Last week, we were given the chance to get our hands on Mass Effect: Andromeda for a couple of hours. We also had the chance to chat with Fabrice Condominas, a producer on Andromeda whose primary role has been to "bring back that original Mass Effect feel". We talked to him about recapturing the essence of the original game, reworking the Mako and more generally what we can expect from Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Kotaku: Andromeda, understandably, is under a lot of pressure to live up to the Mass Effect trilogy. Where did you start with making a game that could stand up to that legacy?
Fabrice Condominas: So first: the legacy is a gift and a challenge, sure, but we often forget about the gift part. The raw material that you start to work with is actually of very, very, very high quality, right?
Secondly, to answer your question more directly: we're storytellers. Legacy, no legacy, fresh start or not a fresh start, it doesn't really matter when you're writing a story. And this is where we started: asking what kind of story do we want to tell, what kind of characters do we want to have, what type of personalities do we want to put forward, what kind of bonds do we want to create? And then little by little, you build a universe around that.
Also a thing we knew was that the trilogy was over, so there would be no strong bond with the trilogy. We all had a great ride with those characters — just like the player — but it was time to turn the page, and that was something very, very clear in our minds.
The question of the legacy and the pressure coming off of that well, honestly if you keep asking that of yourself then you'll just freeze and you won't do anything. So we just move on, we had to trust that we could do something of quality. The good part is that you have no choice but to make something of high quality, even if it takes five years.
Kotaku: You mentioned starting with the story and the characters, did one of those come before the other?
Condominas: I would say it's pretty equal between the two at the beginning, because you work in parallel. So you find the story arc, and at the same time you define the types of personalities you want to have, starting with the main character.
The Ryders weren't siblings on day one, so something happened there. But what was there very early was, for example, the idea that we wanted you as the player to grow with those characters. Suddenly you can have a character that is very experimental — as with Shepard, you want to build the same level of knowledge. Say you're in a place that the player knows nothing about, you know that the character will also know nothing. Same thing for the squad, and the new alien races, but it starts mainly with the personality, then what you want them to convey.
Kotaku: So this is the first Bioware game where both player characters have existed in the game at the same time, correct?
Condominas: I believe so.
Kotaku: How has that changed the way you've approached things? Condominas: It's been actually very exciting. It's been a balance where, regardless of whether you pick Scott or Sarah, the player needs to have the exact same journey. But at the same time, you need a reminder that you didn't pick the other. You have a balance to find there.
But also, I think it's a move that we'll probably keep working with. Narratively it's just interesting and it helps the immersion, just like the absence of classes at the very beginning. All those sorts of things helps us sell the immersion in the narrative.
We keep saying that [the sibling] will assume a narrative role — and they do — but the more you evolve the game the more you see that their roles actually become important.
Kotaku: And when you customise your Ryder, will it affect your other family members?
Condominas: Yes, absolutely. How the customisation works is that you have a number of pre-set faces and you pick one and you can change the physical traits of that pre-set. What it means is that for your sibling, they will use the exact same pre-set for the other gender, and then you port also some of the physical traits — for example, skin tone.
Your father, you don't want him to look exactly like you but older, so you will still see a couple of differences but yes, the idea is that you will recognise them all as the same family.
Kotaku: Alright, let's talk about the Mako...
Condominas: The Nomad!
Kotaku: Well, the Nomad and the Mako. It's something a lot of people have been talking about, since the Mako is both loved and hated by fans of the trilogy. What was behind the decision to bring it back, and what went into reworking it into the Nomad?
Condominas: The decision [to bring back the Mako] actually came fairly quickly, because we wanted exploration to have a significant role. You need a vehicle to explore. Was it an easy decision? No. It was an obvious decision for the setting, but there were definitely concerns about what type of memories the Nomad would bring for players of the trilogy.
When we actually started talking to the community, to the core veterans of the trilogy, we realised that when we showed vehicles, they were very interested. We would already see smiles on their faces and the jokes started firing and all that, but they also associated that with that feeling of discovery in an uncharted world, in Mass Effect 1.
So what represented the Mako, or the essence of the Mako, was actually very important to them. They got very, very excited very quickly — with the caveat of 'just... do it well.' And we focused on that, on the execution, and working on Frostbite with EA we even sent early builds to the Need For Speed team so we could get their advice.
Kotaku: Are there any other familiar features from the trilogy that we can expect to see brought back in the same way?
Condominas: Oh certainly, yes. I think part of the legacy was that we were able to — because we did not have the narrative constraints of the original trilogy which got narrower and narrower — we were able to take the best of the three. So we took the Nomad, exploration and discovery from Mass Effect 1, probably along with some of the RPG mechanics and progression that we brought back.
