The Doctors Will See You Now
Muzyka and Zeschuk on growth, Star Wars and all things BioWare
BioWare develops high quality console, PC and online role-playing games, focused on rich stories, unforgettable...
Bioware certainly made its mark on the Eurogamer Expo this year, using its developer session to announce the release date of upcoming MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic - but it's also making its mark on the games industry as a whole.
Founded in 1995 by Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip, the company was acquired by EA in 2007 after finding success with Baldur's Gate, Jade Empire and Shattered Steel, among others. It now has studios popping up everywhere from Los Angeles to Ireland and a list of new and massively successful IPs including Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and of course Star Wars. At last week's Eurogamer Expo, GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Muzyka and Zeschuk about the challenges of releasing an MMO in a changing market, how Bioware stays agile, and the Bio Pad.
Q: You're limiting sales of Star Wars:The Old Republic on release, which is an unusual move in a time of week one sales figures...
Ray Muzyka: It comes from a desire to have a high quality service for our fans, really stable and scalable and accessible and really fun, and make sure it's performing well. You have to build the infrastructure to support a certain size launch and we're also thinking really long term at Bioware EA for this, there's going to many many consumers coming to the game over time and we're going to be expanding it out. We want to make sure that the service is really high quality, that's the commitment we have to the launch of The Old Republic.
Greg Zeschuk: It's a little bit different to a regular game, like a regular console release, where you're connecting periodically, maybe there's a multiplayer match, but the only way to play SW:TOR is full time connected to the internet, connected to our servers, so we want to just ensure that we've got a nice smooth, reliable game, everyone can get in when they want. It really boils down to, like Ray said, the quality of the service so for the ones that get it it's really slick and really enjoyable. And we'll increase it over time, our anticipation of course is to keep selling after that.
Ray Muzyka: And you know that demand is high too. It's the fastest pre-ordered in EA's history.
Q: I saw analysts were predicting 3 million sales.
Ray Muzyka: It's encouraging, and we're delighted to hear that kind of demand. And we're definitely planning for that too, we're anticipating a very high demand for the game, we just want to make sure that consumers who get it have a fantastic experience and at all points of the journey, because they're going to be with us for years and years.
It really boils down to the quality of the service so for the ones that get it it's really slick and really enjoyable.
Greg Zeschuk, BioWare
Q: Is that decision not to rush and to take your time a company rule?
Ray Muzyka: Yeah, very much. It's one of our core values and in the time we've been at EA we've been very supported in that as well. The great thing is we have a strong culture and a strong vision and values as Bioware and we're part of a larger whole that has that strong vision and culture as well.
Q: Have there been any surprises in the beta tests?
Greg Zeschuk: I don't think there's really been any surprises, but you learn stuff. Certainly the way people play can surprise us. One thing that's really funny is that people find interesting exploits, you hear about some tricks that people have found and just "wow, that's ingenious!"
One of the favourites when we opened the early test was that when the two factions were first in the same place we had these taxi guys right on the edge of this cliff. And so one guy got bored, he'd finished all the content and he just sat there waiting for people to arrive and then Force Pushed them off the cliff. He did that for like an hour. Everyone that showed up.
Ray Muzyka: Or actually in the earlier builds you could take out the taxis' riders. The players would come back, they're waiting for their vendor and there's no taxi vendor.
Greg Zeschuk: Someone actually had to pop in and say stop...
Ray Muzyka: We fixed it too.
Greg Zeschuk: Yeah and that's a good lesson. So as long as you're aware and cognisant and watching all these things you can make rules, make the taxi vendors unkillable, don't put things on the edge of a cliff, like all these little funny things.
Ray Muzyka: And analytics and telemetry and the volume of content, to make sure that players actually have a lot of things to do for a very long time and to really accommodate all the different styles of play in a massively multiplayer online game, player versus players, player versus environment and small versions and big versions of that and crafting, the story, the innovations we bring to bear in the MMO, there's just so much to test and so much to do. But it's coming along very well, we're very pleased with it.
Q: An MMO is a very long term commitment, you can't just release it and forget about it.
Ray Muzyka: That's totally right. It's a long term commitment, that's the way we're looking at it. It's definitely not a fire and forget but more of a... we have a really aggressive plan post launch to build content and take the feedback to heart that we're getting from players and what they want for continued expansions, and use that feedback to build new content, so we're releasing regular content drops and regular expansions after launch, and really accommodating what the players are asking for, dependant on what they find most fun in the game.
