Interview: BioWare's Greg Zeschuk on Dragon Age, DLC, and more

Here's a Thanksgiving treat from the vault – we've dug out the following interview with BioWare co-founder (and Group Creative Officer of EA's newly formed RPG/MMO Group) Greg Zeschuk from earlier this year at PAX. But don't let the date fool you! Our discussion of multiplatform console development, DLC strategies on future BioWare titles like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, and Greg's recommendation that everyone buy two copies of the game (one on console and one on PC) defies time. Read on!

Joystiq: Dragon Age is the first PS3 game that BioWare's developed. Can you talk about that process?

Greg Zeschuk: We did partner with Edge of Reality, so we partnered with folks who have had the experience, and that was a good process where we actually had some folks that knew how to do it but also, in general, just worked together with them. A lot of it ended up being like we needed a lot of work to get done and a lot of stuff very fast and everyone was very busy on Dragon Age itself. Collectively, on the console, I would say it was very interesting and challenging to take the richness of the PC game of Dragon Age, with all these different powers and everything else, and actually try to transpose it to the consoles. And the interesting thing about that, or where it worked out really well, is that we literally set ourselves a goal: We didn't want console players to fell like we ripped them off by taking anything away, by minimizing or simplifying. We want them to feel they have all the power at their fingertips, but it's very accessible. It's got the multiple rings that sort of have subsets to them, and you can actually pretty much access any power just a couple little joystick twiddles and button presses. And so with that experience, I think we succeeded there.

Another place where we succeeded on both the PS3 and 360 versions: it feels very different from the PC. Where the PC has got the traditional Baldur's Gate top-down [perspective], the PS3 and 360 are over-the-shoulder and they do have that kind of, very KOTOR feel and that's probably what I play, and that's what I feel most familiar with is KOTOR -- and it actually feels more action-y than the PC does, so I think people will find a very different experience. I recommend both platforms actually, PC and console versions.

One of each! Did you guys dedicate some design resources to this? It seems almost like you're creating separate experiences.

We are. We spent six months, literally, and Ray and I would also sit in on some of the sessions – like quite a few of the sessions on interface – and we'd all play it for a week, and every week for six months we would review the changes. We had very significant resources assigned: designers, producers, programmers, artists and Edge of Reality, a whole separate team as well at the same time. So, it's a big undertaking, I think. Again, one of our goals, and every time we have multiple platforms, is that we want people to feel that it was made for them, it was made for that platform they're playing on. We never ever want to play a BioWare game of any type that feels like it is secondhand or a sacrificed experience just because they happen to choose platform A, B, or C.

Dragon Age started as a PC game and it has a PC lineage, that Baldur's Gate style. I know a lot of our commenters were really looking forward to BioWare going back to its PC roots. When the console versions were announced, a lot of people were apprehensive about that. Was it a delicate process managing those expectations?

It was actually. One of the most important things on the PC side – in the same way that we didn't want console players to feel they got a substandard experience or that we stripped stuff out – the same is also true for PC. It's interesting, the PC is absolutely unchanged in any way from how we intended it. It's really amazing as a PC product. And, in fact, it is exactly what we wanted. So the interesting thing is we've actually done things to the console where we said, "We can take those back and make the PC experience even better." Which might be something we do on a later date. It was very delicate to manage that because people make assumptions. Like obviously your expectations are driven by what you've seen before. Most companies, when they do a console port to the PC or PC port to a console, they kind of throw it over the fence and don't worry about it and go, "Oh, yeah, we'll get it back in six months from whoever's doing it and publish it." We just don't do that. We look at what we make as very important and fans have to feel it's for them.

I think what you said press-wise, one of the ways to do that is to get their hands on it. One of the most powerful things you can do is say, "Hey, go play the PC version and see that it's a really great PC game." It is as great as it was ever intended to be. The console version is the same thing. For Dragon Age, the momentum has started to build more recently, the momentum didn't build in the spring. Folks were out on the pavement showing people, getting hands on. Some folks actually had copies of games they're playing and they go to the press and spread it and say, "Wow, the version I have feels like the right version."

When they announced that the PC launch was going to be delayed to time up with the console launches, do you think that hurt your outreach? This is going to be one of BioWare's first games in recent memory that was launching on PC first.

