Interview: BioWare's Casey Hudson on the making of Mass Effect 2

With arrival of the final piece of Mass Effect 2 DLC today, executive producer Casey Hudson took a few moments to talk with us about how the series got to where it is today, and give us the smallest glimpse of where it's headed. Be aware: If you haven't played Mass Effect 2, you might find a couple of the things in this interview a mild spoiler.

Joystiq: When you started development on Mass Effect 2, was there a priority, one thing you wanted to achieve more that any other?

Casey Hudson: That's a good question, because there are two things that we look at in terms the next game that we make, and one of them is our list of goals, but there are only a few of us making this game, and millions of people playing it, so it's kind of egotistical to say we know best about what it needs to be. There are people who play it five times, seven times, unbelievable. That's the other part we try to mine and really understand is, for people who become experts in the game by playing it, what's their perspective on what needs to be better? So it's really those two halves that we put together. It ends up creating a big list of our goals and goals of our players. With Mass Effect 2 we tried to do literally every single one of them, and there were basically 40 different categories of things we wanted to add or improve or change.

But I think mostly we wanted to create an experience that was less about being a game and more about being an experience. That might be the theme behind everything. I'm not saying make the systems thinner or anything specific like that, but let the game get out of the way of the player having an experience. I think that's the goal of any artist in any medium, to get out of the way of what the game is trying to be. To make it less mechanical and let people interact with it in a more natural way.

Mass Effect 2 has an untraditional structure, "building the team" as your narrative thrust rather than just being relegated to the first act like in many games. Was there a worry that people wouldn't get it or would be waiting for the "real game" to start?

We knew it was a risk and something different. You're right, the story of Mass Effect 2 is very much about how you get ready for a mission by building a team and understanding who they are, and about learning the magnitude of what you're facing. The funny thing is that people will say "other than gathering your crew and building your team and getting ready for this mission, there's not much story there." But that is the story. In other media, you find stories that are about so many different kinds of things, different structures. In movies you find there are stories about how someone gathers a team and makes them well equipped and well trained.

Part of what's great about a role playing game is that you have the choice of going off and doing other side stories, but that can be a problem, and that was one of the pieces of feedback we had about Mass Effect 1, that because the core story had so much intensity and pressure around it, when you would go off and do a side mission, it didn't have that kind of intensity and it wasn't directly linked as part of the story. That's where that Dirty Dozen team building structure addressed a lot of that on a fundamental level. If much of what you're doing in the game is recruiting a team and making them loyal to you and getting them equipped, then you have lots of missions, but every one of them will change whether or not someone's loyal to you in the end, or if they're even there or not. So something like helping Miranda find her sister, which is more emotional, kind of a touchy-feely story, ties back into this suicide mission in a way that makes sense because her mind is clear and she's totally loyal to you.

The only thing we've heard a lot of complaints about is the game's final boss. Were you guys happy with how that came out? Anything you would approach differently?

I've heard those criticisms, but I've also heard a lot of amazing praise of it. I think it was just the visual design of the final boss that I've heard criticism about, and even that, I think when people play Three, there will be more reasoning behind that.

The Mako got a lot of flak after the first game, and it was gone for the second, probably for the better. Have you heard from anybody who missed the more open planet exploration?

I think it goes back to how we think people are going to play the game versus the way they actually play the game. Another example would be the mining mini-game [from Mass Effect 2]. The way I personally played it is, I'm in the main core story, I come across the mini-game because I'm looking for a landing location on the planet or something, but once I have enough of that, I go off and continue the game. What a lot of people ended up doing is they saw the mini-game and they literally felt like they had to mine the galaxy. The whole galaxy. It definitely wasn't meant to withstand that much pressure. People would play it for four hours in an evening and then they would say "it gets tedious after a while." And it's like, yeah! I've never played it for four hours.

The way we looked at the Mako missions is that they would be a value-add. We didn't have to add these missions, but we added them, and we added the vehicle, totally supplementary. When people played Mass Effect, they perceived the Mako missions as on an equal footing with the other missions and applied the same quality expectations to those. That was a big lesson for us is that, if we're going to do something that's a value-add, it has to be perceived as a value-add, or it has to withstand the same richness and quality as the rest of the story. As far as we're concerned, the player's perspective, it's always the right perspective. No one plays it wrong. It's up to us to figure out why they played it this way.

Why did no one call Shepard on his flagrant cross-promotion of every store on the Citadel?

