BioWare Q&A: Founders take us on a tour of the online store

The Jade Empire developer sets up shop online; puts Neverwinter Nights content on the shelf first. Our interview with Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka sheds light on their long-term strategy.

One of the first companies to seriously embrace user-created content through the release of tools used by the player community has taken its philosophy one step further. The company will open what it is calling "an Internet-based marketplace," or online store, to facilitate the distribution of premium digital content modules to be made available for purchase by the Neverwinter Nights player community. That game was first released in June 2002, and has sold more than 2 million copies.

While the store will at first sell only three game modules for existing Neverwinter Nights players, BioWare chief executives Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk didn't rule out the possibility that the store might one day act as a distribution hub for additional digital content.

The modules slated to go on sale starting November 10, 2004, will be developed by BioWare staff, as well as by members of the Neverwinter Nights fan community, the company says. The mods will be produced by BioWare and Atari and will tap the Dungeons & Dragons license held by Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.

Muzyka told GameSpot, "Our fans are very important to us at BioWare and we're always trying to provide them more alternatives for high-quality story- and character-focused content."

The first three mods for sale are Neverwinter Nights: Kingmaker, Neverwinter Nights: ShadowGuard, and Neverwinter Nights: Witch's Wake.

In conversation with GameSpot this morning, Muzyka called Kingmaker, created by BioWare designers Cori May and Dan Whiteside, "an adventure offering between five and eight hours of gameplay each time you play through it." He said the module "contains more than 500 lines of recorded voice-over, providing its interesting NPCs and henchmen with loads of personality." Muzyka then spoke about ShadowGuard, saying that it "places you in the role of a promising young recruit at the Imperial Academy in the city of Gharaak. The gameworld was created by Ben "Altaris" McJunkin, developer of the Lone Wolf series of Neverwinter Nights fan modules. Additional design work was completed by BioWare's Rob Bartel and Keith Hayward." Shadowguard, Muzyka says, "offers between two and three hours of new gameplay."

Neverwinter Nights: Witch's Wake has been remastered from its original form, with new voice-overs, features, and secondary races. The sequel, Witch's Wake 2: The Witch Hunters, is already in development. All the modules feature new music from community composer David John.

GameSpot spoke with BioWare cofounders, joint CEOs, and co-executive producers Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk:

GameSpot: What's behind the creation of the store?

Ray Muzyka: We've been building the online community at BioWare since 1996-1997 when we were talking with fans online in forums and newsgroups about Baldur's Gate. The online community at BioWare began in earnest in 2000-2001 with Neverwinter Nights, when we started with online registration, and has built steadily since then until now, with close to 2.2 million registered user accounts online in the BioWare Community. We see the online store as a natural extension of the online community work we've been doing for close to a decade now. By offering premium modules and other products in the future, we're offering our fans the opportunity to get great story- and character-based games right from the source, BioWare.

GS: It's been over two years since the Aurora toolset was released to Neverwinter Nights gamers. Is the philosophy behind releasing toolsets to gamers the same as it was in 2002 or has the environment for encouraging user-created content changed?

Greg Zeschuk: The evolution of user-created content has been very interesting and we've seen a few developments over the life span of Neverwinter Nights. First, a significant stratification of the level of quality of user-created modes has become apparent--the spread goes from near full commercial quality to rudimentary. Second, a number of module development groups have formed, and the quality coming from those groups is extremely high, as is the volume of their work. These two points emphasize the evolution of user-created content to a point where the best stuff is worth purchasing, especially if they can be further enhanced by additional high-quality assets, like we can provide.

As you note, we have been longtime supporters of user-created content in our past products, and BioWare will continue to enable the creation of user-created content in future products.

GS: Price point is a tricky subject. What are the price points of the mods and how were the prices decided upon?

RM: We've done a lot of research on this topic with our great marketing department, and we tried to choose a price point that seemed to be reasonable for the kinds of content we were selling online.

Our aim is to keep the cost of these modules reasonable--we're going to strive to ensure that the content is always priced so our fans will feel they're getting good value for their money. The initial batch of modules we've developed range from $4.99 to $7.99, and will be available for purchase through the BioWare Store at store.bioware.com.

Once you have purchased a module at the BioWare Store, you can go back anytime, log in with your BioWare Community account, and download the product.

