As one of the co-founders of BioWare, Greg Zeschuk has played and made a lot of RPGs. And over the course of a fifteen-year game industry career, Zeschuk seems to have reached the point where his duties require a considerable amount of playing BioWare games as a player, not a full-time developer, to give high-level feedback and observations to the team. It's a responsibility the executive probably doesn't mind.
The studio is finishing up work on two major games, Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, due this November and Q1 2010 respectively. They are built on two paths of BioWare's RPG history, one the more slick and modern action-tinted game, the other the more intricate old-school role-playing game.
Speaking to Gamasutra, Zeschuk addressed those games as well as BioWare's design and iteration process, the "leap of faith" of making vast swathes of content many players might never see, the pleasures of developing sequels, and why the company is keeping a close eye on the increasingly successful social gaming scene.
Since I last interviewed you, you've added a new job title to your list of job titles, now including the EA RPG/MMO group.
Greg Zeschuk: It's a group creative officer job. It's actually kind of fun, because I get to be involved in a lot of the stuff. By no means am I directing all the games. We have great people running all the games. I play them all, look at them all, and get involved, try and pull interesting things between them and share information and have fun.
How has the pseudo-merger of BioWare and Mythic worked out?
GZ: It's been going really good. We had a great time working with the guys with Mythic. We've been out there already a few times. It's kind of funny, because we're literally almost across the country. They're way in D.C., we're up in Edmonton. But we've been there a few times, and it's going really well.
What do you think about the current state of RPGs? It's interesting that your two upcoming games [Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age] represent almost two different eras, the more modern action RPG and the more sprawling, traditional RPG.
GZ: Yeah. From the perspective of what our overall strategy is for all the games we make, I think one thing that's really important is to make games that play and feel very different. Mass Effect 2 has got a really strong shooting component. The shooter is really good. And of course, you've got the incredible cinematic conversations. We describe it as a third-person conversation where you're directing Shepard, and he's doing stuff.
Whereas Dragon Age is very much, right from the beginning, an intimate playthrough of who you are, where you came from, and the decisions that got you to the point in the game where it starts. That's a very personalized experience. It's a little more traditional in that you've got a party and you can directly control the party members. You said "sprawling," which is a good word to use, because really it's a gigantic game.
It's funny -- I've been teasing the lead designer about that while we're here because I'm almost done with my [Dragon Age] playthrough.
Is that Mike Laidlaw?
GZ: Right, Mike Laidlaw. I was just realizing how big this game is. One of the guys from Mythic just finished it, and I was saying to him, "Did you get to this part, and did that happen? Did this guy go in your party?" He goes, "What do you mean? You can get him in your party?"
It's got that magical thing we strive for, which is personalization. The state of the industry in general, I think, is very exciting, because we've been seeing other games kind of coming into this space, this story-driven gaming, but it's also progressive -- all the pillars we talk about at BioWare, like combat and great characters.
We've really been progressing a lot. I look at Fallout 3, which is probably the best exploration-driven game ever. I think that is just incredible. All of us have continued to work at our craft to keep making better and better games. Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 are among our best games ever. It's very exciting to actually have this coming in pretty quick succession for a little while here.
BioWare doesn't usually have tentpole releases come out in such close proximity like that.
GZ: We don't engineer it, that's for sure. There are a few months in between them, so it's not super close, but it's close enough. It's wonderful, because the moment Ray and I finished playing Dragon Age, I actually got a build of Mass Effect 2 I can play all the way through as well.
Of course, for both games, we have a lot of ongoing content, so we playtest all that stuff. This is a silly statement, and then there's Star Wars: The Old Republic, but playing BioWare games is completely getting in the way of other games. People ask me, "What are you playing?" I'm like, "I'm only playing Dragon Age right now."
It's a funny place to be, but it's exciting, because we're still in a position where [Ray and I] can directly influence and work with the teams. The teams make all the decisions, but we provide high-level editorial feedback.
BioWare RPGs have existed from the point when you could have a big hit with a few hundred thousand units, to now where if you're making a big triple-A game, budgets demand you sell a few million over a few platforms. When you need an audience that big, is it harder to sell a game where you say, "This is something you need to sit down and invest yourself in, and think about, and dedicate yourself to"?
GZ: That's a good observation. You do need to really engage with the games that we make. To be fair, I think Mass Effect is the kind of game you can play pretty quick. And the interesting thing about Dragon Age is it's actually very bite-sized -- even though it's a giant buffet. You can still play it in bits and pieces.
A couple nights ago, I took a break for Dragon Age, and literally all I did was sort through my inventory, do a couple quests to get a couple armor sets, play for an hour or so, and then say, "Okay, I'm done for the day. I'm not going to embark on a quest." But it's neat to once again have that experience of spending time in the world and not even feel like you have to progress in a major way.