At the end of the day it ended up being a business decision. In the sense that the staff actually looked at it and asked, "You know, what's the best?" The best thing is to make the whole Dragon Age: Origins launch a gigantic event. And come with an amazing game that you know, that players can effectively choose where they want to play it. So it would have been first, but at the end of the day it made sense to put it all together. It might be fair to say that we wouldn't have had as big a presence if we weren't all kind of piling on and saying, "This is going to be our mega release." Like you know, at least talk about the concept of an "event product." And in a lot of ways this is how you do an event product, you have a big launch for a lot of stuff and you get everyone focused on it.

Sort of a rising tide ...?


So now that you're developing for PS3 going forward – and now that you're part of EA which obviously has a multi-platform strategy – are you guys going to be doing your PS3 development in-house going forward?

We have quite a few people working in-house as well. So yeah, absolutely. We think it's one of the key platforms, obviously, so we're definitely going to be doing PS3. You know, I can't say anything about Mass Effect in that regard but you know, I can definitely say Dragon Age and other things we do will definitely be on PS3. It was great going through the experience of making Dragon Age, getting familiar with and understanding the PS3. Again, every platform is different, but now I think we're at the the position where future PS3 stuff will be really solid.

Have you guys talked about Mass Effect on the PS3? There's obviously a problem with it being a narrative trilogy of cards and on PS3 you'd be starting later.

We're not saying anything about Mass Effect for PS3. I don't know anything about that! That's crazy talk. I don't know anything about that.

I know with Mass Effect DLC, with the first one, which was Bring Down the Sky, there were some issues with it at first where people could or couldn't play it depending on where their saved game was. And then the PC version of the DLC came out some time later. Now the most recent DLC that came out for Mass Effect, there's been a general issue with the communication on it. I think it was expected a long time ago. And there was even a Twitter post about it, that it's going to be next week or something. Then it didn't come out. And when it came out, there just was a lack of follow through on that. By that point a lot of people were expecting a lot more Mass Effect DLC. So question one is, what happened with the Mass Effect DLC strategy? And what's the DLC strategy on new titles like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age going forward?

We've got a lot of learning from the Mass Effect DLC – and just in general we've done it for core too – the biggest learning we've got is that you have to actually make DLC a fundamental part of your plan. In the sense of actually part of the development process before the game is released. And what I mean by that is the actual act of putting it out and releasing it; I mean, make sure there are no quibbles or problems with how it connects to everything else, it's something you need to do right from the beginning. And I think that's going to be our strategy on Dragon Age: Origins, that's going to be our strategy on Mass Effect 2: Making that a fundamental part of the experience.

Particularly on Dragon Age: Origins where, you know, we actually have DLC that we've already been working on for quite a while. There is actually stuff in the pipe. The pipe is something that we think is so important because of what kind of game it is, because of the way that players will engage with the world. You'll find DLC incredibly compelling. And so our perspective on it: it's got to be core. I think that's the big learning from Mass Effect 1. It's something we absolutely have the desire to do and actually have done but unless you like really make it part of the process right at the very beginning it's quite a bit harder. It's a lot of work, it's very challenging. So that's the big learning we had.

When you look at another game out there – something like Fallout 3, another RPG in this space – I think they've put out like ...

Like five.

Maybe five.

I think five or six. Yeah.

Five, you know, really large robust pieces of DLC. Is that the scale you guys ever think about doing?


The Mass Effect 1 DLC was a lot smaller, was a lot more bite-sized. It was a lot more affordable too.

The DLC that we're doing is all kinds of shapes and sizes. That's the other thing, we want to give the players the opportunity to pick and choose some of the big things, some of the smaller things. You know, a couple things we have already are interesting for what they are, and then there is actually some very cool stuff that we have. I think the other thing too is that DLC is an area where you want to make sure you're getting the right value for the right money. So it can vary a lot in pricing compared to regular games where you always come out with this price. So all those things are stuff we're going to play with, you know how big it is, and pricing it accordingly. Yeah, we have some big thing we're planning for DLC, actually. It's a big part of the strategy just because the kind of world again, and the kind of player that plays those games loves to sort of continue experiencing new things and have it all packed up together.

There's definitely a strange calculus that gamers do when they judge the value of DLC. I don't even know if I understand it.

No, it is actually sort of bizarre. The other thing that's interesting about DLC is there is not a lot of opacity about what the impact has actually been. Like, who knows how many of whatever has been sold? It's actually not like NPD – you can't look and go, "Hey!", right?


