Since its inception in 1995, Edmonton, Alberta-based BioWare has made a name for itself by producing some of the most memorable role-playing games of the last decade. If you're unfamiliar with BioWare itself, names like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic may jog your memory. Now BioWare is entering the final months of development on the sci-fi epic Mass Effect, arguably its most ambitious project to date and also one of the most important cornerstones of the Xbox 360's holiday lineup. Not coincidentally, a new Mass Effect trailer featured prominently in Microsoft's E3 press conference last week.
But that first trailer was just a sampling. BioWare has graciously provided us the full, extended version of the trailer, which is packed with twice as many aliens, spaceships, strange worlds, and explosions--you know, all that stuff that we're excited about seeing in the final game--as the original. If that weren't enough, project director Casey Hudson, CEO Ray Muzyka, and president Greg Zeschuk took time out of their schedules to chat with us about the contents of the trailer and development of the game in general. We probably owe these guys a Coke or something.
GameSpot: This trailer is a much-expanded version of the one you showed at Microsoft's E3 press conference. What's new in this version of the trailer? What aspect of the story is it focusing on?
Casey Hudson: This one has a little bit more of the story and the "broader universe" stuff which we want to be able to show is a part of the Mass Effect experience. So you're going to see a little bit more--different kinds of situations in combat, and some more compelling story moments. You see some scenes imply more of what you'll be doing and some of the other things you'll be doing in there. There's a few shots of what [some of] the uncharted worlds look like. I don't think we've shown too many uncharted worlds to people before, but there are a few interesting shots of some really neat-looking planets there that the players are standing on, and some different environments and things like that.
Ray Muzyka: We just wanted to punch it up, you know, the emotion and the exploration and the story and the combat and, so, the whole thing. We just wanted to deliver that for the fans.
GS: Briefly introduce the characters that we're seeing in the trailer. Obviously, the player's character, Sheppard, is in there, and the villain Saren, and then there's the character voiced by Keith David. Can you give us a little background on those guys?
CH: The character that sets up the beginning [of the trailer] and talks about Saren, that's Captain Anderson. He's captain of the Normandy, your starship at the beginning of the game. And he's also the main character in our prequel novel, Mass Effect: Revelation, when he was a younger guy. He's quite a cool character in the game, especially if you've read the book and you've seen how that character has been through some of the stuff that you'll go through in the game, when he was younger.
Of course, there's Saren. Saren is a Turian. He's an alien that is an elite agent called a Spectre, which is something that you will become in the course of the game. But he's a rogue agent, and you can see he's got an army of machines that follow him. And he's seeking the key to unlocking the power that will destroy all life in the galaxy. And there's a female character that's often in a shiny white kind of armor, so she's a marine. Her name is Ashley. She's in the romantic scene there at the end.
GS: What are Saren's motivations? Why does he hate humanity so much?
CH: Well, a lot of that we want players to be able to discover through the course of the game, but...
RM: His motivation is--he's a complex character. He's not as simple as a lot of villains in other games, and as a result, he's really interesting. When you learn what's motivating him, you can understand it, you can believe in it, and you can feel that he's got a strong case, even though you're fighting against him. It's an interesting story more than anything.
Greg Zeschuk: And the book sets up some of it in the sense that it talks about humanity's appearance on the [galactic] scene, and one of the first things that happens is actually a war between the humans and the Turians. I won't put any spoilers into that, but just suffice to say, Saren's a Turian and you're a human. I think the thing about the galaxy and the way the [game's] universe is played out is it's like any other complex scenario: You've got people of different backgrounds. Some get along; some don't get along. Some hold grudges; some don't. So, it's a detailed and interesting way that the story is portrayed, and that carries throughout the game. The cool thing with the book again is that it sets things up--but doesn't reveal anything--but sets things up in a really great way for you to enjoy the [game's] story.
RM: The great thing about the worlds and the characters in the story is it all feels real. It feels incredibly immersive and credible, so you believe in it. You feel like you're actually a part of this world.
GS: It's actually possible to have a party member who is a member of Saren's race. Is that right?
CH: Yes, that's correct.
GS: So, there will be a lot gray areas between the different alliances, the different races?
CH: There's really a huge world built up behind the scenes of the Mass Effect universe, so all the different species that you come across have histories and all of these things are actually written into the way that you experience the story. So when you take different characters with you, really only a few of the characters in your potential squad are human and the rest come from alien species of different backgrounds, and you'll actually see how they interact with each other in a way that reflects their different histories.
RM: Depending on who you have with you, the experience you have is going to be different as well. So, combined with the tons of permutations--where you can do different things [in a] different order, you can go to uncharted worlds, or focus more on the main critical path, branching off...when you want--it provides a ton of replay as well. It's a really rich experience as a result because you've got your own spaceship, the Normandy, you get to travel around the galaxy and do whatever you want. And there's a great storyline that's really compelling behind it all.
