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Back In Space: BioWare On Mass Effect 2

Lead producer Adrien Cho discusses the evolution that the studio, series, and genre is going through in this comprehensive interview about the creative process behind BioWare's anticipated shooter/RPG sequel, Mass Effect 2.

By the beginning of 2010, more than four years have elapsed since the Xbox 360's release. At this point, several developers have put out sequels to games originally released for the system, and others are deep into the process of working on them. This week, BioWare ships its first current generation sequel, as it is set to release Mass Effect 2, a little over two years after the original game, which shipped in late 2007.

Here, lead producer Adrien Cho, who was lead technical artist on the first game, talks about the process of learning from the original game in the series. The BioWare team took journalist and fan feedback, compiled it all, and made leads responsible for addressing it in the game. He also talks about how laying the foundation of the original title enabled growth and refinement for the developers' ideas as they launched into the sequel.

One aspect that BioWare and EA have been touting for the sequel is that the game plays more like a shooter, while still retaining the developer's stock-and-trade of strong RPG gameplay and intricate story mechanics.

Cho discusses this evolution, and the thinking behind boosting that aspect of the game -- and why the rise of the shooter and its meld with the RPG is an increasingly common occurrence.

What is your background? Technical art is an interesting space. You're like a go-between; you have to understand both the worlds that you're working in.

Adrien Cho: My friend Sally Hwang... was a technical artist, too. It's nice meeting other technical artists because you feel like you're in this weird, isolated group of developers.

I used to teach. My students had a lot of conflict, because when they went into the work force, they always wanted this perfect job description that says, "Hey, this is what you do." And I said, "Well, if you wanted that, you should have just went to plumbing school, because then it's really clear." Like, "I went to plumbing school, and then I applied for plumbing job." In any creative job, you really have to start looking at your skill set and say, "Can I do that job? I want to do that job. What am I missing?"

So, I was at work. I was an engineer. So, I think that covers the technical aspects of it. When I graduated from high school, it just seemed like a logical career to take. I went through mechanical engineering, and I did that for two years afterwards, designing down-hole drilling equipment. Up in Canada, it's all about the oil. I felt bad after a while, extracting valuable resources from the Earth. It's just something I wasn't really happy with.

At the same time, I also turned away [from] the creative side. As a kid, I was an artist. My old art teacher basically said, "Becoming an artist is really hard. You're in it for a destitute life and poorness and so on." I was like, "Well, I don't want to do that." [laughs]

But at a certain point, you start realizing, "Well, I want to do something that I want to do." So I went back and did a masters in industrial design. And then somehow, when I graduated from that [laughs], I ended up at BioWare.

And the great thing about BioWare is... I mean, Ray and Greg, of course, come from a field other than games. And I think that type of attitude was really cool, because they're open to the idea of, "Hey, you have a really cool skill set," or "The way you think is really important, and I think it would be a good match for this position." That's how I ended up in technical art.

So, it's that marriage between the design side, with the creative side and understanding all the important aspects that artists feel are important, you know, making things look good. The technical side was balanced off by the engineering side of "How can we make this process efficient? How can we make things fit on a 360 and run properly?"

How did you move into production on this project, then? Because that's a little bit of a jump, too.

AC: So, the other side was that a technical artist actually has to have very good interpersonal skills. Because you have to work with different groups, often not just the artists, but programmers and design. And so transitioning into production was actually a natural evolution of that -- was that I worked well with others. Most importantly, I still protect my artists, because I have a really huge respect for what they do.

But it's to be able to communicate that to other groups to let them know the role that they have and what they bring to the game. And so it was a bit of this liaison for technical artists, and production's the same way. It's really just clearing things up, having a high-level view of the battlefield, looking at the available resources that you have. How can you get the most amazing work out of the people that you work with? And then freeing up all the problems ahead.

Technical artists actually do a lot of firefighting, and they forecast and say, "Hey, that fire might not be a problem now, but it might be in a few days or a few weeks." The same thing with production -- there are a lot of similarities.

