Level designer Chris Corfe tells us what it's like to go from being a die-hard fan to actually working on Mass Effect.
The latest in GameSpot's documentary series explores the story behind Mass Effect: Andromeda and developer BioWare Montreal. As part of this video feature, we travelled to Boston and spoke to various members of the development team, ranging from studio executives and writers, to designers and creative directors.
While some of these interviews are featured in The Story of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a great deal of the material was unused. In light of this, we decided to publish each of the interviews in full and make them available to anyone interested in reading more about the development of the game and the studio.
The interview below features Chris Corfe, level designer on Mass Effect: Andromeda. Further interviews are available through the links.
Mass Effect: Andromeda Interviews
- BioWare Montreal Studio Director Yanick Roy Interview
- Mass Effect Franchise Creative Director Mac Walters Interview
- Mass Effect: Andromeda Producer Michael Gamble Interview
- Mass Effect: Andromeda Level Designer and Space Lead Jessica Campbell Interview
- Mass Effect: Andromeda Producer Fabrice Condominas Interview
- Mass Effect: Andromeda Lead Designer Ian Frazier Interview
- Mass Effect: Andromeda Level Designer Chris Corfe Interview
- Mass Effect: Andromeda Lead Writer Cathleen Rootsaert Interview
GameSpot: Can you introduce yourself and talk about your experience with Mass Effect as a franchise?
Chris Corfe: I'm Chris Corfe. I've been with BioWare for about 10 years now. I actually worked on Dragon Age: Origins II, Inquisition and then hopped on a little bit to help out on Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and then wasn't lucky enough to work on Mass Effect 3, but then I was lucky enough to work on this one.
Your role on the original Mass Effect was QA, right? What was it like, playing an early and perhaps not perfect form of it, and what was it like to be a part of that process?
It was really humbling, actually. I've always wanted to get into the games business, and when I first started in QA, it was at BioWare after about two-and-a-half years of hounding them, like "Please hire me." The first project I got to work on was actually Jade Empire for PC. Walking in the door, I had no idea what to expect. I felt like I was going to be surrounded by really crazy talented people, and I better do everything in my power to write as many bugs as possible. I worked on Jade for about three months, and apparently I did a good enough job. They transferred me over to Mass Effect. It was really humbling to be part of that game, because it was like, this was the big deal.
A couple of positions opened up: one in editing and one in production. I went with editing, and kept growing from there. That's one of the things I really like about the BioWare studio. There's really low walls. You can talk to everybody. You make friends with everybody. If you're really interested in something, you just go stop by like, "Hey, cool, what are you doing? Show me what you got." It's been really nice.
What do you think was special about the original Mass Effect? What was the impact of it on gaming, and what do you think it did for you?
The original Mass Effect, to me, was really close to my introduction to BioWare games. It's incredibly story driven ... and action-focused at the same time. I came from a background where I played action games and RPG games, but they often didn't have the same elements. To see them overlapping, in something that was really crazy and talented, was awesome.
What do you think gave it the longevity it's enjoyed? And what were your feelings when it launched?
I didn't question its longevity. I thought it was a very interesting product when it came out. And I was surprised to see the fan reception that it did have. And to be honest, I didn't think I would like shooter games. But as I started to get into Gears of War and Mass Effect, they made a believer out of me.
[And] it obviously made a believer out of many of other people, too. I think it's also BioWare's attention to detail when it comes to story and character. I'm a big fan of that--reading a lot of novels as a kid. So playing through this wasn't just about the game and the mechanics and beating the bad guy up; it was the emotional journey that it took me on.
I was always impressed by how BioWare created a universe that was so rich and deep within the space of one game, when most game franchises were incapable of doing it over six or seven games--even Star Wars took ages to get that kind of comprehensive deep lore that people can latch onto.
I feel like part of it, too, is luck. We're really fortunate to have our fan base. And even just seeing everybody at the convention center dressed up, I'm like, "I'm not worthy of you guys. You're amazing." So I think it was a bit of skill--a bit of luck--involved in it as well.
That must really drive home what's at stake for you guys?
Yeah it does. Again, no pressure. Better make it good guys; is this one gonna be good? I hope so.
How much do you think about that, and how do you deal with that, day-to-day, creating the game? If you're constantly thinking about millions of people that are just waiting with bated breath to almost define the next few years of their lives, with what you put out there.
