The Doctor is Out: Zeschuk on BioWare, EA and consoles' uncertain future
Zeschuk wouldn't change a thing about his time at BioWare or EA, which he says "gives you enough rope to hang yourself"
BioWare develops high quality console, PC and online role-playing games, focused on rich stories, unforgettable...
Dr. Greg Zeschuk will likely never make a video game again - that's what he told GamesIndustry International in a recent phone interview. Let that sink in for a moment.
The man who co-founded BioWare with Dr. Ray Muzyka and brought gamers numerous top RPGs like Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age, and more has unfortunately lost the passion he once had for game development. Instead, he now has another passion: beer. With his new website, The Beer Diaries, Zeschuk now spends his days creating web videos to highlight the intricacies of craft beer, spotlighting unique breweries like Jester King (which he does in this new video).
A week after Greg and Ray were honored at the Game Developers Conference with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, Greg was kind enough to talk with us all about his BioWare accomplishments, what it was like to join - and be assimilated by - EA, dealing with intense negativity from fans, the tough spot that consoles and traditional publishers are now in, and what independent studios should think about if they're considering selling to a big company.
The full interview transcript follows below. You may be surprised by some of Greg's answers.
Q: An executive leaving a major studio to follow the beer industry has to be one of the more unique personal stories I've seen in this games business. It's been an interesting transition to watch.
Greg Zeschuk: Thanks. Maybe one way of describing it is that it's not that uncommon for me to do things that are not with the common crowd. I mean, just the fact that Ray and I started BioWare in the first place was kind of a wacky thing. How many people finish medical school, start practicing and then go off and do something? In a way the switch to beer is completely consistent… And for me it's completely about passion. I have to be really into something in my mind to do a really good job at it. And if I'm not into it, it's just not worth it.
"I really don't see myself making a brand-new game developer. I also don't really see myself working for anyone else... I think advising and consulting is probably the limit for me"
For whatever reason, maybe it's middle-age or a midlife crisis, the reality is you only have so much time and you want to spend your time doing what you want to do, what feels right. For me, it's really that. I felt like I finished what I wanted to finish in the games business. I got really passionate about the beer business… It really caught my interest and I have been enjoying it for a good six months now.
Q: Is there any tie-in to the games business with this? Or do you see any similarities?
Greg Zeschuk: The one tie-in, really interestingly, that caught my eye and gave me the interest in making videos on beer is actually meeting some of the brewers, sitting down with them and discovering that they are generally entrepreneurs. Ray and I went to business school, and I have an MBA, and I really like business, so it was really neat to discover these people. I almost think brewers are a lot like indie developers; they each have their own thing and they make something they are really passionate about, and they do it in the shadow of giants. In a sense there's a level of craziness in a good way that these guys demonstrate, and I saw that, and I was like "wow, this is so similar to that indie game scene."
Q: You've talked a lot about passion and how you lost passion for the games business. Does this mean your decision is a permanent one, that you're never going to make a game again, that you won't found a new studio? Or will you get involved somehow?
Greg Zeschuk: I have asked myself that very question, and I really don't see myself making a brand-new game developer. I also don't really see myself working for anyone else, at least in the traditional sense. But I can imagine myself, for example, being on a board, consulting. If a friend asked me to play a game, I would. I think advising and consulting is probably the limit for me. In building a business and making a game company, it is a kind of been there, done that feeling. When you've checked off all the boxes, why do it again? I don't really imagine a full-time gig in the business appealing to me - I just don't see it.
I think part of it, too, is that I'm not spending as much time playing games as I used to. I used to play them all time, I used to have my finger on the pulse, and absolutely I'm less on the pulse than I was. I still play some big releases, and I'm going to grab BioShock Infinite, but I don't play the way I used to play. But I think I can help folks with company stuff and culture stuff and making great studios.
Q: Looking back at all the great things you and Ray did at BioWare, do you have a short list of your proudest moments or achievements?
Greg Zeschuk: It's really hard. One tangential answer is that I'm really proud of the people we helped build. I look at what Ray and I did as not just building a studio and making games, but helping people realize their potential and helping some of the creators we worked with within BioWare really get to another level and be really successful. I think in some ways, one of my biggest talents is developing creative talent and giving them an opportunity to flourish, and I think we did that really well at BioWare.
And that's where we got the great games, because at the end of the day, you can't do it all yourself. It's just not feasible. You have to have other people helping you, really helping you significantly. In the end, it was often us just handing over big, huge chunks of everything to people, and then managing them. It's really rewarding. I think Ray and I were a little different from traditional game designers, where we didn't have to be responsible for designing the games - we wanted to be part of the place and the team that's making them. It's a different perspective.