GS: You mention the "critical path" kind of core storyline. How linear is that storyline? You've said that this game is or may be the first part of a trilogy, so are we looking at, say, multiple possible endings, or is it going to be a more fixed progression for the storyline?
CH: There are definitely multiple endings, and it's actually a matrix of endings, and not just because it branches out into a few different points from one decision point. It's actually based on a combination of the way that you play the entire game and the decisions that you make throughout the ending sequence, so that both of those things actually really matter. It's nice to be able to make really important decisions as you approach the ending of a game to decide what's going to happen. But you don't want to have a situation where you can just reload and make different decisions and see a different ending, and see [all the endings] that way. Because, really, that's the value of being able to play a certain way throughout an entire game, is that that makes for a fundamentally different ending.
And then the other thing is that all throughout the middle [of the game], all the different planets that you go to and different adventures that you have, you're choosing to go to those places because you want to, because they're the thing that attracts you next, as far as where you want to go in the galaxy using the galaxy maps and things like that. So the different worlds that you go to, they're essentially kind of like miniature episodes of Mass Effect, where you choose what order you want to do them in. But they also unlock further areas, and then [the game] expands, more than progressing in a linear way.
GS: You guys mentioned at E3 that it's basically impossible to see all of the planets and all of the locations in one play-through of the game. Can you explain why that is?
CH: What we were talking about is that, as much as we've been testing it, we actually haven't had, to my knowledge, anyone who's played through all of the different pieces, all of the different locations you can go to, the uncharted worlds and everything. Partly because there's just so much there, and for us, the interesting balance is trying to make it an agonizing choice as to which aspect is tempting [the player] next. So, we want the core storyline to be such an exciting roller coaster ride that you want to be doing it every second.
But then, at the same time, we want everything surrounding that to be equally tempting. So, even though you really want to get to the next thing in the core storyline, there's something so tempting outside of that, with the uncharted world stuff, that you'll actually go there and do that thing instead. And so in a typical play-through, you'll end up doing, obviously, the core story, and then some things outside that, and some subplots, and you'll find your own way through it based on almost randomness and things that you come across, radio messages you get and that kind of stuff.
GS: What are the benefits of undertaking those side quests? Are there gameplay-relevant bonuses like new equipment or gear that you might not find somewhere else, or is it more about fleshing out the storyline?
CH: It's both, actually. There are things that are completely separate from the storyline that are just really cool. The moments that you get to have or really neat places that you get to go to. And then there are things that actually reflect on the storyline, or change the way that you see the story. But all of the things that you do are going to contribute to the amount of experience that you get, and therefore, the amount of training and talents that you can develop into your character, so you get better at things. It makes you stronger when you go [back] through the core story stuff and, yeah, you get new gear, really cool-looking armor and mods where you can get special effects happening on your weapons and all that kind of stuff.
GS: What are some of the noteworthy locations that we're seeing in the trailer? Are we seeing, say, any scenes from the Citadel, which fans will be familiar with from the novel?
CH: There's a scene towards the beginning where we're seeing Presidium, which is a beautiful interior-ring space-station kind of thing. Some of the other core locations that we're seeing: the conversation towards the beginning, that's a really serious conversation where they're talking about Saren, that actually takes place on the Normandy. And some of the other scenes, when you're looking down on the galaxy map, those scenes are also taking place on the Normandy. And then the rest are kind of from different worlds across the game. Some are from the very beginning, some of them from areas later in the game.
GS: Who are the Geth? We hear about the army of Geth that Saren has allied himself with in the trailer. Who are they, and what does that alliance mean for humanity?
CH: Without giving away any spoilers, of course, the Geth are a machine race that--well, one of the cautionary tales in Mass Effect is the danger of a true artificial intelligence. In the Mass Effect universe, it's only legal to develop artificial intelligence to a certain level, and beyond that it becomes kind of like a nuclear weapon. It becomes contraband. It's extremely dangerous. It's the worst crime that you can commit, because it can get out of control, and it can become sentient. This is something that all the species in Mass Effect know about and are very careful to control, and the Geth were how they learned about that, because they're a species that is just on the threshold of being sentient, but not quite. So, their conflict with their creators was what started off the [AI ban], and what made them stand alone.
GS: What's that beacon about in the trailer? It looks like a critical plot device.
CH: It is, but I don't think we'll talk about specifically what it is. That scene is from the prologue, and the prologue is where you really learn what's going on in the galaxy. And we want players to find that out for themselves, of course.
GS: Fair enough. Moving on to gameplay topics, we're seeing a lot of combat scenes in the trailer. Could you walk us through a typical combat experience in Mass Effect? Is it straight run-and-gun action, or is there any RPG stuff going on under the hood like in your past games?