Q: But the ongoing subscription revenue must make it a worthwhile?
Greg Zeschuk: We've surveyed users, know a lot about what they expect, and that's actually one of their expectations. So the two really big expectations from users are one, that really good reliable service and number two, is constant content. So we're asking for them to stay with us for years, so we reciprocate by giving them stuff to do for years, and that's a fair trade and that's very important.
Like Ray said it's ultimately driven by them, finding what they like the most. We may have plans right now but after we've launched for a few months we might go "whoah, we never expected that this would be so popular, we'll make more of these and less of these."
It's very fan driven. It's not reactive, you watch what people are doing and you learn. One thing that we've done with the testing that's really interesting also is that we've changed people's behaviour. So you can test how often people are grouping, and you change the content and they group a different amount, based on what you've done. So you can actually adjust their behaviours based on what you give them to do in the world, so you can gently direct them where you want them to go but also see what they do a lot of.
Q: I imagine there's a feeling that this is a fairly safe bet for Bioware, working with a licence like Star Wars?
Ray Muzyka: It's daunting, because the expectations of the fans are so high. They come in to it with set expectations that we have to look to exceed, so we're taking that commitment, we're not taking it lightly at all. We don't assume anything about "oh, just because it's Star Wars it's going to be easy." Actually quite the reverse, in many ways we had a higher bar to exceed because of the legacy that those movies and George Lucas' team have set out for us. It's a big honour for us to work in that universe. And I think we're rising to the challenge. I think the content really has that aspirational fantasy captured.
Greg Zeschuk: You play it and it's the right scene, the right music...
if we're going to work on a non Bioware property its got to be something we really believe in and are passionate about and that our team is really passionate about.
Greg Zeschuk, BioWare
Ray Muzyka: You get this chill down the back of your neck, and you're like "wow, that's cool." Like the first time I got in a spaceship and went to Tatooine and saw this landscape, and they you go to all these other iconic worlds, new worlds as well, and all these familiar and new creatures, and all these iconic classes that are based on types from the movies. There's just something really moving emotionally, when you see that.
I think the mythology of Star Wars is pervasive through a lot of the culture, it really is captured in the game.
Greg Zeschuk: I think what we also try to do with licenses, we only work on things we really love. So if we're going to work on a non Bioware property its got to be something we really believe in and are passionate about and that our team is really passionate about. And second we treat it with reverence. We treat it as if its out own, with the same kind of care and attention. Some people think its an easy route to bigger sales, and I think especially nowadays that proved to not be the case, I mean the movie license games, unless they're great games they're doomed right?
Ray Muzyka: If you use it with reverence and respect it can definitely be an opportunity to engage that larger audience you're talking about, you just have to do it with high quality.
Greg Zeschuk: It tends to be more multiplied. Getting a Star Wars game really really right can take you places you couldn't go otherwise. I think that's when the really exciting things, like Ray said, for the Star Wars fans it's just so authentic. And we've got with something that's character and story driven, so each character class story, it really feels like you're exploring the back history of Star Wars, how does a bounty hunter come to be, or a Storm Trooper. It really feels like you're almost behind the scenes of the Star Wars experience.
Ray Muzyka: It's wonderful working on this game with LucasArts, we've had a partnership over the last ten years or so with them, and the amount of partnership we get in terms of collaboration on things like sound effects and music, voice acting, and the canon and being able to help develop that. Being privy to some of the back story of the universe, it's been a thrill. I mean we're big fans ourselves, our team is as well.
Q: Do you think more traditional MMOs, like World Of Warcraft whose subscriptions are going down, could be under threat from free-to-play titles?
Greg Zeschuk: I wouldn't call it a threat, I think to put the World Of Warcraft thing into context that's been running for seven or eight years. It's amazing how long is actually been going for. So just to hold where they held is amazing.
The trend for free-to-play doesn't supplant great top quality premium games that support a subscription. It's funny, even in Korea that's the case, where the free-to-play movement started ten years ago. There's still some games with subscriptions, some are free-to-play, it's bit of a mixture actually.
It's just an other option. It's obviously, from a developer's perspective, really nice because you can create very easy to sample stuff. You kind of rely on the quality of the build because people with stick with you or they won't, and then monetising is a whole other kettle of fish. It's not a threat, it's just part of the reality. Every business model you make, the game has to merit it, in other words a free-to-play game probably has a different standard and different expectation than a subscription based game for example.