"Life is a series of choices, and certainly looking back at the big picture there's no way that I would change what we did at BioWare whatsoever"
Q: Conversely, is there anything that stands out, if you could do it all over again that you would change? Would you do something differently, or do you have regrets?
Greg Zeschuk: That's an interesting one. I look at it as a kind of tactical, strategic question. There were a few instances where, if we could have really pulled it off, I think making Jade Empire a 360 launch title would have been massive. That's a really specific example, but we made a choice, and there are a lot of factors that go into these choices and you can't revisit them. But it's interesting, because it reminds me of what's going on right now with analysts saying that game sales are down because people are waiting for new consoles, and we released Jade Empire into that kind of window. In retrospect, it would've been great to put off a bit and polish the game a bit more.
We never really had a true launch title right at the beginning, and that would've been fun to have done that once. Mass Effect 1 was in a launch window but ended up kind of being about nine months later or something. It would've been cool to have a game at launch because it could have changed a lot of dynamics.
Q: With the choices you had to make at BioWare, did you ever catch yourself thinking about the studio and the decisions in a game-like way with the dialogue trees that you had in your games?
Greg Zeschuk: [laughs] Yes, in a way. For me it's like a personality type, because I'm managing all the social media for the beer stuff, and I look a lot at the numbers. It's like a min-maxing RPG system. It's like "okay how many Twitter followers do I have? What can I do next week that's better?" Life is a series of choices, and certainly looking back at the big picture there's no way that I would change what we did at BioWare whatsoever. It turned out, in many ways, fabulously.
I really do feel that the folks there are going to make some amazing stuff. Even around our departure we were seeing the stuff coming down the pipe and it was amazing. So it's in good hands and I'm really happy with where it's headed; it's exciting. And I think Ray commented on this, but it's going to be really cool to play a BioWare game where you don't know everything about the story and characters already. It'll actually be a nice surprise rather than a fulfillment of design documents.
Q: So you're saying you wouldn't change anything with BioWare, and that means you're completely happy with how the EA acquisition turned out also?
Greg Zeschuk: Oh yeah, for sure. I think there were a lot of factors to consider in that as well. I think when you look back at the timing, it was right before the gigantic financial collapse, and we were part of a private equity company at the time, so if you look at it from a purely analytic perspective things could've turned out a lot worse. And I really enjoyed my time at EA. It's interesting, people make a lot of assumptions about us and our feelings and how they treat people, but honestly we were treated really well. I made a lot of friends there, and I respect the people there are ton.
"EA gives you enough rope to hang yourself... while we were independent we didn't have quite the resources we had as part of EA, and then we got to EA and it was like "wow we can do all this stuff.""
The biggest thing for me, really simply, is I got to see the inner workings of how a big company worked because I never worked at one. Ray and I were doctors and entrepreneurs, and so we'd never worked for a big company. We saw it through this keyhole as we worked with big publishers, but we never understood how it worked from the inside. Being on the inside was really interesting because I like business a lot; we were also very fortunate to have a lot of influence at high levels within EA. At the end of the day, part of it for me was that I'm really not much of a company guy; I prefer working with a small creative team on something that can have a big impact but I prefer not to do it in a giant, complicated environment.
Q: Do you feel that BioWare's games were ever made to conform to some homogenous EA standard with things like forced multiplayer, micro-transactions, smart phone spinoffs, etc.? Did any of this make you jaded? Or you reject this notion?
Greg Zeschuk: No, I definitely reject it. And I can explain it too. The best analogy I use, in a positive way, is EA gives you enough rope to hang yourself. It was really interesting because we really made all the choices we wanted to make ourselves; these are all things we wanted to try. And that's something to remember - while we were independent we didn't have quite the resources we had as part of EA, and then we got to EA and it was like "wow we can do all this stuff." We had to be really thoughtful about what we wanted to focus on.
I remember this really distinct moment where - it was probably five or six months - we were just starting to wrap our head around how we worked with the company. And it took months for this formal period of joining EA, and learning how everything works, and when the initiation was done, we were sitting around asking how do we do stuff. It dawned on us, you just do it. That was the biggest revelation, that rope that EA gives you; they don't second-guess you, they don't say you shouldn't do that. We had complete creative control over a lot of it; some fans didn't like some of it and some of it was experimental, quite frankly.
