BioWare talks E3 2005, Xbox 360

Decorated developers discuss their plans for Dragon Age beyond the PC, handheld gaming, massively multiplayer games, and what lies ahead.

At E3 2005, we had a chance to sit down with Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk to discuss the present and future plans for BioWare. The studio, having just pushed out its latest project, the Xbox game Jade Empire, in April, was hard at work through May--so busy on internal projects, in fact, that no games were shown in LA. The doctors explained that a very conscious decision was made to keep the development teams focused on its unannounced projects (and on its one announced project, the original PC role-playing game Dragon Age), rather than to attempt to create E3 demos. However, the two did graciously agree to share their thoughts on E3 in general and on next-generation consoles. They also agreed to share new updates on the company's plans, such as its current two Xbox 360 games in development, its plans to make Dragon Age into a series that may appear on next-generation consoles later on, and that the studio may even be eyeing handheld games and massively multiplayer games as future projects.

GameSpot: Any thoughts on E3 or the press conferences, or on the next-generation console hardware that has been revealed?

Greg Zeschuk: We're working on two [Xbox] 360 titles right now, so we have a pretty good sense of what's possible, and where this generation's at. I think we'll see where it's going pretty soon, but I think all the next-gen stuff is pretty exciting. (And we're really excited about the [Nintendo] Revolution and the ability to download and play all those old games!)

GS: Even though we probably can't discuss this in detail, how long have you had your hands on Xbox 360 dev kits? Do you have a good sense of the hardware and its abilities so far?

Ray Muzyka: We can't go into detail because of nondisclosure agreements, but we've had them for a while and obviously, since we've got two titles in development for it, we've had a tech team working on that. Our Technology Architecture Group is also working on a cutting-edge, next-generation engine for multiple systems. People will be hearing more about our games in development pretty soon. Microsoft seems to really be focusing on the [games scheduled for the Xbox 360's] launch window, but we'll be able to start talking pretty soon, and I think people will be pretty excited. All our games on both the PC and consoles are extremely ambitious, and to achieve that ambition, it takes time. We're not going to cut corners. Really, to achieve the ambitions we're going for with both our PC and console games--they're the most ambitious ones we've ever done, in terms of art, story, feature set, online capabilities. Some really innovative stuff.

GZ: And for us, when we look at the next generation, one of the issues we really look at is digital actors...more compelling virtual actors. There's also a ton of AI stuff. [Next generation consoles] can off-load graphics to these super-powerful GPUs, so now we've got more processing power from an animation and physics perspective. You can have characters that are highly detailed and animated. Look at Pixar [Studios'] movies--that's the next generation of technology that we have to bring to our games, to make characters that are so memorable that people talk about them years after they finish the game. So, actors are one [issue we're looking at], and online capability is another. BioWare actually has a huge legacy of online gaming, and some people tend to forget that. Our first Internet multiplayer game was co-op play in Shattered Steel, which supported up to 16 players. That's, like, nine years ago! And of course, there was Neverwinter Nights. We've got some really interesting stuff coming up on the console side, as well as on the PC.

RM: Like Dragon Age! We are taking the features of Neverwinter [Nights], including online multiplayer and content creation, with the kind of single-player story arc from Baldur's Gate, and combining those together.

GS: Could you comment on BioWare's stance, if any, about sticking with a particular platform? It sounds like BioWare might be trying to follow the technology as opposed to staying on only the PC, or only the Xbox, or only the Xbox 360, for instance. Can we expect to see the future of BioWare to be a continued pursuit of both PC and console games?

RM: Absolutely. We're actually looking at all the next-gen systems closely-- they all look impressive--very interesting and powerful.

GS: Are we talking about platform-agnostic games that will come out on multiple or all major platforms, or would we be looking at BioWare's next PC game, followed by Xbox 360 game, and so on?

RM: There might be some of each. For instance, with Dragon Age--the first iteration of it, anyway--we're focusing on making it the most ambitious PC RPG we've ever done at BioWare. It's a franchise we own, so there will be other versions that will be on other platforms. And there are other titles that are designed for a console. We certainly want to support our PC audience in the future too. We've got both a console community and a PC community, and we recognize there's overlap between them, but we also recognize that there are design preferences that are different between the two. The interesting thing is that with next generation, [hardware platforms] are evolving together, but they're also staying separate, so we want to make sure we accommodate both audiences and make games that are going to be seen as platform-defining games, no matter what platform they're on.

GZ: We actually haven't really talked about this before, but as long as we're discussing BioWare's future...Ray and I are huge handheld [gaming] fans. We spent the entire time on the plane on the way down [to Los Angeles] playing Lumines.

