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A Constant Evolution: BioWare's Doctors Talk Present And Future

BioWare's dual doctors, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk are the heart and soul of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age developer's committed approach to making games, and in this Gamasutra interview, they discuss post-EA life, their new franchises, and more.

Edmonton-headquartered game developer BioWare has become synonymous with quality over the years since its inception in 1995, since it swiftly stepped up to the plate with genre-leading PC RPG titles such as Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights.

From there, the company made fairly confident strides into console territory with acclaimed titles such as Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic and Mass Effect. A team-up with Pandemic Studios as part of a holding company roll-up in 2005 was followed by that same deal's mastermind, John Riccitiello, helping Electronic Arts to acquire the company in 2008.

Since then, the company is further expanding, have finally announced its Old Republic Star Wars-based MMO in association with LucasArts, based out of the firm's Austin office, and also opening a Montreal satellite office. Its announced, active projects also include Mass Effect 2 and a new fantasy franchise, Dragon Age.

Thus, the original company co-founders and BioWare/EA VPs, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk sat down with Gamasutra recently to discuss their development studio's fit with the larger organization, their role in the creative process at the studio these days, and how the company drives to evolve the RPG genre.

It's been over a year now since the acquisition. How much have your roles changed in that time? Has BioWare itself seen much change?

Ray Muzyka: No, honestly, I don't think there have been too many changes at all. We've always had an orientation towards making sure we have a great place for employees, quality in our workplace, a great place in terms of products or in customers making quality in our products. "Each game better than the last" has always been our vision, and always trying to provide a good return for our investment partners and shareholders. That's us, that's our employees basically. That's the other folks at EA that we work with.

From that perspective, it hasn't really changed what we're doing. If anything, we feel enhanced. There's more opportunity. There's more partnership. There's more opportunity to talk to people. Just running around a trade show and running into other people who are from EA is really cool.

We're all partners. We're all on the same team. It's neat to have that feeling and perspective, and be able to share things freely with them and get perspectives and viewpoints and advice and technology sharing and design sharing. We have people going back and forth between our studio and other studios all the time. I gotta say, we got a taste of that with Pandemic, and it was really good.

Having more opportunity for that as part of EA is even better. Beyond that, now we're a publisher, too, so we have even more contact and direct consumer interaction. We have embedded marketing, and we control our destiny in terms of both development and marketing now. And we work with a great sales force through EA. So we have more capabilities and more opportunities to do cool new things, which I'm always excited about.

We just opened a new location as well in Montreal, and that was definitely assisted because we're working with the folks at EA Montreal. While the people at BioWare Montreal report into BioWare, they're colocated with EA, which made the process really easy and streamlined for us. It's been accelerating a lot of the things we're doing.

You now have three locations. Aside from EA specifically, when you look back at the history of BioWare and how big you are now, how much has that changed the company? This is a big operation you guys are managing at this point.

Greg Zeschuk: Yeah, it's been interesting. Early on, we've been on record saying, "Well, we won't be more than a hundred people."

RM: We went on record saying that?

GZ: Well, I don't think there's any proof, but people claim that they saw us say that.

RM: Well, I don't remember being on record saying that.

GZ: I think it is different. In the early days, we were right in there as the producers on the game, working on stuff. Now, I think it's still a very rewarding job, because we get to work across all the products. You look at things from a portfolio perspective in terms of all the games you want to work on, and you actually tend to work on the teams themselves -- sort of, "How do we help our teams be successful? How do we help them be among the best?"

RM: We coach or mentor them.

GZ: Coaching and mentoring, that's a great way to describe it.

RM: It's very satisfying.

GZ: And on the other side of that, we still get to play. This is the best part. We're involved pretty early in the products, in that idea phase, focused on bouncing ideas off. We play a lot of the games and see just how they're just turning out.

Ray's playing tons of Dragon Age, and I've played it a bit. I've played a bit more of the Austin stuff lately [Star Wars: The Old Republic], and it's neat to have this chance to play these games and provide input. People want to listen, and it's good.

RM: In the early days, we were directly producing games -- this was over a decade ago -- ourselves. Now we have great exec producers and project directors, leads that are responsible and accountable and delivering on all fronts for our games.

We have a great team on Dragon Age, and our Mass Effect 2 EP Casey Hudson is amazing, and we have a great team in Austin with [studio co-directors] Rich [Vogel] and Gordon [Walton] and the other guys down there. There are EPs on other projects that aren't yet announced that are fantastic, too.

From our perspective, now we get to play the games and just really enjoy them as consumers, and offer feedback from that perspective, at the early start of the ideation phase. We say, "What's our audience excited by? What's our aspirational fantasy? What are solving for here? What goals are we setting up for this project?" Then the team goes and they work on that. We play it throughout the process and give feedback whether the team's meeting the goals that they set out at the start of the process.

