In this extensive interview, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, founders of BioWare, speak to Gamasutra about the company's current efforts -- everything from launching Dragon Age II to its Facebook companion Dragon Age Legends (in collaboration with EA2D) to Star Wars MMO The Old Republic, DLC launches, and beyond.
One thing that is consistent across these games is the company's philosophy toward creating and engaging with its audience, which the pair outlines below in clear, precise terms -- and beyond that, the benefits of approaching games this way.
The two also candidly discuss their expectations for The Old Republic, with Muzyka claiming that "once you've tried it, you just can't go back" to more established MMOs like World of Warcraft.
You guys often talk about emotions in games, and games as an art form. As the guys at the top of the company, how do you communicate that through all of your teams, through all of their work?
Ray Muzyka: We set vision statements. We talk about core values a lot, and we try to live them. We set a vision. Our vision for our group within [parent] EA, for BioWare, is create, deliver, and evolve the emotionally engaging games in the world.
It's been pretty consistent for the last few years. We've iterated that based on feedback with our leadership team. Each studio has a mission that's sort of like a different facet of that. They're delivering that emotion in different ways, different kinds of games -- games that are more massively multiplayer-focused, or more traditional role playing, or action role playing-focused; sometimes multiplayer, sometimes single player, lighter MMOs, or ongoing MMOs.
These are different facets of how we deliver this experience. There is a lot of roleplaying. There are a lot of characters. There's a lot of story. There are also a lot of familiar elements to action players, too, like combat, exploration, customization, and exploration. These are all things that we try and deliver in our games, but the net goal is to try and make an emotionally engaging experience.
Greg Zeschuk: Yeah. I think another interesting element is everyone that joins the company knows why they're there. It's not like, "Oh, I'm joining this BioWare company. I'm not sure what they do, or what they make." They know why they're there. They know what the mission is. The first day through the door, I mean, there's orientation of, "Here's the history, here's what we've built."
I mean, everybody knows, but to really drill down into, "We're about making emotionally engaging games," we're about people with passion that are incredibly engaged in what they're building. I think from top to bottom, I think everyone believes it. It's very consistent because we never really compromise on the standards of quality and excellence that we try to deliver.
RM: We talk about them a lot. Yeah, we take them seriously. Like, we make decisions in that context. Our employees, our customers, our investors, we try and deliver things that are really aligned with all three of those groups to have a sustainable business long term. We try to make decisions that reflect quality in the workplace, quality in our products, entrepreneurship. We try to be very humble, high integrity with how we deal with all the people we work with, and all those stakeholder groups.
You've mentioned humility as one of the factors that BioWare tries to uphold. Can you explain that? Why is that important?
RM: Sure. It's about learning, being able to admit you're wrong, and learn from your mistakes. It's about trying to improve each game, try to make it better than your last, never sitting on your laurels, never resting. It's a very active word. It's a very bold word. It's a very confident word, in many ways, because it's sort of a willingness to say, "Yes, we're ready to change, if we need to change, based on feedback."
We're also able to say, "This is good, and we're going to move forward with it because we recognize that we have to try some things." It's a powerful word. It's sort of a word that forces you to listen to feedback. It's a collaborative kind of word. It's a word that [means] you have to be open. It's a meritocracy of ideas. That's how we run BioWare. The best ideas surface. This could come from internal sources, employees. It could come from press feedback and reviews. It could come from our fans. It comes from all three, actually.
BioWare has made all kinds of games, but right now it's the fantasy and the sci-fi genres that you're very focused on. Do you consider moving beyond that and trying to get more people that might not be into sci-fi or fantasy settings, and try more real world-type settings? It seems like that would be an opportunity to deliver emotions.
GZ: Yeah. That's something we've absolutely debated over time. As we look forward, that's something we consider more and more. It's interesting, I think. Initially, I remember, the debates were kind of entertaining. I think our context initially was from a very traditional RPG perspective.
So, think of the discussion 10 years ago. Okay, [compare] Baldur's Gate to current day. ... You look to where both Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 2 and then 3 have evolved to, and it's very, very different.
You can imagine the cop drama set in the Mass Effect sort of framework. You can imagine a spy adventure in that context. I think actually that what's happened is our ability to conceive and understand different game contexts has evolved. Then that starts opening up new platforms into things that are maybe less traditional than we have historically [done].
We're not confirming anything today, but it's something we discuss a lot, because one of the things we want to do is really try and broaden our appeal, broaden our reach, sell more units, get more fans.
