Fair warning: This video game post may appeal more to game fans than it does to business people in games or in venture investors. It is like a bridge between this blog and my old one at the San Jose Mercury News. You’re catching it mid-story. It involves a controversy that started when I reviewed “Mass Effect” at the Merc. But this discussion is relevant here in a different way. Please indulge me in sharing it with you. I look forward to your feedback. I hope it is relevant for game fans and game industry watchers.
I caught up with Ray Muzyka (left) and Greg Zeschuk, the top executives and founders of BioWare, the well-known role-playing game developer in Edmonton, Canada. Electronic Arts bought their company along with Pandemic Studios for $800 million. That purchase price was double the investment put into BioWare/Pandemic by Elevation Partners just a couple of years earlier. I can’t think of any game developer who scored better.
Muzyka and Zeschuk, two Canadian doctors who chucked their careers in medicine in favor of taking up games, are mild-mannered craftsmen. They care deeply about their games and have pioneered titles that have deep storylines and nuanced characters.
I thought they might be out for my head. In December, I messed up a review of their big holiday game, which I called “Mass Defect.” It took a team of more than 100 people working for more than three years to make the game, which depicted realistic human and alien facial animations. As the characters staged conversations with each other, you as the player could chose what your character said. Then the action played out like a standard role-playing game. I played the sci-fi adventure game for eight hours but I played it without taking advantage of some cool features, like freezing the game and giving directions to my companions. I didn’t even realize they were there. Other critics chimed in and said it was BioWare’s fault for not making it obvious to players like me. Readers in the know thought I was a bozo. They were right. During subsequent weeks, I played through to the finish and rewrote my game review (here and here) , apologizing in the process. In spite of my words the game had sold more than 1.6 million copies as of January and is expected to cross 2 million in sales, generating an estimated $120 million at retail. When I caught up with the BioWare duo, they were quite gracious. This interview completes the mea culpa that began back in December.
Takahashi: Thank you for talking with me.
Muzyka: I mentioned this to you already. The second blog post was gratifying.
Zeschuk: Everyone was very impressed with that. Sometimes those things happen. We’ve always had respect for you and that reinforced it.
Takahashi: It didn’t transpire as I hoped. It was a good learning experience for me. Particularly on the idea of whether you have to finish a game before you review it.
Muzyka: It’s pretty tough to finish games. Especially massively multiplayer online games.
Takahashi: That’s why I never reviewed MMOs.
Zeschuk: Our games take a long time.
Muzyka: I wanted to play Mass Effect three times before we shipped it. I spent about 50 hours genuinely just playing the game. I think I saw about 95 percent of the content. Most players never see all that. If you go straight to the end (following the narrow track of the story rather than following side quests), you don’t.
Zeschuk: One thing that is cool is there is a lot of replay value. People would play the second time through where they would mess around and check to see all of the other things.
Muzyka: That is why I’m excited about doing a customized version of Mass Effect for the PC. We know there is so much content there. We know there is a lot of opportunity for people to see things they haven’t seen before in the game’s galaxy. The key for us is making that experience really attuned to the platform. The graphics fidelity is higher. You can see how beautiful the game is in higher resolution. The control system is better. We’re trying to take the feedback that we got in things like your blog. It’s valid. It was your experience of the game.
Takahashi: I went down the wrong path in the way I played the game.
Muzyka: You actually identified a few things that we can fix in future games. You made our future games better.
Zeschuk: You weren’t the only one who did that. The tutorial is one of the things we want to focus on. Our games are a little more involved.
Takahashi: There is a tension between linear storytelling and having an open world to explore. If there is too much openness, you can go somewhere and screw things up.
Muzyka: Because you are the director and the actor in the experience, you almost have to consider the role you want the player to be playing in that progression. There are pinch points where the story proceeds. At those points, you’re more actor than a director, proceeding on a directed path. But at the other points, you are more the director where you have grand choices that lead to different outcomes. The hard part is actually doing both at the same time. That is the difference between this art form and linear media. You get to be the director and you get to make choices. You’re watching it, directing it, and you’re in it.
Zeschuk: Another unique thing about Mass Effect is that other games say they’re linear games or they’re open worlds. Mass Effect is both at the same time. You had to discover the difference between the two. You can explore a city. Or you can get in a ship and move on to the next mission. Very few games try to capture that.
Muzyka: The core truth of the perception you get from the press and critics is valuable. Our core value is humility. We try to be ambitious and yet humble. You can listen to hard feedback and get stronger from the process. That’s the way we look at it, honestly. We did a detailed analysis of all the reviews, the internal team feedback, and it was really harsh. We’re very self-critical. You come through it stronger. We do the best we can. We never compromise on anything that we’re aware of. You strive for perfection. But you come up short and try to learn it.
Takahashi: So there are more things you would take into account in Mass Effect 2?
Muzyka: All of our future games will reflect this learning. We haven’t announced anything in the Mass Effect line going forward.
Zeschuk: We have been unabashed in saying it’s a trilogy. It’s been pretty successful.
Takahashi: Can you change some things in the PC version?
Muzyka: Yes, we can do more moment-to-moment control. You can run and gun or do the more thoughtful approach. We want to make it appeal to different player types.
Zeschuk: There are a number of things we touched on. We have our own agenda on the PC. We want to make a great PC version.