It's been a lot of fun. I'm loving playing Dragon Age and The Old Republic and Mass Effect 2. I think our best work is still ahead of us. And we have some super secret stuff we haven't announced yet, too.


So you've got three announced games, plus other projects. How many teams do you guys have running across your three locations?

RM: It depends on how you count them. It's five or more.

GZ: Some are small, some are bigger. Right now especially, it's great to be doing ideation and exploration. I think it's a pretty exciting time in the business where on one hand, there's a lot of challenges in terms of the economic times, but on the other side of that, they're blowing out more platforms than ever before. The possibilities are pretty significant.

What we like to try and do is have those big huge properties, like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins running, but at the same time we try other stuff. It's actually very rewarding to people that are working on those big games to try the smaller things. We did the DS game [Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood] last year, and all those are fun to do.

RM: Downloadable content is another opportunity for that, too. Those are almost separate teams in some way that we don't count as such, but we're doing a ton of downloadable content for Dragon Age and other projects in the future, and we're releasing user content creation tools for Dragon Age, so we'll have the fans making content as co-creators. It's all really exciting stuff.

Diversification of our portfolio is exciting to us. Being a publisher now as well as a developer, we have the opportunity to really pursue different models, different target audiences, different development platforms, different types of genres, IP settings.

We're in a business unit within EA. We're a division of EA, so we get to propose, "Here's where we'd like to be investing, and here's why we think that's a strategic investment, to take the idea of emotionally engaging narrative into new audiences, new platforms, new business models, new geographics," and so on.

That's what we're doing -- just carefully, cautiously taking our core competencies and expanding into new markets and always delivering high quality to our audience.


BioWare's Mass Effect 2

You have a specific stated goal of making the best story-driven games, which is a pretty big part of your company culture. But now with three locations and almost half a dozen teams, and however many employees, how do you actually retain any kind of consistency of culture and not just become a really, really big company?

RM: That's a great question.

GZ: It's funny. The answer in a sense is simple, but it's hard to implement. It's the concept of consistency with what you believe in. For us, it's always been the concept of quality in our products, where each game has to be better than the last. Quality in the workplace, creating a great place for growth and learning and delivering awesome games. And finally, entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurship piece is very much about making a business that's viable and profitable and a good investment.

You repeat those things, and you make them the fiber of the company. Secondarily, you direct your efforts a lot around emotional engagement, telling stories. Those two things are where, from a technology development direction for example, with a lot of the facial and conversation stuff we've done, many of these things are now automated.

It's also not independent from a game. Each game increments something a little bit -- say, it takes the dialogue in some element of the conversations a little bit further in digital acting.

So it's about having that unified view. It's telling everyone. It's trying to live it, trying to explain it as part of who we are. And I think it's finally also selecting folks who believe in that. When we hire people, we tend to hire people who know our products, like them, and want to make them. It comes to a virtuous cycle where you get the right people, you have the right goals and objectives, and then you get the right product. It goes round and round.

RM: We live our values. We talk about them a lot. We make sure that we never compromise one stakeholder group at the expense of the others. We believe a sustainable business is one that takes care of its customers, its employees, and its investors, always, simultaneously.

If you compromise one or the other, somebody's losing, and that's not sustainable. We try and live by those. We try and make decisions with the studio based on those. We do orientations with our teams, and we try and express it. We show examples of how those values work.

When you hire people in that vision, everybody is hungry. Everybody is very humble and confident, yet still ambitious and hungry and realizing that we still can do more. I really believe our best work is still ahead of us. I think the stuff we have in development, fans are going to play it, and say, "This is the best stuff BioWare has ever done." And then beyond that, we have even better stuff.

You need that hunger and ambition and humility at the same time, knowing you're only as good as your next game. That's always the philosophy we have. Humility is one of our core values. Our values are in a context of humility and integrity. We know we always have to be honest with ourselves, honest with our fans, our employees, our business partners, the press, everybody.


Your next two games, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, are obviously both RPGs with some common heritage, but they do exhibit two divergent avenues from BioWare to an extent. Mass Effect 2 continues the more modern action-infused RPG thing you did with Mass Effect, whereas Dragon Age is more an evolution of the classic computer RPG BioWare made its name with. Strategically, what makes you think you can sell that to someone who hasn't played Baldur's Gate or other games in that style?

GZ: It's simply the number of people who keep on asking us to do that. It's one of those forgotten gems. There are very few examples of that style of game, which I think is still popular. Secondarily, because we're also going to consoles, and we're going to customize the interface on them for Dragon Age: Origins, while it will still be at its core that kind of good classic role-playing, at the same time it's going to feel very natural on the 360 and PS3.