Yeah, it's kind of hard. I feel like we try not to put too much pressure on that, because then you're gonna psych yourself out. But at the same time, we're still very fortunate to work with a lot of the people who have worked on the previous Mass Effect game. So we're standing on the shoulders of giants. It's nice to come onto the team and have them welcome you with open arms, and they show you everything you need to know.
I feel like it's essentially learning the soul that is Mass Effect ... and trying to make sure that the game hits that note first. And then it grows in new and interesting ways. So, [for example] we've done the jump-jet and hover and dash and the dynamic cover system. I think they're all great additions to the game, and I'm really happy that I had a chance to play Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3. And playing this one now, it still feels like Mass Effect; so I'm hoping other people feel the same way.
What are your memories of Mass Effect 2? And did you think of it when it came out?
The first moment that I had in Mass Effect 2 that really struck me was the very beginning, when the Normandy was struck. And you had the whole blowout of the Normandy and your walking space, and it's quiet and ominous and your main character dies. That was really powerful. I actually feel like that was probably one of the strongest starts to any game I've ever played. And it really threw down the gauntlet, like, "oh my God, what's gonna happen?" It creates really interesting story questions.
And then much later in the game, you have so many incredible powerful moments happening with characters, like Legion, who you get to know--and I really didn't like the Gath that much. And then getting to know them--and then having some important moment happen later, well it was gut-wrenching.
Really, all I remember from the opening to Mass Effect 2 is the bit where Shepherd gets killed--moments like that are what define the series. How do you look at those from the original series and think about what you're doing on Andromeda. Were you looking back at the original series thinking, "We need something like this; we need something like this," or was it more like, "let's look at the original series as little as possible?"
I feel like if we focus too much on trying to hit the important notes that the previous games have hit, we're gonna miss the opportunities that are right in front of us. So I'm excited that Mass Effect is going to Andromeda. I feel like it borders on science-fact enough that it's interesting. I mean even going back to the first game--on the galaxy map, it was interesting to have our writers dive in and write descriptions for the planet. So even if you didn't land there, you could go there. And it actually felt like it was kind of a simulation of the Milky Way.
So coming to Andromeda is really interesting, because a lot of space nerds think about that, like it's the next newest galaxy: "What if? What would happen when we go there?" So trying to come up with that and take a new story and new adventure there also means there's a lot of opportunities to capitalize on. So we try to keep with the soul of Mass Effect. But then what are the crazy interesting things that are gonna happen there? And I feel like those inevitably grow out of the cool moments that just happen. Have you guys had a chance to play the game?
Yeah, we played about four or five hours from the start and then got dropped ahead to midway through a mission that was very confusing with people we hadn't met yet.
It's kind of destroying to just get tossed right in the middle; you don't actually have the full appreciation of the character arc that goes front to back. In the first mission, the shuttle that crashed and blew up--it felt like that was a pie in the sky idea that one of the level designers had that he wanted to do. He takes you from the arc right down to the planet, and then actually seeing that pay off in game, was a really cool moment. Like, "What would it be like to go from here to there?" And you have to fly by the Scourge, which is this crazy evil thing that you're gonna have to deal with later in the game. So I feel like those experiences are gonna end up growing out of the game.
You've worked on the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, but not Mass Effect 3. What was it like starting the journey, and not being a part of the team that finished it?
My involvement in the original trilogy was on the border, so playing the game and writing bugs and QA. Then the editing I provided on Mass Effect 2--I was only there for a couple of months. So I didn't have that strong a role like on the previous one. So then coming onto this one, it was an even bigger deal, because it's a really talented team that made the first ones. So you try to do everything you can to live up to those expectations.
So, as someone who got to experience Mass Effect 3 from the outside and as someone who is a fan of the series, what did you think of the ending?
I remember hearing about the storm from within, and I didn't play Mass 3 at that time. I think, at the time, I was embroiled in one of the Dragon Age projects. But I played a little bit of the game at the start--it was great. I loved it, and then picked it up sometime later. I think it was a year or a year-and-a-half later. Without the noise in the background, I just finished the game, played through--it was all incredible moments--and then I got to the end, and I remember thinking to myself, "What were people so mad about?"
I feel like it depends on your expectations. Like your journey through Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 ... how you thought those characters would end up in the game. And ultimately, we can't make something that everybody loves--it's impossible. I feel like it's terrible that other people have a negative perception of it. But I do appreciate that we've been relatively open with fans in terms of their feedback, like, "Please give us your feedback; it's valuable to us." We try to use that information as much as possible to craft something that's going to be even better in the future.
