Get a chance to talk to a studio head like Greg Zeschuk and we'll ask him about everything. For a bit of news about every recent and upcoming BioWare game from Pinnacle Station to The Old Republic, keep reading.
The following material all comes from an interview between myself and BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk conducted in Seattle a couple of weeks ago at the Penny Arcade Expo.
Mass Effect DLC: Pinnacle Station "We wanted to make something different," Zeschuk said of the recently released expansion to the first Mass Effect, Pinnacle Station. "The reaction's been quite vigorous from a lot of folks. I think part of it was the time. The expectation was that it took so long that [people thought]it would be something very grand. But what we want to do in Mass Effect was just riff on stuff a bit and do a combat simulator. We thought it would be neat to have this neat little encapsulated thing .... It [contained]a few things we weren't able to get in the full game."
Zeschuk said Pinnacle Station took longer than expected because, he laughed, "Games are hard to make." He said that BioWare didn't find it easy to incorporate downloadable content in the base game of Mass Effect. The team wanted to keep everything in the fiction—to make it accessible through the natural exploration in the game—but didn't find the most accessible hooks to attach the new content. "From a structural perspective, Mass Effect the game—even though we had one piece out pretty early—it wasn't ideally structured for downloadable content. I think, pretty early, we've been saying that Dragon Age is a platform. I would say Mass Effect 2 is as well. We took the learning from how tricky it is to put things into the game in Mass Effect and that was a very big factor."
In my review of Pinnacle Station I had guessed that BioWare was testing possible multiplayer mechanics in their still-single player Mass Effect squad combat battle system. Not quite. "I wouldn't say exactly multiplayer, but definitely taking the combat further [with]some kind of competitive mode," Zeschuk said. "We do a lot of story at BioWare. Sometimes we want to do something different than just a story."
Dragon Age: Origins BioWare already has some paid DLC lined up for Dragon Age: Origins, the company's fall console and PC role-playing game, Zeschuk said.
He said he's been playing through the Xbox 360 version of the game, "staying up to stupid late hours" to go through it. He's excited about the game's community site, which, as previously reported here, will help players of the single-player adventure compare the paths they took to completion. The site is designed to take that BioWare trademark of malleable narrative and let gamers more easily compare the narrative contortions they made. "What's interesting is [going]back to our classic things like KOTOR and Mass Effect, and I talk to [BioWare co-founder]Ray [Muzyka]and say, 'How did you do this part?' And he goes, 'Well I did this.' And 'I did that.' That's what we want."
Zeschuk also sees a lot of community potential in the mod-making tools in the PC version of Dragon Age. The game's community site is being built to make the modding process easier, counteracting the problem of making content for visually complex games. "User-created content is down from where it used to be," Zeschuk said. "It used to be a bunch of generalists, but game development for our stuff and all the HD stuff is a bunch of specialists. What we were trying to do is create a community where the specialists can connect with each other." A good texture artist could connect with a talented modelling person and then find a talented sound person... that kind of thing. Zeschuk said BioWare intends to talk to Microsoft and Sony about bringing some of those PC-modded creations to consumers playing the game on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
Mass Effect 2 We talked about Mass Effect 2 some, with Zeschuk teasing that there is more to the game than meets the eye. Read more on that in an earlier post.
Mass Effect and other BioWare Projects On Portables Zeschuk said that the Mass Effect iPhone game is doing "so-so" in Apple's store, but said he's excited to try more content there. "You have to be cranking a lot of things because you don't know what's going to work on it," he said. "We're all still learning. And it's evolving every month." Portable and smaller gaming remains of interest to BioWare. "One goal we've set for ourselves at a high level is to capture the things we do on the big giant console releases on the smaller format. And try to understand how those things interconnect. Clearly you can't do a direct port. And in some ways Mass Effect [on iPhone]would be almost an abstracted [take] . Now we're thinking of cutting it different ways. For us, we don't want to be just doing giant franchises."
Smaller development could be thrilling if not always that easy, he noted. "From our perspective lately, we're interested in DSi and the direct to digital. Chunking stuff smaller we always have to reconcile that with what we're good at. We do these gigantic, complicated productions and then try to fit it into a thumbnail, it's not easy."
Star Wars: The Old Republic I've been behind in following news about BioWare's Star Wars MMO, so I just asked Zeschuk to say anything he wanted about that game. He described his enthusiasm for the game's multiplayer, scripted, branching conversation and morality system.
'The moment to moment experience of conversing with people is not painful and frustrating," he said, saying he has trouble playing text-based MMOs now. To explain how The Old Republic's system worked he pretended that he and BioWare PR man Erik Eisdendel were both playing the MMO. "Say Erik and I are talking to the guy," he posited, beginning to illustrate an example that put the life of a captain on the line. Their character skills and some randomisation would determine what they could say to a computer-controlled character. "You can either agree or compete on what game dialogue you want to have and what direction the story goes. Because at the end of the day you are making a decision on whether I'm going to kill the captain or save the captain…that's a dark side choice, Erik doesn't want that. It's neat to have that potential interaction."
The emotional heat of such a moment will be intensified not just by the potentially competing interests of two players engaged in the linked conversation but in the improved rendering and voice-over work of the characters involved. This is an MMO we'll connect with on a more emotionally engaged level, he hopes.
That exhausted the announced BioWare projects, I believe. And so our interview concluded.