Jade Empire Q&A

Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk discuss their upcoming Xbox exclusive RPG, Jade Empire--and take us inside the studio that is BioWare.

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The Tokyo Game Show Fall 2003 will open its doors to the media and other game industry professionals at almost precisely the same time this story goes live.

One game that is already drawing interest from gamers and the retail community is the recently announced Xbox exclusive, Jade Empire. The game is being developed by BioWare, to be published by Microsoft, and will shown for the first time in Tokyo.

Just before BioWare's joint CEOs, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, left for Japan (where they are expected to have about 15 minutes of playable code, along with an intro trailer for the game), GameSpot was able to speak with them about their upcoming title.

They graciously expressed their thoughts on the upcoming title.

GameSpot: Microsoft announced BioWare was developing a first-party Xbox game, which we now know as Jade Empire, more than 13 months ago. Exactly how long has Jade Empire been in development? How many are on the team right now?

Ray Muzyka: We started to work on Jade Empire, an action RPG for the Xbox, about two-and-a-half years ago. We have over 50 people working on the game currently, and that number should go up significantly in the next year. The team working on Jade, like all of our other teams here at BioWare, is passionate, smart, hardworking, creative folk, and it's a real honor for Greg and me to represent them on behalf of BioWare.

GS: How would you characterize progress made so far on the title?

RM: One of the best things about BioWare is that it's a very collaborative, ego-free design house. The best ideas always win, regardless of their source. We value humility, and the people here are all willing to chip in to help make our games better, whether they are working as part of a specific game team or just trying to help another team out with suggestions or play testing/quality assurance.

GS: How long has the idea for Jade Empire been around?

RM: Greg and I have been thinking about the idea behind Jade Empire for many years now, since around the time we incorporated BioWare in 1995. We've always found the concept compelling, and we wanted to wait until the right time in BioWare's history to develop this title. We wanted to ensure that we had the experience, as a company, to build BioWare's first new intellectual property project, and, furthermore, we wanted to wait until we had the ideal platform to develop on.

GS: And in walks Xbox.

RM: The Xbox is very technologically advanced, as a system, and it will allow us to achieve our design goals for Jade Empire. And, as I mentioned, we have a great team on the project, so we're very confident in our ability to complete this game to the high quality standards that we try very hard to exceed with each game we develop at BioWare.

GS: Greg, why is Microsoft targeting the TGS to unveil Jade Empire? Japan is a territory where, according to number crunchers, Microsoft sometimes sells only about 500 Xboxes a week?

Greg Zeschuk: We see the video game business as worldwide in its scope. An announcement at TGS will be immediately transmitted around the world to game fans everywhere. In discussions with Microsoft, we both felt it would be an ideal time and place to reveal Jade Empire.

GS: Plus, Knights of the Old Republic seems to be on everyone's mind these days.

GZ: Yes, the timing of the announcement is quite good. BioWare recently delivered Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox to rave reviews and very strong sales, and we want the entire world to be aware of our next big console RPG!

As Ray mentions, we've also been working on Jade Empire for roughly two years, and we've got a very solid vision for the game. And now we have the materials to really make people step back and say, "Wow!" We're very excited to reveal what we've been working on all this time.

GS: Before and after the deal was announced, was it Microsoft or BioWare that laid down the concepts and premise behind Jade Empire? In other words, who held the balance of the creative input?

RM: BioWare owns the intellectual property--the copyright and trademarks--for Jade Empire. And BioWare came up with the original concept behind the game and pitched the concept to Microsoft, the publisher, on the title. At BioWare we're always happy to get good design ideas from any source, and the collaboration between BioWare and Microsoft has been truly outstanding so far. We feel privileged to be able to work with excellent, smart, committed people on the team down at Microsoft. We enjoy working with them, and, hopefully, they enjoy working with us as well! But to answer your question, the ultimate decision on what goes into the design of Jade Empire is made here at BioWare.

