Reshaping the Modern RPG: BioWare's Greg Zeschuk Speaks

BioWare's creative force and now chief creative officer of EA's RPG/MMO division speaks about the vastly different decisions made in the design of the company's various RPGs.

As the chief creative officer of EA's RPG/MMO division, Greg Zeschuk is no longer just shaping the path for BioWare's own games, but a larger proportion of the gaming output of one of the biggest publishers in the world.

With Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, the veteran developer he hails from sent out a two-pronged attack on gaming audiences: one markedly traditional and the other streamlined and slick, based on user feedback and a desire to capture a larger audience by better positioning the game's features.

Here, Zeschuk discusses design philosophy of BioWare's current and upcoming RPGs -- the two already mentioned, and Star Wars: The Old Republic -- and how different games require different approaches.

With Mass Effect 2, there was very much a kind of streamlining and toning down of the R and P elements of the RPG. Is that for opening the market or is it addressing complaints?

Greg Zeschuk: I think it was a combination of things. On one hand, definitely with Mass 2, we wanted to appeal more to the folks who play shooters. There are a lot of shooter fans that love great stories and want to play a great single-player extended experience. That was part of it.

Another part of it was obviously the first game wasn't perfect. It was one of those, I think people commonly call it a "flawed masterpiece" type game, where it had a lot of great stuff. It presented the universe, it was so exciting; but the mechanics, moment-to-moment gameplay, framerate, all these things weren't as tight as they needed to be.

A lot of the changes were done to kind of walk the line between the those things, to sort of say, "If you want a little more accessibility..." But we also wanted to address things that really complicated the game [like the] inventory system. 

The key thing [is that] I like the way the team did it in that almost all the functionality is still there in a lot of ways. You're modding weapons and putting in fire bullets, or flame bullets... Okay, it's been taking out like a complicated GUI interface, and now it's simply one of your powers that you can use. So, a lot of the stuff is actually still there, but we just felt that it was better to actually present it differently.

The user interface for both Dragon Age and Mass Effect were hard for me to really grab, and Mass Effect 2 is much more streamlined. Is this UI a response to players' difficulties, or is it really more about integrating with the different gameplay direction?

GZ: To talk about each game specifically, in the case of Dragon Age, it was initially designed as a PC game primarily, and then console was added. So, the really challenge on the console side was to try to capture all the functionality that we had on the PC and not strip anything out.

In fact, actually, the accessibility tools, we have even  potion button which you can [automatically use for] drinking potions. [It will] find, in your inventory, the best potion to approximate the amount of hit points you want to recover. So the challenge was, okay, address the fact that you have as many as 50 powers. How would we represent those for the player?

Whereas Mass Effect, it was about streamlining. We wanted people to focus on things that we did best in a game, which is the cinematic storytelling and what we think was going to be a very strong thing, which was the action. And so, by kind of redirecting players' attention there, we felt that that would be a better overall experience.

Talking specifically the point of the potions in Dragon Age, when I was playing that, a pop-up told me that when you get injuries, you've got to heal them with injury packs, but the text never told me how to heal with the injury pack.

GZ: [laughs] And if you looked at the status, it's like deaf, blind, broken arms.

Yes, yes. It was 10 hours in when I was like, "Alright. I've got to figure out how to do this." But I couldn't do it straight from the inventory.

GZ: Right, right. These are some of the things where you live and learn. Because we were making decisions, like, what should be exposed...

It's funny because we were really iterating the interface for Dragon Age quite late in the process. We took a ton of time, so we actually did a fair amount of usability testing, but probably not enough. That's just the reality of how fast we had to get done.

If you have feedback, though, yeah, send us some in. That's a good one. That's generally what Ray and I would try and use, because we actually were there for a lot of the meetings when the interface was being discussed, but then we would just play the results and then kind of freeze. We'd go, "How do I do this?"

Dragon Age wound up being my first real true entry into playing a Western RPG, which is a crazy thing to say because it's so late in the game. For me, there were a lot of elements that were just kind of assumed, and that I just didn't know. I was wondering why there was no kind of optional tutorial in there.

