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Butterfly Effect

BioWare's Adrien Cho discusses the realities of managing the workload on the Mass Effect franchise

BioWare's Mass Effect 2 has quickly become one of the most acclaimed titles of the current generation, with the recent release achieving very high Metacritic scores of 96 per cent and big sales for publisher Electronic Arts.

Here, in an exclusive interview for GamesIndustry.biz conducted at last month's Nordic Game, Adrien Cho, BioWare's lead technical artist, talks about the realities of working on a AAA franchise, managing a constant workload while avoiding turning it into a production line, and opening up company secrets to outside help in order to create a better game.

GamesIndustry.biz Can you begin by talking us through your position at BioWare and how many staff you manage?
Adrien Cho

I was lead technical artist on the original Mass Effect and I transitioned to an art production manager role, and I now work with the art director really closely to ensure the art gets made. So the art director gets the fun job of making sure the aliens are the right colour, and I have to get into the nitty gritty and make sure it all comes together. I help manage the teams and make sure work is done to deadline so we can move onto the next asset. It's a production line management. In the technical artwork role it was good because you could tag certain problems coming down the pipeline. This opens up a lot more so I can move resources around and not only spot the problems but now I can get artists to move around and prevent problems from happening. The scheduling aspect obviously makes everything a lot more efficient and it means we have less crunch and get the game done on time.

We have about six character artists, two concept arts, two VFX artists. Then on and off - because what we produce is tied into other teams - we have a team of two or three system designers that we work with closely, we have two animators, and it fluctuates. And then the external teams can range from between 30-50 people. If that happened all at once it would be mind-blowing, but the nice thing is that if we stage that and arrange things to take care of the most important things, and it's much more manageable.

GamesIndustry.biz A lot of work involves outsourcing, which still has these bad perceptions – cheap labour, farming out work to different countries rather than supporting your local industry...
Adrien Cho

It's the realities of making big games now. Even the smaller games. Coming from the art point of view it's important because you it's still viewed as a taboo, or a dirty word, because everyone's worried that you're sending out jobs from Canada, the US, the UK to places like India. That's the general idea. But the reality is when we talk about outsourcing we're talking about sending work back to North America or those same locations.

It's simply about understanding what your team can do in the amount of time they have. It's about changing that definition and stigma and about really getting the job done, getting the right help at the right time and how can you get the most out of that help. Sometimes from a project point of view people think that if they put money into a problem they can get it to disappear. But no, it's the same thing as working with an internal team. There really is no difference between working externally or internally. There are certain realities within that – keeping things cost-efficient, understanding where your roles are – but with an external team, even though the role is the same as an internal team, from a client point of view it's different because I drive the money. It gives me a different advantage because I'm paying for this product I have a lot more power dealing with external teams than with my internal teams.

GamesIndustry.biz Does that make you more cautious because you're in control of the wallet?
Adrien Cho

You have to be more careful because you have to justify how you're spending it and you also have to consider do you even need to outsource it at all? That's a very key thing because if you send out the best stuff, you don't want your internal artists doing work they won't enjoy, and you don't want the internal guys cleaning up somebody's else's problems either. The way I approach it is I give my internal teams the best stuff that they want to work on. But the reality is there's too much work for the internal guys to work on and that's one of the reason why we have to outsource.

Another is expertise and understanding the capabilities of the guys in-house. It's going to vary from project to project but I look at the smaller teams in the studio and they're very focused on one thing and economically it does not make sense for them to hire in a compositor. Instead of having an half-assed compositor or get someone internally to learn that, why not just send it out? Maybe you pay more but it's because you don't have the in-house experience. When we're working with our external partners we're always thinking, how can they compliment our external team? It's really just working towards the end goal of putting the best product out there.

GamesIndustry.biz What are the main priorities in outsourcing work for BioWare?
Adrien Cho

I always use that analogy of the mechanic where you take the car in and they always tell you the three things – price, time and quality. You're only allowed two of them. It's a similar thing. Price from a project point of view is very important, quality for us has to be top-notch and with time I find that if you plan everything out properly you can get inexpensive work done to a good quality. If you don't have enough time you have to think how can you mitigate the risk? You may have to pay a bit more or the quality may go down.

GamesIndustry.biz So how did you ensure those goals on a project like Mass Effect 2?
Adrien Cho

One of things that we worked on for the game itself was really not to have to reinvent the wheel. We invested a lot of time with the first game – three and a half to four years to finish Mass Effect – and it pays off because we've built this great foundation, from a technology point of view. You create this datum line that everyone understands, and up to that point, until we finish the game, that line always shifted. Because you're defining what does combat mean in the Mass Effect world? What does animation mean in a Mass Effect sense? What about buildings, vehicles, aliens? When you finish that first game a lot of answers are set now because this is how we did it. So we can then go back and re-evaluate those. We had planet exploration in the first game but it certainly could be better. So we changed it for the sequel.

Generally you have this foundation, so the sequel was just saying what are the concentrated areas that we focused on, what are the areas that we did well on an we can let them be? Even before we shipped the first game we knew the areas that we wanted to concentrate on and we could really focus on that right away. How does that work with external teams? It was the same in that we've built up a good working relationship with some of external partners and with the second time around it was really looking at where can we get the major gains from with the least amount of effort but unblock the biggest issues. So for example we sent out a lot of props for high-res modelling. High resolution modelling is very time consuming and costly internally, and it's not as much fun for our guys. Given that chance, an artist would rather work on a high-res gun than a high-res space radiator. But it's still a task that needs to be done. So these more mundane tasks that we have to flesh out the world we can send them out to external teams. We looked at the inefficiencies from the first one and said where can we improve on those?

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Matt Martin


Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.