Known for epic triple-A gaming properties including Mass Effect and Dragon Age, BioWare is currently in charge of new Star Wars MMO The Old Republic, a project publisher Electronic Arts has said is the most expensive game the company has ever made.
We recently caught up with one half of the management team, Greg Zeschuk, to discusses how BioWare has changed its development practices to suit the downloadable market, his impressions of new motion controllers, 3D technology and the possibilities of cloud-based gaming services.
Q: Electronic Arts has said that Star Wars: The Old Republic is the most expensive game it's ever made...
Greg Zeschuk: It's big and it's involving, and games like that are so all-consuming, there's so much going on. We have so many people working on it, there's the online side of things, the game side of the project, I can tell you it's large...
Q: Does that put a pressure on the development team – to be working on potentially the biggest game from Electronic Arts?
Greg Zeschuk: In a sense, but in a I think we've generally worked most of our career, post-Baldur's Gate, under pressure. Up to that point we were obviously just seen as a random developer, but after Baldur's Gate we've always been measured against that release and the success of it. Now in a positive way we keep compounding that problem because we keep making really good products and continue to do so – Dragon Age and Mass Effect both turned out awesome. There's always this inherent pressure in everything we do, we don't necessarily think about the size or scope of the investment or the challenge as much as focusing on what we can do, which is to make the best game possible. Smartest, fastest, strongest. We really try to make sure we deliver what consumers want and hopefully hit it out of the park.
Q: You've released Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, and you're still working on those with downloadable content. Since the DLC has built up into a significant part of the business, has that changed the way you develop and create games at BioWare?
Greg Zeschuk: It absolutely has. We actually did our first real DLC back in the early 2000s in the Neverwinter Nights days. We'd been doing it awhile and we thought we had it all figured out until Mass Effect when we didn't get as much out as we wanted and we realised that there was a new level of complexity, particularly with the third-party console stuff going on. You have to change the way you do things a fair amount. We reconfigured the team to a certain degree so that people are destined way before the launch to move into a DLC mode and begin working on that largely before the game is completed. And that's simply because if you don't do that it's hard to get it done and have a nice pipeline working for content for the game. We were fortunate enough in that we were able to get some nice DLC out early and have a nice streaming and ongoing DLC plan. And teams like it, they get a chance to actually do stuff and they have more intimate control over what they're delivering, and it's a smaller team and there's more immediacy of delivering a product.
Q: Do you have a window to you use the data you get from DLC and Live play to influence the design process, or the type of content you put out?
Greg Zeschuk: It's interesting because we do some experimental stuff and we do use the results. With the Hammerhead DLC it was something we didn't put into the original Mass Effect 2 but then we released it separately. We have some pretty decent metrics from our Live stuff. We don't have the immediacy of Facebook where we can make changes every week and change colours to see what happens, but it's interesting for the development process. It takes longer for us to use that. When we developed the sequel, although we've not announced Mass Effect 3, we did say Mass Effect was going to be a trilogy. If we were to do a sequel we would look a lot at the telemetry and the data from the prior game. When we start a development process we make guesses and bets. We say "we think we have the right number of side characters and quests." And we discover that maybe in play people only use three or four of the characters. That's not a specific example, but if that was the case that would change the way we make future products based on that feedback.
Q: There was a lot of noise about home 3D at E3 this year – what was your impression of that, because that's something that's very much aimed at the market you're developing for – the console blockbuster...
Greg Zeschuk: Simply put, it's expensive. It's really expensive. To ask someone to throw away their $1000 television, put it in the basement and buy a $1500 television, and get the glasses which are obtrusive and expensive, it's going to complicate the process. It's expensive, but it comes down to "is the experience better or the same?" It is better. Overtime you can see that watching sports is better. Games, when they are done well in 3D, are absolutely better. Part of the problem is the perception that's it's super gimmicky. The first 3D movies were simply made to throw objects at the screen. I sat through a kids' movie and there were all these sequences where there was no way they would have had them in the move, they weren't that great from a story perspective, other than they were good for 3D effects. That's the entirely wrong way to do it, this big gimmicky construction. Once we get past that, once we get past the adoption and the costs, the glasses... but that's a long way away.
Q: And how about new motion controls like Move and Kinect?
Greg Zeschuk: The new motion controls are very interesting and quite powerful. Phase one of those is the dancing, fitness and party games, the sword-swinging games. The next phase is where it gets really interesting when developers like us can tear it all down and ask "what can we actually do in a game like Mass Effect?" Can we create a greater sense of immersion during conversations by using gestures? I think we probably could and I think that's where we'll explore. We're not going to do a party game, we're not going to do Dance Dance Krogan for Mass Effect. The reality is it's going to have a really positive impact. There's that impediment of a controller but hardcore gamers are never going to give that up. It might be nice to see a hybrid of a controller used with additional gesture on the side for immersive elements. So we'll see it go from family entertainment and then broaden out.
Q: BioWare is well known for its story-telling – do you see an opportunity to use motion control to advance story-telling in games, because it's not the most obvious concept?
Greg Zeschuk: I think there is an opportunity. The moment you can really put the player in the scene as an actor, that gets really interesting because you're stepping away from being a voyeur and the feeling of being an actor can be very powerful, but it depends on how you do that. An example would be, well you can't look away from the screen because you're then back in the real world, so you're limited by the gestures and the things you can do. But if you can do movements that make you feel like you're there and that a three dimensional character is acting what you're acting, in such a way that it's creating a new sense of immersion, then that's where the win is.
Q: While we're running through the E3 announcements, what did you think to Nintendo's 3DS technology?
Greg Zeschuk: I think it's really interesting, largely because it solves a lot of the problems with 3D. The price issue, and I don't have to have a pair of crazy glasses hooked up to it. The fact that it feels more natural because you just adjust the focal distance. We all have different eyes and distances that work for you so you play with that and it really works. Again, it's hilarious that Nintendo is doing it because once again they've trumped everyone in a clever way. Everyone else is doing what they already did [with motion control] five years ago and here they are out in front again. I'm curious to see what happens because at the end of the day it's still a limited device, it's more multiplayer focused, but the key thing is how do you connect it to online? Nintendo has always had a mixed stance, but online to me is actually part of the future and you need to be offering something significant in that respect.
Q: What's you take on OnLive and Gaikai services, do you think they offer real opportunities as something that can get away from creating products for different formats – that idea of a one console future, so to speak?
Greg Zeschuk: I personally find it incredibly exciting and that is the thing that can be the most transformative of anything at a fundamental level. But the implementation is everything. The dark side of that is that it still boggles my mind about how it can be technically done effectively. Clusters of computing power located close to the customer to solve the whole internet networking problem, that makes sense to me. It's interesting that the way Gaikai is on everything – it's a web service, it's not just some set-top box. It's literally everything. It's very exciting that it can break down that barrier and lead to the higher sense of trial. What happened in places like China with free-to-play games exploding, was largely because people are able to try something out. They try something and if they like it they spend money on it. I think that can drive incredible commerce into our funnel that isn't constrained by worrying about what platform a game is on. With cloud services you can play it on whatever, you get access to the game and you're away.
Greg Zeschuk is vice president of BioWare. Interview by Matt Martin.