GS: Is your relationship with Microsoft one in which you can say, "Here's our idea for this game," and MS says, "We trust you; run with it." Or is it a situation in which Microsoft says, "We want this, this, and this in our game," and BioWare says, "OK, we'll start from there, add to it, and make it work"?

GZ: Microsoft is a company with a long history of successful software and product development, so even though they've given us significant creative latitude with the development of Jade Empire, we certainly do listen to their suggestions and ideas. While we hold a very strong creative vision for Jade Empire at BioWare, we're always very open to ideas that make our games better. Our goal is always to make each game better than the last, and we need a lot of strong ideas to keep building on our previous successes.

GS: By the way, before and after the success of Knights of the Old Republic, how often did, and does, Microsoft Game Studios put forth the idea of BioWare becoming a Microsoft studio? Is that proposal an attractive one?

RM: There have been lots of rumors circulating in the past year about Microsoft supposedly wanting to acquire BioWare, but to be honest, we haven't ever--yet, at least--received any formal inquiries from Microsoft about this. We joked with Ed Fries that, should they want this sort of thing to succeed in the future, they should really tell us about it next time! Whether the idea has ever actually been considered at Microsoft would be something you would have to ask them directly, as that is something only they would know. The rumors are certainly flattering, in any event.

GS: How drawn is BioWare to the Xbox and the idea of the Xbox 2?

RM: As I mentioned before, the Xbox is very technologically advanced, as a system, and we feel confident that it will allow us to achieve our design goals for Jade Empire. We have good experience with the platform now, after working on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and everything we have learned about working on the console has gone into Jade Empire. Jade Empire uses an entirely new graphics engine and a new sound engine, both designed to take advantage of the unique power and capabilities of the Xbox console.

For example, the new Jade Empire graphics engine has more than twice the number of render paths that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic had, and it has cool new features, like physics-based cloth, rim lighting, and an entirely new skeleton built to accommodate motion-captured animation. The sound engine is designed to produce the most cinematic experience possible and puts incredible control in the hands of our audio engineers. The distinctive setting, the detailed combat system, as well as the lush area and character graphics (roughly two to three times the number of polys per character compared to Knights), the animation system (Jade Empire's animation is fully motion-captured, a first for BioWare) and the storyline--rich, deep, nonlinear, and full of replayable options in the BioWare tradition--will really set Jade Empire apart.

As for Xbox2, we can't say anything about that. Until the system is announced by Microsoft, you'll have to ask the folks at Microsoft for more information!

GS: To date, BioWare's most successful games have been based on the D&D universe--which has a large and loyal following--and more recently, the successful Knights of the Old Republic was very much an "original" game based in a different era of the Star Wars universe--one of the biggest licenses in all of entertainment. Jade Empire, on the other hand, is an original intellectual property, and some time ago we started hearing that it would be a "genre-bender." What is it about this Xbox-exclusive title's content and gameplay that makes it "wide-appeal" enough to make it successful worldwide?

GZ: At BioWare we've always worked very hard to carefully balance on the path between approachability and detail-oriented gameplay. Jade Empire is an excellent example of a game that is straightforward and approachable yet contains impressive depth for the serious player.

In addition to the well-balanced gameplay mechanics, Jade Empire will feature a compelling and amazing story, done in true BioWare style. We will be exploring the path between good and evil, and the game world will reflect the character's actions in the events that unfold.

Finally, much of the time we have spent in the development process has been devoted toward creating a huge and believable game world. The world of Jade Empire is riveting in its mystery and detail. We believe the elements we've created for the game will appeal to game players everywhere.

GS: What can you tell us about the game and its plot? Its storyline?

RM: The game is set in the Jade Empire, a mythical version of ancient China. We've drawn on the literature, mythology, and legends of ancient China to create a sort of alternate world--a China that might have been, if all the stories were true. The landscapes are lush and gorgeous, full of colorful characters and dangerous enemies, and rendered with a brand-new second generation graphics engine.

You'll find that the epic storyline and the feeling of nonlinear freedom, as you explore, is similar to the feeling the storyline evoked in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. We found that the ability of players to role-play as either an evil or good character was very popular with fans of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, so we're trying to build on that even more in Jade.