GS: So, the take-home message is that BioWare is keeping its doors open to...just about anything.

GZ: Sure! Well, can you imagine some of our RPGs on a handheld? All of a sudden, we've got these new handhelds that can actually handle it.

RM: And also, we've been looking a lot at the online space, both PC and console. We play a lot of massively multiplayer games, and we're excited by that as well. Not just in terms of working with our community, but also the possibility of taking characters and deep stories into that space and really seeing what we can do with that space. Dragon Age represents part of that.

GS: So you think that at some point, BioWare might really pursue a massively multiplayer game of its own?

RM: We're certainly very interested in the idea.

GZ: We're more interested than we've ever been, and obviously, so is everyone else after World of Warcraft (we're huge fans). One thing that [World of Warcraft] showed us was that [creating a massively multiplayer game] was achievable. It's not something that's out of reach--sure, it's very resource-heavy and the technical requirements are very, very high, but these are things that we've dealt with in the past. We just think that our gaming culture is very connected--as mentioned earlier, we've built up a community of fans that love our stuff. There probably isn't a better way to get them all playing [at once].

RM: A lot of [the process of developing an online game] involves creating a lot of content; making sure you design a lot of content-creating tools for your team to make a lot of stuff. One of the differences is that [massively multiplayer games] are...massive. You have to have a huge volume of content available. And that's certainly one thing that, at BioWare, we've been working on for a while and we think is very relevant to the next gen: a better pipeline and better content-creation tools. So that'll benefit us in our next-generation projects, and maybe with some other genres we might want to explore later.

GS: So would it be fair to say that BioWare is looking to, where possible and feasible, community content-creation tools in any future product?

GZ: Not necessarily every product, but where feasible.

RM: Where it's appropriate. Where it's going to bring value.

GS: But it's safe to say that Dragon Age will have a toolset that players will make modifications [to], as well as other content, long after the game has shipped.

RM: That's one of our goals, yes. It is the spiritual successor to both Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, so it's got to have some of the best features of both.

GZ: It never ceases to amaze me just how much user-created content there is for Neverwinter Nights. And we've actually sold several modules, and will sell a new module at the beginning of next month.

RM: The community really is inspirational [and so is] the way they continue to build content for the game. We try to facilitate that--we really try to listen to them, because we really appreciate what they're doing. So with Dragon Age, and with future premium-content modules [for Neverwinter Nights], we're really trying to make sure they get some really good content.

GZ: It turns out that the Neverwinter Nights toolset has actually become part of the curriculum in a lot of game-related courses at universities around the world, used for design, programming, scripting, even art creation. And then there are these people who are creating customized modules for themselves to conduct research, like the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.

GS: And in addition to community-building tools, we talked about additional issues, like online and virtual actors. Are these the primary areas BioWare is looking to expand, in terms of game design? That is, when people think about BioWare games, they tend to think of key points like really comprehensive and deep RPGs, really memorable characters, and really memorable stories. Or is it fair to say that BioWare is looking to expand past role-playing games at this point?

RM: Well, another way to say that is: our definition of role-playing games is expanding. We're still building what we see as role-playing games, but really, their story and characters are what we're working on. We're trying to make the best story-driven games in the world. So, for the properties of the kinds of games we've done in the past, you could say there are two primary qualities, and a couple secondary ones, and maybe another tier of optional ones. So the first two would be an epic storyline plus memorable and compelling characters, and also the unique technology that supports those characters and the story. Also important is the epic world to explore--a really cool place to walk around in. And the fourth thing is character progression--you want to have a really interesting way to develop your character as a hero.

GZ: Customization, personalization.

RM: And then we can combine that with other genres. For instance, for Jade Empire, we decided that, to become a martial arts master, you'd have to be able to fight in real time. Hence the action-RPG nature of the game. For other games, we're actually looking at other genres for inspiration. So you and the fans may be surprised by some of the genres we're exploring. We've touched on a few interesting ideas here, but frankly, we'll look at any genre and say, "if you work in story, characters, exploration, and progression, and elements of those things, that has the potential to become an RPG." If you look at a game like the latest Grand Theft Auto, there are a lot of RPG properties in that, and we're really excited to see an emergent action game include these elements. We think the game industry as a whole is evolving more towards things that really make people feel compelled to play, like story and characters.

GZ: And on that note, we're actually quite happy going into the next generation. We're quite sure there are a number of developers who are not happy--they're going to have trouble with the scale. But one of the reasons we're happy is because what we do is really going to be enhanced by the next generation [of hardware]--the characters, the RPG features of games...they just get better.

