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.
Q: Fair enough. I want to move on and talk about review scores. Again, this was something you mentioned earlier, and it’s an issue that tends to flare up from time to time. What’s your opinion of review scores? How worthy are they?
GZ: Well, I think they have an impact. It’s almost the kind of thing where you have to take the top two or three, the bottom two or three, and then make an average out of that. In figure skating they do that. In figure skating there are cheating concerns, so they take out the top and bottom out and then use the middle scores. I mean, I think they’re directional. I don’t think they always reflect the quality of the game, because sometimes… for example, with kids games the review scores aren’t written with the context of the audience in mind. They’re written from the reviewer’s perspective, and they often won’t put themselves mentally in the place of a 12-year-old boy who the game is made for. Instead they review it as a 22-year-old hardcore gamer and go, ‘This is terrible!’. But I think generally they’re directional. I don’t think in and of themselves they’re super indicative of sales, in the sense that there’s a minimum score that you have to hit to sell. I think actually what they do is that they indicative of the word of mouth you might get. If you can get a reviewer excited, the jaded, played-it-all person, if you can get them really excited about the game, that probably implies that other people will feel the same and they’ll tell each other. There are some buyers out there that will look at review scores and make a decisions based on them. I don’t think that’s a majority of the market, but they’re all factors.
Q: Do you read many reviews yourself?
GZ: Yeah, I usually do. I think our obsession with it is partially just a general obsession. I read a lot of reviews of other games. I can’t say that I read every word, I’ll often jump around…
Q: Do you skip to the number at the end?
GZ: No, I don’t actually. I usually read the beginning and then I’ll kind of skim the middle and then check out the closing comments, then I might jump back. What we did in the case of both Mass and Dragon Age, the guys went through all the reviews and pulled out positives and negatives. We put it all down and looked at the whole feedback. While in a sense we’re trying not to simply develop to the review score, it’s a good source of data. Reviewers play a lot of games, they’re opinions often reflect the core segment, and generally they’re well put-together and comprehensible. Fan feedback can be all over the map, right? So we’ll draw on that fan feedback but a lot of times we’ll primarily draw on reviews, and then then finally team will sit down [together]. Often we’ll know when something hasn’t turned out right, so it’s interesting to see it confirmed or denied in reviews.
Q: You’ve said that you need to take on feedback. In the case of Dragon Age 2, you recently released some new screens and they were met with quite a lot of criticism – but it wasn’t exactly constructive, it was more, “Urgh! I don’t like that!”
Q: What’s your reaction to that?
GZ: What you don’t listen to is the loud internet commentary. The loudest voice is probably not the one you listen to. You listen to the person who put a lot of thought into it, who went out of their way to provide feedback. We’re starting public testing for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and the fans are encouraged to write up their perspectives in the private forums. You’re not allowed to break NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) – if they want to talk, they can talk all the want in their official, appropriate area. It’s interesting to read, and the incites of the fans are valuable. I think there’s a sort of thuggish mentality of the crowd on the internet, with people jumping on board. I think it would be very rare that you would find valuable things in the comments section of anything. Occasionally there’s stuff, but we’re not swayed by it. You can really be reactive to that. We tend to be very analytic, we put it down and move it around until we actually understand it. But I think one of the ways we make great games is by being really, really open to criticism.
Q: That’s all very well with constructive criticism, but what would you say to one of the “urgh!” people if they were sitting here right now?
GZ: I’d say, hey, they’re entitled to their opinion, but also take a look at the final game when we’re done. It’s pretty hard to get the full picture That’s actually part of the way we’ve been doing PR the last little while. We haven’t specifically been provoking our fans, but we’ve doing stuff to drive them a little bit up the wall. If you look at the Mass Effect thing with Shepard being dead, or the Marilyn Manson thing [with Dragon Age]… this isn’t in the same vein, but you come to expect the response. At the very least, you want people to talk about you. We absolutely stand behind the stuff we’re doing with Dragon Age 2. The whole difference is ‘played it’ versus ‘not played it’. That’s the litmus test. It’s like, “Hey, great. Hold the comment, remember the game, then play it and make your decision at that point.” It’s funny. On the one hand people don’t like change, on the other hand they’ll complain if it’s all the same. There will be people who say, “Oh, I like Dragon Age just the way it is! I want more of just that!” And then when you give them that they’ll say, “Why didn’t you make the graphics better?” It’s this funny Catch-22, so we in a sense pre-empt them and push it in an innocent direction.
Q: One of the criticisms people had with Dragon Age was that the PS3 and 360 iterations felt like the PC version forced into a console frame, and that the interfaces simply didn’t work as well. Is that something that’s formed your response for this second outing?
GZ: To a certain degree. I mean, we’re not proud about saying that the PC version was done first and the console was done second. Now, this way we actually do them all together, so you have much more of a natural experience. It’s actually kind of interesting, because if people understood how incredibly hard it was to get the complexity of the PC version into the console version… people just don’t comprehend how challenging it was. We worked with Edge of Reality, and the team deserves a medal for what they did. It’s one of the most complex interfaces in the PC space – power bars and mouse buttons and up to 50 different powers you could use. To make it work on the console, and really work… Maybe it’s a different experience. I think it’s a great accomplishment. The other dimension I find interesting is that again, it’s before people played it [that they judge the game]. It’s actually one of those things that people won’t believe it until they try it. It’s like the shooting in Mass Effect. Everyone is like, [adopts dismissive voice] “Yeah, yeah, it’ll be a great shooter.” And then they’re like, “Hey! This is a really good shooter.” People just wouldn’t believe it, and I understand why – they’re continually getting sold, “This is the next greatest thing, this is the next greatest thing.” They’re continually barraged by PR. So I think in the scenario where people get their hands on it and make they’re own decision, they’ll be pretty happy.
Q: What will Dragon Age 2 do that the first game didn’t?
GZ: What’s really cool about it, what I’m most excited about, is that we tell a different story in a different part of the world. It’s from the ground up a new experience, with all the familiarity. And the depth is there, and all the things you love about the game, I think are there – but what’s funny is that we’re given the opportunity to tell it differently. Like I say, we like to challenge players a bit. We don’t want to do the same old, same old, same old, and I think we’d be doing our fans a disservice if we did that. Will everyone love it? Not every single person will love it, but I think people will generally really, really like it.
Q: My final question… and I apologise in advance for this!
Q: How is sex going to be handled in Dragon Age 2, and how do you react to the intense scrutiny and interest that accompanies the sex in Dragon Age and Mass Effect? I mean, I have a friend who was absolutely obsessed with trying to nail one of his party members. What do you think of that?
GZ: Will there be romance opportunities? Of course! It’s not just your friend, it’s a large part of the experience. It’s really funny, because when we first did it in Baldur’s Gate, the same concept, we asked fans and did focus tests they all said, “Oh no, we don’t really care about that, we’re not really interested.” Yet when they play, they do the exact opposite. They obsess over it, spending all this time and effort, and in Dragon Age you had the gifts. It was involved, right? I think it’s something that’s actually an important part of the game. It’s part of the whole concept of having relationships. I think it’s a good thing. They key thing for us is that it’s mature content for an appropriate age group. But I think it’s a big part of the game.
Do you ever get weird feedback on the sex?
GZ: It’s funny in Dragon Age, because people were complaining about why they were wearing their Renaissance underwear. It’s funny what they’ll complain about.
Dragon Age 2 will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in March 2011.