Interview: BioWare's Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka

"Are you saying BioWare fast turnaround?" company co-founder Greg Zeschuk asks jokingly. The respected RPG developer has been known for taking its time with producing hits like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate, but has seemingly never been as prolific as it has been in recent months -- just over two years after being acquired by EA. How's this for fast turnaround? Dragon Age: Origins in November 2009, Mass Effect 2 in January, Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening in March and several DLC packs in-between (and more on the way).

We spoke with BioWare co-founders and super-doctors Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka at the Game Developers Conference about their improved production pipeline, the practical challenges of creating DLC and, of course, how fast the turnaround could be on Mass Effect 3*.

*"It's not official!" - Greg Zeschuk

Joystiq: Mass Effect 2 garnered almost universal praise from reviews, but there's still a small audience that feels it was a step too far from what they consider to be an "RPG." What are the challenges in communicating to people that you're combining genres in a way that is attempting to satisfy both groups?

Greg Zeschuk: It's a tough one. I think the challenge is the only way to really experience it is to play it. It's funny because, both for Ray and myself, we sat down with Casey way early in the process and Casey said, "These are our goals, here's how we're going to evolve this game." We thought, oh, cool. And then, literally, fast forward a year or so and we start playing it and go, "Wow." We go up to Casey and say, "This is way more streamlined." And I wasn't sure about it for the first little bit, but then when you actually play it, you see most of the functionality is there, it's just done differently.

Ray Muzyka: Actually, all the RPG features that players would expect, I think, are there. They're manifested a little differently, they're a little more integrated, a little more accessible. You know, like you grab your weapons off the rack as you're heading to an away team mission, you're changing your armor up and your cabin's got collection mechanics for various things. Your codex is there with a lot of backstory and you can upgrade your ship -- your ship is almost a character in itself, with progression mechanics.

Greg: There are more features, like the whole research element and the ship upgrades. I think we took it from the realm of micromanagement in a sense, and made it more broadly usable. It's tough, and I think at the same time folks said, "Well, I really like changing all my guns ..."

Ray: But the mechanics of that are actually distributed in different parts of the game, so the way you access it is different. We're striving to match the needs of a wide audience and RPG fans and shooter fans. We try to enable the game to be enjoyable and accessible by all of them and have the richness and depth at the same time. It's definitely an art form.

Greg: And I think why I finally got into it in play testing -- it took me a few hours -- is it's in many ways superior. I can see why, for some people, there's a sense of loss in fiddly bits.

Ray: There was a debate. I remember I had some chats with the team -- Casey and the leads, Preston the lead designer -- and there was some back and forth and some debate, serious debate about what the right approach was. I think we settled in a good spot, though, and ended up putting some things back in that we thought would be important for the RPG community. We also tried to merge some more stuff out and make it, you know, manifest in different a way for the action and shoot community. And I think that, you know, the end result, it's been embraced by a lot of people. And at the same time we always can take feedback, we can make our games better, so we don't mind getting hard feedback from the fans. That's how we make better games each time out of the gate. One of our core values in our group is humility and that means you listen actively and openly to anything you get. And we've been doing that for fifteen, twenty years and we're not going to stop.

Up until very recently, the RPG was the intense single-player experience that you played for sixty hours, and then you were finished and that was it. But now you're keeping that experience alive with DLC. How does that affect your approach to the design and writing of a story, knowing you have to leave a door open?

Ray: It requires a different design philosophy where you have to always be aware of the continuity and have plans that are flexible enough to change, but also points of continuation. And the development is very different in some ways, but in some ways not that different, but it's more sort of a philosophy of knowing you have to leave the door open a little bit and enable things to continue, while you still want to provide a satisfying conclusion at the same time for the fans who want to feel like they've got closure on what happened. They want to know it's not going to feel like they're left with no answers to the questions and no conclusions coming out of the choices they made.

What about the practical considerations? How difficult is it to get a voice actor back into the studio?