I think people have been wanting it. There are very few examples in the same milieu -- Neverwinter Nights 2 and The Witcher, for example. Those all still did well, so it's exciting to do those and realize in many ways we helped to start that whole ball rolling, or restart it.

You know, it stopped for a while. We helped to kind of poke it and get it going again with the original Baldur's Gate.

Coming back to it now, we can do a super job on all the platforms. Some people who haven't played Baldur's Gate have heard of it, and in many cases, they think, "A spiritual successor to this great classic game? It's probably worth checking out."

Then the folks who have played it, no matter where they're playing, they're going to be able to play it as well, whether on PC or consoles.

RM: It's more than just Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II. It's definitely a spiritual successor to those, so you see a lot of things that familiar and comforting for fans that enjoy that kind of gameplay. And frankly, it's just fun, because that kind of gameplay was fun, and is fun.

But we definitely are innovating and pushing the envelope on a lot of fronts. Some of what we're doing is emerging in the best-of-breed things we've done on recent games with cinematic presentation, characterization, or the emotional engaging narrative of a game like Mass Effect.

You can see that in a lot of the things we've done in Dragon Age. A lot of the same storytelling techniques were applied. But we've focused more on first-person voice in Dragon Age, rather than third-person voice.

That was a conscious decision, but we've invested in the responses back -- the lens through which you see the world, the mirror by which you see the consequences of your actions or the non-player characters around you, your party, and the people you interact with in the game story. Dragon Age has that in spades. It's a very cinematic approach.


BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins

The combat is also very tactical. When you play the game, the camera way down by the ground is very cinematic, reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic, an over-the-shoulder kind of view.

This is also something different and unique, we think, in the fantasy genre. This is a new type of fantasy. It's dark heroic fantasy. You've seen examples of high fantasy and low fantasy, on either end of the spectrum -- very dark on one side, very heroic on the other side. But this is the best of both. It's the dark heroic experience. You are a hero in a very dark world, making choices that have mature consequences. They're not free of peril. You have to make decisions with that in mind. That's a unique experience.

One of the reasons we're unifying the platforms and making this a big launch and a big event, building a community, building the toolset and launching that early, building all that plans for post-release content, is that people at EA have seen the game, and are really excited about it. We see this as a landmark in gaming and in fantasy.

We think it's the kind of thing where people are going to stand up and take notice and say, "I have to check that out because, wow, everybody is talking about how good it is, and there's nothing like it in the market. It's a new kind of fantasy. This sounds kind of intriguing." People who maybe aren't into fantasy are going to want to check it out because it may be the one thing in fantasy they want to see in the next few years. That's our goal.


I was speaking to [Dragon Age writer] David Gaider, and he brought up some of the reactions on the internet to this game and its trailers -- "Well, I don't understand what makes this different from Lord of the Rings," or other comments about it looking like generic fantasy. What do you do to counteract that perception? How do you sell this game, particularly to people who aren't in the super-dedicated group who's reading every article that comes out?

GZ: That's an interesting point because it is a challenge and something we've dealt with and worked on for a long time. Part of it is to try and show the story. I think the thing we always find interesting is that a lot of the later trailers we do in our games tend to start giving you examples of the amazing things that you can do and try to have story elements.

It's always hard. Things like this -- explaining it, explaining it, re-explaining it, trying to get the online community talking about it and discussing it, and trying to point out some provocative things in this game that make it different.

Finally, I think there is power of word of mouth, in this world particularly. It's always a scary way to release, but when it gets released, folks talks about it, and if they're already aware of it, then people realize, yeah, it really does deliver on this depth of story.

I think there are things we can do to fan the flames of the community and spread the message.

All these things are not as easy as putting a pretty picture in front of a magazine. Marketing itself has actually become a lot more complicated.

It's evolving just as fast as all these technologies are evolving. It's trying to hit every note on all these different modalities, to try and catch folks.

RM: You have to show examples of what a Grey Warden does that's different than what a character in Lord of the Rings would do, and why that's cool.

GZ: Or just even that you have the choice. This is the thing, the fact that it's non-linear.

RM: Yeah, it's different. One example that we keep giving just to frame it is elves in Lord of the Rings are very angelic. They're at the top of the value chain in terms of respect and in terms of the way people view them, and they're an aspirational ideal for that world, the perfect creature, thousands of years old and very noble, gracious, respected.

Dragon Age flipped that convention on its head. Elves are not special -- well, not to everybody. To themselves, maybe; but to humans, they were a slave race for a while. They were enslaved, captured, and defeated.

