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.
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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.
VideoGamer.com: Following from that then, would you ever consider replacing lines of dialogue with control over a playable character’s facial expressions and head movement?
RM: Maybe. What we have in Mass Effect is sort of a step towards that. The directional choice you make generally is aligned. So if you always push upper right it’s always going to be a certain type of response. Upper left is always going to be a different kind of response, but generally the same type. We explain the dialogue differences in Mass Effect and Dragon Age as the difference between first person narrative – they’re both authored narrative, so that’s one category of narrative, versus emergent or open world narrative, so we tend to focus more on authored narrative at BioWare – but of that type there’s a first person and a third person type. The third person type is where you’re watching a character do something, like Shepard, and you’re guiding him along the path, but you never quite know what Shepard’s going to do. The first person narrative is more of the Dragon Age experience, where you are that character. From the Origin story onward you are invested in that character, taking that role personally. It’s you. You’re making a choice, so you don’t hear your voice because it’s you speaking it. It’s you actually making it. And then we invest more in the responses of the characters you’re talking to. Then because there’s six Origin stories there are often six or more responses back to any line that you give. So it’s just a different approach to narrative.
VideoGamer.com: So could you replace control over lines of dialogue with control over your character’s face and expressions with both Dragon Age and Mass Effect?
RM: Either of those could work with that. Third person authored narrative could work better. You’d pick an angry and then you’d see Shepard do something. We actually have interrupt moments in Mass Effect 2, where it’s like interrupt and you do an heroic interrupt, or interrupt and you do the anti-heroic interrupt, and you see him do things. There’s an example in the behind closed doors demos, you’ll see him just lose it and punch a guy through a plate glass window.
VideoGamer.com: Dragon Age was originally planned to come out on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 at the same time, but from what I understand the PS3 version will come out after the 360 version. Is there a reason for that?
RM: We’re taking a little more time on the Xbox and PC versions too. In the end it’s just a matter of a few weeks. It’s about making the best possible game for our fans.
VideoGamer.com: Mass Effect 2 will detect your Mass Effect game saves and alter accordingly. If you’ve got multiple game saves, how will Mass Effect 2 determine what Mass Effect game save to use?
RM: We’re still working on the interface for it but I believe there are plans to allow you to choose the playthrough that you want and show you some of the different outcomes of what will occur. If you have multiple playthroughs we want you to pick the one you felt best conveyed… They’re all different so you can’t import all of them at the same time, so you have to pick one. Then the characters that you related to in your original game, if they’re still alive, will generally reappear in Mass Effect 2. Sometimes they can join you. Sometimes they just interact with you, but they’ll remember what you did and the choices you made will be reflected in the game as well.
VideoGamer.com: What is Wrex’s involvement in the game, assuming you kept him alive?
RM: We haven’t said that yet, but he is one of the favourites, and there are others as well. Our goal is to try and make it if you had a favourite and invested in that character, we will allow you to see what happened to that character in Mass Effect 2.
VideoGamer.com: Mass Effect 2 seems to me to be distinctly darker than Mass Effect.
RM: Yes it’s a dark second chapter.
VideoGamer.com: Shepard almost seems like he’s teetering on the edge.
RM: In many ways you’re entering a more dangerous mission. We’re referring to it as almost like it’s a suicide mission. That’s how it’s perceived by the people around you. You have to be willing to deal with the brutality and the darkness of the world around you, and sometimes that requires more direct measures. You have to gather a team to survive, that’s going to be capable of surmounting the challenges. You have to get some of the most dangerous and nasty people in the galaxy to accompany you to overcome the challenge you’re taking on. Together those things lead to the feeling you’re in the dark second act.
The first game, we wanted to convey humanity’s entrance onto the galactic stage. The initial impressions of it were, ah the Citadel, it’s bright and shiny and look at these civilisations that have been around for thousands of years longer than ours, isn’t this amazing? And then you realise it’s not as bright and shiny as you thought, and it’s all pretty dark and the seedy underbelly is revealed at the end of it. Mass Effect 2 punches through that and you emerge on the stage after that. That’s what you’re faced with. You realise there are a lot of difficult things going on here and to actually save humanity and other civilisations you’re going to have to be even more aggressive and direct than you were in the first game.
VideoGamer.com: When I play RPGs with a morality system I rarely feel forced to do something I really don’t want to, because at the end of the day it’s just a game. How do you create that effect?