Greg: Some of those things are tricky, but we tend to make sure that key characters are folks that we can access relatively easily. There's a lot of practical, almost mechanical bits, like, where does the content actually fit? And how does the user access it? Can they go right to it? Is it part of the story? Is it after the story? These are all interesting considerations that if you don't deal with way early in the process, you kind of get bitten by it. I think, in some ways, that's actually one of the challenges of Mass 1 -- we didn't do a lot of planning on PDLC, really, until the very end. And then we were like, "Okay, where did the plans go? Oh, we don't actually have a menu that says here's the new planet." And it had to be really subtle, because that's the way it was designed, so a lot of the design and writing considerations and a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff needs to consider DLC.

I think the thing that's exciting now, of course, it that's just naturally a part of the process. That's very very normal for us to all be thinking of. Before, we had to say, "What's the DLC plan? What's the DLC plan?" now it's just automatic, everyone's planning for that as part of the game design. So it's become, I think, a holistic part and I think secondarily, we've seen good success with it. I mean, the Dragon Age stuff, the Mass Effect stuff's been very very successful. It's clearly something that works and we'll continue doing it, and I think, when you get success with it, people get more excited about it. I think, in some ways, Mass 2 folks saw the Dragon Age stuff just going gangbusters and said, "Wow, we've got to put more emphasis on this." That was really exciting too.

There was a problem with the Return to Ostagar DLC being delayed, and that prompted BioWare to revisit its pipeline and go over the testing of it. What changes have you made to improve that process?

Ray: Well, releasing PDLC is a complicated ...

Greg: It's more complicated than you'd expect.

Ray: You have to work with a variety of factors like first-party approvals, and if you're doing a title update in parallel you have to make sure that you don't have different groups inadvertently releasing one before the other when you're actually expecting the reverse to happen. And, you know, a lot of over-communication and things like that. So, it's not necessarily just development practices that would change, it was also communication, protocols and practices with all the partners that you have to make sure that everybody's on the same page for release timing of things.

And you're looking to support Dragon Age: Origins for quite a long time. Are you concerned by there being a drop-off point with subsequent releases of DLC? Have you noticed a critical period for people to still be interested, still playing and still looking to buy DLC before moving on?

Ray: Well, you refresh too. You release an expansion like Awakening and that's going to draw a lot of people back in with a retail presence and with: here's an opportunity again to really get in to the game and get them revved up. And they're like, "Wow, yeah, I finished that and I want more of that now." So, we'll have some more PDLC available afterwards. And there's an ongoing plan, and a lot of it is going to depend on player feedback. We're very flexible in how we approach it. We have a plan but we're willing to doubt the plan when the fans tell us what they like and don't like. That true on all of our franchises.

So things like a Game of the Year re-release with DLC included would help to refresh a franchise too.

Ray: That would be cool.

It would be cool.

Ray: That's a great idea. [laughs]

Greg: Wow!

I'm going to patent that idea. I don't think anybody's ever thought about it.

Greg: Hmm ... never been done.

Ray: I think it's been done. And maybe, maybe it's going to be done again. It's a possibility.

Greg: Actually, what I think we should do is try and release so many games [of the year editions] that we run out of precious metals. Like we did in Neverwinter [Nights]. [laughs] It was gold, silver, platinum ...

Ray: Adamantine, diamond...

Greg: I think we actually got to diamond, ruby ...

Ray: Emerald, ruby ... There's gold, platinum, adamantine, diamond, ruby, emerald, I think.

Greg: It was funny, because I think really one of the best things that DLC does whether it's you know, downloadable or not, part of it does extend our life. And the thing about these games is they can live for years.

Ray: Yeah. It's all about quality.

Greg: I think especially if we make a game that's memorable and has longevity.

Ray: And if the fans tell their friends and if you continue to reach new fans from people saying, "Yeah, I heard this is really great value. Look at all this user-generated content or post-release content that's been made available or, you know, is still available for purchase or is being bundled up. An expansion's coming," things like that.

Greg: Dragon Age Molybdenum is coming, I think.

Ray: Yeah? [laughs] It's cool, I didn't know that. The Element Zero pack.

Greg: [laughs] That's a good one, that's a good one.

I suppose there's also a faster turnaround for DLC and getting new stories out there as opposed to making a new game.

Ray: Well, if you have the tools and the plan to enable it and a separate team invested on it. So there's a lot of factors that have to come together to enable that to occur.