You're involved in one of the major parts of Andromeda in terms of the worlds and building those, and helping define a lot of the exploration stuff. What's it been like to engage that part of your creativity for Mass Effect Andromeda?
It was a lot of fun, actually. I'm not sure how far you guys saw into the game, but I worked on one of the Remnant sections. The tough thing about that race, without saying too much, is that they're artistically obtuse. We don't want to get too exact with it, because we wanna leave a sense of mystery with them. But [we're] still trying to make something that's fun and has some specifics--you try to strike that right balance between the two.
And I was actually involved, to some extent, in most of the major [critical] path missions. And it was really fun to work with the writers and cinematic designers and level artists, finding those happy accidents, and figuring out what the best flow was for that particular plot.
You've had an incredible journey, going from QA to working on a major franchise. Very few people get to do that. What was it like to go from QA and now be working on Mass Effect? Was there ever a moment where you kind of like had an experience, where you're like, "Oh God, it finally happened?"
You know what, I feel like I keep having that moment all the time. I think I speak for most people when I say, "I feel like an imposter all the time. Oh my God, what if they find out I'm actually not as good as everybody else here." But, you keep working with the team ... it's all about the team work. And that journey for me has been surreal. As I've said, I've wanted to get into it since I was a kid, so getting a chance to actually squeak in the door and work in QA was humbling. Then working really hard to get each of the additional opportunities that popped up; and then learning on the job, because there's so many different people from so many backgrounds. It was really cool.
Even my transition onto Mass Effect, was a new journey for me; and it kinda resonates, in terms of the game itself. It's all about exploration and discovery, and almost every single role that I take on, is about exploration and discovery, and trying something new.
What has it been like to work with the people that have defined Mass Effect for so long? And now with the people who will be defining Mass Effect into the future? You're in the middle, learning about the foundations at the same time as trying to set them going forwards.
Yeah, it's pretty tough. Again, I feel like it's due in part to the team we work with. We do build in time to fail. And it's nice to be able to work with these guys and learn things, like the cover system and shooter-style game play, and learn better and better ways of applying puzzles and narrative moments.
Do you feel comfortable around the series' veterans and also around newcomers? Do you feel like your new team is rising to the occassion? There's high expectations for Mass Effect: Andromeda; no-one's really thinking about how a lot of your team is new to it, trying to put its stamp on the franchise.
Yeah so it's a really tricky thing to take on. I mean taking it on from the previous Mass Effect Team and trying to learn on the job is definitely tricky. But at least our development schedule, while sometimes hectic, has allowed us the room to make mistakes and fail and then learn in failure. And I think we've embraced that a lot as a studio, which is quite nice.
In terms of the fans, it's pretty tricky to pick up something that's loved so dearly. And you do want to do a fantastic job of it. So I think the things that we try to do are play a lot of games, discuss things a lot, and keep communication lines open. We work together with the old Mass Effect team to make sure the things that we're making are as good as they can be.
How did you, as someone who was a fan and worked on the originals, feel about cutting ties with the Milky way and moving to the Andromeda galaxy?
I think I felt mostly excited about it, actually. Probably because, over the last few years, I've been growing more and more as a space nerd. And then going to Andromeda just felt really cool to me, because there's so many things that we can do with that galaxy. The story has been told in the Milky Way, and I don't think that means we should drop it forever. [But] let's try something new, let's expand on it. I guess short answer: I was excited about it. And then working through the whole project, it was a lot of cool gameplay that grew out of it, and cool story and cool characters.
What does Mass Effect mean to you, specifically?
For me, it's probably exploration and discovery. And I think that's at the heart of the game, but it's also at the heart of my experience going through the entire 'breaking into the games industry' and then working on various projects within BioWare. And I think it's really scary to take on new things, but it's really rewarding at the same time. Again, working with really talented people and the crazy awesome tools ... that can be challenging at times, but it's really powerful. And at the end, you learn and grow. And even though we stumble and trip along the way, I think that's the way to grow as a person; to grow as a developer. And hopefully [we can] develop the franchise at the same time.
You worked on Dragon Age before Mass Effect. What have you brought from BioWare's other massive RPG franchise to Mass Effect?
I feel like, within the BioWare studio, it's a lot about people, process, product. And people have their various strengths in those three categories, but I think the most important of which is working with the people, working as a team. Because we can achieve so much more as a team as we can as individuals. And I think we're really fortunate to have EA and BioWare in this corporate culture; [to have] room to fail and room to create some amazing things.