I bring that up because I have this co-worker -- I try to explain, "These [BioWare games] are fun games. They're really engaging." But she's got no interest because of the sci-fi setting. It's not just BioWare. I try to convince her, you know... "You really like survival horror. Here's Dead Space." "Oh, it's just like a guy in space in like a robot suit." I'm like, "It's not a robot suit."
GZ: [laughs] Oh, no!
RM: I hear that as an opportunity that there are people out there that are probably open to the idea of emotionally engaging games, and we can make an experience that's accessible both in the genre, the IP, and the settings so it's familiar and comfortable, and also provide an experience that's easy to access from an interface perspective and gameplay, then those people would probably be willing to try them out.
We have advocates that are telling the people about them, to check out these games. We just have to look at that as the opportunity, and try and create the experience that will actually draw more people in without actually losing any of our core fans because ultimately those are our most loyal customers, the people who buy our games over and over, buy PDLC, subscribe to MMOs, and things like that. We want to make games that appeal to both audiences.
BioWare seems very comfortable in this space: the packaged retail product, big budget type game. Do you think that going forward, the changes that are happening in online games and social game and social games, that this packaged retail model, with its huge budgets, is a sustainable thing in the next decade?
RM: It's evolving rapidly. So, you know, you might deliver the content in different ways. You might build it over time and deliver it episodically, or kind of as a service-based, online delivery... Certainly the retail events are still important to a lot of fans. That's how they hear about games; that's how they go and acquire them. I think that's still important.
You're also seeing a lot more focus on the digital distribution business. It's taking a larger and larger role very year. There are also more opportunities to extend your games, or to launch new experiences through social games or light products, light online experiences, mobile gaming.
We're doing things on all those fronts. We're partnering, sometimes, with groups within Electronic Arts, like we're doing a Dragon Age Legends social game. We're partnering with a great team led by Mark Spenner. EA 2D is the development group within EA, working closely with BioWare's Dragon Age franchise team, and it's really fun... So it's an extension of how we're delivering content. It's really fun to play.
GZ: I think what you've seen is probably going to be a trend that continues. The number of the big triple-A releases is sort of diminishing. Certainly, it's more focused. What's happening now is the space is being filled by all the things Ray described. There's a huge, other alternate space emerging. I remember the rise of consoles 13 or 14 years ago. It seemed like what it would be forever. Now, I think you can make a really strong case as an example, more gaming occurring on the PC platform in a variety of forms than there is on anything else.
RM: iPad and other mobile devices now.
GZ: Yeah. It's just continuing...
RM: Facebook delivers... There are a lot of interesting opportunities.
There are a lot of experienced people that have worked on MMOs in the past working on The Old Republic, but it's just hard to imagine how incredibly difficult it could be for a company that hasn't released an MMO yet to support an MMO. I think players trust the design choices that BioWare is going to make, and innovations in that area, but the support for a game like that -- a game as a service -- how are you guys approaching that leading up to launch?
GZ: The preparations are as massive as the game. It's interesting. It's a good point. It's something that's been foremost in our minds for quite a while. Obviously, we have a certain level of confidence on the game side, because that's very familiar territory for us. There are subtle nuances of how it's different, server-based gameplay and that sort of thing.
But the whole service piece has probably been the thing we've learned most about. And I think the good thing there, though, is we have a lot of people who really do have a lot of experience. The folks at BioWare Mythic, a lot of them are part of the team, and they did it for 10 years, 15 years. They ran game services.
RM: Launched multiple MMOs.
GZ: Yeah, so it's invaluable. I think the other point there, that's definitely a true one, is that any new company has to create almost the new neural pathways of how these things function. And that's one of the reasons we do a lot of testing, real-life simulation testing with fans playing and seeing how it scales.
And the actual act of launching the game, you don't go from like zero to 60 in half a second. You have to build that over time. So, I think one of the key things is how we actually scale the population base, how many units are out at retail at various times, and how we grow. Because really it's the long-term goal you have to look at. You really have to look at the long view. It's very different than, I think, what the traditional boxed product view is these days, which is your first two months it everything, right? Our first two years is just the beginning.
RM: If you look at it in one way, it actually makes the problem easier to visualize. It's like the product is not just what you're putting in a box or what you're selling as a digital download. The product is actually the service. It's the ongoing quality experience.
