Dr. Ray Muzyka BMSc, MD, CCFP, MBA, Group General Manager, RPG/MMO Group, Senior Vice President, Electronic Arts, Co-Founder and CEO, BioWare. That's the mammoth mouthful that adorns Ray's business card. Clearly, he's a big cheese. But underneath the impressive resume is a developer who still finds time to ponder the improvement of his craft: the creation of role-playing games. At gamescom we sat down with Muzyka to talk Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2 and delve deep inside the Doctor's brain to uncover what, exactly, makes BioWare games tick.
VideoGamer.com: One thing that strikes me as a theme common to all BioWare games is a mature approach not only to violence and sex, but to emotion and intellectualism. Is that a conscious effort on BioWare's part?
Ray Muzyka: We want to engage people on multiple levels. Intellectually, emotionally, in terms of the gameplay elements, we want to engage them across all of those. We put a lot of stuff in our games. We have a lot of different kinds of features, different kinds of content, storytelling and characters, we have progression and customisation systems that are pretty rich. Exploration of these worlds is very diverse and rich, you go to a lot of different places in most of our games. And the combat systems tactically provide a lot of challenges. They're deep in many cases too - the tactical depth, when you finally get all of your characters developed up the way you want. That affords us maybe some elements of what you're saying. We can challenge players.
We also want players to be able to access the game, whether it's the same player on a given day who just wants to run through the game and have some cool combat and go through the story and take a lighter approach to that. You know I play games that way sometimes. But sometimes you want to dive right into it, like the layers of an onion, and actually have that additional depth. In our games we work hard to make sure they always have an accessible layer at the surface - quick play, quick character creation, quick level up, fast tactics, strong AI, all that stuff is there - but we also allow players to go right in and customise every element and make the whole experience their own personalised experience.
Some people want to dive in and personalise their character creation process and from that point on they just automate it. Other characters want to change every attribute every time they level up and gain new abilities. Other characters want to pause and play and assign tactical orders to their party, then unpause and let it unfold, almost like a chess match. Other players just want to let it go in real time and use their reflexes to gauge the battle, like StarCraft players. The games we make, typically we try and enable all of those different play styles. So almost maybe as a side effect of that they end up being a little more deep. The possibility space is larger when it comes to an intellectual challenge. It's good because it allows players to play the game the way they want to play it. I like games that challenge me, that make me feel like the time I put into it learning the system, the tactical depth, will be rewarded with better outcomes.
VideoGamer.com: You talk about emotionally engaging players. This morning I interviewed David Cage, who is doing some interesting stuff with Heavy Rain. I asked him whether we're there yet in terms of emotionally engaging players on the same level as literature and film, for example you might go to see a movie and cry.
RM: What did he say?
VideoGamer.com: He said that he hoped people will cry when they play Heavy Rain.
VideoGamer.com: Are we there yet in your opinion? Do you think your upcoming games will cause people to cry?
RM: Yeah I do. I think that's the goal, is to try and make people feel the same emotions they feel in real life. And it's hard because the uncanny valley and the social or the character and story aspect we focus on is maybe one of the harder ones to convey. People know when they see something that's not real and credible - like your eyes not moving right. It makes you realise maybe it's not real. Or the facial expression's not quite right, or too much dialogue or too little dialogue, or a whole range of things that could be just not quite right about looking real and making you feel like the character you're talking to is credible. If you don't have all those things just right, you can't break through that barrier to get the genuine emotional engagement with characters. That's where you get some of the more difficult emotions to convey, of love, sadness, regret, fondness, hatred, dislike, these are all valid expressions and emotions we strive for, and they're hard to do. You can get fear in combat.
VideoGamer.com: Because you might die?
RM: Yeah. That's one of the ones that's been around in games for a while, and it's maybe one of the easier ones to achieve. Still an important one, but one of the easier ones. But the harder ones to achieve are fondness, regret, sadness, genuine feeling that a romance is actually real. We're getting close to it but we're not quite there. But we're going to reach that point and break through it, like movies have. Movies have broken through that, but they've had a hundred years to develop their craft. Video games have had about 30 now, and the best is still to come.
We can focus more on the expression and less on the technology now, because the technology is almost like a minimum requirement to entry. If you don't have that right you're not going to be able to break through. But now a lot of the big innovations are around the emotions, around the immersion and the credibility of the world. And it has to all fit together.
VideoGamer.com: It sounds like a big, difficult job.
RM: Yeah. The nice thing is if you do the emotions of the face right you can have less dialogue. You're having a conversation right now and you're nodding your head. You could be saying yes, yes I understand for the whole time, but you don't have to because you're nodding your head. It's just, maybe say, hmm yeah it makes sense, rather than this long dialogue chain. That might have been the way an old text adventure would do it 30 years ago. Now we don't have to do that. We can just nod the head. If your head nods and eyes look real, if you're blinking at the frequency, that it looks like a credible character and your eyes are actually aligning with what I'm looking at - and all these things are small variables - if the reflections off the light come and your brain knows whether it's right or not, if that all aligns then I forget that I'm talking, say if you're a virtual character, I would forget that I'm in a computer game and I start interacting with you as a person. That's when then you can start to have genuine emotional engagement.