CH: It's actually extremely adaptive to the way that you want to play, and that's certainly one of the things we're most happy with. If you're a shooter-style player, it actually plays out very much like a third-person shooter. You take cover, you crouch behind things, you can fire around objects, you have a squad that will back you up with AI, and you don't have to actually direct them if you don't want to. They'll fire off their powers, and the really cool thing is that it's basically a one-button click to send them up ahead to a location or bring them back. So, even though you don't have to really tell them what to do in order for them to support you well, it's really easy to give them commands to help you out.
So, that's if you want to play it like a shooter, but the more that you want to play it like a role-playing game, the more the game can adapt to doing that. So, you've got all of your special abilities and powers. You create your own character, so you can be male or female, you choose what classes you want to be and what abilities you're going to have. But then, throughout the game, you're picking up new abilities and things that you can do in combat. So, you're going to be throwing people around with dark energy, and using tech abilities that destroy enemy shields, and doing all kinds of really cool stuff.
And because you have all these special powers and your squad members have their own special powers, and you can position them however you want, you'll want to be able to have the pacing to be able to think about that kind of stuff. The way it works is, if you want to fire off a power for yourself or anyone in your squad, you hang onto the right shoulder button and you can very quickly pick out what powers you want to use. You let go, and it all happens, and so it's very straightforward to cooperate with your squad, and it kind of adapts to your play style that way.
GS: Can you give us more depth on some of your initial starting classes?
CH: Sure. Without doing the whole rundown, there's a soldier class who's good at the more conventional style of play. And then you've got characters who can be good at either the dark energy-style bionic powers or tech abilities; those would be the adept and the engineer. And then you've got three other classes that blend these three things, those three basic styles, in different ways. So that gives you very different gameplay styles, and sets it up in a nice way where you can also have a blend of both, and then unlock further skills as you go.
GS: What are some of the specific special abilities that we're seeing in this trailer? How specifically do you obtain and upgrade those abilities?
CH: I think some of the most impressive ones that you're seeing in this video are, for example, the character actually comes up against a Krogan battlemaster, and that's on the oceanfront area there. So the first thing that you can see the character do is throw a lift power, which wraps the enemy in a bubble of energy, and they lift up helplessly. Then at that point you can get your squad to focus on that guy. He's basically helpless, floating upwards. And then the person playing this video actually followed it up with a carnage attack, which is basically where you can overload your shotgun and release a huge fireball with energy. So that's an example of the combinations that you can do.
And developing that is really straightforward. For example, the carnage attack: As you get experience in the game you're getting points that you can spend on whatever skill you want. So, if you spend some skill on developing your shotgun ability, for example, you'll get more and more accurate. You'll be able to move while shooting and all that kind of stuff as you get better with the shotgun ability. But, at some point, you'll also get a special attack, and that special attack for shotguns is the carnage attack. And then, it's really just a matter of spending points on that skill and getting better at it and then, at some point, you'll actually get a new ability that you can just fire off.
GS: You're showing a good chunk of vehicle action in the trailer. What can you tell us about the Mako that's shown in the trailer, what you can do with it and the abilities it has? And are there any other vehicles that you'll be controlling directly?
CH: The Mako is the only drivable vehicle, and it's kind of like a character in the game. It's really a focus for all of your exploration and combat when you're covering a lot of distance, and it's really unlike any vehicle out there, I think. It's a six-wheeled tank, essentially, and it drives like a tank. It can turn on the spot, but when it's at speed, you have six-wheel independent steering that makes it swerve and steer really well. And then, of course, it's got a machine gun and a heavy artillery cannon. And one of the things probably that's most unique about it is the fact that it's got jump jets. This game is quite different in the sense that the places where you're going to drive your vehicle aren't necessarily nicely smoothed out; it's not like you're driving in a city, for example, or a race track. Here you're literally going to be trying to drive up mountains and over huge rocks and things like that. And to be able to navigate those kinds of things, the vehicle is extremely capable at all-terrain stuff, but it also has these jump jets so you can jump over a cavern, you know, or--
GZ: --rockets. [Laughs.] It is great. It's funny, because I got to play it throughout E3, and it's still fun just to jump around, and Casey liked my wheelies and everything else. [Laughs.] The fun thing about it is that it gives you another dimension--you don't really think about driving vehicles in an upward sense, so it's kind of a neat dynamic. You know, I think [Casey] made the Moon Patrol reference, and it's kind of like 3D Moon Patrol. When you're on some of the uncharted worlds and you're trying to get to a bizarre place--it seems like you can literally bounce across a couple of hoodoos and get somewhere new.
RM: So there's another opportunity for exploration.
GZ: Yeah, exactly.