The one caveat is at the end of the day for any company you have to run a profit, so you have to be thinking of things that actually make you profitable. So while you're taking all these creative risks in trying crazy stuff you almost have to simultaneously focus on the bottom line. The top line is not enough. In some ways, being independent I would say we had to be more conservative - being part of a big company, you could be more aggressive and try stuff. I think that's something people [struggle with] when they join EA; they do too much or they do too little.
Q: You and Ray, and BioWare as a whole, often faced a lot of negativity from gamers on the Internet who didn't like certain things about Dragon Age 2 or the Mass Effect 3 ending, etc. Do you think gamer culture is too prone to driving out the talent it relies upon for entertainment? Is the environment too toxic?
"Games are really interesting in that they're a very powerful medium where people are so engaged in them that they feel they almost own them. We created such passion for the Shepard character that they wanted, perhaps unreasonably so, to dictate the outcome"
Greg Zeschuk: I have a few comments on that. One, the Internet is the ultimate megaphone, so a small number of people can sound really loud, so that's one caveat to remember. At the end of the day, for every one person complaining there are a whole bunch of other people who actually like it. Also, why were we called out a lot? Because we were taking aggressive choices - we were doing things people weren't willing to do, like the way we were portraying characters. There's all this discussion now about misogyny in the games business and we're now being called someone who actually were on the positive side of that with strong female characters.
I think the problem with gamers is you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. But what it talks to is the power of games as art and the power of games as a medium where people get really, really passionate. I've had moments where I finished a book and I wanted to rave at the author and complain that I didn't like a part, but I just never had the opportunity before. It's not really positive - there are ways to have more constructive discussions. It's just one of those things that you have to deal with. I'm actually happy with the world of beer because those people don't talk like that; you'll either like or dislike a beer, but you won't have the same deconstruction of stuff. I also think the culture of anonymity on the Internet gives an incredible pulpit to people, but at the end of the day, they should be more thoughtful about how they use it.
Q: But how tough was it for you and Ray to deflect that hate and protect your team? Your role, in part, was to act as a buffer and make sure your studio morale wasn't affected, right?
Greg Zeschuk: That's true, but you also can't control the Internet or the people on it. There's a level where you have to accept it… Like anything else, you can be very analytic and methodical about it and you can get pissed off about some of the things folks write, but you tell yourself they're coming from a point of passion and concern, and we have to figure out what we want to do to address it. It's frustrating at the time, but for me it doesn't mean anything anymore. It was par for the course, but those days are gone.
Q: There were even people in the industry giving you flak for caving in to the demands of gamers; some said “why is BioWare giving in and changing the ending for Mass Effect 3?” It's your work of art, so why should you change it and alter your vision afterwards?
Greg Zeschuk: I actually read it more as supportive than critical. I know [Irrational's] Ken [Levine] had made some comments, and I read them as we're the creative, we made this thing, and we should be able to deliver our vision. But games are really interesting in that they're a very powerful medium where people are so engaged in them that they feel they almost own them. We created such passion for the Shepard character that they wanted, perhaps unreasonably so, to dictate the outcome.
That's the tough situation of making games full of choices because you can never really address every single possible outcome that folks might like, and if they don't get the one they want then they're really unhappy. I can understand it from an academic perspective, but I don't think it's necessarily good for the business. It's like one of those things where you're mad at someone and you write them a nasty email but you don't send it, and the next day you think of a more constructive way to address the issue.
"I worry a lot that unless Microsoft or Sony pull something magically out of a hat, it's pretty much the same old, same old repackaged and I don't think they're going to change the dynamic of the retail market. I don't see how they can"
Q: With EA having just lost its CEO, a number of analysts would point to Star Wars: The Old Republic being a key reason for the departure. Do you think there is any truth to that? And how does it make you feel on a personal level that people are blaming your game for John Riccitiello stepping down?
Greg Zeschuk: I'm a little disappointed by it because I don't think it's really true; there were a lot of factors. You really have to step back and look at the big picture of things at the macro level of the business. The console core sales are slowing significantly - you can't get around that fact. And the interesting thing with SWTOR, almost the only way we could have moved the needle at EA is if we were just ginormous... it's kind of funny because it is such a giant company. I can't really speak to why John's not there anymore, but it was one of many games released, and we're in a context where just a few days later it was Yoichi Wada who was booted out from Square Enix.