GZ: Well, there was, but it was minimal. That was the other interesting thing that we realized -- we created a problem for ourselves with the origin stories. Because you had origin stories, there was no real common tutorial you could have. So, instead, there was like semi-class-based tutorials that we did for each class, but we never had a really comprehensive tutorial. It was one of those things that we found out but we kind of figured it out after the fact. "Okay, now the tutorial. Wait, we can't make six of them."

So, we tried to make it contextual so that when you get an injury, it says, "Hey! Heal that injury." But if you forget the line of how to do that, then that would suck.So, that's how that ended up. That will be something we'll address in the future. There's a few different ways you can do that, but I think that's a good point as well.

When playing both Dragon Age and now Mass Effect, I got the feeling that these were two games coming from a similar mindset but with slightly different takes on it. Was that at all the case?

GZ: That was absolutely the case. I think there are sort of two reasons for that. One is because the RPG/MMO division has really a portfolio strategy, in the sense that there's multiple games that are serving multiple audiences. Absolutely, there's a crossover, but there's diversions.

So, by no means do we think that everyone that plays Dragon Age will play Mass Effect 2. There's going to be some crossover; there's going to be some difference. The second reason is that it's reflected by the respective teams. So we had absolute distinct teams in those two games. They have different things they're trying to accomplish, different things they're trying to do. The game is really a reflection of the game and what the team wants to accomplish. That's how things naturally diverge. We think that's to our advantage to try and cover more of the potential market that way.

As far as the marketing push from EA on Dragon Age, it was very much oriented toward high-action, bloody battles. The way I was seeing it marketed made me feel like, probably, some guys who don't really know what's actually going on in the game, are going to pick it up. I think that sort of marketing probably worked in Dragon Age's favor, but not so much in, say, Brutal Legend's favor. 

GZ: Well, I mean, it's interesting to me obviously because of the controversy with it. I think we were trying, and we've always said that certainly, what the real objective for us was, was to show what was in the game.

Obviously, the advertising wasn't in any way representative of the proportionate time split. Everything from the advertising was from the game, but it was only part of the time. There's a lot of other stuff.

I think it worked in the sense that it got a lot of attention for it. It got people really looking at the title. I think it probably expanded the audience a little bit into people -- it's one of the hits of thee fall, and it's one of the big games -- and they're like, "Okay, well, it looks action-y enough that I'm interested in it," and I think that was actually the reason that it worked.

That potential new audience, those are the people especially that need the extra hand-holding.

GZ: Yeah. I definitely agree.

In terms of balance of action and roleplaying, and here when I'm saying "roleplaying" I'm talking mostly of dialogue and fetch quests and that kind of stuff, because I actually personally really enjoy those a lot. It's different on a title-by-title-basis -- but what is the ideal balance of "Here's my area where I'm going to do diplomatic things" and "Now I'm going to slice a bunch of dudes up"?

GZ: That's a good question. I don't know if I know the right balance yet. We've explored different balances. We did an experiment years ago and it, during [the period] right after Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I think James Ohlen, who is the creative director down in Austin, said, "Okay, let's do an experiment. Everyone write down what they think the percentage of time they spend doing traveling, in your inventory, combat, and dialogue."

And everyone wrote down the percentage, and then we had someone play it, a bunch of us played it and time it all out, then compared it. It was totally different. You didn't perceive that, actually, the amount of time you were fighting was way less, but that's what stuck in your mind. Everyone kind of over-expanded the combat stuff.


GZ: It was interesting. And we didn't realize how much time we were spending on other things. I think it's a reflection of memorable moments. I think that's something where we've been focusing a lot of our effort, because those can happen a lot of times in the cinematics. Like the interrupts for Shepard -- memorable moments that really stick with the player. Those are the things that they remember and emphasize as part of their experience and share with other people.

For both Dragon Age and Mass Effect there is a great deal of lore. How many people are writing this? Because even me, I'm definitely interested in it, but I couldn't read all of it. It's so much.

