Q&A: BioWare on the EA buyout

Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk discuss their studios' big deal--and reveal Dragon Age and top-secret MMORPG are already playable.

Last week, Bungie Studios stunned the game industry by announcing that it was separating from cash-flush corporate parent Microsoft. This week, another unexpected blow floored industry watchers when Electronic Arts announced it was buying BioWare/Pandemic, the "superstudio" formed by the union of the eponymous Canadian RPG maker and the Californian action studio.

Other than the staggering sums involved--$860 million dollars, including $620 million in cash--the deal drew interest because of the players involved. Less than two years after thumbing its nose at the traditional publisher business model by eliciting nearly $300 million in venture capital, BioWare/Pandemic was being bought. The purchaser in question is the world's biggest third-party publisher, and has been rightly or wrongly perceived as preferring to hit corporate deadlines over supporting creative vision.

Recently, EA has taken great pains to dismantle its negative image by striking deals with top independent developers such as Crytek and Valve Software. This trend accelerated in February, when ex-EA CEO John Riccitiello retook his old position after a several-year hiatus. Ironically, during that time, he served on the board of the venture capital fund Elevation Partners, and oversaw the BioWare/Pandemic merger in November 2005.

Riccitiello went on to become BioWare/Pandemic's CEO and worked closely with the cofounders and co-CEOs of BioWare, Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeshcuk. Shortly after the EA deal was announced today, GameSpot spoke with the two developers about its implications for their company, which has been an fixture of independent development since the mid-1990s. Now that it's joined other former mavericks such as Criterion and Digital Illusions CE under the EA Games umbrella, what does the future hold?

GameSpot: Going from the worlds' biggest independent developer to part of the world's biggest publisher? People are kind of taken aback. What's your reaction to that?

Ray Myzuka: Well, I'm really excited about the opportunity to integrate the great development teams we have here, the marketing teams we have here. As you said, EA is the largest, and I think, the best publisher in the world, and I think we can [add] some value to that team, and that organization as a partnership.

GS: Right, but you guys were always an icon of independent development, and were even more so after the deal with Pandemic...

Greg Zeschuk: Well, to be blunt, I don't really see ourselves as not being independent anymore. We've got a goal of making great BioWare games, and we believe in [EA CEO] John [Riccitiello]'s vision--we can't overemphasize that. We've worked with John for years, and we're looking forward to keep doing what we're doing and doing it well.

GS: You said you still think of yourself as being independent, even though you're now owned by EA. So what exactly, besides the fact you're obviously wealthier, has changed under the deal? Will day-to-day operations at BioWare change at all?

RM: Well, we can achieve more. We've got more opportunities, more resources for the great development and marketing teams here to take advantage of. We're also a lot more direct to the consumer now, since we're part of the publisher. It's going to allow us to fulfill our mission statement of making the best story-driven games in the world, even better than before. Nothing's going to change about that, since we're really passionate about that, and that's in line with what we've heard from John in the values and mission he's expressed.

GS: So is the name going to still be BioWare or is going to become "EA BioWare"?

GZ: Well we're still BioWare...

RM: BioWare is a name that's associated with some really positive things. The fans like the brand, it's a consumer-facing brand, so we're not going anywhere with it.

GS: Well, I was speaking in purely nomenclature terms, like how Mythic became "EA Mythic"?

RM: That will be a collaborative discussion as we work with the folks at EA Games. We're proud to be working with Frank and proud to be working with John. [EA Games president] Frank [Gibeau] is a big gamer, and a great advocate for BioWare.

GS: People are now wondering what is happening with some of your properties, specifically Mass Effect, which is due out next month. That's a wholly owned BioWare property, correct?

GZ: Yes, it is, and it's almost done. Ray and I have both played it! There's other stuff too, there's Dragon Age, there's the Sonic RPG we're making with Sega, there's what we're doing down in Austin, and some other secret stuff as well.

GS: Right, but Mass Effect was billed as being this big booster for Microsoft's publishing efforts and as one of the biggest Xbox 360 exclusives. Will it remain a 360 exclusive?

RM: Microsoft is a great partner, a great publishing partner, and we're really excited to work with them. And we love the 360. One of the things we've talked about is getting multiple iterations of this franchises out during its lifetime, since it's such a great system to work with. And we see Microsoft as a long-term partner on Mass Effect.

GS: Will Microsoft be publishing future iterations of Mass Effect or will EA be publishing it itself?

GZ: We can't predict the future. We'll see what happens. The key thing is we're making a trilogy of Mass Effect games, and we've got a great story arc.

RM: I think people should check it out and just focus on the first game. The team's efforts are going to shine through, since it's an amazing, amazing experience.

GS: Now one of the main reasons EA gave for acquiring BioWare/Pandemic was the upcoming massively multiplayer online role-playing game you're developing in Austin. After listening to John's comments in the conference call, one walks away with the impression that said MMORPG is a wholly owned IP of BioWare--and therefore EA. Is that correct?

RM: We haven't revealed any details about the game. It's super secret right now. It's got all the characters and story arc that BioWare is known for, and I wish I could say more. It's the best of breed of MMO, with the magic BioWare's associated with, and our goal is to make sure people can't stop playing it.

GS: Right, but judging by John's enthusiasm, it sounds pretty safe to say the MMO is an all-original IP. Would that be fair to say?

RM: [Long pause] We haven't revealed any details about the game. It's super secret right now. It's--

GS: OK, OK, I get it.

GZ: I can say one thing: It looks awesome! [Laughs.] We can say a second thing, too: It's really fun to play. We're already playing it. We were playing it just last week.

GS: Now, you just mentioned Dragon Age. Since Dragon Age wasn't mentioned in the acquisition announcement and so little has been heard about it, there's been some speculation that it was canceled.

RM: Oh, no. We were just playing that last week as well. It's one of the more enjoyable things I've done in the past few weeks, by far. I could not stop playing it. I meant to play it just for a little bit just to check it out, but I ended up playing it all weekend. I wish we could say more about it, as the team has been putting in some late hours on the project, and they've come up with some amazing stuff. We're gonna be revealing some more about Dragon Age very soon, I think, and I think you'll be excited to hear about it.

GS: EA announced that there were 10 BioWare/Pandemic franchises, six of which will be series that EA will wholly own. Does that number include existing franchises? I.e. would Mass Effect be counted among that number?

RM: It's a mix of both.

GZ: Tor, are you trying to figure out how many secret games we have? [Laughs.]

RM: No, that includes some absolutely unannounced stuff, some super secret stuff we're really proud of. I wish we could talk about it more.

GS: Now, I also notice John mentioned Jade Empire as a property EA was excited about. Does that mean we can expect some new Jade Empire games down the line?

RM: That's an interesting question. [Long pause] We certainly haven't announced anything on that front.

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