At Gamescom 2011 we were lucky enough to get time alone with Ray Muzyka, co-founder and CEO of BioWare. With an impressive array of big-hitters to his name and the upcoming Mass Effect 3 demoing at Gamescom, there was a lot to get our teeth into.
[GAME] It's great to get the chance to talk to you! BioWare seems to be one of those companies that really gets people passionate.
[Ray Muzyka] Yeah, yeah, we have great fans. And there are a lot of core fans who buy everything we make.
So, in the industry at the moment all the RPG developers are saying they're building a deeper, richer gaming experience. As you're considered one of the leaders in the RPG field, what does that mean to you? How do you build a deep, rich experience?
Well, looking at individual games like Mass Effect 3, we got great reception for Mass Effect 2 but we also got feedback that people wanted a deeper experience in some of the aspects of RPG progression and character development. So when you see the build, you'll see that we've taken that apart and we've tried to integrate it into an RPG-action experience. It's very visceral and intense, but you can also do a lot of things that the fans have been asking for, like weapon modifications on the fly. We have a weapons bench and you can put your weapon down and make modifications to really personalise it and make it your own. And it works really well, it gives a sort of in-the-field kind of perspective.
We've also got some innovations around the way the characters progress. New abilities, and just a more refined system that we've learnt from doing Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. You can see that there are more interesting, more engaging ways to push your character in Mass Effect 3. The best thing you can do is check it out, then you can see for yourself.
At the same time it's also got an integrated action experience, so it's an RPG and an action game at the same time. There are better movement controls for Shephard and he has the Omni Blade that kind of extends out of the Omni Tool, and he can jump over obstacles now and vault things, and he can grab enemies now and pull them over, and there are some specialisations.
Everyone's talking about Atlas, the giant machine that you can snipe the pilot and get in.
Yeah you can get in it! We're not trialling that here yet, but yeah, you'll be able to drive it.
What are you most proud of in Mass Effect 3?
Well, I think it's more intense in the actual moment-to-moment experience but we haven't lost any depth at the same time, and I think we really nailed the aspects of that. We're in the third iteration now and we're really comfortable with the tools. The team has been able to get to some things that they really wanted to do in the first one and the second one that we now know how to do. You know, we have some things we haven announced yet.
I was going to be cheeky and ask you what they were, but you wouldn't tell me, would you?!
No, no! But they're really good. They're really big things. They're to do with the campaign. They're in line with the experience that we're showing here today, so they're not separate parts.
In the presentations on Mass Effect 3 that I've been to they've been talking about the emotional side of the game.
I think that's been key to all of our games, emotional engagement. Mass Effect exemplifies that as well. The intensity of the experience, the personalisation of your actions and how you're going to play your equipment and your character in the deep RPG system.
And then the story is unusually powerful. It's not the Reapers invading some planet in the galaxy somewhere - now they're invading your home, invading Earth, and they're taking other worlds too. You're still saving the galaxy, but really you're saving your home AND the galaxy, so it a lot more personal. The story arc is very compelling and emotionally engaging.
It's the end of a trilogy, so it brings the whole story to a satisfying conclusion but at the same time it's the beginning of a new galactic adventure, a new galactic war. So it's kind of launching both things.
Of all your portfolio of games, which was the most challenging in terms of dev work?
They're big games. We have small games, too. We have social games, but then at the other end of the spectrum we have big MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic, which has an amazing amount of rich content that people will be discovering for years and years to come. And then RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. None of them are easy to build, they're all challenging in different ways, I think.
So how about working with a big IP like Star Wars. Is it challenging? Do you have an awful lot of sign off on what you do?
Yeah, yeah, well it's a very tight partnership, very close cooperation and they've been great partners. We've worked with them now for like a decade since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I, and now the Old Republic for many years, and they've been great collaborative partners.
We set the game in a period thousands of years before the movies, so it's a really rich period where we get to explore and make new content, and they've been very supportive of that. We've learned a lot about the Star Wars licenses. I mean obviously they're experts on that. They understand the fans, they understand the audiences, and we benefit from that.
So which of your games is most challenging in terms of fan expectation? For example, I notice that RPG fans seem to be much more intense about gaming and all the different aspects of it.
They do seem to be. I mean, they like an intense, accessible experience, but they also want the depth, the richness, the story and the choice. And it's one thing to give a choice, but you also need to show the impact of that choice in a meaningful way, which means creating new content for different paths and non-linear storytelling. It means investing more time in development to enable that choice in a personally engaging way that means something to the player, and so they can see how their character reacts to their events, and the world changes based on their actions. That's part of what makes an RPG satisfying. You see the consequence to your actions.
So based on that there must be a lot of emphasis put on the writing and the storytelling.
Yeah, that's certainly one aspect of it. Cinematic animation is another aspect for the games that have that. World building, you have to change the world if something happens in one area. The downstream effects of changing one line of writing can be massive.
You must sit at events like this being interviewed a lot! Is there anything that you're dying for an interviewer to ask you that you've never been asked?
There probably is but I can't remember right now, it's been a long day! I think someone asked me a question today that I've never been asked which was, 'What were you like growing up?', and I was like, wow, no one ever asked me that before! I used to play a lot of videogames andmy parents let me play whatever I wanted because I got good grades at school. And for me, it was a real motivator, you know. I see it as an art form. I have a passion about the evolution of games. I love the fact that now there so many manifestations of them. It's like movies, there's such a spectrum of different types of games, like there are different movies and books. And those are art forms as well.
I remember way back to the beginning of gaming when kids used to programme their own little pixelly games on a Commodore 64 and the like.
Yeah, and people can program those sorts of games on their mobile devices now, so it's almost come full circle!
And is there any question you get asked all the time that you wish people wouldn't ask anymore?
Well, one question I get asked a lot is, 'What's your favourite BioWare game?' That's a question I can't really answer, and I don't have an answer actually, because I like all of our games. Otherwise, why would we be making them if we didn't like them?! I like them all for different reasons, but I don't like one more than the other.
I'm pretty passionate about all the things we're doing. We have great teams and they're excited about making games and the opportunities, whether it's a smaller social game or an MMO, or an RPG or the strategy games that come out of L.A. And theres some exciting stuff coming out of all of our teams.
Over all the studios is there something that's a big focus at the moment? We see that motion control is a focus for some companies at the moment.
Kinect. We're doing a Kinect version of Mass Effect 3. It's not a seperate version, but it's going to be really cool. It's voice control. We're using voice commands to control your squad so you can tell squad members to do different things, different actions like help me or heal me. Or you can read the voice lines, the dialogue.
I wouldn't say that's an overarching focus though. For our label it's really about our vision, which is emotionally engaging games, and all the games we build are achieving that vision in different ways, but they're all achieving that vision. It's our core value for all our studios, it's how we operate, it's how we build our games, it's how we make decisions.
We want to make quality games for our fans, andbe a really great workplace for employees, a place they can be proud of, and use their passion and entrepreneurship. For us, all these things are important, and that's what makes us a sustainable business.
Like I said at the beginning, you are one of those companies that people do get really passionate about. Why do you think that is?
I think it's a trust thing. You can try very, very hard to make games and for us, the quality is very important. And we aren't perfect, we make mistakes and we always take feedback very humbly and say, yeah we can jig that to make our games better. We're only as good as our next game, and we have a promise and an obligation to our fans. And I hope that's how fans see BioWare. I hope they trust our brand to not let them down, and if we ever do we always make sure that we try and improve on it in the next game. It's a promise, I guess, and we want to maintain that quality.
Thanks for giving us the time to talk to you.
Interviewed by Amanda Hepburn