Ray Muzyka: I think the quality of volume and content that we provide I think fans will say "yeah, this is the kind of game that merits a premium subscription." And there's probably less room for games like that now, that's probably the reality of the play for free evolution and social as well, social games. There's a lot of alternatives for people's time and dollars now that didn't exists a few years ago, but we're building a premium experience with SW:TOR and we think the fans, at least our feedback from the beta testing research, is that they believe what they're seeing and playing does merit that.
We do believe in the play for free model too, like Wrath Of Heroes we've announced, and that's awesome fun, it's really cool. And that's an example of a really fun accessible 15 minute, pick up and play fast game. That fits a classic model of the play for free experience. And The Old Republic is on the other end of the spectrum, equally high quality but in a very different way. We believe in both business models, and we're doing social games as well, so we have a pretty diverse portfolio for Bioware now as a label, and obviously within EA as a larger company too.
Q: It does feel like the industry is very much in flux right now, there are a lot of changes happening all at once, how are you adapting to those?
Ray Muzyka: It's the most exciting time. If we stayed in the mode of a developer from ten years ago then that wouldn't be evolving to meet the needs of the fans.
It's the most exciting time. If we stayed in the mode of a developer from ten years ago then that wouldn't be evolving to meet the needs of the fans.
Ray Muzyka, BioWare
Greg Zeschuk: If we weren't adaptable we'd be dead. Like right now you will die if you're not adaptable.
Ray Muzyka: This is the most exciting time to be in the industry, ever. Like in terms of the rate of change and just the number of people playing games, it's higher than it's ever been. The understanding, the consumers are savvy now and there's press that get the word about high quality games and low quality games instantly, so the speed of the internet really accelerates that, the virality of games. The digital distribution models, the play for free models, all the digital subscription models, these are all ways to get your games out to the fans alot quicker.
Greg Zeschuk: And that's why the free-to-play model works. I wouldn't say the information is perfect, but it pretty much apporaching perfection in that if something is great, people will hear about it. If it's free-to-play they may they get hooked on it and then you have the opportunity to monestise it. If you think about the old days I saw a flyer in a newspaper, I went to a store, I looked at a box. Now it's just such a tight loop and it allows a lot more flexibility. And being a developer you're going more direct to the consumer, I think that's one of the things that's very different too.
Historically we worked through second parties, third parties to get our games in people's hands, whereas now - which is funny, because when we first did Neverwinter Nights, we actually sold a module, someone used a credit card and we got money that day. Because the actual traditional gaming business, and it's interesting because you don't realise and it's something we counsel new developers on especially console guys, if you're releasing a game don't expect your money the next day. It actually takes about 6 months, and that's if you even make a royalty. it takes about 6 months, the store has to play the publisher, the publisher has to pay you, and they're allowed to take their time. In the digital business it's immediate, the moment someone buys it you have the money. Now we're both.
Ray Muzyka: That's why we actually joined EA, to accelerate our ability to connect with consumers and integrate marketing and development more, and just have a more holistic view.
The other thing about all the different business models on new platforms is they're not a threat if you approach them in terms of a unified experience for consumers. We look at it as an IP universe and we have social experiences and play for free experiences and subscription experiences, retail packaged goods experiences, and they can all be separate or they can all be unified and integrated so you enable players to have a coherent experience that intersects across different platforms. You can enable players to play where they want, when they want, how they want. You can have continuity of experience, with cloud saving, and connecting different experiences together, you can have a mobile SKU that connects to a retail experience that connects to a digital experience.
And that's actually cool, so that's why the industry is more interesting than it's ever been I think.
Greg Zeschuk: The opportunities are greater than ever. Even when there's flux, that's when opportunity occurs, and if you're one of those people that grab that opportunity then that's a great place to be.
Q: Do you think it's essential then for any company working on a an IP to have that universe across different platforms?
Greg Zeschuk: Somewhat. It depends on the property. I think there's a danger if you try and do it all at once. When we do do it, you don't do it all in parallel, you essentially do it in a sequence. You may be exploring things is one platform, you may be actually making the bulk of it on another platform.
Ray Muzyka: You have to deliver features that the players want on whatever platform. It's definitely not do it because you can do it, it's do it because it has to be great. Your social game needs to be great, your mobile game needs to be great, your console game or PC, they all have to be great in their own way relative to the competitive landscape. If you think of it very thoughtfully and you're listening to your fans the whole way and you're accommodating what they're looking for, and also surprising and delighting them with new innovations that are unexpected then that's the magical mixture.