So when we're working on it, we're drawing on the experience of EA and all of our products across the family and using that. We're actually also forging a lot of the new territory and the new learning across the fields in terms of pricing, size and what people want. We started this way back in Neverwinter Nights. I mean, there's a lot of interesting things we learned from Neverwinter Nights, like, years ago on DLC where you make assumptions that "Oh, it's going to be the same people buying all of it." And actually we discovered it's not. It's actually different people. Probably about five Neverwinter Nights modules out – maybe four. We can tell there is all different people that bought this one. They're like, "Oh, that's interesting." And then we discovered some were very combat-oriented and a certain set would buy it and some were more story-oriented. So there was all kinds of ways to tackle DLC in terms of what you're offering. So that's the driving issue for a lot of different things we're planning.

You guys are doing these console games and you're also working on Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is this huge project. And you've recently also, maybe "inherited" is the term, Mythic, which was EA's other big MMO studio. So now BioWare is kind of cemented itself as "the" RPG studio at EA.

Now we're the RPG/MMO Group actually. It's on my card.

The RPG/MMO Group?

Yeah, it's on my card. I'm the group creative officer. So effectively, you're absolutely right on that. One of the things we've been learning as well is that there's a lot of benefit in getting everyone together who makes similar stuff because you can not only share tools of technology, share know-how – I mean the Mythic guys have a tremendous amount of experience running MMOs. They've had them going for 10 years now, which is amazing. So for us to be able to draw on this example – and then what we can bring to them is we can bring a new perspective. We work with a team and have a really good time with the team at Mythic. I went to dinner with them last night, for example. And just, you know, looking at Warhammer sales, what can we do to keep this going, keep it vibrant, keep things happening.

It's interesting because I think there's a lot of positives. Because the way we run things, Ray and I – and Ray's the group general manager – so the way we kind of manage things is everyone's got a lot of autonomy. Everyone just shares a lot of information and we all have a lot of common opportunity to learn. I think that's actually the really big focus. Finally, everyone has different goals. We have goals that we have to try to achieve collectively and individually and those things allow us to actually have all these things going on at the same time and not have our heads exploding.

Because, again, you have Casey Hudson and his team running Mass Effect, Mark Darrah and his team running Dragon Age, Rich Gordon, James Ohlen running Star Wars Old Republic and then Rob Denton and Jeff Hickman and their team running Warhammer. So there's a lot of really great people dedicated to it. So our job is give power to all of them.

How many simultaneous development teams do you have?

A bunch. [laughs]

Would you say "lots"?

Lots ... yeah, it's almost hard to track because one thing we do, we actually have a little experimental stuff that we do. I mean you've seen an iPhone game, DS game, you know. So we actually, we're not one track. That's the other thing for us is that it's hard to answer that question. I've got to go, "There's these guys doing this little experiment. There's these guys doing this and there's this other thing ..."

And there's an overlap between these where you're sharing resources.

That's the idea right? I think what we find is it's actually sharing the know-how, because every project is a learning experience. So again, your objective really is to try and take something where you can build and go, "What did we learn in this instance?"

"Well, we learned that gameplay, you have to be clear ..." or whatever, right? And so it's interesting how you have to take the companies that designed it to share that information. That's what we bring in, is trying to say, "Hey, here's what we all learned on Mass Effect iPhone" and then share it back to the other guys doing other stuff. Things like that.

BioWare has done DS, obviously with Sonic. You've done iPhone now. And I know you've – or maybe it was Ray, who we talked to a little while ago – said there's an interest at BioWare to do XBLA or PSN, to do Wii. You're probably not going to tell me if you are or aren't working on any of those ...

Well, that's where the experiments lie, right? I can't be too specific on that for you. Because for us, what we're actually trying – like our objective is, what we're trying to do is find a way of capturing the BioWare experience in a smaller or different platform and making it worthwhile to release. I think that's actually the fundamental thing that we try to do, is try to distill what we make. That has really been our objective on DS and iPhone. It's like, "Can we capture whatever it is and put it on there?" That's an ongoing process; it's very iterative. I mean we've got to keep making more of those to try to figure it out.

So things like Wii, we just haven't quite figured out what we would want to do on Wii yet and how it would fit into all of our franchises and all of our other stuff.

For Wii, would you be more concerned with the interface, or with the audience?

I think it's a combination of things. I mean, our traditional audience is getting a bit older. There's exceptions, obviously – we've got the DS game, Sonic's actually doing quite well. Sonic's an amazing thing, it just keeps on chugging away from a sales perspective. So we've done some young audience stuff. And the interface, it goes back to figuring out what's the core gameplay that we want to have? Because we want also to feel somewhat unique, we don't want to say "Hey, let's just copy 'blah'" or whatever. "Let's just copy Paper Mario, let's just redo it all, it's Paper Shepherd," you know? It doesn't make any sense.

