We speak to BioWare about the extent of its ambition, and the sacrifices it is making to deliver on a massive promise.
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It’s not uncommon that major game projects, fueled by unwavering ambition and assembled by hundreds of talented and impassioned individuals, can fall onto challenging times. Often the pressure comes hand-in-hand with the weight of expectation; huge undertakings such as Half-Life 2, DOOM, and The Last Guardian have all been developed somewhere in the middle-distance between purgatory and hell. It’s worth noting that these projects, surprisingly often, eventually emerge as acclaimed showpieces.
Now, if insider accounts heard by GameSpot are to be believed, Mass Effect Andromeda appears to be the latest project feeling the stress. That’s not to say the game is a disaster by any stretch, nor that it will miss another milestone, but accounts of life at the studio aren’t particularly flattering: We have heard stories of dev departures, and of a plan to strip away some game features in order to meet EA’s final deadline.
To discuss these rumours, as well as talk broadly about the ambitions of the project, GameSpot met with BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn.
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GameSpot: I was surprised to see the latest Mass Effect Andromeda trailer didn't show any extended gameplay. Do you wish you could have showed more?
FLYNN: Well, every time we do one of these things we make a bunch of choices about how we're going to fit all of this in, so we definitely made a choice to show more of the characters. A lot of what we did here was meant to complement the previous trailers as well.
EA has this amazing line of game releases coming up. We come later, so we have more time to show great gameplay. But the good news is that everything we showed in that trailer is right from the game, so none of that is made by CG or anything like that. Y'know this is a Mass Effect game, so that kind of squad combat that you love, that third-person cover combat that you love, that moment-to-moment gameplay is all in there.
"There are tense moments, for sure. Any time you're trying to do something big and ambitious, you're going to have tensions."Aaryn Flynn, BioWare general manager
How big of a challenge has this project been?
Oh it's been a really big challenge. When the Mass Effect trilogy story ended, we had a lot of choices to make about how we would do another [game]. Even before that, we thought about whether we should do one at all.
Luckily, we had a lot of support from fans, and we had a lot of developers who were interested in doing another one.
A lot of the folks who worked on the original trilogy, they've gone on to start a new IP at BioWare that they are still working on. So we had to train up a new group of leads to build this project; that was a task in itself.
But now we have a new generation of developers who are trying to bring their vision of Mass Effect to life.
So this may not surprise you, but I've heard stories of a lot of tensions at the studio. I've heard about people leaving. Do you feel that's an accurate portrayal of the studio right now?
Er, passion yeah, tensions yes. There are tense moments, for sure. Any time you're trying to do something big and ambitious, you're going to have tensions and second thoughts. I think trailers like this show that, for whatever doubts our developers might have in their minds about getting this done, it's going to get done and it's going to be amazing.
I also heard that some gameplay features are now being stripped out to meet the release date.
Oh I haven't heard about any of that. We've had a couple of modest changes, but nothing radical. All of the emphasis to move towards the free-form exploration, all that's still in there and very grounded in the mechanics.
This is clearly a hugely ambitious game, attempting many new things at the same time. How confident are you that you will be able to hit that "early 2017" deadline?
I'm pretty confident. We're lucky to have an amazing publisher in EA, who want us to make the best Mass Effect game we possibly can. We talk to them constantly, they're always asking questions and giving advice.
Now that we're using Frostbite, there's a lot of developers such as DICE and Visceral, who have a lot of experience with the engine. So as a community of developers, I think, EA has never been stronger.
I recognise that there's a lot of ambition with this game, and people are nervous about it for sure. The toughest thing for us to hear is that the fans are nervous, which is rather sobering, so we're eager to calm those concerns. A lot of fans hold the studio to a really high standard, and the game will mark the final say on that.
I can understand those fan concerns. I feel that, this close to release, it's a bit worrying there's no deep dive on how the game plays.
Oh okay, we could absolutely go into all that detail now. I have no concerns with that stuff.
So moving on, so the Pathfinder character that was revealed at the end of the trailer appears to be a female by default this time?
Well there's a trick there, I can't get into it, but yes, that's your female protagonist.
I was just wondering if we were about to need the phrase "MenShep".
[Laughs] Yeah, it's funny actually because we have both main characters ready to view, and we we're talking about this, and we thought "actually with the first trilogy we had male as default, we should balance that out as best we can."
There's also a tricky balancing act here, you have to make Andromeda relatable to the original trilogy, whilst also giving it a clean slate. How do you tread that line?
I spend a lot of my time trying to think about that, with other members of the team, and it's invigorating working with younger developers who weren't around at the beginning of the trilogy. Sometimes they see something you don't.
Is Andromeda the start of a trilogy?
Well the first Mass Effect we specifically announced as part of a trilogy, which we didn't do this time. That was largely because we wanted more freedom to tell this story however we wanted. However, I think a lot of people right now are really enjoying what we're doing, and so that affords us a great opportunity to do more stuff.
I was there when the Mass Effect 3 ending happened, so I have a lot of therapy bills.Aaryn Flynn, BioWare general manager
Now that we have some years of distance from it, how did you feel about the Mass Effect 3 ending? The backlash, the alternate ending, bowing to fan pressure; how do you feel about all of it?
Well, I was there when the Mass Effect 3 ending happened, so I have a lot of therapy bills.
Oh yeah, I mean [releasing the alternate ending] was an incredibly cathartic moment for the studio. There we were, desperate to pay off a decade of work, and to have that negativity come back we thought, god, what are we doing here?
Heads were hanging like this [puts heads in hands between his knees]. It was a deeply introspective and challenging time for all of us. We carry a lot of scars from that time, and took a lot of lessons.
We all grew though it. I think everyone who went through that is a better developer because of it, and I think a lot of those people are determined to make a better Mass Effect game in a different setting. A lot of the motivation for me personally comes from that Mass Effect 3 ending.