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The Cause of Mass Effect: An Interview with the BioWare Founders

Updated Tue, Dec 22, 2009 by Ethec

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."

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