And then, secondarily is to understand the audience. Because when you're working in the hardcore console audience, or the broad PC audience, they're very different things. I think that we know our audience really well in the general RPG side, and some of the story-driven stuff. We learn more about them all the time. We have to learn more about those audiences to be able to really be able to nail it in something that they're playing.

Mass Effect 2 DLC? Is that something that you could basically guarantee Mass Effect fans would be a better experience than Mass Effect 1 DLC?

[laughs] That's a loaded question. I actually think the Mass Effect 1 DLC was a good experience! My honest opinion is, if you separate yourself from your expectations and actually look at the products themselves ...

I agree. I really enjoyed "Bring Down the Sky." For three hours, for five dollars, it was perfect. And then, it only had fifty Gamerscore points, and nothing else ever came. And then a year passed. And then something else came, and it kind of ...

Well, it's just different. I think that's the thing, is that we made something different. In a sense, that was one of our experiments, and we said, "Let's try this." And the learning point from that was, in a sense you always have to be considering the expectation level of your fans. It's funny because we live in this industry where people will pull out some quote we made two years ago and go, "Look! This is what you said." And we're like, "Yeah, I said that two years ago." I mean, I say stuff all the time, and half of it may not be true, you never know.

We actually had a guy, I remember way back in the Neverwinter days, he quite literally had a database of every interview we ever had, made it cross reference-able, for like two or three years running. So you could pull up any statement on any subject at the moment, from what any of us had ever said, and say, "Hey, look, they said this! And now this," and the thing is ...

I'm pretty sure that's how the Daily Show works.

Yeah, but the thing to realize about games is that it's very iterative. The most fundamental thing is, you said you're going to do one thing, and you hit a brick wall, and you go, "Okay, well that's not working." Or you say one thing and it just sucks. Alright, you think, "Okay, let's change direction. Let's change direction. Let's change direction." The actual act of building a game ... I don't think anyone comes and sits down with their prototype, or their plan, and that sort of thing. If they do, it's generally a shitty game. Because you just don't know how stuff actually works. It's an interesting reason why Sid Meier actually builds a prototype, actually kind of makes the game first, before he makes the game. Because that way you can actually short circuit all the messing around that happens when you're trying to figure out what the game actually is.

So that's why I think the DLC challenge is interesting, because you're not only balancing what you can support in engine technology, but you always have to consider the fan expectations. I think if people are fair, and look at things for what they are, they're actually unique experiences. We've learned a lot, and we'll have pretty kick-ass DLC on both Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2. In large part, again, we can already play it, and some of it we go, "Wow, this is actually really cool stuff."

I think a big part of it, especially with our fans, is transparency, though. The idea that plans change all the time, sure. They change all the time. But sometimes they change and we don't know it until three months after they've changed. And it's like "Aww, well that plan changed."

The transparency always is tricky. Because some of us can't even remember what we've said! Seriously!

Of course. That's what we're there for. To knock on your door.

But see, the other thing is, that only gets popped out the moment something happens in the story. They go, "Wait a minute! Two years ago, someone said this." We're like "Did I say that?" I mean, I don't even know if we said that, so whatever.

This is something that our readers, and your fans, and then the people who aren't gonna buy DLC are gonna bring up, and something the industry is really grappling with right now – you guys are working on DLC right now for Dragon Age, a game that's not released. There's a portion of the audience that's inevitably going to say, "Well, that content should have been on the disc. If you're working on it, why isn't it on my disc?"

Because the game is so friggin' enormous already, if we put more things on the disc, you would probably cry. [laughs]

Then the same question for Mass Effect ...

Well, no, I think it's interesting ... actually we're working on it now. And the reason we're working on it now so if we don't work on it now, when we actually find the reason, it'll be shitty. Like that's the reality. Every developer can learn our secret. I guarantee that the Fallout guys had all their pipelines already and maybe some of the content of the game was effectively like DLC. You have to be doing it before the game's out. If you're trying to do it when the game is out ...

I'm pretty sure that they had started that DLC years before.