RM: You can actually have more realistic characters, better AI, more interactions with the world...

GZ: It's always an interesting challenge to try to gauge exactly how many CPU cycles it takes to run the graphics, to render the characters, to run the dialogue, and how much memory it takes to hold the data. So our games have [previously] been this incredible exercise in resource management. And the next generation [of hardware] just kind of says, "well, now you can do more."

GS: Any specific hurdles or challenges that BioWare has found itself grappling with the previous generation of hardware that you're now finding yourself looking forward to being able to accomplish with the new hardware? Drivable vehicles? Continuous landscapes that stream from a hard drive, rather than being separated by load times?

RM: Both of those things you just mentioned are very interesting areas to pursue in the future.

GZ: We've never really been "defeated" by hardware in the past. It has just been a question of how much you want to fight with the tech. You can solve almost any kind of technical question, though you sometimes have to come to a trade-off.

RM: Technical problems are harder to deal with in some ways, but if you can overcome them, once you break through, things become easier because you get a wider range of things you can actually do with processors, threading, and memory.

GZ: I think games are clearly going to look better...but we're excited. We're just plain excited for the next gen. It's actually really tough at a show like [E3] because you know the titles you're working on, but you can't show anyone.

RM: You do go around looking at other games, sizing up the competition, but we're actually feeling pretty good at this point. We're very excited about the systems that are coming out--PS3, Xbox 360, Revolution, PSP, and PC all sound very impressive.

GZ: It seems like both Sony and Microsoft are focusing on a digital entertainment lifestyle [with their new consoles]. I think it's important to broaden [their scope], but at the end of the day, they're still really about games.

RM: It makes a lot of sense to do that sort of thing. It'd be interesting to find ways that we can bridge those gaps and make use of those features.

GS: It seems like the PSP was really the first step in this new movement, since it's not just a game machine; it also plays movies and music...

GZ: And I think we really agree with that.

GS: But what are your thoughts on the larger "convergence" issue? For instance, how Microsoft is apparently attempting to bridge the gap between the Xbox and the PC with the XNA development environment, so that some day you may end up playing a game on your PC with a wireless Xbox controller via Xbox Live. Is convergence really something BioWare would want to explore? It sounds like BioWare still wants to focus on creating quality games, rather than, for instance, building in some kind of wireless phone connectivity into the next game "just because."

RM: It has to make the experience better. Ultimately, you have to do it for the right reasons. You do it because your online community actually wants the feature. Then you're doing the right thing. We don't do things because they're faddish, we do them because actually, in the end, people are actually going to use them, and buy the game, and spread word of mouth that "this feature is cool because I can do something cool with it." That's a good feature.

GZ: The thing about the digital lifestyle is that a lot of the features that are coming out now are actually things we've planned for in our previous games already.

RM: And now we actually have technology that allows us to do it. It's a very exciting time.

GS: To shift gears a bit, over the years, BioWare has now had the opportunity to work with both licensed properties, like Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons, as well as all-new intellectual property. What are your thoughts on the two different approaches? It seemed like when we spoke at last year's E3, you seemed to want to explore new properties rather than pursue another licensed property. Is that still the case?

RM: Our stance is that now that Jade Empire is out, it's become a license in its own right. It's now the same thing. So, I guess you could say we're very open to different licenses and IPs. Look what we did with Knights of the Old Republic. We consciously chose to try exploring a new part of the Star Wars universe that had never been explored before, and really building on the license, using a brand that had been established. Well, now that Jade Empire is has been branded, it's our own license that we own, and we can explore that too.

GZ: We're open to it. It has been good creating our own licenses, but down the road, well, we never say never. We're not going to say we'll never work on another [established] license--if it was the right one, at the right time, with the right circumstances, who knows. But the team has to be really passionate about it--they have to really dig what they're working on.

GS: How did you two feel about Jade Empire and its reception? Was it proof-positive that BioWare can go off and create its own properties as opposed to having to look for a Star Wars or a Dungeons & Dragons?

RM: Our core values are quality in our products and quality in our workplace, also with a focus on humility and integrity. I think our view is, "you're only as good as your next game." We're really proud of the team that worked on Jade Empire--they're smart, passionate, and hardworking...but our future games have to be better still! That's our philosophy.

GZ: We're really proud of [Jade Empire]. We managed to do it. We managed to get that new intellectual property out.

RM: It certainly not only met our expectations but also then some. We're really proud of the game--it's really fun to play--and we're also really proud of the team, and we're excited about what the future holds for the Jade franchise and our other titles, too!

GS: Thanks to both of you.

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