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Q&A: Demiurge On Giving PC Gamers More Control With Mass Effect

With BioWare's critical and commercial hit RPG Mass Effect now released on the PC following its Xbox 360 debut, Gamasutra talks with Al Reed, studio director of Cambridge, Massachusetts based independent studio Demiurge on making Mass Effect
Since forming in 2002, Cambridge, Massachusetts based independent studio Demiurge has built working relationships relationships with a wide range of publishers and developers, including Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Gearbox Software, BioWare, 2K Boston and THQ. The company focuses on five specific areas of business: full game development, ports, pre-release bug-fixing and “firefighting”, co-development and pre-production prototyping and vertical slice development. The company announced in April that it would be working to port BioWare’s Mass Effect from the Xbox 360 to the PC, with a “focus on higher environmental and character resolutions, smooth game flow and a gameplay interface” more suited to keyboard and mouse. “The team at BioWare welcomed our new ideas and has been supportive of our contributions to the project,” noted Demiurge studio director Al Reed, “giving us the opportunity to make this game feel perfectly natural for the PC.” Gamasutra spoke to Reed, as well as Mass Effect PC producer Kristin Price about the project, and the struggles the company faces as an independent. Firstly, you’ve just moved offices, haven’t you? Al Reed: Yes, we have. We moved out of the place we’ve been in for about a year and a half. We moved about a block and a half to a nice, proper office building, and we have the whole floor to ourselves and lots of room to spread out. So that’s a sign of how well things are going at Demiurge, then? AR: Yeah, business is great. It seems that there are not enough good studios out there, so we’re in demand! Well, yeah – if you look at the titles that you’ve worked on lately, there are some of the biggest titles from over the last year: BioShock, Mass Effect, and so on. AR: For us, that’s strategic. As an independent studio, you kind of get one – maybe two – chances to work on crap games, and then you’ve tarnished your reputation forever. We’re pretty choosy about the projects that we take. Are you at a point where you really can be choosy about the projects you take? AR: Oh yeah. Like I said, our demand greatly exceeds our ability to find talented people. Who approached who with the Mass Effect project? What were the initial moves from Demiurge? AR: BioWare approached us a little over a year ago and told us that they were interested in bringing Mass Effect to the PC. The way that relationship started is that we got a few people together to write up a formal evaluation of the project and a few details about the direction we’d like to take it. Then we sent that over to BioWare, and they liked what they saw, and we’ve gone off into the sunset since then. Were there a lot of differences you had in mind right from the start? AR: Yeah, absolutely. We get approached with a lot of opportunities to bring games from one platform to another, and the ones we end up taking are those where the original property developer is willing to let us throw out whatever we want to throw out to get it right for that platform. Mass Effect is a huge game, so this wasn't a small undertaking, but we try to view bringing a game like Mass Effect from the 360 to the PC as starting a game from the beginning where we have all the content done for us, but everything else is up for grabs. So how much freedom did you have? AR: Once we established what we wanted to do from the evaluation, BioWare really let us take it where we wanted to. They were looking over our shoulders the whole way, and they have a lot of great design minds there that have strong opinions, but as long as they liked what they saw, which they seemed to like, they let us just keep going with it. Do you think PC gamers have a different expectation of a game like Mass Effect? AR: Absolutely. The PC audience is, I think, a lot more savvy about a whole array of items. We definitely wanted to pay a lot of attention to the visual quality of the game, because by now PCs are technically superior to the consoles that are out there. Right out of the gates we decided that we had to look for ways that we were going to leverage not only a low end PC and run great on that, but scale up to the latest and greatest. What about in terms of gameplay elements? Do you think PC gamers are looking for more complexity? AR: Yeah, I think so. Kristin Price: PC gamers want more control. On a PC, understandably, you’re on a device that can handle that much more control. One of the first things we thought of was that people needed to be able to define what they want to define - we wanted everything in your options settings up for grabs. PC players expect that. I guess that’s where the third combat option wheel came into it as well? KP: Oh, the ability to control squad members separately? Yeah, we’d added that because feedback from the original pointed us in that direction – that was what players wanted. That wasn’t necessarily specific to PC. Console players wanted that as well. AR: It would have been tricky to pull off, though. We had a mouse and more keys, so there’s a lot more opportunity for more fine grained control over the way your squad move around. How much time have you had to listen to feedback for the 360 version? AR: It came out in... what? November. AR: Yeah, enough. I guess one of the things that we’ve been able to do is sit there playing the 360 version not in November, but in August. And we’ve been able to identify those things that the PC audience was going to have trouble with before we even heard it from the 360 crew. So we were able to set ourselves up nicely for that, and set up the design process so we could turn on a dime over the last few months and squeeze in the features to improve the things that the community was not thrilled with. How much have you added to it? AR: Well, it took us over a year, so...! Every single UI was re-done from scratch, and there’s tuning and balancing and art resolution that’s been increased for the PC. I did want to ask about that, actually. Was that a case of BioWare providing you with the assets at a higher resolution for the 360 version? AR: For the most part, that was the case, yeah. There were a few cases of things being hand-drawn with the updating of content along the way. That was one of the things that we sort of speculated about when we were doing the evaluation for BioWare, saying, ‘Hey, if you’ve got this available and can find a way of getting it to us, we can start incorporating that in for the 360 version’. Do you view it as a definitive version? Is there a danger in putting an improved version out when most people would think of the 360 as the lead platform for it? AR: A danger? I mean, in terms of the way it’s received by the community. AR: I don’t know. If the additional resolution that we’ve used was available for the console version, I don’t know that you would have noticed it as much as you