Yeah, but if you try to do it after the game is out, it's not going to be out for ages. You're going to have all kinds of disasters. I understand that perspective. If we're giving you a game which is arguably about 100 to 150 hours of content in the case of Dragon Age and you're complaining what the value for your $60 is when you're buying games for ten hours for $60, then you've got a screw loose. Like the reality is we're giving you one of the most incredibly valuable games in the industry this year period in Dragon Age, probably the most valuable. And what we're doing is we're extending your experience by custom crafting further episodes in that universe for you. And, I mean, you should be complaining about that: You should be loving it and buying two copies: one on console and one on PC!

I guess the misunderstanding that people have ...

No, I know. I understand.

And we try to educate them that this is content that often wouldn't exist otherwise. It's not something that exists because it's been removed from the game. This is new stuff.

It is new stuff. I think it's new stuff to actually extend the experience. That's actually one of the most fundamental things is that a lot of times that we're making a game, in most cases, once you've made your game, or during the course of making your game, you don't actually know how everything works and how tools work until pretty much near the end. And so you actually have a limited ability to take advantage of everything you've built. And, you know, you don't actually have the luxury to say, "Oh, we'll add six months to schedule and now take advantage of that." Instead they will say, "Okay, we're going to release a very valuable game for you. And then what we're going to do is over the next six months we'll take knowledge we've got and build some new things with it." As you said, things that wouldn't otherwise exist that take full advantage and then make the experience even cooler. And, I mean, it's just reality. Like I said, in the case of Dragon Age, you're paying less than $0.50 an hour for quality entertainment. That's a pretty good, pretty kick-ass ratio.

Yeah, yeah. It's not about the metric and the size of it.

Yeah and that's interesting. You know, we talk with these things for the sake of transparency. Like I mean we literally discuss what people are saying and we say exactly what I said: It's like we're giving you so much value. At the end of the day, we'd never release DLC and just make a bigger game later but then people complain the game's too late. [laughs] So, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

You can make that argument for Dragon Age but then somebody that beat Mass Effect in 15 hours will say, "Mass Effect was an RPG and it was only 15 hours. An RPG should be 100 hours. So, you know, you should have given me that DLC for free." I mean there's always that voice.

Really one error we made in Mass Effect that we're fixing is the percent complete concept because the guys that beat Mass Effect at 15 hours, their percent complete was probably under 50% or maybe at 40% or 60%, somewhere there, right? So there's a whole bunch of other content they haven't experienced ...

You mean in terms of the quests?

That's one thing we're doing nowadays, to make the core, sort of central start-to-finish, follow-the-quest stuff is often less than half the content in the game. A lot of it's the choices, the optional stuff. So, in fact you should not be saying, "I got ripped off." You should go back and play it again. Try a different character, make different decisions but also do some more of the off-the-path stuff. Don't run to the end.

In other words, there's a whole bunch of free DLC built into your game that you didn't play?

Yeah, that's it right. The thing that DLC does is it allows us to even tell more stories and expand the universe because we've got the core story built. After it's released, we start going, "Okay. Now, let's think of how we transition to the sequel." Like I mean, this is one of the interesting things where we're certainly thinking about when Dragon Age is out, when you say, "Okay, now let's build some islands and continents that actually connect with future stories," sort of like a pre-story. The stuff that once again otherwise wouldn't exist that actually helps flesh out future stuff and it makes more sense.

It seems like from a design perspective too, that everything sort of leads that way, right? You guys are working on an MMO now which is sort of like a never-ending RPG.


As RPGs becoming increasingly never-ending, you add DLC content after the release, and by the time you're done with one game and the DLC, then the sequel's out. It kind of continues that same thing again, continues the story again. At some point do you think [online and offline RPGs] are going to merge?

Well, I think so. We think about Dragon Age in particular and Mass Effect 2 as well, as platforms. It's a platform for doing great content for the next, who knows how many ... I may say two years again, I don't know. I think I've already said that with Dragon Age. [laughs] You never know. What we want to have is a long-term way to engage with the fans where we continue to sell them stuff. If I love this experience and I have an opportunity to buy really great entertainment for a really fair price, it's like everyone wins, you know. This is the other thing to remember is that doing DLC allows us to actually continue making games. If we couldn't do DLC, you know, it would be much harder to make the stuff that we make. Cause a lot of times we're building this giant game, we may not have tools, right. We may not have all the stuff that we have otherwise built for us. So, really, we have the ability to make bigger and more impressive games. And that's for a longer term. Yeah, it's just becoming more fundamental and it's fundamental to everything BioWare's going to do. And maybe we've had ups and downs but you learn the hard way and just keep getting better at it.

Thanks for your time, Greg!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.