It's not exactly an offline MMO, but it's certainly got some of those features -- things like armor sets, and the connectivity we have with people who share their experience of having played through it by throwing stuff up on the community site and having all the downloadable content. We think it's going to be a very rewarding long-term experience for folks.
Are there any big RPG lessons you've learned that have led to that kind of structure and design?
GZ: I would say we always learn. We always make our games in a way where we're sure there's always something to learn from. Even with some of the peripheral releases, we try to take back information. That's one thing about our culture that's very active. Everything we do is a learning experience. Every release and every product is an opportunity to learn something.
I think you'll see that Mass Effect 2 is a gigantic culmination of learnings from Mass Effect. Mass Effect was a great game, but Mass Effect 2 is a much, much better game. All the things we heard the fans say, all the things we felt when we released -- all these things, we improved.
It's exciting that actually we are getting into a bit of sequel-ing. People said, "Oh, I thought you guys didn't like to do sequels, because you never did them." Well, actually, we like to do sequels, but we've never been in the business position to do them, because they're not our property or the publisher change -- all these factors.
It has always been very complicated, but now it's great. Mass Effect 2 is a sequel. If everything goes well with Dragon Age, and we're pretty confident, it should continue to live on. We certainly have a lot of DLC planned for it. It's fun having this platform and these tools. Our people can really explore creativity. I think that's right where we're getting to with both those games.
I was talking to Tom Leonard, the lead designer on Left 4 Dead 2, and he was saying Valve is also a company that traditionally takes ages to do sequels, but doing Left 4 Dead 2 so soon has been an amazing experience -- they can use all the knowledge they gained from the first one right away. They understand how to make a Left 4 Dead game, instead of just feeling it out like the first time.
GZ: It's totally true. Honestly, I've been involved in probably 15 games now over the years. I swear it's not until the last couple of weeks of development in a new platform and toolset that you actually really get it. Or the last month, let's say. So you're jamming so much work in the tail end of it, polishing it and fixing it as much as you can.
The absolute best position to be in is to be able to start from day one having that [knowledge]. Making a game -- literally staring at a blank piece of paper and saying, "Okay, let's create the galaxy" or "Let's create a rich fantasy world" -- it's an amazing undertaking that you can even finish it, let alone make it fun to play. So, being able to riff on that is really exciting.
Do you get any benefit of that in Dragon Age? It's not a sequel, but it's one of those games that's been in some form of development for years and years and years now -- we've known about it forever. Presumably it's gone through some threshold of iteration and revision.
GZ: We do, actually. That's a good observation. The best example of that -- of doing a remake while you're building it -- was actually the original Baldur's Gate, where we literally built the backgrounds three times during the course of the game. We kept changing scale, then we'd go, "Well, the grass doesn't look good," then as soon as we'd change the grass, it was, "Oh, the foliage is bad." That was literally our poster child for spaces and sizes and scale. That was our first lesson.
A lot about Dragon Age was trying to find that unique element that. We actually spend a lot of time in our games. You sort of set out with a certain set of objectives, like "Hey, let's make choice important." But it's not until you actually really play it that you can say, "Oh, that didn't work. How are we going to do it?"
That's our objective. And that's actually why a lot of first iterations from us and a lot of other companies do take years. You often will come into development with a certain idea, and you'll test it and it won't work, and you say, "Okay, well now we refine it and refine it."
One of the most valuable things you can do in development is iteration -- being able to create a great platform and a great product early, and then iterate, once the tools are done, on the actual content. It's just a great place to be. I think all of our stuff is like that now, even Mass Effect 1. We did a lot of work on every element of that game.
I remember one specific example. We'd fine-tuned Mass Effect 1's cover system, and the repercussions were suddenly that we had to go back through all the levels and change all the objects in the levels because we changed the cover system. You learn all these things and then again go back to the beginning. When you start with all that stuff figured out, it just flows really well.
On the topic of choice -- looking back to, say, Baldur's Gate -- having a choice in a game now is a lot more expensive than having a choice in those days. Now, you need all these unique assets to represent the various options, whereas in many cases back then it was just a matter of telling the player, "This is what your character is saying, and this is what's happening," with text boxes or straight dialogue. Do you find that limits you now? In Mass Effect, although I really enjoyed it, with a few big exceptions, my critical path through that game is basically the same as everyone else's. It looks like Dragon Age puts more emphasis on that.
GZ: It does. I was asking Ray a couple days ago -- I did this one big event one way. I ask, "How did you do it?" He says, "Oh, I did all the ways." "So, how many are there?" "Nine." And to think they're actually really dramatically different. They do have a meaningful change.
