Here's something for you: Spaceships, space marines, guns that shoot lasers, aliens, aliens with laser guns, aliens with sinister universe-crushing ambition, foreign worlds, ugly space aliens, sexy space aliens, sexy space marines with valiant universe-saving ambition, and, finally, hyper-light speed travel.
Plenty of sci-fi properties have those elements, but not all of them have been able to captivate and engage an audience in the same way BioWare's Mass Effect role-playing games have. Mass Effect 3, due next week for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, looks to expand on the critical and commercial success of the first two entries.
It's BioWare's careful attention to storytelling, character development, and setting integrity that has propelled the series to the upper echelon of sci-fi video games. And although the Mass Effect series does incorporate many standard sci-fi elements, BioWare manages to create relationships and meaning for each of those ingredients, whether it's protagonist Commander Shepard's ugly and agitated alien crew member, or the spacecraft itself.
Casey Hudson, based at BioWare's headquarters in Edmonton, has been at the helm since the beginning of the franchise, which debuted in 2007. BioWare is known for incorporating feedback from a wide variety of outside sources in order to improve the Mass Effect games, and squeeze out another Metacritic point or two.
But as each game in the franchise closes in on the 100 percent mark, the team has found it needs to rely on its talent and instinct to give fans something they had no idea they wanted.
So let's get caught up with Mass Effect 3. Did the development of the game begin right after Mass Effect 2, or was Mass Effect 3 already in development to some degree?
Casey Hudson: Development really began as soon as we finished Mass Effect 2, which for us was still a couple months before Mass Effect 2 even came out. So we finished it and then it went off to manufacturing for a month or two, and in that time we were already kind of planning for Mass Effect 3. But [Mass Effect 3 development] didn't really start until we started getting feedback on Mass Effect 2 once it actually shipped, and then we could start integrating the feedback that we were getting.
As Mass Effect 2 was better reviewed than the first one, did feedback still play quite a large role in key choices in the making of Mass Effect 3?
CH: Yeah, absolutely. We think it's really important to listen to feedback. When we think something is a good idea and then we put it in the game and then millions of people play it, that's when you really find out about how people play your games or how they receive your ideas. And you get kind of a different take on how you're used to doing things, so we definitely want to incorporate feedback.
And the bar's always being raised, so we do need to constantly improve what we're doing. The best place to start is sort of an accommodation between our own goal for what we think we can be doing better, combined with the feedback that we get from players around the world, who are very forthcoming about what they love about the experience, what they want to preserve and what they want to see improved.
Can you be a little bit more specific about the process that BioWare goes through with the feedback?
CH: Yeah, we did something similar with Mass Effect 2 as we did with 3. But we ended up taking kind of a different format because Mass Effect 2 was so widely reviewed, so well-received. Mass Effect 1 was well-received as well -- it's a 91 Metacritic game -- but it was the kind of game that I think had a reputation of being a flawed masterpiece.
So with every bit of incredible acclaim that it would get, it also came with caveats about very specific things that people wanted to improve. And Mass Effect 2 was a little bit different, because there were so many positives about it. We had to take a different approach and design a different format that was meant to really, really align the positives that we wanted to preserve, and then really prioritize the few things that we wanted to change and improve.
It became more about [interpreting] qualitative things in the feedback, instead of [examining] a long list of things we had to improve. We then would fine-tune things. So it became a process of fine-tuning versus overhaul, which is kind of a different approach than we had to do for going from Mass Effect 1 to 2.
I imagine that as the franchise was pushing that 100 percent Metacritic score, improvement might actually become more difficult. Once you're done fulfilling peoples' expectations, it becomes more difficult for, say, the game designers to figure out the things that people want, because really once players' expectations are fully met, they typically can't identify what more they want.
CH: That's actually a really good point, because anytime you introduce something new it's controversial. Because fans will say, "Well, we never asked for that", you know, "We want you to keep doing exactly the other things that we've liked before."
But at the same time if you do that, of course then you might get the opposite criticism, which is that you're not taking chances as a developer, and just kind of doing the same thing all the time. And it's something that happened to us.
A great example was the new characters that we added for Mass Effect 2. When we started publicly introducing these new characters that would join your team in that game, it was tremendously controversial because people didn't want these new characters that they didn't know; they wanted us to recreate the experience of Mass Effect 1 with those characters.
But the way that we interpret that is that they really want to recreate the magic of Mass Effect 1, which was not just about those original characters, but about having the experience of discovering those characters.