It's a good point. It's one of those things we didn't plan to put in there at all. So it's kind of a feature creep thing, where someone adds something because they have a neat idea: that you could get a discount by doing an advertisement. But then we thought, well, if you can do this at every store then we need to play it for comedy, otherwise it doesn't make sense. So we ended up with the comedy line of Shepard saying "this is my favorite store on the Citadel." But at that point we had already feature crept it several stages past what we thought it was going to be.

The "I'm Commander Shepard and this is my favorite store in the Citadel" kind of went into this meme territory for a little while for people. There was a big reaction to it, I'm curious if you guys were surprised by the reaction for anything else in the game?

Well, I mean ... those are the things that show us what really resonates with people. One of the things that I like to do is look at fan art. I think in the fan art and the subjects that people choose to draw or paint ... or write about, it's in those things that you can really sense what was meaningful to people or what they want to know about. That's where we find out a lot about which characters were popular and what they thought of them.

I think one of the surprises -- with Mass Effect 1 -- it was pretty much a four-year project and we started before the Xbox 360 even had a name. We knew there would be another Xbox and we were shooting for the stars in terms of quality, we didn't know what the specs would be and so one of the concerns early on was that we were going to try and create realistic human characters and performances, but the aliens we didn't know if we could rely on them on an emotional level -- in terms of storytelling.

That's why we made sure there are humans throughout the galaxy and whatnot, so at least if there was emotional storytelling that had to happen then there would be humans there. What we found, by the time we finished Mass Effect, is that some of our most emotionally engaging characters were aliens. People loved Liara. They were devastated when Wrex died. And one of the big ones was Garrus, people just loved Garrus and there was a love of interest in having a romance with Garrus. So we thought, "Let's try this in Mass Effect 2." If people want to have a romance with this bird-like guy with an exoskeleton, then okay.

That's one of those things that was a surprise was just how popular that romance was in Mass Effect 2. In the fan art -- other than Tali and wondering what she has under her mask -- the romance with Garrus is probably the most reproduced moment. I think it says a lot about what really resonated with people.

Is there a new character in Mass Effect 2 that seems to pop-up as the lead favorite? I know I have mine, to me it seems pretty obvious that Mordin Solus is the best character. I'm curious if you've heard otherwise.

Mordin was one of the more popular ones. I think the development of some of the existing characters people continued to enjoy, like the stuff with Garrus and Tali. We always try to balance the fact that, people will say "I want all my characters back from the previous game because that's what made the first game great." But when you think about it, part of what made the previous game great is the process of meeting those characters for the first time. That has to be part of the experience too, how you meet new characters.

Obviously, as well received as Mass Effect 2 has been, there are obviously limits in time and money. When you look at Mass Effect 2, what's the one thing that sticks out to your team that you wish you could have done differently? What regret do you have?

I don't actually have any regrets about how we did anything. I think there are definitely things that we would want to change for next time, based on how we learned about how people played the game. Mainly the obvious things like a better resource gathering experience. I think we were really happy with how the moment-to-moment gameplay felt but a lot of people wanted some of the RPG system "richness" to come back to the experience. Those are some of the these things we've learned about how people have played it and the feedback that they've given. To your point; you don't have an infinite amount of time so it really is about trying to get everything to a level where you can be satisfied with it. I think we were satisfied with all of the different parts we added to Mass Effect 2.

You bring up an interesting point. A huge shift from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2 -- just in terms of the basic action, inventory, stats; big changes -- do you think people can expect as big of a shift for Mass Effect 3? Or is the level amount of change going to be subtler from ME2 to ME2 as compared to the original title and its sequel?

We're not talking too much about Mass Effect 3 yet but the biggest learning that we're going to have in this series between [Mass Effect] 1 and Mass Effect 2. I think after that the variation and the noise kind of calms down as we go and we learn more and more about what Mass Effect is really supposed to be.

There have to be a crazy number of permutations for how you can end your story in Mass Effect 2. How much of a nightmare is it for you guys to figure out how to address that for Mass Effect 3?

It's ... very hard.

Do you have like a whiteboard somewhere, like a multi-faceted –

No, it would be impossible, because it's multi-multi-dimensional. You couldn't put it into a 2D flowchart or a matrix –

You need a stereoscopic 3D whiteboard that you can manipulate Minority Report style.

It's beyond three or four dimensions, because you have all the consequences from a certain playthrough and many different things that happen and different things that happen within those. But then all those things different for a different play through and then times your class and times your gender and all these things. We're pulling in probably over a thousand variables from Mass Effect 2 into Mass Effect 3 if you're importing your save game. It's more of an organic approach where we're opportunistic about how the game can change based on those variables. So the writers have to experts in what's happened before and what choices you could have made, and then as they write the story, they find places where it would be really cool to have different things happen based on those variables.