Casey Hudson is one of BioWare’s longtime leaders who helped launch big games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect series. BioWare, which Electronic Arts acquired in 2007, put him in charge of some of its most important projects in an executive producer role.
Hudson was riding high after completing the Mass Effect trilogy, which was recognized as one of the game industry’s biggest and best sci-fi role-playing game series. But he found a natural breaking point after the trilogy, and he left in 2014, after work had started on Anthem. He needed a break from the burnout, and did not work on the fourth game, Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was widely panned.
Then he took a job as creative director at Microsoft, where he said he learned some things about management and studio culture. In July 2017, he returned to BioWare as general manager of the studio. I interviewed him back when he was talking about the first Mass Effect game, and I recently interviewed him again about his personal journey and the preview of Anthem during the EA Play event ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How would you describe the personal path you’ve been on through all these different games? From Mass Effect on?
Casey Hudson: For a long time—I did four games in a row as executive producer, including the Mass Effect trilogy. At that point, I felt a sense of plateauing to a degree, looking for a change and a rest and things like that. I got that in my few years away from the game industry. I was at Microsoft, and I was still kind of involved in games, but also doing mixed reality and HoloLens, things like that.
I was learning, frankly, some things that I need in my role as general manager – the ability to influence a larger organization at scale, leadership and organizational aspects of the GM role. I just wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing now had I not done that.
GamesBeat: What lured you back into it?
Hudson: It’s an interesting one. Part of it was the offer to come back as GM and lead the studio overall, which in itself is quite a difference from the role I was in as executive producer. I love BioWare. I started there out of school, worked there for more than 15 years. I feel like I helped build the studio from the early days. To be able to come back and lead it and continue the legacy of the studio was a special opportunity.
GamesBeat: What was it like when you first arrived? Were there any more immediate things you needed to get done?
Hudson: A few of the first things I wanted to get done—first of all, to really find the soul of the company. The reason for that is because I do believe that innovation is essential in games. But in order to know what you can change and innovate on, you have to understand who you are at the core. We worked really hard on that, updating our vision and our mission so that we could define it in a way that wasn’t a moment in time. It wasn’t a specific thing.
Back in the early days, we were makers of PC role-playing games in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. That’s a very specific thing. But since then we’ve created new IP. We’ve moved into shooters and action and things like that. What allowed us to do those things and still feel like BioWare is because there’s a common thread across those games. We wanted to identify that center of gravity that’s always been there.
By doing that, now we can go to games like Anthem, as we finish that, and envision other games in the future in a way that–even as we provide innovation that’s going to delight players, we’re doing it in a way that, when you experience the game, you’ll say, “Yep, this feels like a BioWare experience.”
GamesBeat: Were there people who felt kind of burned out on Mass Effect, who wanted to do something new?
Hudson: Part of why we initially envisioned Mass Effect as a trilogy — you remember, that was around the time in Amsterdam, a long time ago – is because it takes a long time to make games. We could imagine that after three games, a lot of time would have passed, and we would probably, as developers, want to do some kind of significant update to what we were doing. Likewise, fans would probably want something that was a reinvention or a reimagination at that point.
The idea of it being a trilogy kind of provided a break point that everyone could look forward, and then a refresh period. It was around that time when the original Mass Effect team moved on to start Project Dylan, which became Anthem. Partly because it was a good time to do that shift into a period where we could create new IP.
GamesBeat: How did you fit in with the timing of starting up Anthem?
Hudson: When I was still with the studio in 2012, 2013—we kind of spent 2012 finishing out a lot of DLC for Mass Effect 3. As we got into 2013, we started putting people full time toward Anthem. I was on it for, I would say, a full year, full time on Anthem, before I left the studio. Then the first time I saw it again was the E3 stuff from last year, which was really interesting, because—I messaged the team afterward and said, “This is really everything I would have hoped you’d do with the world we were creating.”
GamesBeat: That searching for BioWare’s soul, did you find something that was more easily articulated? Was it very different from what the doctors, cofounders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, might have thought of?
Hudson: It’s an articulation of what we were trying to do in the early days and what we’ve done when we’re at our best. Our mission is that we create worlds, adventure, conflict, and companionship that inspire you to be the hero of your story. There’s a lot of reason behind all of those things, including that—much of the feedback we get from players is about not just how they feel like the hero inside the games, but because there’s agency in the games and you can try different things, that exploration gives them confidence to be heroes in their own lives. Those are some of the very strongest and most powerful stories we hear from players. We wanted to make sure we continued to do that.
But every word in that is specifically chosen, including the companionship aspect. We build games that are very much about a shared experience. It’s not just you experiencing a series of trials, but you’re always with a group. You can turn to your friends and say, “Wow, what did you think of that?” Sometimes they’re AI friends and sometimes they’re real friends, but a shared experience is part of it.
We were very careful to identify a mission that is also timeless. It’s not that we make PC RPGs. It’s that, if you imagine games on devices and technologies many years in the future that we can’t imagine now, there are things that should still hold true so that you can play those experiences and say, “It’s different from anything I’ve done before, but it’s BioWare game.”
