Electronic Arts is currently working hard to shed its image of choking the life out of its studio acquisitions. But does that match up with the truth?
At GDC, Gamasutra had the chance to speak with Ray Muzyka, founder and CEO of BioWare, which was acquired by the megalithic publisher late last year. Have things really changed? And what does the future hold for this unique development studio?
I last spoke with you right after the announcement of the EA buyout, but things have become clearer. I saw John Riccitiello speak at DICE about the city-state model. When I first heard you guys went to EA, I thought that it must mean that EA is changing. Then when I saw that speech...
Ray Muzyka: John knows us really well. We worked with him for two years, and he knows what Greg and I are like, and Andrew and Josh and Greg. We know what he's like, because we worked with him directly beforehand for three years. He was our CEO at VGH, at Pandemic.
I think he knows we're pretty passionate about what we do, and he knows that we fit into it in a certain way. We're good at something, and we really strive to make good games. We care about our fans and our employees, and we're not going to abandon those values. I think his talk... I found it pretty inspirational, too. I don't know what you were going to say about it, but...
I was impressed. But I know that I did talk to some developers afterward and they were like, "Yeah, right."
RM: The proof's in the action. I see myself... I've got to take a leadership role in order to show that we can be successful within that framework, and BioWare can continue to be successful within the framework. I'm excited about that opportunity.
I think the proof is out there. As he said himself, if you look at what happened with Westwood and Origin, I think those are sad stories. And Bullfrog. But if you look at what happened with Maxis...
RM: Or DICE. We've heard very good success stories. And Criterion as well. They're all making great games, and they have great people, and they're doing really well. They've actually got unique brands, as well. They're starting to make something and resonate with the fans. It's what it's about, right?
You guys are very plugged in to your fan base. Absolutely, I think. Many developers are, but I think you guys... Matt Atwood was talking about in the demo [before this meeting] how you're plugged into the fact that you have to make sure Mass Effect is a PC game when it ships on PC.
RM: Yeah. We want to tune it and customize it and really spend the time. A lot of the time, that's about making the control system better. Actually, it's fun when you hear the demo teams getting really excited about the demo, because over the next three days, they're getting more and more excited about playing it and trying different tactics out.
The upcoming PC version of BioWare's Mass Effect
The run-and-gun combined with the better squad controls enables new types of tactics to be done in battles, so actually it's almost like playing a brand new game, which in many ways it is, because it's higher graphics, and we're trying to improve a lot of things.
But trying to make these improvements, sometimes they have exponential effects and multiple effects when they work together. You can really see it. Because the tactical infrastructure stuff is already there, and there's the opportunity for really interesting tactical battles, which I think PC fans love. The fact that you can run-and-gun it down the center while your guys are deployed on the side of the squad individually is a subtle enhancement, but it's a huge impact on the gameplay in a good way.
This was originally a project on the Xbox with Microsoft, but it's now with EA on PC. That isn't a prelude to saying, "Come to PS3," because that's your business, and I know you know what you're doing, but have you guys worked with the PS3 at all? Or have you studied it as a development platform and whether it's worth moving into, whether it's for this project or another?
RM: We haven't announced any future plans on Mass Effect, as to what the future holds. We're just focused on PC, in terms of what we're talking about. But we're working actively with the PS3 now, yeah, and the 360 as well. And we're exploring Wii, and the DS we're rapidly working on as well.
That's right. You're working on Sonic for DS.
RM: We are actually working on PS3 stuff. I think we said that before a bunch of times. That's something we're rapidly exploring. We haven't said what we're working on, but we're excited about the platform. I think it's a great platform. The 360 is a great platform, and I think the PC is a great platform. So are the Wii and the DS.
I don't just say that because I have to say it. I believe it. I've played games on all the systems. If the fans are there and you can make great games, maybe a little different for each one, maybe... there are opportunities on all of them to make different things that stand out for what BioWare is known for, with narrative and emotion, and apply it in a different way in terms of the platform. That's what we're trying to do with the PC. You can do something pretty amazing.
When it comes to Austin, I believe there are basically no details -- except for the fact that you have a studio in Austin.
RM: Yeah. I agree. People are working away on something there that we're really proud of. It's a good game. It's going to feel like a BioWare game. It's going to have the best of breed of MMO features, and some new innovations that when we reveal them, hopefully they'll be impactful for people.
I hope so. I think it's a genre that's ripe for innovation. I think that WoW was the last landmark title, and of course it still drives success, but it's probably time for someone to step up and do something.
RM: I agree. And it's not a slight at all on Blizzard. I think they've done a great job. But the fact that people want to play that kind of game is an opportunity to really deliver that level of polish and quality, and innovate in a few key areas, while they continue to innovate in a few key areas, too.
I got to sit next to Rob Pardo for like three hours yesterday at this dinner I was at with a bunch of other studio leaders, and I just talked in admiring terms of how much I love their games, and how I've played every single one of them and finished every one of them.