We are in a kind of sick market for old-school gaming - the traditional retail-based gaming - and as much as EA has moved into digital, the boxed stuff is not as robust. While digital is coming up fast it's not filling in the gaps. I think it's an easy target or oversimplification for folks who don't understand the business adequately; they don't really look at the big picture. It doesn't really bother me because the game is still running, and if you look at the references James Ohlen made at his GDC talk, it's actually doing really well as a free-to-play game.
The reality is one of the big factors for us was the business model - subscription games of that type aren't going to fly anymore. We talked internally about how it might be the last of the dinosaurs. Also, right now, there is this sort of classic innovator's dilemma where we see a new market emerging, but it's not really that great - with the mobile business, certain people make a lot of money but on the whole it's not generating as much revenue as the console business. Everyone's kind of holding out hope for the new consoles, but I honestly don't think they're going to be that big a deal. I worry a lot that unless Microsoft or Sony pull something magically out of a hat, it's pretty much the same old, same old repackaged and I don't think they're going to change the dynamic of the retail market. I don't see how they can - the market is what it is.
Q: I don't think I've ever seen CEOs of two major game publishers having to step down in quick succession; it really speaks to the current problems in the console business. Maybe you got out at the right time…
Greg Zeschuk: Well, you still see successes in the market. Honestly, Activision and Blizzard have been doing really well, and they've been very disciplined and focused, but how long can they continue? They've been relying on a smaller number of titles, but no title works forever, and obviously they will be working hard to replace the games they're working on. So they're probably one of the shining examples of company that's done well by really doubling down on a very narrow amount of things, and trying some different stuff - I'm actually really impressed with Skylanders.
Q: You mentioned Activision, and they've focused on some of the same brands over and over, but do you feel that BioWare ever suffered from brand dilution itself?
Greg Zeschuk: Not necessarily - I don't really look at it that way. I look at it as us trying to expand what the BioWare brand was actually - trying to find good people to make games that we work well with and then joining up with them and supporting them. And if you look at it another way, at the consumer level the brand has to be judged by the titles that are produced - at the end of the day, you have to judge BioWare on the games BioWare releases.
Q: You guys went through what has to be a somewhat challenging process in being acquired by EA. What advice do you have for independent developers out there who might be thinking of selling their studio to a publisher?
Greg Zeschuk: I'd say two separate things. The first is put it off as long as you possibly can. It's funny, we have this file in our office of all our prior offers that we had - we had a lot of really interesting offers from people to buy BioWare over the years. Some of them we considered and thought a lot about. For us, a lot of it was about building a strong business that could survive being acquired, because one of the challenges of being acquired is very simply that it can destroy your company; it can be very, very disruptive. So if you can, put it off, and ultimately if you can, don't even do it. If you look at someone like Valve, they've transcended to a level where they could be buying publishers if they wanted probably, but I don't think they would.
But if you do decide it's time [to sell], do it really, really based on who you will be working with. I think that was one of our fundamental things, and what happened with regard to EA. We had worked with John [Riccitiello] at BioWare Pandemic, so it was not a big stretch for us to know what it would be like to work with him again. The last thing you want to do is kind of blindly sell your company and not really know what you're in for, because all the work you've ever done can be easily undone.
And to be fair to some of the companies and studios that don't survive being purchased, it's not really a proactive or purposeful effort on the part of either party - it's usually some personality mismatch or uncertain operating terms. So if you're going to do it, make sure you know what it's going to be like after the fact. Also the third piece, once you've sold it you sold it, and it's not really yours anymore - you can't really act in the same way, but you can certainly advocate for it, and we certainly did advocate very aggressively for BioWare.
Q: Can you talk about some of these offers, which companies approached you? Were you close to signing a deal with a publisher other than EA?
Greg Zeschuk: I would say [we talked with] most of them. I can talk a bit about the process, which is over the years we had in our minds a numeric value of what we would be worth at that point in time, and then it's a moving target. We never got really deep with any of them, but we did have numbers on paper for potential deals from a number of publishers - it's far more common than you think. I have lots of friends in the industry and people are getting offers at various times, so you almost have to have a process of managing it.
When we finally went with Elevation Partners, it was a huge undertaking; that was as much work as making a game, to make a successful sale to them You have to try to learn as much about selling a company as you can while you're selling the company, which came in super handy with EA and made it 10 times easier since we'd been through it before. In many ways, if you look at the publishing companies out there, we would've completed their product slate very well because very few people actually made RPGs.
Q: Greg, thanks, and best of luck with The Beer Diaries.
For those of you interested in more about The Beer Diaries, Greg's premiering three new episodes at the Alamo Drafthouse on Wednesday evening. Tickets ($15) are still available here.