Dragon Age: Origins is out. Mass Effect 2 is out in January. Star Wars: The Old Republic is out… well, we don’t know when, and there are even “unannounced projects” on the go. Canadian developer BioWare is busy. But not so busy that co-founder and CEO Dr. Ray Muzyka couldn’t take the time to do a massive, no-holds barred interview with VideoGamer.com. Here, in the first part, Ray dissects Dragon Age, talking reviews, sex and graphics.
VideoGamer.com: Congratulations on Dragon Age: Origins.
Ray Muzyka: Thanks.
VideoGamer.com: It’s a game I reviewed and very much enjoyed. EA UK boss Keith Ramsdale said that the future of the single-player experience is over. It struck me as an odd thing to say in the week Dragon Age: Origins, a hugely in-depth single-player RPG, is released. What do you think of that comment?
RM: There is more than one way to achieve multiplayer or online features. We’re embracing a lot of those in our BioWare games, whether they’re multiplayer or not. You can achieve an online enabled experience in a single-player game. You can have a massively single-player game in one sense. What we’re doing in Dragon Age is an example of that, with the social.bioware.com site, and with the post-release downloadable content plan and user-generated content tools we’re releasing. All of those together are enabling more online connectivity post-release. It’s almost like Dragon Age is a platform. It’s a launch point for a lot of DLC, user-generated content, or surfacing heroic achievements onto the social.bioware.com site so you can view other players’ character’s progressions through the game and understand the impact of their choices, the consequences of their choices, they made in the game and see how they compare with yours. That’s one way to approach making a single-player experience online enabled. The other obvious way is to make it multiplayer. Some of our games will be multiplayer in the future. Others will be single-player. But all of them will have a lot of online connectivity features that are value-adds for the players post release. This is something fans enjoy, being able to communicate and connect online as part of the experience.
VideoGamer.com: Is there something to be said, however, for playing a single-player game that’s your game and your game only?
RM: Yeah, but that’s part of what I was saying. It’s almost optional. You don’t have to do DLC or user-generated content or sharing your heroes’ journey with other players. But if you do, it can enrich the experience for some of our fans. That’s an exciting opportunity.
VideoGamer.com: Do you keep abreast of review scores?
VideoGamer.com: Are you bothered by them?
VideoGamer.com: Congratulations on the positive review scores for Dragon Age.
RM: Thanks. It’s a mixed bag of different opinions. Everybody has their own opinions on games but the overall has been outstanding. It’s been 90 plus pretty much across the board for all the platforms, so it’s good.
VideoGamer.com: Were you expecting that kind of reception? Were you confident of it or did you think there was a danger it might not be as high?
RM: We always strive for that. We always strive for it. But we never know. We’re always trying to innovate in some sense. It’s not like we’re saying, well, we’re building just the same we’ve done before that was 90. We always try to push the envelope and pack a lot of content into our game. You never know what players and press are going to feel about it until it launches.
VideoGamer.com: What’s your opinion on the great Metacritic average debate? Is it useful? Is it harmful?
RM: It’s an interesting question. It tracks sort of a consensus opinion from journalists. And if individually the journalists’ opinions are influential and important to fans well, an aggregate of that opinion is probably still important to fans too. Whether fans look at Metacritic directly I don’t know, but I know we do. We look at it to understand what the overall audience of journalists as a whole are feeling about our games. For certain genres it may be a less useful statistic than for others. For certain platforms it may be more relevant than others too.
VideoGamer.com: Are you suggesting it’s less useful for Wii games?
RM: Yeah. I would say the Wii’s one of them. And DS might be another. Mobile games or social games are others, children’s games. There are probably a few examples. For console games and PC games it’s a pretty good score indicator of the critical acclaim. But it’s finding the right metric to measure critical acclaim. There are other metrics too. Net Promoter scores, which is more of a fan opinion they recommend to their friends, that’s a useful metric. You can’t track that easily but you can do surveys to find out what the results are. It’s useful. It has to be taken in context like all kinds of measurements. There’s no perfect measurement for anything. But if understanding what the journalists are feeling about your game is important to you then Metacritic or Game Rankings is a great way to start.
VideoGamer.com: We hear some horror stories about developers who are rewarded based on Metacritic scores. Is that the wrong approach?
RM: That’s for their publishing partners to decide, I’d say, and for the developers. If they feel it’s the right approach for them, well that’s a business deal they would enter. I don’t know. I can’t judge whether it’s a right or wrong approach. It’s one measurement among others that indicates one measure of quality. We check it. I’m interested in knowing what the various journalists think about our games. If Metacritic and Game Rankings represent a body of journalistic opinion, then in that sense it’s useful. But it’s all subjective I guess.