As a result, there's a hatred. The elves hate the humans. The humans despise the elves and regard them as second-class citizens. Imagine playing as an elf in that world, interacting with humans. Imagine playing as humans traveling to the origin and seeing how elves were treated. You have that opportunity.

In Origins, it leads you to that experience, and it continues from there, where everyone treats you differently depending on which one you've chosen. But you're immersed in a world that's very dark, mature, gritty. It's not all noble elves prancing around. They can be powerful, they can be Grey Wardens, they can be magic users, rogues, warriors. They can be tremendously powerful legendary warriors, and yet they can be disrespected at the same time behind the scenes.

That adds a certain tenor or flavor to the experience that is fully unique. It's not seen in Lord of the Rings. It's not seen in high fantasy. You look at George R. R. Martin's works, and that's an example of darker, what we call lower fantasy. That doesn't mean it's bad; it's great, it's amazing, it's fantastic, it's beautiful. So is Tolkien's work, it's amazing in a different way.

Dragon Age actually is heroic, and it's dark at the same time, and it's because of that dichotomy, that combination that it's unique. The Dragon Age experience for a player is different. And you, as a Grey Warden, embody that dark heroic prologue. It's a hero's journey, but it's a dark journey as well. That's different. I think it's very fun, too.


There's aren't many companies still doing big, high-polish single-player RPGs like this. You guys are one of them; Bethesda does it; you mentioned The Witcher by CD Projekt. You do have some companies that seem to be able to turn out really big successes in that genre, but it seems pretty localized to a few studios. Why do you think that is?

GZ: It's hard. [laughs] It really is. As funny as it may sound, if you want to try and pick, short of an MMO, one of the most challenging types of games to make -- very hard to test, very hard to create all that content, very hard to balance, all those things, it's the RPG.

RM: Lots of features, all intersecting in complex interesting ways.

GZ: If you look at those guys, Bethesda's always doing that. Square Enix.

RM: Irrational is another group. I mean, they make action RPGs, but they're doing that. And Obsidian. So, we all go back many, many years.

GZ: Part of it is publishers didn't really know what to do with them a lot of times. It's interesting, even way back in the day when we made the original Baldur's Gate, even then, there was no expectation it was going to be huge.

It was a game that was worth making, and we thought it'd be financially successful, but we didn't expect it to be as big as it was. We just knew it was good.

RM: We knew it was good. That's a better way to put it.

GZ: We knew it was good. We didn't know it'd be big. Now I think we know that good and big tend to go together. As long as you have good marketing and good distribution, they tend to go together.

RM: Yeah. RPGs are the kind of thing that you can sink your teeth in for a long time. Now, the definition of RPG is much broader than it used to be, too. It's a much more expansive kind of experience where you can meaningfully create a game that really captures the soul of what used to be a standalone genre.

With Mass Effect, we're really amping the shooter aspects and the action angle. But it's definitely an RPG. It's got that depth as well. We're evolving and amplifying the depth that was in Mass Effect 1, but we're also way amping the intensity in the shooter aspects, too. The two together, actually, is a pretty powerful combination.

With Dragon Age it looks like you're in particularly trying to hang onto that long team, to the point where you're already talking about the mod tools for PC, quite a while before the game is released. Are you going to be actively supporting that community long-term?

RM: Oh yeah, very much. We view it as a platform, and we're launching Dragon Age as a huge, expansive high-quality game. We're planning for a platform around that, that you can dock new things in. Like user-generated content; we're releasing toolsets so people can make their own content. We're going to be releasing a lot of premium downloadable content for purchase post-release that will expand the possibility space of the universe.

We're surfacing a lot of the heroic accomplishments and achievements that players do so there can be a social narrative outside of the game where they can share what they're doing with their friends. And those things together will create a very vibrant, strong community and make Dragon Age a platform, an economic platform for a long time with a long tail.

GZ: Even though it's a single-player role-playing game and story, it's still a connected game. We live in this world where everything is getting more and more connected digitally, and from within the game, you're going to be able to search through user-created content that you may want to insert in.

These are all things that we think are fundamental to being current. Even though the very fundamental gameplay is an enhancement of old-school mechanics, plus a merger of new school cinematics, at the same time, it's connected so that in a sense people are still playing together -- it's just they're not in the same game. They're sharing stuff.

We think an RPG is the perfect game to do that with. It's meaningful enough that people get so attached to them, they want to play it forever. They don't want to leave that world or leave those characters. It's exciting. That's really our goal with it.

Are you looking to take the mod tools to console, or just the PC?

RM: We'd love to find a way to bring them to console, but of course there are business challenges and logistical challenges to that. But if there's a way to explore that, we'll try and pursue that too.

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