The Cause of Mass Effect: An Interview with the BioWare Founders
I recently met with BioWare's founding doctors, Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk, to try and learn some of the secrets to BioWare's continuing success and, specifically, how the BioWare brand came to mean engaging story-driven RPGs. "One belief that we have," related Dr. Zeschuk, "is that track record means an awful lot, maybe even everything."
Drs. Ray Muzyka (left) and Greg Zeschuk, BioWare founders
And what a track record they've experienced. In addition to develop a number of bestselling licensed titles like Knights of the Old Republic, the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights series, BioWare has also repeatedly done what few developers can do - create successful, original, sequel-capable IPs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins out of thin air. And they'll soon add another notch to their belt. BioWare's highly anticipated first MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic, is currently in development at BioWare's Austin studio.
It's hard to imagine that such an incredible crop of story-driven PC games had its roots in, of all things, a software simulation of the digestive tract. Before forming BioWare, Drs. Muzyka and Zeschuk, friends from med school, made medical education software together in the early nineties. "One was a gastroenterology patient simulator, one was an acid-base physiology simulator," Muzyka mused, "They actually did sell, one to a phamaceutical company and one to the University of Alberta." Their true calling, however, was simply too strong. "We realized pretty rapidly that we were passionate about video games."
The doctors, then three in number, formed BioWare (Muzyka explained the name came from their desire to bring life to PC games) in February 1995, releasing the mech game Shattered Steel the following year before hitting their stride with the Baldur's Gate series and the Neverwinter Nights series in the late nineties and early aughts. Muzyka actually practiced medicine for a year after the company incorporated in 1995, and while Zeschuk and Muzyka still maintain their licenses to practice, neither has plans to return to the medical field now. In the early days, that was much less the case. "People tended to think it was a phase," Zeschuk quipped, noting that friends and relations thought he would go back to being a "respectable" doctor. "Growing up around here [Edmonton, Alberta], you'd never conceive that this might be a career possibility."
A screen capture from Scott Adams's Pirate Adventure (known to fans as Pirate's Cove)
The leap from medical software to games might be unlikely enough, but BioWare's further leap from producing some of the best known, best loved story-driven RPGs in this decade is equally unbelievable. So when did BioWare decide to make great story the hallmark of their games? As Muzyka explained, "We love RPGs. For both of us, it's our personal favorite genre since we were growing up. I remember I was like 9 or 10 years old and playing a cassette-tape game - Scott Adams' Pirate's Cove - on an Apple IIe with 4k RAM and I had to try three times to load it. From that point I was hooked; I loved that experience - a lot of the story then was implied."
Implied or overt, story has been a part of even the most unlikely of BioWare's titles. "Our action games, even our first game Shattered Steel - we tried to weave a story into it." Zeschuk explained. "We did it sort of after the fact, sort of bolted on, but it still had a story," Muzyka continued. "Even then, we felt that was important. It provided a context and an emotional grounding. That's our vision for our group: emotionally engaging gameplay. Narrative and story are one way to achieve that, not the only way, but for BioWare Austin and Edmonton, they're definitely the way we try to pursue it."
Unfortunately, over the earlier part of this decade, great storylines have often taken a back seat to the so-called graphics arms race. During this transitive time, BioWare's first few RPG classics offered dialogue and narrative at a remove, often with text boxes in an isometic frame. Games like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and most recently Dragon Age: Origins signalled the advent of near-cinematic -style elements and voiceovers in games. According to Muzyka, these advances make possible a return to an imagination-fueling RPG experience. "Maybe we've come full circle now, since there's a lot more nuance that you can put into facial expressions, gestures, and so forth that again allow you to return to that world of the implied story, where the choices and consequences are behind the scenes."
More expressive graphics play a role in bringing emotive story to life, but so does solid storyboarding. According to Dr. Zeschuk, Mass Effect was a planned trilogy from the start. Given the fact that video game and movie sequels have a high failure rate, that makes a big difference. "One reason sequels fail, especially multiple sequels fail, is people get kind of lazy, they start resting on their laurels and they start popping stuff out to make more money. One thing we could have done is to say, 'Hey, let's just make Mass 1, put in the same game, same characters.' Of course we decided not to do that... we set up to improve it fundamentally." Zeschuk also noted that the last sequel BioWare produced was Baldur's Gate 2, a game that received rave reviews.
Since the founding of BioWare itself makes a good story, I was curious as to whether their might be a similarly compelling story about how Mass Effect's creation. How did this fiercely dynamic, truly epic sci-fi story come to be? The doctors told the tale of taking future Mass Effect Project Director Casey Hudson to lunch at a Greek restaurant in 2005. "I remember burning my mouth really badly on the baba ghanoush," Muzyka quipped. Fortunately there were a doctor in the house (or two), and with the injury tended to, Casey conveyed his desire to make a "epic science-fiction opus." The three then kicked around the "germ" of a story, presumably over baklava and Turkish coffee.
With the dynamic and uniquely amorphous story of Mass Effect, where all the characters involved (including the protagonist) could possibly die off mid-way through the trilogy, BioWare hopes to continue to iterate this germ of a story in the hands of its Mass Effect 2 players when the game is released in North America on January 26th, 2010.
While you're waiting, you might want to check out Ten Ton Hammer's Mass Effect 2 hands-on preview and exclusive video Q&A with Project Director Casey Hudson. Our thanks to BioWare and Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk for their time.