VideoGamer.com: One of the criticisms of Dragon Age concerns the graphics. Is that the result of the game being compared with Mass Effect, one of the most graphically stunning games of the last few years? Was it unrealistic to expect a similar quality level of graphics for a game so huge?
RM: It’s a different style of graphics, I’d say. We don’t want to make all of our games look like Mass Effect. Mass Effect’s art style is beautiful. And even Mass Effect 2 pushes the envelope even more than Mass Effect 1. Players are in for a treat. With Dragon Age we were striving for a different art style. It’s not a stylised art style, but it’s not an ultra-realistic style either. It’s somewhere just south of a realistic style, but with a little measure of stylised art thrown in. We’re trying to find our own place and every game has to have a unifying theme in terms of the way the art works. I personally think Dragon Age is beautiful. Different players may have different perspectives on that, but Dragon Age and Mass Effect are both beautiful in different ways.
VideoGamer.com: How do you feel the console versions turned out in comparison with the PC version?
RM: I played a lot of both. Having played the PC version start to finish before I started playing the console versions, I found the console versions pretty refreshing. I actually really enjoyed the experience. I thought the interface captured the spirit of the game well. It’s really the same content in both games. It’s more of a question of preference, whether you prefer to play a console game or a PC game. It’s the interface you prefer. But they both are great experiences just for different audiences.
VideoGamer.com: Do you have any update on when the PS3 version will be released in Europe?
RM: I don’t know the exact date, but it’s later in November. It’s coming soon.
VideoGamer.com: But it will be November?
RM: Yeah. It’s in cert[ification] now basically. I don’t know the exact date but it’s coming soon. Basically November 6 is PC and 360. PS3 we’re trying to get out as soon as possible after that.
VideoGamer.com: The PS3 version was released at the same time as the other versions in North America, wasn’t it?
RM: Yeah. It’s different in every territory in terms of the timing and the amount of time cert versus manufacturing takes on different platforms. Sometimes you can align them and sometimes it’s not possible.
VideoGamer.com: Would you consider co-op based multiplayer features, where players play together online in parties, for future Dragon Age and Mass Effect games?
RM: Sure. We would consider it. We haven’t announced anything on that front yet, but those are interesting ideas. They could make a great gameplay experience. Whether we’ll do them or not remains to be decided.
VideoGamer.com: Could co-op party features detract from the experience?
RM: It could. It might depend on how you do it.
VideoGamer.com: It’s not simply a case of saying, you’re a player, you’re a player and you’re a player, go off and play the kind game that works in the single-player sense?
RM: No, it’s not. It’s hard to weave a great single-player storyline into a multiplayer experience. It’s not impossible. We’ve done it, and we’re doing it again now in Star Wars: The Old Republic. But it is challenging.
VideoGamer.com: Moving on to Old Republic, you’ve talked a lot about the storytelling features. Will it still have the more traditional MMO elements?
RM: Yeah, very much. We aren’t losing anything in the translation because we’re adding story and voice over and choice or consequence. We’re looking for inspiration from all the great MMOs in the past for best or great features and customisation and progression and exploration and combat and all the things players love to do in MMOs. You get to do them in Star Wars: The Old Republic as well.
VideoGamer.com: Bringing it back to Dragon Age, the game has an 18 certificate. It’s a gory game and that’s fine. The sex scenes, however, do not contain nudity. In an 18 rated film I would see nudity in a sex scene. Why did you decide not to include nudity given it’s an 18-rated game designed for adults?
RM: It’s an artistic choice by the development team. We don’t constrain what they do. We don’t strive for gratuitous content. But we also ask the teams to choose a direction and then run with it. That was their choice. That’s how they wanted to depict the romantic liaisons in the game, so that’s what we did.
VideoGamer.com: The romantic liaisons you can have in the game I found particularly sophisticated. I felt pleasing my party members almost more important than the overarching goal of saving the world. I was more bothered about pleasing Morrigan with my choices than getting on with the main quest. That’s something we’re not used to seeing in many games.
RM: We’re trying for emotional engagement. Moment to moment, and also on a grander level, we’re trying to make the players feel their choices matter. Ideally they’re going to care about the companions they bring alongside them, or dislike them for that matter. They’re both equally valid expressions of emotion. You can like or dislike, but so long as you’re feeling something for the companions you bring alongside you, then we’re winning in a sense. We’re compelling a reaction that is rewarding to the players, where they can feel like, yeah, I’m getting something back from this game. It’s more than playing through a series of dialogue options and choices. It’s more about, I’m starting to care about these characters or dislike them more, to feel something. It’s hard, but when you achieve it it’s rewarding.