Muzyka: We reflected on how people play. If you did everything, it took 40 or 50 hours. If you explored everything and replayed it, you got a different experience. Our focus is more tuning it to the platform.
Takahashi: This PC Gaming Alliance just formed to make the PC more console-like and revive PC gaming.
Muzyka: You could argue that with subscription online games, casual games, or Facebook games, the PC is strong. I think it’s doing extremely well.
Zeschuk: If you captured the minutes that are being spent on PC games now, I guarantee you it is more on the PC than on the consoles.
Takahashi: Developers are making tough choices. The developers at Rockstar Games chose not to do a PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Muzyka: The market has changed but we as developers need to change with it. We still try to stay true to our vision of delivering the best storylines in the world. A human emotion. A real connection with the player. Everything else is mutable. The game play. The size. The one-layer narrative. The subscription base. All that varies.
Takahashi: Economically, it seems if you stayed with the same engine throughout a trilogy, then you would save money.
Zeschuk: We will build on that investment. We did an awful lot of our own tech, especially with our conversation system. We can’t help ourselves. As a company, we like to innovate and evolve. We have a blueprint to make the games better. We’ll tackle it and take it even more places. Just like we did with Baldur’s Gate II. There were a hundred items we changed and it was no longer the same game engine.
Muzyka: One thing we did as part of the EA transaction was do a video montage of every game we had ever built. The sequence showed everything side by side. We’re staying true to our core values but we’re not standing still.
Takahashi: Has EA changed anything?
Muzyka: It has accelerated some of the ambitions we have for the future. We can do things sooner. It is very natural as a transition. We’re excited about the vision. The vision of EA resonates with us. It’s ambitious and yet humble. They’re really smart. They’re focusing on high quality.
Zeschuk: Our sales and marketing team is our own and it drives the product’s marketing. The company can marshal its resources behind us.
Takahashi: How do you react to EA corporate initiatives like moving production to low-cost regions?
Muzyka: Our core teams manage the process. They drive the creativity behind the games. You need more of those people. But the content and art requirements are exponentially rising as you deal with realistic facial animation. You have to build a lot more content. Our teams in Austin and Canada continue to grow.
Zeschuk: We aren’t being asked to offshore. We do need more people.
Muzyka: Partnerships make sense. We are looking at outsourcing carefully on our own.
Zeschuk: Sometimes we outsource entire SKUs.
Takahashi: Mass Effect started on the Xbox 360. EA would love for it to go cross platform. Given how you started, is it hard to change?
Zeschuk: We’ll see how the future unfolds. The PC is our second platform.
Muzyka: We do want to reach different fans.
Takahashi: Do you have to worry about whether things could work, technologically?
Zeschuk: When you move between platforms, you do have to make changes. But the guts of our games are not going to be specific to hardware.
Takahashi: You tried to cross the uncanny valley with the realism of human characters in Mass Effect. That is, you tried to make it lifelike?
Zeschuk: We felt at times we crossed it. I would do a double take.
Muzyka: It’s not our only goal. It’s more of an emotion. It’s one way to express the narrative, to make the graphics more realistic. You can be stylistic. You can create characters in a different way. The emotion is what counts.
Zeschuk: The question is whether we can convey an incredible interaction, emotional or otherwise. Can we do it with no words, just acting it out through the characters?
Muzyka: Those are forms we are considering to convey a different kind of narrative. We’re looking at the meta-game experience of a multiplayer or community based games as ways of delivering a different form of narrative, but equally important for a richer experience.
Takahashi: You had a bizarre episode where the Fox commentator freaked out about the love scene in Mass Effect. They thought it was sex being targeted at kids. (The scene turned out to be fairly tame). How did you react to that?
Zeschuk: We are extremely proud of what we create and we stand behind it. Our fans did too. We get it. There are some people out there who love to throw stones. But we say look at it. Play it. Then comment on it. They did this without doing that. This is the same kind of blame cycle that comics went through.
Muzyka: If people weren’t reacting this way to video games, would it really be an art form? The fact they are provoking an emotional response is a measure of success. It’s a great stepping stone. Having said that, it was hard on the team emotionally. No one likes to see things that are blatantly untrue, false accusations spread by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
Takahashi: One problem I felt was that there was a clear transition between having conversational part of the game and then the actual game play. I felt there should be a seamless flow, not two different very parts of the game.
Muzyka: That’s one of our goals. We want a smooth flow between combat, conversation, exploration, and other activities in a chain of events. That would make the player feel like they could do anything, make any choices.
Zeschuk: There are a couple of other products where we are talking about that very thing. It’s an interesting observation but hard to tackle. There are modes that are very distinct.
Takahashi: Do you want to stay in a turn-based world or go real time?
Muzyka: We have innovations in that area. We’ll have more to say about that later.
Takahashi: What do you think of the different digital business models ahead?
Zeschuk: We think there are opportunities with mid-session games. They can have short, contained games where you can buy digital items. We’re doing an online game in our Austin studio. We see things like episodic game play, new forms of digital distribution. EA is embracing those things.
Zeschuk: The game design has to directly support the business model. That means the game designers have to have a business perspective. They have to think about how to make money.
Muzyka: This isn’t abstract art. It’s commercial art.