So I feel like, from Dragon Age, I learned a lot about teamwork. I learned a lot about level design and various tricks from working with different people. And coming onto a new team. although scary, is a new opportunity to do that, and to work with some multiplayer guys, or some guys that worked on systemic stuff for different games so ... I think in short, everything.
Working on Dragon Age, we had a Frostbite toolset, and it was the first time Frostbite was used to make an RPG. So it was incredibly challenging. And then coming over onto Mass Effect, we learned a lot of those tribal tricks ... tribal knowledge from frostbite, and we were able to apply it over to Mass Effect. And then even the open world mechanics ... but it was tough, because it was BioWare's first stab at true open world experience--or at least in some of those relatively contained areas. So bringing some of the team over from Dragon Age who had worked on those things to try out similar things in Mass Effect, but in a new setting, was challenging and fun, and I think we've achieved a lot because of it.
How does it feel, after working on the game for so long, that it's so nearly done; that people will be playing it very soon?
It's surreal. We've been working really hard on this project and from a developer's point of view, especially when we're working on a project like this, it's a lot of work. It's a lot of work to get things done right and done on time. So from our perspective it's been: get up, go to work, go home, go to bed, get up, go to work, etc. And now we've reached the finish line it's relieving--not only that the game's in its state and we're able to ship it, and we're quite proud of our product, but also fans get a chance to have something new.
Someone approached me yesterday and said, "Yeah it's been five years since the last Mass Effect game," and it's like, wow! It's been a long time! As a fan of the game, it's tough to wait that long for the next installment. So I think it's gonna be rewarding for them, too. And it'll be really interesting to see--what is the feedback? What are the things that they love? There are things that we love in the game, but maybe they're gonna find something else that they totally capitalize on ... or combos in the game. I like how the skill progression tree has opened up a lot.
So just talking to a few people [who say] like, "Oh yeah, I do a vanguard charge here and a jump up, and I pull a guy and throw a thing." Like, you know what? Maybe we should have a site or something like that or a competition.
It must be so daunting for you guys as a team to think about all the fans who care so much about this game--Do you ever sit down together and think, "This is it; this is the moment where we find out whether Mass Effect continues, or if something really weird happens now?"
Yeah there definitely is that anticipation. But I feel like we have a lot of mechanisms in place to mitigate that. We've been involving the fans and the community for quite a while, bringing people into focus test, and even getting developers from the previous Mass Effect games to come and playtest our games. So it's always a reiteration cycle, working with people. And I think involving people early enough, and then showing it off in the media and getting engaging reactions, is definitely a calculated, measured way to make sure your game comes out, and that it's on the right track. Because most of all we want our fans to be happy. I mean they're the reason why we're here.
Is there a moment from the Mass Effect series that stands out as being particularly personal to you in some way?
I feel like probably one of the more powerful moments, to me, if I remember correctly, was the one with Legion when you could either choose whether he would die or Tally would die. And that, to me, was gut wrenching, because I loved both of those characters.
And I remember playing it through the one time, and then I think Legion died, and I'm like, "No, no, no, this is wrong!" Go back; load the save again; play it through--and then Tally died the next time, and I'm like, "I can't do it." And I love how we craft those tough BioWare choices in our games, and I think it's given so much more weight, because of the attention to detail we put on character.
So yeah, I played through that moment several times, over and over again. I remember sitting the controller down, going to have something to eat, eating a snack, look at the TV and being like, "I don't know what I'm gonna do. This is tough." I'm a fan of the game; we're a part of this game. But it still strikes a powerful chord.
Do you have moments like that in Andromeda?
Yes, there are definitely a couple of those.
Finally, what do you want people to take away from Andromeda when they finish playing?
I feel like it kinda borders on the exploration and discovery we were talking about earlier. I sincerely hope they go on this journey as well, and they love it, and they love the characters. But another thing I hope they take away is their enthusiasm and their inspiration. I hope the fans inspire us to make something better. And I hope that we inspire fans to top us. Like, come out with your indie games, and show us more tricks. I feel like the game designer, game development community is one big family. And we learn a lot from each other--we're coming from other studios, and we go to Devcon and GDC, and we learn a lot from them.
So I feel like the short answer would be: I hope fans take away their exploration and discovery; [I hope] they have as much fun with it as we've had making the game. And [that they're also inspired by] the new costumes and new events and new multiplayer matches and new DLCs. Wherever that takes us.