Mass Effect 2; the loyalty missions, and the character relationships and all that — this is what we looked for in Mass Effect 2, we tried to bring that back. This is why we brought back the loyalty mission, but we also complexified the trust system. That was definitely inspired by Mass Effect 2.
And Mass Effect 3? All the combat systems and the multiplayer that we expanded on for this game. The difficulty then, is to take these elements of single games and balance them, where before they were incorporated in different instances of the game. So that is why it takes five years to make a game.
Kotaku: With the new trust system, is it dramatically different to how relationship systems have worked in Mass Effect before?
Condominas: I wouldn't say dramatically, it's just more nuanced. It's not dramatically different in the sense that the mechanics are the same, and the purpose is the same. The reason why we went off from the binary system is because people would take a side. And once they take a side, not only would they stick to that side, they would, for example, stop even reading what the character is saying, they would just say "I want the left choice" every single time.
But also, it adds a judgmental aspect to it. Some people would say "that's the wrong side, that's the good side," and we wanted to get away from that. We wanted the player to make the choice they want, based on the personality they want to shape — not how you're going to end up.
Also adding nuance in the system itself adds nuance in the type of interaction you can have. Even in the romance, we have way more nuanced types of romance in this game — but that's because the system can do that. And also it's harder to gamify the system because it's just less obvious. And this is something we want. It's not about the game in a game, it's the choices you make because you want to make those choices.
Kotaku: This is a Bioware game, so let's talk a little bit about love interests. What kind of options will players find for romance in Mass Effect: Andromeda?
Condominas: Well, we have a lot. Though I won't go into the details. But we have a lot of options, not only with who you can romance, but also the type of romance. Now it's not only about love stories — you can have one night stands if you want to, and both characters can just flirt. With who it is possible and in what combination? I don't want to spoil it.
Kotaku: Can you say who your favourite romance is?
Condominas: Oh no. Because otherwise people will look for it. I certainly have one! But it's funny because we knew we wanted to be a mature game so that opens a number of doors. But even then, when some of the romance scenes came back we were like 'oh... yeah, definitely mature. But there's no going back.'
Kotaku: I've noticed in my time playing that there's a lot of focus placed not just on the conversations and quests you do do, but also the ones you don't do.
Condominas: Oh, absolutely. What you do not do or, for example, who you don't talk to is taken into account. It's considered part of your behaviour, basically. It's behavioural, it's your choices, it's what you say and how you said it, and it's also the action you take or don't take. And this can be mechanically or not.
So mechanically, for example, you have an interrupt system, the reflex-based system. It's counting whether you do that or not. But also it's how you approach a scene — you played mission 1, and there is a scene in that where you have to decide whether you're peaceful or not. Regardless of how that scene ends, which will be taken into account, already it's seeing if you take action or not.
Kotaku: Let's talk about the combat. It's been reworked quite dramatically since Mass Effect 3, what are some of the changes we'll see in those mechanics?
Condominas: So there's the jump, the evade, but also it's the layout — they're now more open, so it means that enemies can come from anywhere. If you can jump, they can jump, so it means you always have to be on the lookout for enemies. Because there's so many changes, the use of cover is slightly different, although we're still cover based.
I would add also that the enemy AI was entirely redone — because we switched engines we actually had no choice, but we took the opportunity to adapt them to the more open world so that they were smarter in the way they flanked, smarter in the way they spawned. So yeah, there's been numerous changes. I think overall the idea was a single idea — was the feeling of just being more fluid, dynamic and you know, fast paced.
We also changed the way you use the class system which impacts combat. You can switch profiles before combat or even in the middle of combat. Suddenly it impacts all the ways that combat works.
Kotaku: Mass Effect has always been a series that was known for its story — has there been a bigger focus on the combat this time around?
Condominas: I would say yes, in the sense that we tried to balance those features. There is no doubt that Mass Effect remains a story-based game — that hasn't changed, it's Bioware DNA, I don't think it will ever change. But, that being said, we're trying to balance it. So we're bringing the combat to the level of the story — not at the expense of the story, but to the level of the story. Again, that's why development has taken five years.
Kotaku: To finish off, how long do you think an average playthrough of Andromeda will take?
Condominas: It's so open, it's hard to say. If you're just talking about the story, if you're just following the main story — which I would not advise to do — then I would say anywhere between 15 and 20 hours, and that's just going straight through the quickest route. After that? I don't know. It could be anywhere between 15 and 120 hours.
If you're a completionist, I apologise in advance.