Mass Effect 1 was about learning about all these new places and this new fictional universe and meeting all these characters. So if we brought back the characters, then the experience itself isn't the same, because you already know them. But we needed to have between a combination of bringing back familiar characters, but also allowing you to meet some really amazing new people.
Now we're having a similar challenge with Mass Effect 3, where characters that we're introducing are seen as controversial because people only want their Mass Effect 2 characters, characters which, previously, were kind of met with resentment because we were adding them in the first place.
So can you talk about at all some of the things specifically that you addressed after going through the feedback?
CH: Well, I think on a large scale, one of the somewhat big technical or quality aspects would've been our pursuit of continuous narrative, in that every time [the game is loading], it really interrupts whatever kind of cinematic narrative you're trying to put together. So we took a different approach with Mass Effect 2 where we went to load screens that were themed for what you were actually doing, versus trying to keep you in the game experience.
One of the top complaints for Mass Effect 1 is people didn't like how slow the elevators were, and they wanted to get rid of the elevators. But with Mass Effect 2 -- because we had load screens -- they wanted us to bring back the elevators.
So what it really speaks to is in the Mass Effect series -- like really any game out there -- there's kind of an outstanding challenge of how you keep people in the game experience, even though under the hood you have to do a tremendous amount of loading and unloading of information. We're taking a different approach on with Mass Effect 3, because we're actually trying to create essentially a load-free narrative experience.
One of the criticisms that had floated around regarding Mass Effect 2 was that some people thought the fundamental structure of how you collect the characters and your crew was a little bit rigid. Did you see that criticism, and is that something that you looked at for the third entry?
CH: Well, in the third one there's a different story for other reasons. I mean, each act in a three-act trilogy needs to be about a different kind of thing.
But do you know what I'm referring to? In Mass Effect 2, you go through that series of character stories, and they're great short stories, but after a while it became, "I'm going to do this story and get this character, and then I'm going to go back and then I'm going to go to the next one. Repeat." You know, go back to the ship and then do it again. And then you finally collect them all and then you progress to the endgame. Was that criticism something that you guys saw, or is that criticism something that you even agree with?
CH: I think there are ways that we could've finessed the structure better, so that [the structure] didn't become a target of criticism, or something that was overt as it was. However, the story and the structure of the game -- the fundamental underlying structure of the game -- obviously has a very strong bearing on how big the entire thing can be received.
I think much of why it was able to get into that extremely high territory of 96 on Metacritic and the acclaim that it got, and the things that it was able to pull off emotionally... I think all of those things are a credit to that story structure, and the fact that people know that the type of story they're going into it.
So you really feel like you're taking a plunge when you do that final mission, and you really feel sort of an analog sense to the experience. That's because you have more characters or fewer characters, and make good or bad decisions, make people loyal or disloyal, and then that conflicts with the morality of the player.
So it's doing all of these really good things for the overall experience, but as a structure it can become conspicuous enough that people can focus on it as a point of criticism, even though it's fundamentally the thing that allowed us to do all the good things that Mass Effect 2 achieved in other aspects.
BioWare is known for story, and there's this idea that you have to sacrifice a large amount of "open world" gameplay in order to tell a story and more directly convey the vision of the game designers and the writers. Do you find that to be true?
CH: Not necessarily. Like I said, every story is different. I think fundamentally the things that we wanted to achieve with Mass Effect 2... it could've been any kind of story, it could've been different story structures, it could've been open world or very narrow. I mean, an "open world" has different meanings -- it could be like a sandbox simulation where you run around an area and just do stuff. Or it can be like Mass Effect 2, where you have tremendous variability in how you explore and progress in the story on different fronts at different rates and with different choices.
It really comes down to the fact that with Mass Effect 2, we looked at the huge set of relatively disparate goals, and we were looking for a single element, elegant concept that would wrap all of those things together into something that you could really understand and get excited about, and tie all these things together into one thing, and create an elegant overall game design and game structure, and that was the suicide mission.
It was things like the idea that with a Mass Effect-type game -- a role playing game in general -- often you run around and you do side quests, and they have really nothing to do with the overall story arc. And therefore you don't really care about them as much, and it doesn't support the story as well.
So even though people might notice that there is a story structure to Mass Effect 2 -- that you kind of build up your team and things happen and you build up your team and then you go into the end game, and there is a noticeable story structure. But that story structure is actually the thing that made all this fun.