In terms of settings, one notable area is the imperial palace, which is an immense floating bronze city located at the precise astrological center of the Jade Empire. Flowing from great stone fountainheads to the countryside below are streams of pure, clear water. The Emperor's magical creation of this water has brought prosperity and peace to the land. Another cool area is the player's starting town: a small, walled martial arts school in the rural Golden Delta province. This town is located at the nexus of two rivers and stands on the site of an ancient settlement--one of the oldest in the Jade Empire.

You start out as a student in a martial arts school, asked to investigate the mysterious appearance of spirits and ghosts in the region around the school. This is just the beginning of a grand adventure in the BioWare RPG tradition.

GS: MDK2 Armageddon, another BioWare game that came to console, was beloved by hardcore gamers and the press, but was a bit disappointing sales-wise (comparatively, anyway) perhaps because the license wasn't very high-profile, and it didn't catch on with the mass market. How do you avoid this same situation with Jade Empire, an original intellectual property?

GZ: MDK2 is certainly a game that was a lot of fun to make, and we learned a lot during its development. We carried a number of lessons from the creation of MDK2 into the development of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. A very strong case could be made that the development of MDK2 was an essential step in BioWare's entry into the console RPG market.

MDK2, collectively, was relatively successful. Across all of the versions, the series sold more than 500,000 units. While this isn't quite what our multimillion selling RPGs have done in the past, we were pretty happy with the results of our first console game.

Jade Empire is designed, from the ground up, as an approachable, yet deep RPG. One of the lessons we've learned from many of our past games is how to create interesting characters and stories that quickly capture a player's interest. Jade Empire truly benefits from the knowledge of everything we've created in the past.

GS: So, what would it have to take for BioWare to develop another MDK game?

GZ: We don't have any plans to do any sequels to MDK2. It would probably take a few dog bones and Uzis for Max, some vinyl cleaner for Kurt's suit, and a collection of random items for Dr. Hawkins to work his magic upon just to set the stage for a follow-up. Beyond that, I don't really know what else could be done. We're very happy with the games we're working on at the current time.

GS: BioWare recently touted the fact that it had notched top-five sales numbers in back-to-back months on both the PC and the console, with Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, respectively. This is a feat, BioWare suggested, rarely accomplished by an independent developer.

RM: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Shadows of Undrentide are selling extremely well, and we're very happy and grateful that our fans have found them to be worthwhile games. The next expansion in the Neverwinter Nights universe, Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark, will hopefully be the best installment to date in the Neverwinter saga. The upcoming PC version of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic will expand the fan base for that game to PC fans. And Jade Empire, an epic action RPG, will be an exciting brand-new intellectual property for BioWare.

GS: What does the future hold for BioWare as an independent developer?

RM: We're very excited about BioWare's potential--and also its future projects! We actually have three new intellectual properties in development, currently. One of them is Jade Empire; the others won't be announced for some time. We're also exploring ideas, like digital distribution for postrelease content, as well as the idea of partnering with talented development studios to be able to create more products at BioWare. [We're also exploring the] taking of strong storylines and character development into new genres, in effect, merging RPGs with other types of games.

GS: Greg, will BioWare inevitably get bigger? Will its structure fundamentally change?

GZ: We've got a number of ideas on how BioWare can grow while maintaining the quality of the games we release. It is also very important that we maintain the quality of life for the 165 exceptionally talented people at our office in Edmonton. As Joint CEO's, Ray and I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can expand carefully while keeping the great products flowing.

One area we are examining is in partnering with other groups to help develop titles together. There are a lot of great people out there making games, and the industry is becoming more competitive with each passing year. We really do have more opportunities than we can handle, so why not share?

GS: One last question... BioWare and Obsidian Entertainment recently announced that they would be collaborating on projects in the future. How's that going? Anything to report?

RM: Nothing to announce, formally, yet, but you'll hear something soon.

GS: Thanks, Greg. Thanks, Ray.

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