GamesBeat: I remember, much more so in the single-player days, the articulation was more about creating emotional stories, really pulling the player in. These days, in multiplayer co-op, I don’t know if it’s about letting players creating their own stories?
Hudson: For us, what we’re really driving toward—something we feel will be very different about Anthem is the fun of going out with friends and doing a multiplayer experience, combined with both an intimate personal story, personal engagement with your own story in the world, and also a larger narrative about the world itself. Sort of in the way that you’d have an HBO series where people come back to see what’s happening next week, or we find out what’s happening next season and you want to show up for that.
It’s really the combination of those things. The things you might expect from a multiplayer game, things you’ve seen before, but really anchoring that deeply in character experiences and relationships that make you care about the world and make you wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t believe that’s been cracked. Certainly it hasn’t been approached in the way that, structurally, we’ve designed Anthem, so that you can actually own your private story, but still go out into a shared world.
GamesBeat: The advantage of this kind of world is that people can just keep coming back to it, I suppose?
Hudson: It’s a little bit—I see it from the other side of that window, which is—for us, building a game that’s designed to be able to receive new content and new story so that we can have an engagement loop with our fans. We find out that they really love a certain character, or they’re really curious about going to a certain part of the world. Then we can hear that and respond to it and start building story and content and features around those things.
It addresses a problem we had with previous games, where we would do that, but we’d have to either wait two years to put those things into the next game, or maybe one year or eight months to get it into some kind of significant DLC. Now we can have that volume of content, but we can respond very quickly with some initial content that teases something that comes later, and then provide something big, see how people respond to that, and have a storytelling relationship with players.
GamesBeat: It’s very different, it sounds like, embarking on this kind of game compared to what you used to do.
Hudson: That’s part of the challenge. It’s not only a new IP, but it’s a new way of structuring the experience. People have trouble categorizing it. But I do think it will be a different thing when people play it.
GamesBeat: What have the fan reactions been like?
Hudson: One thing we’ve been super happy with is just that the closer people get to the actual game, the more they understand it and enjoy it. We’re showing it for people at the theater over there, a 20-minute video, and when people see that they get excited, but we’re also letting people have hands-on, and we find that as people play it, they quickly get a sense of how to fly and swim and do different things. With that quick mastery comes a real appreciation for what we’re trying to do with the game. We’ve been happy with that, because we haven’t really had a lot of new people try the game out hands-on until now.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if they were joking, but some people seem to want more romance in the game.
Hudson: I think the expectations from a BioWare game—Mass Effect and Dragon Age, they’re quite mature-rated storylines, things like that. That was one framework for what romances were in a BioWare game. So then the question is, are there going to be romances in Anthem? We’ve been saying no, but—the nuance is, of course we do want relationships. It’s just more in an action genre of storytelling.
Of course, like with other games, we just want to see how people respond to that, and then we can build more. You might remember, with Mass Effect, Garrus was an alien that, as we developed the story—he was a kind of birdlike concept art that we eventually pulled together and shipped that game. But we didn’t know what he would really be like and what the reaction would be. It turned out that people loved Garrus so much that they wanted romances with him, so we built that into Mass Effect 2 and people loved it. That same opportunity exists here. If people really like a character and they want to spend more time with them, want a relationship with them, that’s definitely in the cards for the future.
GamesBeat: Do you think of it as a continuously updated game? Or do you see it in a different way?
Hudson: I think of it as something—we try to keep as much of a sense of real time as possible. We do that through a whole spectrum of features and content, from literally almost being able to, in real time, change things like weather and creature spawning. We can say, “Oh, it’s going to get really cold this weekend, so that’s why there will be more of these creatures.” We can build some narrative around that.
That’s on the fine-tuned end. Then we come up from that to get into longer world and character arcs, bigger pieces of rich content, or new feature-oriented things like a season approach. “Here’s what’s happening in the world. Here’s why the world is changing in a way that you want to come back and see all these changes to the world itself.” That’s built into the premise of the game, this idea of a world left unfinished by the gods. It can really shift and change.
We can use that to change why you want to come back and do things you think you’ve done before, because it’s all different. We can build that into a narrative, and then by having a spectrum of content, from light to very rich, heavier content, we can weave a fabric of all of that stuff to create a narrative over time.
GamesBeat: Did Andromeda’s learnings somehow find their way into this game? Was there anything in particular that made you think?
Hudson: One of the big ones—there were people that wanted some specific DLC around the Quarians. We wanted to be able to do that as well, and we weren’t able to. That’s something we’ve applied directly to Anthem in that we want to be able to respond quickly to things that people want. Whether it’s something people want fixed, or even more important, when people are excited about something and we have the ability to build it, we want to be able to get that out to them. We’re designing Anthem to do that, and we’re keeping people on the project for many months. The plan is to go for years creating content to go into this game.
GamesBeat: Spectating and esports have gotten very popular now. Is there some angle along those lines that you see people engaging with in Anthem?
Hudson: We haven’t planned any esports features or events yet, but one of the fun things about seeing people play your game is you realize how good they are, how high the ceiling needs to be to allow for different skill ranges. Once we get into that world, understanding how well people are able to play the game and what they’re starting to get good at, there are opportunities to do things like that. Partly because it’s a game that’s meant to be continuously updated.