BioWare, Bungie execs talk building blockbuster franchises

GDC 2010: Ray Muzyka and Joseph Staten talk about 10-year franchise plans, switching development teams between sequels, and <i>Police Academy</i> films.

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Who Was There: Two of the leading figures behind gaming’s biggest hits joined to talk about their keys to success. On hand was Ray Muzyka, CEO, general manager, and cofounder of BioWare Corp, and Bungie creative director Joseph Staten. BioWare, of course, is the company behind some of the most iconic role-playing games of all time, including Baldurs’ Gate, Mass Effect, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, while Bungie is best known for one of gaming’s biggest franchises: the Halo series.

BioWare's Ray Muzyka.
BioWare's Ray Muzyka.

What They Talked About: The moderator opened up this GDC “fireside chat” by asking both panelists why the industry relies so much on sequels. Muzyka--whose company just released the critically well-received sequel Mass Effect 2--said there was an anti-sequel mindset in BioWare’s early years, but it had eroded simply because the development teams found them fun to create. He said BioWare now looks at every one of its games as potential franchises that could expand well beyond the game sphere to include other media, such as books, comics, movies, and more. And he added that the company now plans a game’s potential life cycle up to 10 years in advance.

As for Halo, Staten said the team at Bungie had absolutely no plans to make the shooter into a franchise when they were working on the game nearly 10 years ago. “We had absolutely no 10-year plan. But as we look to Bungie’s future, we’re a lot more forward thinking,” he said.

While BioWare now plots out future strategies for its franchises, Muzyka says user feedback still impacts greatly on those plans. For example, BioWare made a prioritized list of changes it wanted to make to Mass Effect 2 based on reviews and user feedback on Mass Effect. “We’re proud to say we nailed everything on that list. Really, the changes you saw in the second game came from feedback,” he said.

The session’s moderator then switched the focus to the question of how important keeping the same team on a franchise was to maintaining quality. Both Muzyka and Staten said while it was possible to switch developers in between sequels, it was an extremely difficult thing to do well, thanks to the enormous amount of knowledge transfer that needs to happen between the old and new teams. Muzyka said it certainly wasn’t impossible, but it carried its own risks.

The moderator then switched to a controversial topic—last week’s firings of the heads of Infinity Ward. The moderator asked Muzyka and Staten if they had any advice for Activision on how to keep the Call of Duty series fresh, but both declined to comment directly on the situation. Muzyka instead gave some general advice on how to keep franchises interesting by saying developers need to stay humble and not be afraid to take criticism on board.

Quote/Takeaway: “I guess the industry are big fans of the Police Academy series.”--Joseph Staten, design director, Bungie, joking about why the games industry loves sequels.

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