Catching up with BioWare cofounder Greg Zeschuk

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Catching up with BioWare cofounder Greg Zeschuk

Greg Zeschuk, the man that co-founded BioWare and shepherded the development of now classic franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, left the gaming industry for good more than two years ago. Yet, despite that apparent retirement, he was back on the show floor at GDC in San Francisco to show off Biba, one of his many part-time side projects. Don't worry. Zeschuk's main passion remains beer, beer and more beer. But he's also committed to using his influence and financial resources for more altruistic endeavors.

Case in point: Biba, the company he currently acts as chairperson for, has created an app for iOS that works in tandem with PlayPower's playground equipment. The premise, as Zeschuk explained it, is to create interactive games that get kids away from a sedentary experience using mobile screens and back outside playing in the real world. It's "referee play with parents." But that's not all Zeschuk had to talk about. He may be out of gaming, but thanks to his industry friends posting on Facebook, he's certainly not out of the loop. Zeschuk had plenty to say about augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D printing and his "Luddite" ways.

Is this the first app that Biba's done?

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Not now

Yeah, it's definitely the first app. We're not sure if there's anything else like it yet. We haven't seen specifically this yet. So, it's definitely the first kind of app; the concept of getting kids out and using playgrounds ... the playground concept. Folks have done some smart playgrounds before, but they haven't been effective.

"I have like six or seven part-time jobs. This is really the only major tech thing I'm doing these days."

What led Biba to want to explore this interactive playground space? And what led you into it?

So how it came about is interesting in that there's a parent company called Zeroes to Heroes that I'm involved with for the past 10 years in Vancouver, even while at BioWare. It's almost like an idea generator. And they would come up with these really interesting ideas using technology and develop them to a point where it could be a product. And effectively, that's what Biba is.

In terms of your personal involvement, is this something that's close to your heart?

It is. It's really interesting for me ... I kind of tell people jokingly that, as part of BioWare, we created games that you made people sit on their butt for hundreds of hours. That was almost our mission. And this is the opposite of that. ... I have kids a little bit older than this target market. This is more targeted at [ages] three to nine. ... I like to get involved with projects that do good in the world. ... As we go further down the line, there's fun things you can do with some of the AR technologies where you could imagine a screen that you could see the robots and show the kids what you're supposed to do and they go do it. This is our very first step.

You're the chair of Biba, so I'm curious how much day-to-day involvement you had in the development of this?

I would say limited. It's funny, there's sort of a great irony. It probably was as much as I had at BioWare at some level. In the sense that, in the latter part, a lot of it had to do with me kind of reviewing stuff and providing feedback. I'm far from the heavy lifter on this one. I'm kind of like the mentor/advisor kind of guy. I'm involved in the business side. ... I'm not in games to the level that it's my full-time job. I have like six or seven part-time jobs. Which has caused me some chagrin sometimes. This is really the only major tech thing I'm doing these days.

Why is that?

I'm trying to simplify my life. I wanna make beer. I wanna ride my mountain bike. Real, real simple stuff. ... I don't dislike the [gaming] business and all this stuff. But I kind of look at it in the sense that, for me, it's a little more been there; done that. It's fun coming back here because I see all these friends. ... I don't have a burning desire to make games any more. I actually really want to make beer. Which sounds really weird, but I'm building a brewery.

If you don't mind me asking since we were talking about your former life in the gaming industry, what do you think of what's going on right now in terms of the trends?

I can't help but think the last five years were super tumultuous anyway. It's been disruption on disruption on disruption. Every year, there's a new disruptor. I remember ... if you circle back to free-to-play gaming when Zynga was the king and then mobile knocked them off the pedestal. And you're right, this year it's AR and VR. And it's just like ... it's almost turned into sort of like there's this need to have this new thing every year that supplants last year's thing. In a way, it's almost perplexing to me. It's maybe also reflective of how fast technology is moving.

"I don't have a burning desire to make games any more. I actually really want to make beer."

I always use the example of the iPhone. I always ask people, "Well, how long have they really existed?" It's six or seven years. It's not long. And now they're integral to our very existence, right? And, you go, "Okay, what happens when VR and AR are like that?" Like 10 years from now. Actually, if anything, I've looked at the augmented reality stuff more in the context of industrial and other uses. It may sound really weird, but one of my friends was telling me some ideas on using like ... imagine using these AR glasses so I can walk through my barrel rooms and see the readouts of my beer as I'm walking through. I'm like, "Wow. That's incredible. I can't wait to do that." And there's all kinds of industrial things. I think it's going to be pretty disruptive yet again.

Are you hedging your bets then on AR as being the practical consumer tech that breaks through as opposed to VR? Will VR be niche in the way gaming has been traditionally?

I can see more practical uses for AR in real-world applications. VR is inherently limited by what it is, but it can be incredibly compelling, too. Right? I don't know. It's almost like I have no clue.

The funny thing about the VR stuff that's hilarious for those of us that were in the industry for a long time, there was this period in the mid '90s where we were all playing around with VR headsets. Like shutter glasses. We made games. ... Like Shattered Steel from 1996, we had working on multiple shuttered glasses. We had the VFX1 headset. These were like way ahead of their time, way non-consumer because they were like painful and caused headaches. But we already played around with this like 15 years ago. So really for me, the big mystery is who can finally make it consumer-friendly? And I think that's what we're seeing now is that it's probably going to be consumer-friendly.

Who do you think will make it consumer-friendly?

Oculus obviously on the VR side. But then again, I haven't seen the Valve stuff yet ... and Sony's got Morpheus. I don't know. Even though I got out of the industry, I can never quite stop paying attention to it. ... It's not like I check the gaming news every day. But on Facebook, all my friends are from the games business, so all I ever see are their posts. So you learn all this stuff.

"We already played around with [VR] like 15 years ago. So really for me, the big mystery is who can finally make it consumer-friendly?"

So you haven't tested out Vive? You haven't tested out Morpheus?

No. I'm a Luddite. I aspire to make beer and ride bikes. That's what I want to do. I mean to be fair, I also want to do stuff like this: Fun projects that are meaningful.

You mentioned your craft beer business. Would you ever consider developing that AR component for your own brewery?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm already thinking about how to do it. It's really, really bad. And then, of course, the other benefit I have is all of these fine folks that I've worked with over the last 20 years, like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. It wouldn't be too difficult.

You know, it's funny; we're sitting near the 3D printing here, right? I've already concluded I'm going to be 3D printing all my tap handles for my craft beer. ... I have all these friends that are 3D modeling guys. It'll take them like an evening. I'll give them a six-pack of beer and I'll have my tap handle, right? It's super easy.

I think the thing about technology now is it's making a lot of things easier that we all take for granted like paper maps [that] no longer exist. We're sort of at that pre-year one of the smartphone for like VR/AR. Like 10 years from now, it's gonna be like ... I don't even know. We're all going to be wearing headsets. Which is kind of scary. But I hope not.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Catching up with BioWare cofounder Greg Zeschuk