It's just feedback. We want to try to separate ourselves from it, one of our core values is humility. How can we take that and go "maybe we don't like the way that's written but what's the idea he's trying to say?"

We actually do analysis of the most frequent points of feedback. From like 200 reviews, some crazy number. The PR team and Mass Effect team pulled it together, "What can we do better?", it's a blue print for improvement. Intellect mediated by intuition, it's inspired by - you have to feel it inside, that's a quote we heard from someone - I think Bono said it once. You have to do the analysis but you have to feel it too. You have to be inspired and take your passion and apply it.

I know you can't talk about specifics at this point but can you give us a sense of how much downloadable content is planned for the game?

GZ: A fair amount. We have the first one, bring down the sky, announced. It's a big part of what we want to do at BioWare. Obviously we did a good amount of it in Neverwinter Nights and that actually worked out really well for us, it's something we're very interested in. Before we jump to the next thing we want to see how the first one's received - again we've got some plans, we've got some ideas of what we want to do, but we want to get some fan feedback on the first thing and sort of keep self correcting. Obviously we chat with Microsoft alot because they know the whole layout of the land when it comes to downloadable content. We also want to make sure we're giving people stuff that's cool and makes sense.

So there aren't any plans to expand the PC version and the 360 version in different directions?

RM: No. I mean, we don't have any announced plans to do that, but it's an interesting idea. The potential's there but we haven't announced any future plans, what the future of DLC is, we're still developing those plans. That's an interesting idea to consider.

How has the acquisition by EA affected the company? How do you think it's going?

RM: Really, it's going extremely well. We went into it cautiously optimistic because we knew John [Riccitiello], we'd reported to him for a couple of years at BioWare/Pandemic and we have a lot of respect for him. We got to know Frank, we have a lot of respect for him. Those are our two bosses, basically, and really it's more of the same - you know, BioWare is very ambitious as a studio. The thing I find really refreshing about EA - we've both commented on this - it's very transparent internally. People are willing to share things, it's a very open culture internally if you're part of EA, and it's a very ambitious culture as well.

Confident, but humble at the same time. Sort of. It's the new EA - it's very ambitious, and it's exciting to be part of a group that just wants to advance. We feel very well aligned with them, with the rest of EA. It's a different EA than it was a few years ago, I think. With John and some of the leadership changes, Frank [Gibeau] and Kathy [Vrabeck] and Peter [Moore] and Nancy [Smith] - some of the presidents and John as CEO - I think we feel very well aligned with them as a studio. We view games as commercial art, and that's very consistent with the way EA is viewing it. You hear the word quality alot now.

GZ: And you see evidence of it.

RM: You see evidence of it, there's some good stuff in development. Going to the global publishing marketing meeting is like "holy". There's a bunch of not-in-house stuff, but phenomenal, it's all gameplay it's like beautiful.

GZ: We've been shocked, shocked at the amount of common sense we're having to deal with. That's one of the great experiences - getting to a situation where you can see the goal lines ...

RM: And they're smart, people across the board are very smart, rational but you have to have a good case if you want to move ahead in a direction. You have to persuade everybody.

A few weeks ago, right after DICE, Frank had made a pretty vague comment that said "Mass Effect will be our franchise for a very long time." A lot of our readership took that to mean that EA would one day gobble that up, maybe after you guys finish the trilogy. Turn it into something else.

RM: A different way to view it is: we are EA now. That's how we embrace it.

GZ: He's E, I'm A.

RM: We are a part of EA. We are EA. We're still the same guys. We're BioWare and our team is still the same at BioWare. So BioWare is going to maintain its proud identity, we're ambitious as a studio, we're a good brand and we're going to retain that striving forward - but we're part of EA. The fact that Mass Effect is a BioWare property, it's also an EA property. We're developing it but we're developing it as part of EA. I think that's what he was referring to.

GZ: The fundamental thing, the exciting thing about the new company structure is also among the way the game studios work, creating franchises. We manage it, it's actually our marketing team internal to the studio in Edmonton, for sales, for the global rollout, for PR, it's all our team. It's actually interesting because even moreso than before we have control, directive over the whole publishing machinery with our games. This is the first time we've seen that - we've done that in partnership but we're driving it.

RM: We are a publisher now, we're a developer integrated with marketing and sales, and that's exciting to be a part of that. Another way to view this is: we plan to be doing this for a very long time. BioWare does. I mean, I'm genuinely excited about where the industry is at and what we're doing as a studio. We're at what almost seems like the most rapid point of change in the industry in thirty years. What's the next thirty years going to look like? That's a good point to be at. You know, it's a really interesting - if you're going to be doing things with your life you might as well be doing interesting things? And I think this is like one of the most interesting times for our industry - just imagine the possibility space of where we're going. Just where we've been is phenomenal but ...

GZ: Just the last few years it seems like the change has been massive. It really has.

RM: We're not done yet, we have a lot of stuff we want to do as a studio. We're ambitious too.

It looks like we have time for just about one more question, so I'm going to jump the rails a bit. There have been a lot of rumors recently about what you're doing in Austin, and ...

GZ: Are you asking us to set the record straight?

If you'd like to tell us what you're doing in Austin, we'd love to hear it.

RM: Well, not yet.

Right; can you give us a sense of when we might learn what you're doing in Austin?

GZ: I don't think we can say that either. We do talk in generalities ...

RM: We have an idea, but we can't say.

GZ: The interesting thing about it is that the team's up and running. It's actually an extremely experienced team, a lot of veteran designers ...

Damion Schubert.

GZ: Yeah ... a lot of people who have made great MMOs in the past, and so it's a wonderful amalgam of BioWare culture in terms of workplace and all these people focused on building stuff, but then a really good sense of what's important about our games combined with technical knowledge on the MMO side. We're actually up to quite a few people now.

RM: It sure is fun to see all the rumors and stories that people have.

GZ: Yeah, keeping writing about them, we like that.

It's always entertaining for us too. Thanks a lot for your time, gentlemen.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.