GS: One of the most talked about features of the game at E3 which is not featured in the trailer is the dialogue system. What challenges have you guys had in developing that? It's an ambitious system, being able to interrupt characters and so on.
CH: Well, it's probably been the biggest chunk of work that we've had in not only adapting to this generation of technology, but also really pushing it forward towards things that you're probably not going to see elsewhere in real-time conversation. It's the first time ever that you're going to have a fully real-time, fully voiced conversation where everything that you're doing has the look of being filmed like it's in a movie. And it's funny, this is the first time we've actually put it in the hands of players. Prior to this E3 we would go and show it, but we weren't actually turning the controls over.
But we did a bunch of [hands-on demos] at E3. And basically they had the same reaction that we had internally with people who've tried it for the first time. They said it really is unlike anything they've ever played, because on the one hand, you realize that after a few dialogue choices, the first time you play it, you start sitting back and really enjoying watching it as though you're watching a movie. And yet, maybe a minute later you realize you've been in full control over it the whole time, and it's unlike anything that I think we've experienced in dialogue in games. And it's that kind of a storytelling mechanism that is really core to what we want to be able to achieve with the cinematic storytelling we do at BioWare.
GS: Yeah, I heard it commented at E3 that this is one of those rare games that you can actually be happy just watching someone else play rather than getting your hands on it yourself.
RM: We've actually seen that anecdotally and, actually, a number of times with spouses saying that they're enjoying sitting and just watching it as their partners play it, you know, the various testers taking it home and that kind of thing. And even in the office, you get a crowd gathering around the monitor when people are playing it. The person playing it is having a blast, but the people watching it are just oohing and ahing over the visuals and the detailed emotional expressions on the faces, you know, you believe these characters are real. It's the aliens too, I think, it's not just humans. We've created some of the most realistic humans and aliens, I think, in any game I've seen. It's uncanny. Like, do you believe these are real species that you're talking to?
GZ: The other thing that's interesting, we're still getting feedback--we keep hearing there are people that still don't believe it's not a cutscene. It's hard for them to comprehend that it's actually a dynamically controlled system.
CH: Everything you're seeing in the trailer is in-game.
GZ: Yeah, I think that's one of those things that you almost have to get your hands on to believe it.
GS: You've mentioned a romantic aspect in the game. What effect does your gender choice or other character customization choices have on that, and on the storyline in general?
CH: For your appearance, you'll be able to really shape your own face and stuff, and that's just an extension of the fact that this is your game. This is your experience. That's one thing that sets Mass Effects apart, is that this isn't something that is a preexisting story with preexisting characters that you have to learn. You can make it as much your story as you want to, and it's a really important part of why it feels really special to play Mass Effect, because you are that character and everything responds to your choices. So, being able to look however you want is really an extension of that.
And the male-or-female choice is really interesting because it's a choice that actually does affect certain quests that unlock, subplots that you can do, and those are different for males and females, and then the romance thing, that changes the way that you see that and the characters that are involved. But I think the most important and really the most obvious difference when you actually play it, even though it may seem subtle on paper, is the fact that because [the game] has the fidelity that it has--and especially because all of the player lines are fully voiced for both females and males--that means that when you play the game, you literally see it from a completely different perspective. So, when we walk around and we see people on the dev team doing their own play-throughs, quite often they're playing the female character, because usually we've shown the game using the Commander Sheppard that we've seen on the box cover. So for the dev team, because we've seen that character so much, when we play it, quite often people create a female character and just that difference alone makes the whole game seem completely fresh. So we can play our own game from fresh eyes because it's such a different perspective.
GS: You've done a good job of fleshing out the Mass Effect IP, even before the game has come out. You've got the novel out there, there's a big community brewing and that sort of thing. What are your future plans, as of right now, for the franchise? Are the plans for the game trilogy still in place? Will we see more books? Do you see Mass Effect expanding into other kinds of media?
RM: This is an incredibly important franchise to BioWare. We've invested a lot into it. The team has poured their hearts and souls into it, and I think they've created something really magical with it that is going to have a long, long staying power as a result. So, we definitely have plans to continue the franchise. We've referenced the [game] trilogy, and the story is really that grand and epic; you know, it's a big galaxy and there's a lot to do. And the plot that the writers and designers have planned from the beginning spans a really epic storyline.
We also have plans for content in between the main releases, too. We haven't revealed a lot of details on that yet, but it's really exciting stuff. Like when Casey referenced earlier the ability to go to all these uncharted worlds in a different order or [with a] different progression, part of that is our ability to drop in new worlds, new places to visit midstream that you can just go to, you know, new spaceships or new planets, new uncharted spaces. So we'll reveal more details on that in the future, but it's pretty exciting. We've got some stuff in development now, in the pipe, that I think the fans will be pretty damn happy with.
GS: We're certainly getting excited. Big thanks for taking the time to talk with us.