VideoGamer.com: For me Morrigan will go down in history as one of the greatest RPG characters ever created. What was the inspiration behind her? Where did you get the idea to create a hard to please bitch?
RM: She’s challenging, yeah.
VideoGamer.com: That’s a diplomatic way of putting it. Don’t get me wrong, I consider that a refreshing quality.
RM: Sure. There are characters like that in Mass Effect 2 as well. All the characters in Dragon Age are pretty interesting. Everybody you ask will probably have different favourite characters. I don’t think you get the same answer from any one person as to what characters. I personally like Morrigan quite a bit too, but I liked Liliana, I liked Sten. Even Dog is interesting, if you play with Dog a little bit, because you start to realise he’s got a lot of personality. But all the characters are pretty cool in different ways.
I don’t know. The inspiration came from the writing team, the design team and the art team working together to create a character they felt was compelling, and they did that for every companion character that you could bring into the game. They do that for all the games. I think they did a story recently on some of the models behind the characters in Dragon Age, and Morrigan had an actress, sort of her body double. But then her personality was developed by the writing team and the design team on Dragon Age.
VideoGamer.com: Mass Effect, and indeed Knights of the Old Republic before it, had a distinct karma system where you could make decisions that would feed into Paragon/Renegade. Dragon Age doesn’t have that. Why?
RM: We were trying to do something different there. We always have some kind of system in our games that are sort of a system of moral choices and an ethical system behind the game. Sometimes we surface it. Sometimes we make it more grey. Sometimes we make it more black and white. Every game is different in a sense, right? That’s one of the areas we’re always trying to explore different approaches. In Dragon Age, there is a system behind it. It’s underneath the hood, but it’s reflected in the reactions of the companion characters around you, which is an interesting take on it. They’re almost like the mirror of your choice, the lens through which you see the world.
VideoGamer.com: Is that system one you will take forward with other games?
RM: It could be. We never say never, but we never necessarily commit to that either. We always want to explore every game on its own merit. We might continue that in the Dragon Age franchise, or we might try something new. You never know. Did you like it?
VideoGamer.com: I found it refreshing. I love Mass Effect and indeed Fallout 3, which also has a karma system that reflects you choices bad or good, but what I don’t like about that system is that my moral decisions are determined by what rewards are unlocked by getting all the way to the Paragon side or the Renegade side. I’ll look down the tree and see what powers I’d prefer.
RM: But to work you need to have some rewards along the way, or for people who stay in the middle, too. Or you can allow them to maximise both, which is actually what we’re doing in Mass Effect 2. We’re allowing people to push the envelope on both sides.
VideoGamer.com: So you’ll be able to maximise Paragon and Renegade in the same playthrough?
RM: I don’t know if you’ll be able to do it in one playthrough, but certainly you can make choices that are going to amp up one side or the other. It’s not a plus/minus kind of thing. It’s a new take on how we’re doing it. I’m not sure if we’ve gone into a lot of detail on that yet. Every game, like we said, we always have some kind of compass for your moral decisions, and we’re always trying to innovate in how we approach it. Mass Effect 2’s system there is quite innovative, and it plays really well. I can attest to that, having just played through it. There are some really neat effects as a result of that. It’s manifested in your companions and a lot of other ways, too. So in some ways it’s even more nuanced than Dragon Age’s, but it’s also at the same time more visible. It’s an interesting combination of some of the stuff you’ve done in the past.
VideoGamer.com: In Dragon Age each companion character has a relationship meter. Will Mass Effect 2 use a similar system where you’ll be able to see how you’re getting on with each party member?
RM: It’s not visible, no, but certainly they can be loyal or disloyal, and depending what you do, it’s going to have an impact on how they view you.
VideoGamer.com: Will it be taken to the same extent as it is in Dragon Age, where party members can leave or stab you in the back?
RM: I don’t think we’re revealing anything on that front yet. It’s always fun when characters have their own personalities.
VideoGamer.com: Yeah, I love Morrigan, but I also love Alistair. His sense of humour is wonderful.
RM: Yeah, a lot of people like Alistair as well. Some people dislike Alistair, too. I wasn’t a big fan.
VideoGamer.com: I didn’t like him at first, but I grew to like him.
RM: I played through the game a lot with him, and I can see why he’d be likeable, but I didn’t like him that much. But that’s personal choice. That’s why we have a group of companions you can pick and choose who you like to travel with.
Mass Effect 2 is due out on Xbox 360 and PC on January 29 2010. Dragon Age: Origins is out now on PC and Xbox 360, with a PS3 version due before the end of the month. Star Wars: The Old Republic is yet to be dated.