Dr. Greg Zeschuk is the vice president and co-founder of BioWare, the lauded studio behind Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Baldur's Gate. Earlier this month we caught up with the man himself, following a keynote speech at the Develop conference in Brighton. Read on to hear Greg's thoughts on BioWare's ambitions, developing for the iPhone, and how to deal with fan feedback.
Q: I enjoyed your keynote speech this morning. You mentioned that BioWare had been lucky to have a few 'minor hits'...
Greg Zeschuk: Well, not minor!
Q: I was going to say. If Mass Effect 2 is a 'minor hit', I can't wait to see a major one.
GZ: Well, we need to sell 10 million units. That's actually the new target, right? We do Top 10 games, our stuff is quite successful. I know Mass [Effect 2] is number eight so far this year, in North America. Sometimes I'm facetious when I say some of those things, knowing that we can sell a few million but seeing that someone else can sell 25. You're kinda like, 'Well, that's a hit!' We always joke that if we only do half as well as Blizzard on Star Wars: The Old Republic, we'll be quite satisfied. We've been very fortunate. I always joke about that, but...
Q: You did mention that humility is part of the BioWare business plan.
GZ: I think we know how lucky we are. When we're saying that, we always know that we're super-fortunate that we have a nice combination of things going on - really great support from EA, a budget to make great big giant games. We recognise that in a sense it's a privileged position we're in.
Q: That still sounds very modest, but I guess that's your prerogative.
GZ: We have earned it. We've done well over time, but you know, it's tough. It's tough for everyone, it's an interesting market.
Q: Earlier today you were also discussing the need to balance you ambitions with what is actually achievable. How many games can BioWare realistically make in a year? Is three your limit?
GZ: [laughs] Well, I think we'd would rather have a better space between the games. We had Dragon Age on the second of November and Mass Effect in January. In a sense that was too close - it wasn't really ever our intent. But in terms of actually finalling [finishing the code], we finalled both of them before Christmas. Dragon Age was finalled in October, and Mass was early-mid December. That's a pretty short time between the two, but we did it. I think the high quality is testimony to the team, and we're actually also a pretty good size studio. That's the first time we've ever done anything in that proximity, I think we'd much rather have a bit more space between them. We've got lots of things going on, like that's the idea about all the small stuff - the spin-off, trial things and research projects. Otherwise when you're releasing games every couple of years, you may start with this target and then the target will move. And then you'll probably re-direct yourself over time, but that's expensive and hard to do.
Q: Talking of spin-offs, how do you feel about Mass Effect on the iPhone? Was it something worth attempting?
GZ: Oh, I think it was very worth attempting. Even when something's not as successful as you'd like, you can take some lessons away and apply them, right? For us, that's kind of where humility comes in, to eat the humble pie on the Mass iPhone game [laughs] and go, 'Yeeeaaah, we made a big mistake,' in the sense that we thought story could carry it. Maybe it wasn't even a mistake as much as we took a guess, our guess was wrong, and we learned something in the process - that the fundamental tactile gameplay is actually the key thing on the platform. Unless your game is utterly designed about tactile gameplay, you shouldn't release it. That was good information for us to have.
Q: Do you think you'll ever return to the iPhone with Mass Effect?
GZ: I don't know. We still poke around on it. At some level we're leaving the expertise on the iPhone to the folks who are experts. We'll explore stuff. For us, it may be things that link into other games. It's the cross-platform nature of the potential platform, like an iPhone app able to somehow access one of the other games' universes, or something. That would be really cool.
Q: You think there's greater scope for trying to do something supplementary to the main game?
GZ: What's interesting is imagining things like the unlocking games on your iPhone. Weird stuff like that would be kinda cool. Again, you would use the tactile gameplay. Suddenly you have to pull out your iPhone, to unlock the thing! We wouldn't make it a requirement, but it could just be a neat experience.
Q: But if your iPhone ran out of battery while you were playing, you'd be screwed! And let's face it, iPhones do run out of battery...
GZ: [laughs] Yeah! That's why it couldn't be the only way to do it! It's just a random idea that would be kind of interesting.