do with the PC , just because the resolution of the screen is so much higher and you’re sitting so much closer. So we can shrink the font size and the UI, and all of a sudden you can fit so much more on the screen. And all of that stuff starts to add up. What about in terms of the gameplay elements and minigames that have been added? AR: Some of the minigames were great on the 360, but weren’t so well suited to the PC. We wanted to add a minigame that worked well with a mouse and keyboard and would be well tuned to the PC audience. So we replaced the encryption game, which is one of the more common ones on the 360... KP: Very common. AR: Yeah, we replaced that with a circular version of Frogger. (laughs) It’s a nice nugget of experience for the player without slowing them down too much, and lets you get in, get out and get on with the game. KP: The idea is that you make binary decisions very quickly. That’s how it was on the 360 and that’s what we tried to do here, because you’re playing the game so often that you want it to be quick, fast fun. What are you expecting from the actual reception of the game? Because, you’re talking about something that’s been out for a few months, and there must be a real cross-over with the PC audience owning 360s. are you expecting it to be as big a deal as it was for the 360? AR: Oh, absolutely! I think that reports of the PCs demise have always been greatly exaggerated. You hear it every year, but we’re anticipating a pretty substantial commercial success from this, and everything we’re hearing from EA and BioWare confirms that. I just wanted to bring up some of the other work that you’ve been doing over the past few months, especially the optimization with Frontline. what was involved in that? AR: Kaos approached us maybe a year ago, asking if there was anything we could draw on from our previous experience to help them up the visual fidelity of their game and the constant trade-offs you're making between triangle count and asset count and performance. We put together a small strike team of engineers and technically minded artists and worked with them to get more triangles on the screen and increase their texture resolutions and make the game look great. Were the dedicated servers always something they wanted to work with, or was that one of the things that you brought in? AR: The dedicated servers were all them. They always had a vision for having really, really large scale epic multiplayer battles and I think the dedicated servers played a big part in helping them get there. I also wanted to bring up a quote you've got on your site from [Gearbox Software's] Randy Pitchford, saying that “it's only a matter of time before Demiurge gets discovered by a major publisher”. Is that something that you're after at all? AR: [Laughs] To be discovered? That quote's from quite a long time ago. I think we're well past discovery at this point! Would you want to work consistently under the banner of a major publisher, or is independence a big part of Demiurge? AR: Well, our acquisition strategy is to not be acquired, if that's what you're asking. We've worked with EA in the past on Medal of Honor and we started out working with BioWare and ended up working with EA on Mass Effect. To us, it's really all about the people and the producers that we're working with on the other end. Any customer that approaches us that is driven by making quality products, we're okay with working with them. But independence is an important part of what you're doing, though? AR: Absolutely. It's in our blood. Are we going to see original projects from Demiurge at any point in the future? AR: If you can tell me how to fix the financing model, I'll give you an independent product! That's a fair point. AR: I think that's really what we're struggling with right now. We, like all independent studios, have independent properties that we're shopping around, but we really do struggle with finding money that doesn't have strings attached that would make it not worth taking. I think the way independent projects are paid for now hampers the ability of independent studios to flex their creative muscles in a way that would make the product commercially successful and doesn't incentivize either party to succeed greatly and of course, ownership is always a sticky issue. Is building your reputation by taking on projects like Mass Effect going to aid that, would you say? AR: Oh, absolutely. If I'm on the road shopping around a game idea, being able to demonstrate to potential financiers – publishers, all kinds of investors - that Demiurge can put out a quality product, that definitely helps. I think they view that as one of the most, if not the biggest risk. Is this game ever going to be finished, and can you deliver? So having Mass Effect and BioShock and Frontlines on your resume goes a long way to easing those concerns. Is porting still an enjoyable challenge for everyone on the team? AR: Well, to go back to that thing I said earlier, we don't view them as ports. If all the customer wants us to do is take the game and make it work on another platform, those projects aren't interesting to us. But when BioWare comes along and says, 'We've got this game on the 360; we want you to create a great experience on the PC. Do what you do' – those are incredible opportunities. It does seem like the ports that you've taken on have been vastly different from their originals. AR: Yeah. Brothers in Arms, though I suppose you could consider it a port, is very different on the Wii than it was on PS2 and Xbox. What about in terms of industry-wide trends: do you see this sort of outsourcing of content being something that's taken on by more studios? AR: Absolutely. Our model at Demiurge is to retain all that core creative talent, all the vision, all the really hard to come by engineering expertise. If we can team up with someone to help us control the scope issues associated with next-generation development, we do that. We form partnerships with... gosh, tons and tons of companies. Almost every project we've worked on in the past two or three years we've worked with external individuals working in their homes, or right up to outsourcers in Shanghai. Are you finding that a lot of the people that you've worked with are coming back for later projects as well? AR: Well, the ones that we like we bring back! And what about the future for Demiurge? AR: I think, after Mass Effect, our next big announcement will probably be a title that we've developed soup to nuts in house. Most of the titles that we're looking at now are of that variety. We're set up to grow as quickly as we can find talented people, which is proving not that fast. (laughs) The market for talent in the Boston area is pretty intense with Harmonix and now Rockstar New England and 2K Boston. Everyone in the area is hiring, but we're going to continue to grow as quickly as we can find new people. Probably in the next 12 months you're going to hear about our first entirely in-house developed project being announced. We're looking at projects now. It's tantalizing, all the different opportunities.

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