The interesting thing is that even as big as the game is, with the way you get so engaged with it, when you miss something, you almost feel like you've gotta do it over again. One thing we did in Dragon Age is that you can't see everything in one playthrough. It's impossible, literally impossible. Depending how you design your character and what things you value and don't value, certain quests are going to work and some won't work. There are a lot of quests you just can't do.
My first character wasn't that great at certain dialogue skills like persuading and intimidating. I'd walk up to guys thinking, "Oh, I'm going to persuade him to tell me what this is about." But he's like, "Nah, you didn't convince me," and just walks off.
In some ways, it's almost crazy, because we actually will create a lot of content that people don't see. Not only is Dragon Age a gigantic game, there's also a lot of unique content when you can make the quest trigger, or find certain things.
This is all stuff we've ruminated over at BioWare. In Jade Empire, there was a really good example of that. We had a really intricate quest line for one of the characters, very obscure and incredibly cool. But we realized almost no one found it. So we said, "Okay, just don't make the great stuff obscure. If you have great stuff, at least make sure it's out there and that people can find it."
What makes you confident -- or what makes the marketing department confident -- that all the money spent on all that content that each individual person will not see will pay off in sales?
GZ: It's almost a leap of faith. I think, at the end of the day, going back to Dragon Age, once you get into it, it grabs you with the power as good as any game I've ever played -- anything we've done and anything anyone else has done.
The key is getting over that initial hump and seeing what's there. It's a challenge of engaging people -- because you don't want to make it too easy, and you don't want to make it too hard -- and to try to get them in to the flow. Once you get them into the flow of Dragon Age, at that point they are going to explore it.
Secondly, they are going to want to find all the exciting stuff. Again, nothing too obscure, but we have these daily triage sessions where the team will play the game every morning for a few hours. I'll sit in on them and say, "Hey, what sword is that? Where did you get that?"
They'll say, "Oh, I got it over here, like this." Then I'll go run off and try and find it too. If you're a completist in any way whatsoever, you just will play it like crazy.
This is a game with a strong PC heritage, but it's of course multiplatform. When I talk to developers who have some amount of investment in the PC space, I'm always curious about their thoughts on the state of the platform. What do you make of it at BioWare?
GZ: It's interesting. At the end of the day, if sales are close [across platforms], you'll always make more money on PC, because there are no platform fees. And certainly with PC, there's more flexibility of post-release content and directly engaging the consumer -- like with our community site, as compared to Xbox Live or PlayStation Store.
There's still a real big value on PC for us. Also really important to Dragon Age in particular is the toolset. The toolset is only on PC. We think that's going to be big. It's definitely one of the things that really drove Neverwinter [Nights].
The PC market is funny. I think the PC market is still the broadest platform, but people are playing differently. I think the PC market is really starting to crank. Everyone's playing something. Social networking games are on PC. All this stuff is really cranking. It's indicative of just the strength of the market.
For so many years, we just saw this thing as retail, but I think that's finally changing. Now, you see these 10 million person numbers for monthly plays on Facebook games. Your jaw hits the floor. People, in a sense, are doing more in a month of actual plays than World of Warcraft. It's certainly not monetizing anywhere near the same level, but the actual [number of] people touching that product is enormous.
It's very insightful for us, because I think a lot of the really smart things are low barrier to entry, and games that work on any system. It's kind of permissive, in the sense that if people really want to engage with it, they'll start spending money if you make a really great game. If you make quality stuff, it plays to your strength. There are a lot of neat opportunities there.
Also, obviously, the MMO space continues to get bigger and bigger and more important. I think you're going to be starting to see -- there are already a few now in North America -- full free-to-play MMOs with microtransactions coming down the pipe and stuff. So, lots and lots of exciting stuff there.
Do you toss around long-term strategies for making those broader audiences aware of the more in-depth PC games you make, with the assumption that some of them will be interested in that kind of experience?
GZ: Yeah, we definitely do. I think it's something that will happen. It's something that maybe you graduate to, as long as you have people used to playing games on it.
There's a tradition of consumers getting more and more sophisticated. If you go back to the history of consoles as well, yeah, those games were pretty simple for a long time. Over time, they got more and more complex. The markets did grow quite a lot. It's almost a natural evolution. I think the key thing is that if you can try and take the smarter ideas from those really successful games and pull them into your games, that's in some ways what the real win is.
When we strategize, we spend a lot of time on that stuff, because it is having a big impact on our market. Again, you look at retail market sales. There's financial challenges in the world, and retail market is down, down, down.
But if you look at internet traffic and the number of people playing these other things, that's up, up, up. These lines have crossed, and they're going different directions. You've got to look at that and really be thoughtful about what they're doing well, and see what you can pull in.