So, if you look at it from a different angle, than it's like: Oh, so holistically, you have to make sure is at a BioWare level of quality, the game itself, the content, the technology, the scaling, the hardware, the framework, the social interactions, the experience, the connectivity -- all aspects of an MMO have to be at the same level of quality that fans expect when you put the BioWare brand on it, and the Star Wars brand. You have to deliver that. You have to deliver that kind of experience.
For us, it's kind of challenging, but we really do have a lot of people on the team that have done this before. It doesn't make it easy, because when you look at a game as ambitious as Star Wars: The Old Republic, the amount of content in it is probably equivalent to all the content from prior BioWare games combined. You know, we've got to deliver that to the fans enough to keep them occupied for a long time. You know, we have to continue to deliver more content over time afterwards, too.
As Greg said, you have to be very thoughtful about how you scale up the service post-launch to make sure you're never really compromising the quality of service, always maintaining it. If you approach if sort of one issue at a time and kind of look at it holistically, it's actually surmountable.
We're pretty confident we can deliver it, but we're approaching it with humility, knowing that we're going to learn as we go, that we're going to encounter things that we can't anticipate now. We just have to respond to those and use all the great people on our team and the feedback from our fans, try to build on that and deliver a great experience.
Whenever a big MMO is coming out, it's put up against World of Warcraft. Do you think that is a trap to compare what you are doing to the biggest success that's out there?
GZ: No, I think it's inevitable. We're a pretty big developer that happens to be using the biggest license in the world.
Do you mind that people constantly compare?
GZ: No. It's just inevitable. The key thing for us is to also innovate in that new stuff. I try to use the word "carefully" in touchstone in that. You can go too far. ... WoW in particular, one thing is, it has set consumer expectations. It also set a set of conventions of gameplay that have been experienced by millions of people. So, you know, you pay attention to those things, but while you're paying attention, you're doing your own thing.
I think that's actually one thing I'm excited about, particularly, with TOR. It is a very different experience. I think that anybody who plays it for any length of time, it's pretty remarkable, because they actually come away [impressed]... I think it's the strong, individualized heroic element is so powerful in the game...
It's obviously a BioWare game. Then you think of that in an MMO space, people have trouble conceiving it until they actually play it, and they go, "Oh, now this makes sense." It's very, very compelling. I think it's different. I think WoW and all the other MMOs, they have the same sort of challenge... There are thousands and thousands of heroes. You don't really feel special. It's an amazing experience, and it's really rewarding and fun, but you just don't feel special. That's what we're trying to do.
RM: The reaction that we've had, and a lot of people playing it have had -- we've done a lot of consumer testing and there's a lot more to go -- but the common reaction we get from our fans when we play it, or the testers, ourselves, and our teams, is that frankly once you've tried it, you just can't go back. You don't want to try other MMOs anymore. I think that's what imbuing the game with a sense of heroic purpose and identity achieves.
We've got the best-of-breed features from other MMOs, progression, exploration, customization, combat, and trying to use the conventions that make sense to players for accessibility wherever possible.
We've layered on an amazing Star Wars story that's set thousands of years before the movies, so there are a lot of opportunitie -- [you can] have like Sith and Jedi, galactic conflict and all kinds of cool shit. It's a really exciting time to be in the Star Wars universe. And then we've imbued it with that sense of heroic purpose. Once you've tried it, there's no looking back. You really want to keep playing that new approach to MMOs, I think that is really refreshing.
You had Dragon Age II, and The Old Republic is coming out. Also, Mass Effect 3 is in development. It seems like you're releasing games all the time now.
RM: There's other stuff. There's PDLC. There are also some unannounced products that are going to be coming out that we haven't announced yet of varying sizes. And also some partnership projects like Dragon Age Legends. They're full games in their own right.
But we have a lot of people. We have a lot of really talented teams that have been with BioWare a long, long time. EA is giving us tremendous support. We're able to grow in a careful way that allows us to be entrepreneurs and deliver the quality that fans expect the whole time.
So, it's a pretty exciting time to be doing this. There are so many cool things going on across our group. It's a lot of fun to be part of that and to be able to play all these different games and to be able to deliver different kinds of content for our fans.
GZ: I think also our teams themselves have a fair amount of autonomy. ... Our involvement is we're playing the games, also. Me, I'm a little more on the Austin stuff, but historically, I would be there to work with the team to set up the goals and direction, check in along the way with the folks on the end. So, we actually have a lot of these really autonomous, very talented units all working.