Greg: And they have to want to do that too.

Ray: You have to have the passion alignment, people being excited by making content. And the great thing is our teams really do want to make follow-on content, they find it really enjoyable and stimulating and fun, because you have these tools that work. And you can actually say, "Look at all these stories we could have done if we'd only known how to do that back then, and we can now do this." Just having learned from the experience of making the first game or some of the PDLC packs, they learn how to do it better and better and they're actually getting better and faster at it too. And they get feedback from the fans about what they like, so it's a nice, virtuous cycle of the teams getting better at it and the fans enjoying it and telling us what they like. You have a two-way conversation with them and it allows us to make better stuff.

It's hard to let go when you've worked on a game for so many years, right?

Ray: Maybe. You have to know when it's time to let go and move on to another product too, but the great thing is both -- if you take two examples of Mass Effect and Dragon Age -- where we get back great feedback of fans saying they want more, and we also have the team saying they want to do build more, so hey, that's pretty good. We like that.

On that topic, I've heard that Mass Effect 3 would be considered to get out with a fast turnaround. What would a fast turnaround be?

Greg: Are you saying BioWare fast turnaround? [laughs] Well, you know, I think we certainly always have the intent for fast turnaround. I think it depends on what we dig into and, obviously, there's quite an evolution from Mass 1 to Mass 2 as we talked about earlier. We'll see, fan feedback, a lot of other elements will, in our impressions, guide what Mass 3 does. I don't imagine it will be quite as dramatic as Mass 1 to Mass 2, because I think by and large people liked a lot of the features we put in. There's an incredibly opportunity for refinement and I think one thing we talked about is, if you look at the evolution of the shooter experience from 1 to 2, that's a huge step. I think, realistically, we can have yet another step, maybe refine it another level. That was really, for that team, their first shooter and then their second shooter and now they're on to their third. There's a great opportunity to just make it better and better.

Ray: It's all about the quality, and we are going to innovate in all of our products. Each one we're striving to make better than the last and the way we do that is to listen to fan feedback and, yeah, we're gonna do some innovative things in future installments of Mass Effect. And we'll take the amount of time we need to deliver a really high-quality game for our fans that meets what they're asking us to deliver. And we're still working on what that is, to be honest. We have a plan, we have a team working on the next installment now. We haven't even formally announced it so to say a date would be way premature.

But you could do it if you wanted to.

Ray: We could. We could say something but we're not going to.

Greg: [laughs] We never even said we're doing Mass 3 ...

Ray: We haven't even formally announced it.

Greg: It's not official!

Ray: Well, actually, it's a trilogy, so that implies there's probably another one.

Greg: But it's not official!

Ray: In fact, there's a team working on that something now but ...

Greg: That's not official.

Ray: But it's all going to be about quality, you know, so that's the governor on everything we do. It's striving for quality. Mass Effect 2 set a really high quality bar for us as a studio group, and, hey, we want Mass Effect 3 to exceed that.

And finally, most important question: Is anyone talking to Interplay about MDK3?

Greg: [laughs]

Ray: Actually, we were at dinner last night and Brian Fargo was there.

Greg: But he doesn't control Interplay anymore.

Ray: I know, I know, but I was actually talking with him, reminiscing about some of the good old days.

Greg: I think he was saying last night that was one of his favorite games that we did with him. He was sitting across the table and spontaneously ...

Ray: "Wouldn't it be great if?" you know. But, Interplay is obviously a very different company now from when he was there. We have a lot of fond memories working with him and the rest of the team there, back a decade or more now. It's a different environment now, so ...

Greg: This is 43 years ago, actually.

Ray: It was more like ten.

Greg: Really? Well, okay. Yeah, it was fun. I'd be interested to see what we'd do with it now, though. In some ways, MDK2 was a function of the time and the people, and that was when we were still kind of fast and loose and pretty crazy. Now we're much older and much wiser ...

Ray: But still crazy.

Greg: Yeah, so we have controlled craziness rather than crazy craziness. Also, you'd imagine that being on a handheld platform or something. You honestly could probably take it and put it on the PSP right now, as an example of what would be great to do.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.