The [Mass Effect]... I think it was a technical feat, but it wasn't without its flaws. At a certain stage, with the sequel, when we felt that we resolved a lot of those things. Production was actually an area we really needed to tighten up on, so to speak. I always say "tighten up" because I remember that stupid video, like "tighten up the graphics on level three." [laughs]

Once we felt that we had a really good technological base and the pipeline was solid, production offered a lot more influence on change. And I think it was limited in the technical art role. From production, again, all of a sudden, the expanse of your influence grows... I'm still looking out for art, but in the role of production, I can actually help them out a lot more.


You're moving from a game that was successful into a direct sequel. At this point in the generation, a lot of people have moved into the second game in a franchise, but a lot of people still haven't. What areas did you guys see as places to improve and really work for?

AC: Every area needed improvement... We knew what we wanted to change right away. As soon as we shipped Mass 1, every group knew that we wished we had a little more time. So, those were easily identified.

But the other part of the equation was actually taking all the feedback -- I'm not saying some -- absolutely every feedback from press and the fans, and collating all that into a huge list.

Everything eventually fit within certain categories, and when we looked at that, mapped with the things that we wanted to fix, it became really clear. It became a blueprint. It made making the sequel really easy.

But making the sequel, it makes sense both financially, and effort-wise. It was really hard to make the first game. I cannot describe just the amount of effort, the tensions. But once you get that out the door, there's this firm foundation. And the team, they understand exactly what we're building.

And then it made it really simple to focus improvements on specific areas and say, "Hey, this is what our digital acting is all about. Pretty good, but how can we make it better?" So, if you take that through every aspect, whether it's design, writing, or art, everyone was able to make very focused changes. And at the same time, still make all the content for the game. And then overall you take all those changes, and then all of the sudden the game is very different.

We wanted to make sure that absolutely every issue that was brought up was addressed... so the press had nowhere to go, and all the critics had nowhere to go, because we had made an attempt to hopefully address all those issues in some capacity.

When you talk about categorizing the feedback, was that categorizing it into disciplines, or was it categorizing it into like, "These things have to do with the story"? How did you categorize it?

AC: A bit of both. I mean, like, it was a giant Excel sheet [laughs] we all tracked, and all the leads took responsibility in that. And then at the same time, there were different shades of it, right? So, combat would be one, but then we had to really break it down.

It was like, "What was it that irked people?" Or exploration. That's even a better one. Because Uncharted Worlds came up as "We wish it was better." But then we had to break it down like, "Well, what aspect of it needed improvement? But what aspects should we keep?" And we found out that people really like the idea of exploring planets, it's just sometimes the execution where the planet looked the same.

So, we said, "Okay, well, that's easy. Let's keep the exploration side and keep the idea that you can explore all these different planets. What people are really just saying is that they wish the planets looked different and that you didn't end up at the same base all the time." And that made it really clear to say, "Well, how can we go about implementing that?"

I think that over the course of this generation, the shooter genre has become important, and it's been blending very heavily with the RPG genre. You see that more and more. Obviously, games like BioShock, Fallout 3, and Borderlands all blend elements of RPGs and the shooter genre. I feel that Mass Effect came very much from the RPG angle, but with the sequel there is more emphasis on the shooter aspects. What attracts you guys to that?

AC: I think it's accessibility. It's being able to bring [it] into a market that might not have actually tried our games.

And when we made this game, we want to compete with the best of the best out there -- the best first-person and third-person shooters out there. I think the goal was, if we can make that aspect solid and open up the audience, then they'll be blown away by all these other things about a BioWare game, that they might not have played before.

That hybrid is always going to happen. You know, I was thinking about this because we get a lot of that, but I think back to -- switching genres almost -- to something like Onimusha, which is hack and slash, but it actually had really cool RPG elements into it. And to take it to another level, say, GTA. You have shades of role-playing in there as well.

And I think that's what's expected now. People want maybe a bit of something from each. The core gameplay still stays the same for whatever genre that you're in for, but you need that extra depth or complexity to keep players engaged, to say, "Hey, man, that's kind of cool. I do this, but it's not just enough."