RM: One of the things we’re doing in Dragon Age is there’s no morality scale except the characters around you in a party. Every time you do something they’re going to react to it, and some of them are going to like your actions and others don’t. If you like them enough, that could lead to rewards or inspirational leadership, or even romance in some cases. If you do things they dislike enough they could end up betraying you, departing, attacking, all of the things that could come as a consequence of that. They are the mirror of your actions. They’re the lens through which you see the world – the companion characters. In some ways it’s a more direct approach to morality. In other ways it’s more subtle and transparent for the player. But it feels very credible and real, because the companion characters in Dragon Age are one of the best parts of the game. They’re in the background all of the time, but they make the world feel alive. You’re walking around and exploring the game areas and they’re having a conversation beside you or around you, and you’re listening to them and they’re commenting on the environment, they’re bickering, they’re doing all these things.
I remember there are a couple of moments in the game where, did I just hear them say that? Like, wait a minute! I just stopped and looked at them and they’re having a conversation. They were talking about the area we were in and saying this or that about it. I remember this one conversation, Leliana and Morrigan were talking about – they’re both potential love interests – Leliana likes to shop, so she swings by Orlais, which is another part of the world. She’s saying, oh the shoe shops in Orlais are amazing, and I get to go by these shoes! And she’s jacked up in her armour and walking around, but she likes to wear a dress and she likes to wear shoes. And Morrigan is mocking her – you’re useless! What is this, you want to buy shoes? What a waste of time that is. But it felt very real, and very well written. It brought them to life. It brought the area I was in to life, because we were walking through the shopping district at the time. It just feels like, wow, these are real characters.
When they react to your choices in combat or in dialogue later, because you’ve heard them in their natural states where they’ve come to life as characters, their reactions to you feel that much more emotionally impactful. We’ve invested in all this surrounding material, they feel real, they have back story and mystery, you can talk to them, you can explore their personal quests if you want. The more you do that the more real they feel and the more powerful it is when they say I don’t want you to do that. This will not work for me. I will be devastated if you do that. Please don’t do this. And you’re like, whoa. There were moments when I felt like wow, I think I need to do that but I don’t want to do that because I care about that character’s reactions to me.
We’re getting better with each game. Every game, when it comes out we want it to be better than all the prior ones in every way possible. The characterisation of digital actors is a big part of how we tell stories. It’s not the only way. If you look at games like BioShock and other games, the world around you tells the story too. That’s exciting, too. There’s more than one form of narrative. Gameplay-driven narrative is how we look at it now. But story is still an important part of that. It’s a subset of narrative.
VideoGamer.com: You’ve talked about how you’ll emotionally engage with characters in Dragon Age. How will the player engage with characters in Mass Effect 2?
RM: Well they’re different kinds of narrative and story, but we have Shepard as a foil as well. He’s a third-person character and you care about him. So you make choices for him and then you hear him say things and you’ll hear the strain in his voice. You’ll see it in his eyes, the expression. He’s challenged by this. So you’re like, whoa, that’s challenging me. It feels like it’s you but it feels like it’s a character you’re playing as well. There’s a personality already pre-made and built so we can convey things through that as well as the companion characters around you, as well as NPCs in the world.
But a lot of it is about characters. A lot of it is human emotion. A lot of it is interacting with other people, whether they’re in your party, whether it’s yourself or whether it’s the non-player characters you get to interact with throughout the course of your adventures. So they’re all different ways to do that. In different ways they’re powerful.
VideoGamer.com: Finally, what can you tell me about Grunt, the new Krogan you announced during EA’s gamescom press conference?
RM: He’s cool to play with.
RM: Wow! He’s a little bit unpredictable, a little violent at times. He’s got a back story and personality. He’s charming in some ways, but he’s also a little unpredictable and irrational.
VideoGamer.com: That’s one of the things I loved about Wrex in the last game – he had this hard exterior but he had serious issues.
RM: So do the Krogan people. He’s got some powerful attack skills so he would be a great companion to have in combat – charge attacks that knock down enemies. We know Krogan characters are some of the more popular. Wrex as you said was one of the more popular characters in Mass Effect.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time.
Dragon Age: Origins is due out for Xbox 360 and PC November 6, with a PS3 version due a couple of weeks later. Mass Effect 2 is due out on Xbox 360 and PC early 2010.