BioWare's focus has always been storytelling within great action and role-playing games, and the studio continues to push those elements with its latest massively multiplayer online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, and single-player Dragon Age Origins, the spiritual successor to the classic Baldur's Gate.
In this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, general manager of BioWare Dr Ray Muzyka and creative officer Greg Zeschuk discuss the maturing games industry, and how innovations in hardware such as Microsoft's Project Natal can help developers create more emotionally engaging storytelling experiences.
Q: Let's talk about the future. So we're past E3 now, everyone has made their major announcements for the year. Did you guys have a chance to see what Microsoft and Sony had to show off?
Ray Muzyka: Yeah. I got a demo of Project Natal before E3. So I got to check it out hands-on at EA with some other folks, and I thought it was pretty cool. We didn't get to go to the Microsoft or Sony booths unfortunately because we were booked in meetings, but I read some of the announcements and saw some of the feedback and responses. It's very interesting. And Natal looks exceptionally interesting as a platform extension. I think it's a really powerful idea.
Q: Do you think it applies to you guys? Is it something you're looking at?
Ray Muzyka: It could, yeah. I think it applies very much to an emotionally-engaging narrative and a story-driven game. Fulfilling characterisation more completely in games is I guess a way to achieve that. So it's something we'd be interested in exploring. We haven't made any announcements or anything, but it's an intriguing technology that I think we'd want to see more of and see what we could do with it.
Q: Do you follow that vision, that destroying that barrier to entry for the consumer is, for lack of a better term, the way of the future?
Greg Zeschuk: I think it definitely is. I saw this one really great example, you put a videogame controller in the hands of someone who has never played a videogame before, and they're lost. They can't do anything. Then you give them a Pac-Man controller, and it's easy. And then you give them the opportunity to swing a tennis racket with a Wii controller, and that works too. It's really just obvious that the thing preventing us from branching into a broader audience is the interface, is the ability of how you access the content. All the stuff this year has been really interesting, because everyone's got the same idea, which is the right idea for breaking down the barrier and expanding the audience.
Ray Muzyka: I think it's two dimensions. One is breaking down the barrier, the interface barrier for lack of a better way of describing it. The other one is actually seamless emotional engagement. Making people feel something emotionally on a deep level the same way novels, cinema, movies, television...the very best of other artforms in the field can. If you can do both things, then I think games have the potential to be one of the most powerful forms of entertainment and art, because of the fact that they're interactive and you're the actor and you're having the experience. But both things are essential to be successful.
Q: We recently spoke with Lars Buttler of Trion, who is pushing the idea of server-side MMOs...
Ray Muzyka: Like where the world changes based on player choices?
Q: Yeah. How do you guys feel about that?
Ray Muzyka:I think it's an exciting concept. It's nice to know that your choices have consequences, and that's something that BioWare has been trying to put into all its games as well. We want the player to feel like their choices have momentous impact on a personal level and on a grand level as well. So that makes the world feel that much more alive and interactive and fulfilling.
Greg Zeschuk:I think there's another dimension to that. If you have a server that exists separately from the game client, it actually allows you to interact with it with all sorts of clients. You can go in there with an iPhone, with a PC, with a console.
Ray Muzyka:Network interoperability.
Greg Zeschuk:Yeah, and all of these things actually create a new dimension of play.
Q: Do you think a good, meaningful story is possible in an ever-changing world that all users can change?
Ray Muzyka:I think a great story is possible, because if you think about it, the narrative is actually possible in multiple directions. There's a social narrative between players, there's the external narrative outside of the game with social networking. And then there's the internal narrative of the choices you make, and then there's the internal narrative of the story arch being created and kind of evolving over time, both on the player's user-generated content and the way they make choices and their impact on the world, but also the developers actually create a story arch that has some kind of purpose or overarching goal to it. So you can look at it almost like an onion with multiple layers of narrative, and that's one of the reasons why I think interactive fiction is so exciting, because it has those multiple layers that aren't really possible or as achievable in a more passive, linear medium. They can have good stories as well, but I think there are different kinds of narratives that are deeply exciting, in some ways more exciting, in non-linear fiction.
Q: There's obviously, as we've discussed, a growing trend of trying to grow the gaming audience. A lot of it has to do with hardware, for now, but do you think narrative in games, just by their nature, can grow the gaming audience?
Greg Zeschuk:They definitely do. Story is the most common, fundamental thing that we all share. It's there from the beginning of human time, sitting around the campfire telling stories is an entertainment form. Movies are an extension of that, and games are now becoming an extension of that. I think it's exciting to see where we are right now, because the technology is getting to the point where barriers are being broken down, and we are able to explore stories in different ways. For us, it's gotten to the point where it's real. You're looking at these characters that are believable, and you can actually engage with them. It's exciting because I think we're past infancy, we're in the toddler stage now. In the past ten years we've gone from really tiny pixely characters to Commander Shepard. Ten more years, who knows. It's crazy.
Q: You are very much a story-driven company as far as your creative output. But your output is also – correct me if I'm wrong – almost entirely sci-fi and fantasy. Is it too soon to have more contemporary stories in games?
Ray Muzyka:No. We're interested in a variety of settings. We've already pursued a few different ones too. Jade Empire was very different for example from Mass Effect or Dragon Age. We are interested in contemporary settings. We haven't announced anything on that front, but it's safe to say that we think it's rich with possibility as well.
Q: I guess what I'm getting at is, when do we get to the point where there's for example a romantic, story-driven game on a sort of AAA scale?