Q: Does your success with such established IPs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age make it harder to take a risk on new IPs?
Ray Muzyka: You have to take risks in order to survive in an industry that's as dynamic as videogames, it's fusion of art and entertainment and technology, and if you aren't taking risks, like Greg said, then you won't survive. It's a really interesting blend of taking careful calculated risks, and making sure you're listening to market research and your fans and following your team's intuition the whole way, at all times taking smart risks, and being flexible and dynamic. And recognising there's so much dynamic change and entertainment preferences change all the time.
Business models are changing now pretty rapidly and radically too, if you approach it as this is really exciting, and just get ready for the ride and you're dynamic and flexible in how you approach it it can work really well, if you approach it from more of a "we've got infrastructure and things we can't let go of" that doesn't work as well.
Luckily Bioware and EA are changing really rapidly to accommodate the new industry. I mean look at The Sims Social, on track to be the number one social game. Who would've have predicted that a few years ago, that EA, a traditional publisher, would do that?
Greg Zeschuk: Or six months ago! The signs were there but we hadn't done it yet.
Ray Muzyka: I think internally they knew because John Riccitiello has been talking about this transformation for years, ever since we joined EA, he's the reason we joined EA originally, because we worked with him at Bioware/Pandemic. He's an inspirational guy. He's been talking about this culture transformation and others like Frank Gibeau in EA have been really passionate about this new digital IP universe and transforming in to new business models. And currently its been going on for a long time, so now it's really exciting for us to see that hitting the market, and consumers getting excited and play all these new games. And the best is yet to come, there's a lot of stuff they haven't seen yet, from Bioware and EA too.
You have to deliver features that the players want on whatever platform. It's definitely not do it because you can do it, it's do it because it has to be great.
Ray Muzyka, BioWare
Greg Zeschuk: Going back one moment to how to use properties properly, I think one thing we can all see is when somebody just milks something to death. I think that's were the really big danger is, especially with publishers that don't have depth of slate. That's the other big thing that's exciting for us, we've still got Jade Empire, we could pull that up sometime, you never know right? And also the other thing, honestly, if we wanted to make something new maybe one of our existing properties takes a holiday. As crazy as that sounds, but there's a benefit to actually giving fans a break, but then the thing with the other platform concept is that it could just take a console break, but it could go really aggressively on another platform.
Ray Muzyka: There's the whole back catalogue too. I mean EA has a tremendous back catalogue of IPs and we have a mix of all kind of new things. We have some new IPs, we have Bioware created IPs that are now in their third and fourth iteration, we have IPs were we've partnered with great licenses like Star Wars, or Warhammer's Wrath Of Heroes, so there's a nice blend of different things.
Greg Zeschuk: It gives us flexibility. You don't feel the pressure like "we've got to pump another one out." I think other competitors are in that mode, you look at their slate and you look at their depth and you're like, wow, if this doesn't work for the fourteenth time, there could be trouble.
Q: You do seem very agile, but you're also a massive studio...
Ray Muzyka: We have seven locations across the world. Edmonton, Montreal, Austin, Virginia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Ireland.
Greg Zeschuk: Agility is a state of mind though, it doesn't matter how big you are, you have to have the philosophy for it.
Ray Muzyka: And focus too. Each of those locations has a unique focus, and the capability of the business units within our label and EA is structured that same way, that people are empowered and their capabilities are aligned with delivering really high quality content, different business models, different genres, different platforms, and they empower the people and really deliver against discreet goals.
Greg Zeschuk: And you can't be afraid of throwing some of your old stuff away. Being willing to jump forward into a new space and realise - well, I have to leave something behind. It's a state of mind, to actually try new things and not be afraid to take that next step.
Q: And I guess though the final question would be, what's next for Bioware? Where will you be in 5 years?
Greg Zeschuk: We'll have our own pad at that point, like everyone else. The Bio Pad. All our games are going to be on the Bio Pad! [Laughs]
Ray Muzyka: We've never had an end point, it's more about direction to create, deliver and evolve the most emotionally engaging games in the world, really high quality, no matter what platform they're on, trying to surprise and delight our fans.
Greg Zeschuk: And a pad.
Ray Muzyka: I have a no comment on the pad.