So, I think the one thing, like the critique on, say, if you're looking at a pure shooter, it's obvious. The critiques are always the stories are way too flat, there's no character development, it's two-dimensional, there's no rhyme or reason as to why I'm going on this eight-hour journey to kill everything in sight.

So, what Mass Effect does is it still delivers all the visceral impact of that for people to get that really cool feedback, but... that is only one fraction of what the game offers. All the cutscenes, all the cinematics, all the character development, and most importantly the story -- I think those are the things that we want to be able to get to this larger audience.


There are more angles for different people to like the same game. I think that's what having different genre elements makes possible. Some people may really concentrate on character growth. Some people may concentrate on the narrative. Some people may concentrate on the squad shooting, right?

AC: It's finding that right balance. Let's use something completely in a different genre that may be analogous is you can have the most beautiful game, but if the gameplay sucks, it doesn't matter. But visuals are what create all the hype on the boards and the magazines. So, before playing, people get so excited. They're like, "Well, this game is the best looking driving simulator ever!" But if there's no substance to the gameplay...

So, you can't ever put all your eggs in one basket. It is important to balance things out and offer... Here's some scrambled eggs. Here's some omelets. Here's the hard-boiled eggs.

I feel like games that sort of concentrate on one thing and do it really well are becoming almost less what triple-A gaming about in a certain way.

Honestly, obviously, I think that Gears of War is a pretty simple, direct experience that is really, really good. I don't think it's a problem with delivering a specific experience, but I do feel like we've gotten to this point...

AC: It's hit-and-miss, though, right? If you bet and all of the sudden, as the trend shifts, though, you don't want to be on the last one, where all of the sudden the zeitgeist has shifted.

Here's the interesting thing. Mass Effect is really an evolution of KOTOR. [Laughs] The core team's actually the same team. And you can see, if you look at KOTOR to Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 2 really represents the embodiment of all those things that maybe we wanted to try in KOTOR but were limited by hardware, by gameplay design decisions...

And so, KOTOR was still kind of turn-based, but you still got a bit of action in there. Mass Effect, we took what we learned from KOTOR and said, "Okay, so we're limited by that at this point, whether by IP, or by technology. Let's bring in a little bit more action into it." I say we tried pretty good, it turned out.

But then when we got to Mass Effect 2 and we realized, "Alright, if that was our first foray into real-time, let's make it way better." Buy you still don't lose the core aspects, which are story, character development, which I think at the end of the day is really at the core of a BioWare game. We always say "shooter shooter shooter!" for Mass Effect 2, but I think our fans always know that when you buy a BioWare game, you always get a fantastic tale.

Well, that's your mission statement.

AC: It is, yeah.

I think we've all become aware of that. Speaking of the story elements, was there more time to concentrate on the preproduction for Mass Effect 1 or Mass Effect 2? Originally, Mass Effect, I'm sure, the original one, had a certain period where there was a prototyping and preproduction phase going on. But with this one, you had the window between the two.

AC: In all aspects, not actually story specifically, we went through the tough part in the first one. Because the first one, everyone... You're developing this IP, but it was up to the core leads to rein people in. "That's a little bit too far off."

Once you make the first one, it becomes a data point, so to speak, and you kind of see, "Oh, okay. Well, how much are we willing to deviate that?" And there has to be a reason why you want to deviate, because it actually improves the game or IP in some way. But now we have a reference point for everyone to know, which makes it a whole lot easier because we had some crazy story ideas. We had some crazy ideas on what the characters, aliens, art, and technology were going to be.

Once Mass Effect came out, it became, "Here's the canon. And from 2, you're still allowed to explore and branch out, but you're really staying within that range." And it made things a whole lot easier, too, whether it was from writing, art, or design.

It's not as though RPGs are newly popular, but I feel like they are growing in significance as people find that there are elements of them that appeal widely, but it's just getting them to an audience that understands that they'll enjoy that kind of game.

AC: It ties back to accessibility. We're really highlighting the shooter aspect of it. We haven't actually taken away any of the RPG systems, but we want to package it so that everything is a little bit more intuitive, more streamlined, and overall the experience is like, "Ah, I played through this incredible story." A typical BioWare story. But how we played through it felt much smoother.

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