Greg Zeschuk:The romantic comedy in game form?
Q: Yes, exactly.
Greg Zeschuk:That's a great question. I think we're actually getting to the point where the acting is almost there. We talk a certain amount internally about whether you need to have combat as part of the experience. Are there possibilities to actually start separating pieces of the game and actually tailor it to the audience? Certainly the core gaming experience, folks that are used to playing games over the last ten years, they want to have those battle moments, and the fighting. But there are different audiences that would maybe just enjoy the story. I think it's actually possible. I think the interesting thing about it too is I don't know if it's even necessarily a technology thing. I think once we've got the breadth of audience available to us, there could be really good opportunities created by different people coming to games that are story-driven. And primarily, that's the main thing.
Q: So it seems like you're saying it's too soon for that.
Greg Zeschuk:No, I think we're pretty much getting there right around now.
Ray Muzyka:I think you look at the last 20, 30 years of the industry, saying the videogame industry took off in the 80s, where we are now is almost like the mid-point of maturation of the industry. It's almost like we finally got our camera built in the movie sense. It took a long time, decades in the movie industry, where we went from black and white to talkies to the point where we actually started to get rich acting and direction and the subtle moves of camera and things like that that are now accepted practices. From that point on the industry just flourished, and I think the videogame industry is at that point now where you're going to start to see this blossoming of all kinds of really cool, multiple dimensions of different kinds of settings and genres and kinds of characterisation as the gaming industry moves from early adopters to early mainstream, to the mainstream who are now embracing games as their main form of entertainment. It's exciting to be in the industry at this time particularly with something as compelling as emotion and engaging narrative. For BioWare that's our vision, to really create these stories and characters that people believe in and they get emotional reactions to. They feel something. We're excited about it.
Q: Can you tell a meaningful story in a game without any text or dialogue?
Ray Muzyka:Sure. You can have different kinds of narrative there outside dialogue and characterisation as well. If you look at a game like BioShock, a lot of the narrative delivery there was exciting to us because it was delivered through the environments and interactions and how the character experienced the world, which was pretty neat. We were inspired by that, and are trying to do more and more of that ourselves. We did before, but we're looking more closely as there are other ways to deliver narrative in games. And frankly sometimes the more subtle ones are the more powerful, the ones that leave a lot to the imagination. So it's almost gone full-circle from the old text adventure games back in the 80s where there was a lot left to the imagination in terms of what things look like to now where we have some dialogue and some text sometimes but it feels like you're wandering through a real environment, whether it's a fantasy or science fiction world, or through China, or whatever setting it is that we've created for players. If you can make it feel like it's natural and seamless, then the possibilities are only really limited by your imagination.
Q: Have you seen much of the sort of indie experiments in telling story through gameplay? Have you seen Passage, for example?
Ray Muzyka:No, I don't think I have. There's a lot of experimental design by students, like at GDC with the Student Showcase, there's a lot of really good stuff there. I try to make a point of checking that out every year just to see what they've come up with. That fresh perspective just shocks your sensibilities. And that's one of the exciting things about games as well, with new platforms like iPhone and handheld and browser-based games, there's a lot more opportunity to drive narrative in new ways.
Q: If you can narrow it down to just one thing you'd like to see happen in this industry soon, what would that be?
Greg Zeschuk:I'd probably have Star Wars: The Old Republic out. That would be the one thing. That's my answer. (laughter)
I mean, I'm sort of facetious about that, but at the same time, I think it's interesting because I think it's really going to surprise people. You play it, and it's interesting because you can really easily solo the game, or you can play in multiplayer. And the solo experience, the character acting, the dialogue flow is like Mass Effect, and you completely forget you're playing an online game. And then your buddy shows up and you're like, oh yeah! Hey, let's do this together now. It's really interesting because it sort of breaks new barriers. For us in many ways it's the next evolution of storytelling, of sharing these stories and having the flexibility of playing together and sharing these stories.
Q: Ray? What would you like to see?
Ray Muzyka:I think this goes back to the original question of what are the things we need to do to really nail the experience for the mass market audience in games. One of them is removing the barrier of entry, with things like seamless control systems, or ways to enable you to play games in ways we haven't thought of and are still learning how to do. And the other is really getting that emotional engagement there through the content. So it's a hardware issue and a content delivery issue. If you can solve both those things, I think then you can actually make truly emotionally-engaging narrative where whatever setting you choose, it will feel right. It will feel like there is an aspiration there, that people will want to get into that fiction. I think we're there, I think we're very close.
Q: The industry has this classic discussion what seems like every year at GDC of how to tell an engaging story while giving the player a sense of freedom, how to tell the story you need to tell without holding the player still. Obviously you guys have gone to great lengths to approach breaking through that barrier, but do you feel like there is more to be done?
Ray Muzyka:Yeah, it's an artform, really. You have to do it in a way that...you really don't want the player to be aware that they're even going through a pre-made story world. But of course there has to be one if you want them to have a pre-constructed experience. You can have a free-form open-world exploration game, where you don't maybe need as much pre-made story, and that's valid. But I think it's cool to merge both together, where you have a lot of open world exploration, and that's one of the pillars in our games. But you also have story, and that's another of the pillars in our games. If you can merge them together and kind of guide the experience with a very gentle hand that allows players to kind of go off the beaten path and then come back to it, then they feel like they have freedom. And that's one of the benefits of games, is that nonlinear freedom of interaction.