Side quests were things that you cared about, probably more than you could in an RPG that had a different story structure, because our side plots and little quests and loyalty [variances], and all of these things then fundamentally tied in to the end game, which then determines what you do with the story, ultimately, and how it turns out.
Talking about combat, it was a large improvement from the first one to the second one. What has BioWare done to further tune the feel for the third one?
CH: Well, we made improvements all the way across the board. You've got millions of people out there playing Mass Effect 2, as well as our own designers, and it's a combination of what we want to improve and what everybody else wants us to improve. That leads to a lot of stuff that we've changed.
Mass Effect 3 just plays so much better, and I think people who've been able to get their hands on it at shows, in person, feel it immediately. As soon as you pick up the controller, Shepard just fundamentally moves and fights so much better; with so much more agility and capability. You can jump, and fall, and climb. You can do combat rolls in any direction, which is very rare, even in the best third person shooters. You're doing combat rolls into cover, escaping cover very intuitively.
So Shepard just has so many new things that you can do that really brings everything full circle. It's something that we've done in just making the game better overall, but it's also the thing that really unleashes the fun of the multiplayer that we've been talking about.
Now you can have four friends playing together against a bunch of enemies having just crazy fun. That's because you're playing different characters, you have tremendous agility, all kinds of powers, different weapons, and it plays out at a speed that I think people have never experienced in Mass Effect before. But it's also so fluid and intuitive, it works fantastic in multiplayer, and it just makes the single player that much better.
When did BioWare actually decide to add a multiplayer component, and was there much skepticism amongst the team about adding that into the game?
CH: We've been trying to figure out how to put multiplayer in Mass Effect since Mass Effect 1. And we want to make sure that the player has a main character in this universe that is part of an uncompromised single-player experience. And that's why we couldn't figure out how that made sense with the story of Mass Effect 1. The same thing applied in Mass Effect 2. You're basically by yourself even more than Mass Effect 1, and the multiplayer just didn't really make sense.
But now the story of Mass Effect 3 is so much more out in the open, and generally everyone knows what Shepard is up to, and everyone across the galaxy is fighting the same war that Shepard is.
So we can finally see that there was a story to it, and that we wouldn't do the thing that people are afraid that we would do, where you're running around and there are 16 Commander Shepards trying to shoot each other for some bizarre reason.
We worked hard on it. We have a team in Montreal that is focused on multiplayer and they're integrated with our team here in Edmonton that's focused on the single player. And we worked together a lot, we've been iterating a lot, and it's just been getting better and better and better to the point where we're deciding to stay [at work] until 2 o'clock in the morning playing multiplayer.
And now that we've got everything figured out in terms of knowing for sure that it's going to be fun, it integrates with the single player story really nicely and we know how everything's going to work technically, so we can talk about it publicly.
Working with Unreal Engine 3 for so many years, how has the engine changed your team? How has that evolved, working with an outside engine?
CH: Probably the biggest change within our team has been just learning more and more about the engine and how best to work with it and how to create art for it that runs the fastest, uses the least memory and all of that kind of stuff. Initially, it's kind of a process of trying to shoehorn our previous approach to art and our previous approach to programming into the Unreal Engine.
But over time, we found not only ways to work with the engine better, but optimizations to the engine itself that allow it to do the things that we're doing differently from other games, in ways that look better and run faster than we would have otherwise. We just found a lot of really great optimizations, both in the code and in the way that we work with it, so that you can expect Mass Effect 3 to be not only the smoothest-running game of the series, but also the best looking.
As an executive producer, can you describe what was the biggest challenge or even headache that you ran into? What was the biggest hurdle for you, managing this as executive producer?
CH: There are a few. It's interesting because I feel like we're kind of now just passing some of the really big challenges and question marks. This is the first game in the series that we're doing multiplayer, and multiplayer is therefore a new challenge for us. And it's also the first game that we're doing that's going to same [date] ship for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 and the PC. So that's another big one. We shipped the previous game, Mass Effect 2, on the PS3, so that's a challenge that we've already kind of figured out. But this one we're going to be same-shipping.
I would say that the biggest challenge has been just making sure that the multiplayer side of the experience is going to really be satisfying for players. I think the thing that we've heard is that when people get their hands on it, you get converted pretty quickly.
I also think we're taking some interesting creative challenges with the story that a lot of people might not expect us to. But being the final chapter in Commander Shepard's story, I think we're doing some pretty special things with where we're going with music and the story, and what you're going to see and feel and experience as Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3.