GS: Future price points for upcoming content will be in the same range?

RM: Future products available on the BioWare Community site may have different pricing depending on what kinds of products are offered. Other kinds of content (ranging from smaller modules to full expansions to full products or physical goods) could well have different price points. At all times we'll try our best to ensure that our fans in the BioWare Community are getting great value for their money--our fans are very important to us at BioWare.

GS: I notice the bricks-and-mortar retailer is not part of the distribution equation for the mods. The topic of direct-to-consumer digital distribution is a hot one, in part because of the possibilities that Steam presents to game developers. Where do you stand on the possibilities for direct distribution that seem newly within reach for the developer?

GZ: We definitely plan to continue supporting our retail partners and publishers by distributing our games via the retail channels--this is a critical part of our business, and many of our fans like to buy their games from stores. As we open our online store, we're simply providing an alternative for our fans to quickly obtain high-quality content--we'll continue to expand the types, size, and variety of content we sell online as we learn what kinds of content our fans in the BioWare Community want to purchase.

GS: Is Neverwinter Nights publisher Atari behind the move to sell the modules only online?

GZ: They are fully supportive of our efforts to sell Neverwinter content online, and our other publishing partners are very interested in this distribution channel as well--we've heard from multiple publishers that they very much admire our community efforts and the resulting size and focused nature of the BioWare Community. We're trying to add value for our fans, and for our publishers in every case. Our retail partners are very important to us and we're definitely working closely with them as we develop this initiative--that's a critical step to the initiative succeeding, since we plan to continue to offer our games through traditional retail channels as well.

GS: What's the process, internally, that sees a particular mod qualify as one that gets the backing of BioWare and makes it onto the "shelves" of the BioWare Store?

GZ: At the current time, we're looking to balance the amount of content we create internally and procure from external groups. Some of the modules are done internally and some are done externally. Our approach to external groups or individuals is relatively direct--we've asked members of the community who have created high-quality modules if they would like to create for-purchase modules on the BioWare Online Store. If they're interested, we start talking in more detail about how we can work together.

GS: Interested content creators can contact you guys directly?

GZ: We're certainly not averse to having people contact us if they are interested in creating content for sale on the BioWare Store, but the level of quality we require is very high, so not everyone will reach the level we need them to be before we start talking about creating a module.

GS: The store will open with just three items for sale. When can gamers expect to see more mods come online?

RM: We do have more modules and other very cool types of high-quality content in development right now and we plan to continue to roll the new content out over time as we learn more about what kinds of content our fans want to buy. We want to make sure we do right by our fans and offer only the highest-quality content possible to them.

GS: Future plans for the store?

RM: We're interested in talking with computer game developers who want to reach a very targeted, receptive market of fans at the BioWare Community, so if developers or publishers have a great, high-quality story-based game they'd like to distribute to an audience of over 2 million avid fans, they should feel free to contact us. We definitely have a long-term vision and plan for the BioWare Community and the BioWare Online Store. We have a number of ideas for future content we'd like to roll out, ranging from smaller expansion-type content all the way to full-sized products. Having 2.2 million fans who enjoy story, exploration, character interaction, and character progression provides a lot of opportunities to reach them with a variety of different kinds of products in the future. Additionally, in the future we'll be offering physical goods like shirts, mugs, caps, and so on to our fans.

And in addition to the digitally distributed games like the Neverwinter Nights modules we're offering at launch, we plan to expand the type, size, and variety of digitally distributed products sold in the BioWare Community. We're really excited to see how our fans like the content we're offering, and we plan to respond to their suggestions by offering a wider variety of content in the future.

GS: Is user-created content a possibility with your future console games, or is this only a PC gamer's pastime?

RM: User-created and other kinds of postrelease add-on content are definitely feasible within console games, and we plan to continue exploring both of these in the future. We'll have more info on the console side in the future, as we're developing a couple of as-yet-unannounced products for which this is potentially a very good fit.

GS: Sounds as if the future is being constructed as you go along.

RM: Future digital-distribution products from BioWare could involve existing IPs we're working on, like the epic martial-arts world of Jade Empire or the heroic fantasy world of Dragon Age, or even other intellectual properties from other developers or publishers, or as-yet-unannounced new ones from BioWare.

GS: Thanks, Greg and Ray. Good luck with the store.

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