On the surface, the BioWare of 2011 is barely recognisable as the BioWare that released Baldur's Gate in 1998. Sitting confidently inside EA's gargantuan business area at gamescom 2011, Dr Muzyka is in charge of some of the most valuable IP in the world today.
VideoGamer.com spoke to Muzyka about the company's focus on telling stories, on how BioWare is looking ahead to the future, and whether or not Garrus will die at the end of Mass Effect 3. Okay, we didn't ask the last one. But we wanted to.
Q: BioWare is famed for its storytelling. How do you think that's developing in terms of how games are telling stories as technology advances?
Ray Muzyka: I would extend that broader. Our vision is to create, deliver, and evolve some of the most emotionally engaging games in the world. And story, for us, is one of the ways to achieve that - but it's not the only way.
Historically, yeah, I think a lot of what we've done actually has been driven by story, narrative, and character interactions and we still have those in our games. Typically, we see that as a really important mechanism and tool, and a very relatable concept to players. It's similar to real life, where you talk to people and form a relationship, and then you form an emotional bond - so I think we're going to continue that as one of the pillars for how we approach our games.
But I think, more broadly, you can look at narrative as almost any of the activities you engage in with a game - the way you approach them, the choices you make, and how your character's journey, as it were, forms your personal narrative - so your exploration choices, where you go first in the game, second, third, the choices you make in the story arc - that's a narrative, obviously. The choices you make in a battle, your tactical choices, what abilities you have to deploy and how you deploy them - that's a narrative. It's a narrative of combat, but it's still a narrative.
Then there's social narrative, like an online game with connectivity where you're talking to other players, and even user generated content - you know, you could have a narrative decided by the creator. And the reason we find these very powerful is because they all lead to increased emotional engagement, and that's what we're striving for - we're not striving just to convey story, we're striving to convey story that emotionally engages you and captures your imagination; makes you feel like the barriers are removed and you're at one with this character in the world in the possibility space - it feels real, like you're actually there, so that you care about the outcomes, and feel compelled to continue, whether those outcomes are in combat or exploration or progression of your story.
Q: BioWare, as a studio, is rapidly expanding. There are so many products being delivered in so many ways...
RM: Yeah, we have seven studios worldwide in Edmonton, Montreal, Austen, Virginia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ireland, and they're all doing different things, and they're all really important to our future - and they're all collaborating as well, so, for me, it's a big honour to be able to work with all these people worldwide - they're all very talented, very passionate about creating this emotional engagement.
Q: Yesterday you said, on stage, that Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to have a smooth launch. How will you achieve this?
RM: With every aspect we can possibly anticipate, we try and make sure it's stable, scalable, secure, high-quality - those are the attributes that we're striving for. And it's hard, you know. Honesty, building an MMO is really hard. I have great respect for the teams that do it - Blizzard and all the great developers that have done MMO launches successfully. It's not easy to do. We're lucky, because we have a lot of talent in the BioWare label - the Mythic team, a lot of people in the Austin studio built other MMOs and launched them, so we have a lot of great experience, but we know it's not an easy thing.
Q: You're doing a staggered launch, a few people at a time, to build up stability, I suppose?
RM: Well, we're doing beta testing - we're scaling up the beta testing, and that's pretty typical, and we've been doing it for many, many months now...
The only way we can really make it successful is to scale and try to pump the rivets off every aspect of your beta testing program, and that's what we're doing right now - that's what we've been doing for months and months.
Q: The pre-orders on Origins get to play first, and that helps to ease the pressure if you will?
RM: Yeah, it does.
Not everyone is going to be in the same area to start with - there will be some people that have played a bit longer. Based on the pre-orders, it's been crazy. It's been the fasted-selling game in EA's history. And that's a really great thing, because it means a lots of fans are ready to play our game, and we have to make sure they all have a great experience when they come on - it's scalable, it's secure, it's stable, high-quality content, and a service aspect post-launch that if they have issues we can address those.
So it's really fun; it's a really interesting challenge, especially when we're adding all this innovation and storytelling into the traditional MMO feature-set, and enabling it in the Star Wars universe, where the expectations are "It's Star Wars" and people approach that with a pre-conceived notion what that means as well - so we have to satisfy that to players too. But it's a challenge that we're up for.
The beta test feedback is great already, but we're not satisfied. We're continuing to iterate, evolve and improve the content, and it's not going to stop at launch - we're going to continue to evolve and add more features and content post-launch for years.