Some groups do very monomaniacal work. You know, it's always one thing that's focused on. I guess another way to say it is "work in parallel, rather than serially." So, our stuff is coming out continually. The key thing is how you're trading information between all those parallel processes, and everyone's trying to learn from each other to get better. It just turns out that actually, yeah, we're releasing a lot of stuff. It's daunting, but it's all doable. As Ray said, we have really quite a large number of folks who are all super talented and very focused.
RM: It's very collaborative, too, where different team members will help one another even across studio groups. So, we have Edmonton, Austin, Montreal, Virginia, and Ireland, the five studios within BioWare, and of course our great partner studios within Electronic Arts.
A lot of people are contributing trying to make the games as good as they can be and give feedback and play them and sometimes work on different projects from different locations. So, it's very much a team. It's a large team, it's a distributed team, but we have a common sense of purpose and identity and shared common values. Everyone's very passionate about their craft.
RM: Great support from EA to build our games.
GZ: There's a lot of EA support in all our stuff.
RM: In fact, that's one of the reasons we joined EA, like the inspirational leadership from guys like John Riccitiello. He's still inspirational to us. He's a mentor to us. The opportunity to become a publisher, as well as a developer. So, we're doing all aspects of that now. We're working with the sales and marketing teams directly, the development teams. That's pretty exciting. You know, it's a way to get closer to our consumers and the ability to pursue new things. Like when we joined EA, we had two studios, right?
RM: Edmonton and Austin. And now we've got an outpost in Montreal, a great team there. And BioWare Mythic has joined our group. They're part of the BioWare family. And Ireland is starting up now, as well. So, we have BioWare Edmonton, BioWare Austin, BioWare Montreal, BioWare Mythic, and BioWare Ireland. Those are all things that we drove. This is an opportunity space. There are fans there. We think we can take our capabilities and make a great game for them. We were able to drive that. So, it's very satisfying to be part of a larger company and have those opportunities.
When you look at what's been happening in the industry, with layoffs and studio closures, that's why I ask about sustainability with these huge games. Does that ever worry you, just the amount of money and risk? How do you mitigate the risk for your products?
GZ: I wouldn't say that success is the only option, [but] you know, [sustainability] is driven by excellence, and doing a good job, but also the fact that we have multiple studios working on multiple things. There is the portfolio element to it, right?
And then secondarily, we're very careful how and when we choose to bring our products to market. All those things are [important]... If you're really thoughtful about that, I think you can mitigate a lot of those risks.
RM: Because we're building lots of products -- there are large products, small products, and follow-on content -- in some ways it actually kind of delivers more things over time, and... it's actually less risky in some ways than delivering just one big product every few years.
We have multiple products coming out every year now, and some of them are smaller products, some are larger products. They're aiming at different audiences. In some cases, those audiences overlap; in other cases, they're a little bit different. That actually kind of distributes the risk as well.
GZ: Well, I think maybe another way to cut it, too, is it's about the ongoing consumer relationship. It's not about just throwing a game over the fence into a shop, "Eh, it's in the market. I don't really care."
Just based on demand in our community and all the rest, we have a pretty good idea how a game is going to do before we launch. All that extra stuff around it builds a safety net, I think, in a sense of when you're launching games.
The scary thing is when you don't have that, and you're going blindly into the market as throwing something over the fence. We've been working for probably over a decade to not be in that position, to have a community, to have this ongoing relationship. The DLC forms a bridge to the next game. If we did do a new IP at some point, there would probably be something connecting it back to the mothership in some way. It's always, you know, done to sort of minimize the downside and maximize the upside.
RM: We have a community of loyal fans that are going to be there to at least talk about your product -- and we learn from them, and promote it to them, and engage their interest level, and get their feedback.
And we do a lot of market research before we launch our games, too. We have great marketing research teams within BioWare and Electronic Arts; it's great to be able to tap into that. We have telemetry within our games, so post launch we can actually see what the players are enjoying and not enjoying, playing and not playing, and kind of adapt what we build for PDLC and sequels and other products that kind of reflect those changing consumer tastes and preferences.
We never lose sight of our own intuition. You can become a slave to the data, but you can certainly adapt your intuition and build on it, and use that together with your intuition and data, kind of combine the analytic with the intuitive approach to make the best entertainment possible. Because at the end of the day, it is an art form. It's a commercial art form, but a lot of it is driving entertainment for your fans.