GZ: It's a lot. Structurally, there's about three or four writers on each of our teams, one lead and three other writers, and they'll spend really the first year just creating all the back story elements.

That doesn't shock me.

GZ: Yeah. No, as a company with really prolific writers and folks that can pound it out, so there's a lot of info. We will figure out what we want to use, we'll strip some of it down, put it in, say, the books in Dragon Age or whatever. What's really amazing about those, I think for our games, it's an essential ingredient to make it all whole together, because we're creating not just the game but the world the game is in.

If we're effective in creating the world, making it believable and everything makes sense and it's well-rounded, then we get to reuse that potentially indefinitely -- forever. And I think that's where the value comes in. After the trilogy of Mass, there will be other Mass stuff, but now we've got this fertile ground to plant it in. So, it is a huge endeavor, but it's something that we think that if we didn't do it, it just would not be any good.

Do you think something like Mass Effect 2 might have the potential to get someone who is less roleplaying-inclined to become slightly more interested in what might happen in that kind of scenario?

GZ: I think it definitely would. I think the key is to obviously get them to try it. They've got to try it, they've got to play it. And then when they find out... Say they're a shooter player, a very significant portion of the game, they're very familiar with and very good at already, they'll be more inclined to play it.

The key thing with the story delivery is to ensure that it's not intrusive or heavy-handed or overbearing. It can be fast and entertaining and keep pacing really fast, and then draw people in. It's the kind of game that like from a hit-buyer's perspective, everyone should try it.

I think of any of our games, this is the one that's the most of a calling card. And then they'll see the customization, and they'll go, "Oh, this is not so bad. I kind of like it." And they'll be open to more and deeper experiences. Or just more of the same.

I've actually been asking this question of quite a few people. Do you think there is potential to create a game that pretty much has a reverse of the Mass Effect 2 action-to-dialogue ratio -- very exploration and discovery-oriented?

GZ: I think those are Bethesda's games. [laughs] You know what I mean? It's interesting in the sense... And I respect them. Actually I love their games. What's interesting is it really emphasizes what we're all individually as companies are good at and what we have determined to be our secret sauce, or whatever it is. And you push it, push it, push it.

You can see this direct linear relationship over time of where we've been going, and you can do the same with them. It's really neat. I look at their games. They've added a little more story and obviously in Fallout 3 than they had historically, but really the backbone of that game was just the ability to cruise around all over the place. That was just stunning.

It's interesting you say that, because for me, in Fallout 3, the main thing that was great for me was walking from point A to point B, I see something to distract myself and more stuff to discover.

GZ: It's crazy. [laughs] The thing is I spend so much time not doing things, I was like, "Oh man, I spent 40 hours, and where's that story again?" And I have to turn back.

Dragon Age is pretty much an offline MMO on the PC side.

GZ: A large part of it is, yeah.

How do you intend to differentiate it from your upcoming MMO?

I think the key thing that we've accomplished with Star Wars: The Old Republic is having all the really great stuff you have in an MMO, just stuff you expect like crafting, the trading, and all these crazy things that really you need to sort of drive it, and then pairing in story.

What's interesting is we're in a testing phase now for the games. We're playing it and testing it and seeing how it works. I think the key thing will also be, how do you share quests and how do you interact together?

I think one of the most interestingly differentiated elements is that ability to share conversations. I think that's going to be something that really will be very, very interesting, because we have discussions around how you resolve these situations. You know, disagreements create a whole new social level that hasn't existed. So, I think that's actually going to be really fun.

As social networks proliferate, I haven't quite seen someone integrating what's good about Facebook, and your ability to talk to friends, and see what they're up to with an MMO that is of a large scale. Do you see potential there?

GZ: I see some potential there. I think for me, Facebook is the place to share the info with your friends, but I think it's also a double-edged sword. I mean, we all turn off the feeds of games and apps that spam us like crazy. You have to be careful about it. I think we keep the amount of apps or widgets that are like user-driven that you can then sort of use those... And I think actually, my understanding of where Facebook's going, too, is not so much info on the feed but more in applications and stuff. 

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