And he's played all of our games, and we were debating the merits of different design philosophies, and he's telling me how they built GUIs, and I was telling him how we built GUIs and hired people and approached design concepts. It's just awesome, right? We're very different from them, and yet it's a very similar starting point and end point, in terms of the quality we give our fans.
That reminds me of your conversation with Ken Levine and Greg LoPiccolo at DICE.
RM: I have huge respect for those guys.
They were obviously three very different games, but you all had a similar quality tier. You guys maybe had different philosophies about how to get from point A to point B of development, but...
RM: It's key to pick your systems and structures and processes and hire the right people that map to your culture and values, and if you structure it right and everything's in alignment, then a good idea and a great product can result in a number of different configurations.
Valve's very different from us, but they make amazing games. Epic is very different from us, but they make amazing games. Blizzard is an amazing company, and they have very different processes and structure than we have. Harmonix, obviously, and Irrational, or 2K Boston and Australia, are very different from us, but they make amazing games. I think it's exciting.
It's an amazing opportunity for the industry, because if you know all the guys and are good friends with those people, you can collaborate and come up, be really collegial, and exchange best practices, and we'll pick and choose some things that we've seen that we're excited about at Blizzard or Valve or Epic or Harmonix or Irrational, or 2K Boston and Australia.
Ken's GDC badge said 2K Boston-slash-Irrational, so I think you can still call it Irrational if you want.
RM: I prefer Irrational, myself.
A little more personality?
And you're not EA Edmonton.
RM: No. Nor will we be.
That's great. Speaking of sharing and looking at things you can share, and I know this was central to the city-state metaphor, that this is the way that EA's being run, but... is there a sharing or something in common that you see? You said that you respect the guys at DICE, and I agree with you that it's a great studio, so do you have conversations with them about that?
RM: Yeah. Actually I hadn't met Patrick Söderlund before, but I got to meet him at a global publishing marketing meeting about month ago, and it was really exciting, because I'm a big fan of their stuff. So we chat a bit and continue the conversation in the longer term.
So actually it was like with Pandemic, but on a bigger scale. We really have the option to always exchange ideas, but it's never forced, right? Part of BioWare and Pandemic... the Elevation investors never forced it. "You guys do whatever's organically right for you, and the best ideas will win." We'd send people out to Pandemic for a few days, and they'd send people up to us, and we'd actually have a lot of ideas, and collaboration, and technology sharing. But it was all very much team-generated.
It's the same way with EA, now. It's not forced in any way. It's very open. It's very transparent. It's very, "There's some guys doing some cool stuff over there. You might want to talk to them." "Okay, I'll pick up the phone and talk to them. That's awesome." So yeah, we talked to a whole bunch of different GMs. I had dinner with Alain Tascan from EA Montreal and said, "You're doing some really cool stuff." So we're figuring out different ways.
RM: I'm more excited than ever, because of a whole bunch of things. One is where we point at the nexus of change. I see 30 years in the past and 30 years in the future, and it's like, "Holy crap, look at all the things that have happened in just the last few years, let alone compared to 10 or 20 years ago in video games. Where are we going in five or 10?"
Another thing I'm excited about is being part of a larger company. It's like this big toy box where there's this cool tech over there and interesting ideas and smart, nice people that are willing to share and collaborate on a bunch of things from different studios. But none of it's forced. It's as much as we can enable. It's up to us, as BioWare. It's part of that.
It's part of EA. We are EA. BioWare is a publisher now. It's a weird thing to say, but it's true, and that's not a bad thing. It's all about how you approach it. Are you oriented around your design, and your fans and long-term goals, not just short-term goals?
It's going to be a very healthy thing, because being a publisher actually really is about having a closer connection to your fans, in some ways. You're selling things to them, so if you're listening to them, you can take that stuff and bring it in and make your games better, which is our philosophy. And I think it's the philosophy of the new EA as well.
I hope so. The way I looked at EA, is that EA is like the weather of the industry. First of all, you can't get out of it if it's raining. You're sort of stuck. But also where EA goes, it kind of pushes the industry in some ways. So if it's sunny weather for us, it's good for everyone.
But to wrap up, story based games are your thing. It's part of your... I saw you speak at the IGDA Leadership Forum earlier. I feel like, watching Mass Effect, there's still a little bit of the Uncanny Valley thing going on. How do you feel about perfecting that?
RM: We can always improve. I think we can always get better. The good news is that we're not done yet. We have a long way to go still, and we continue to get better over time. I'm excited about that. I think we've built a really great foundation of people and teams, and they're really passionate and ambitious. They can fuel great things, because you actually can listen to feedback and improve.
I don't know. For us, our mission may building the best story or narrative-driven games in the world, but I see narrative -- and I talked about this in the [DICE] panel -- as being very broad. I think you'll see more and more of that coming in BioWare games. It's the narrative of the explorer, and the narrative of the combatant and the hero's journey. It's the narrative of the story, characters, and the social space.
Maybe there's some different ways to look at narrative. There's more than one way to tell a great story. But I think beyond that, our vision is emotion. So yeah, we're going to be pushing it hard to make you feel really compelled by the game as we deliver it. And if we need to deliver more compelling characters, we're going to be doing that.