Mass Effect: Andromeda's level designer and space lead talks about going from a fan to a developer.
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 Jessica Campbell, level designer and space lead 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?
Jessica Campbell: My name is Jessica Hara Campbell. I'm the Space Lead and the Level Designer for the Tempest on Mass Effect Andromeda.
So for me, coming to BioWare this is my first Mass Effect game with the company as someone who is a very large fan of the original trilogy. So I think really interesting for me, walking into the company, hired as a level designer to actually start working on the UNCs, and when the level designer who previously built the Normandy for the trilogy shifted projects, they were like, "Jess, you want to do the Tempest?" And I'm like, "Y- Yes? I think so?" 'cause I mean, there's no small feat to try to live up to what the Normandy is for fans, myself. So being given that opportunity was just absolutely incredible, to be involved in all that.
And then, partially along the way, started also leading what we call the Space Team, which is pretty much where we redesigned the galaxy map. So we took the core of what the galaxy map was, in terms of these are experience, but then what we wanted to make it, this beautiful, immersive player experience that reinforced the narrative of Ryder as the Pathfinder. Especially with the Frostbite technology we have, it's so powerful. It was like, "This is a great opportunity for us to really feel like we are exploring and engaging the player to see space in a totally different lens."
Where were you when the first Mass Effect came out and what did it mean to you?
So I did not play any BioWare games for quite some time in my lifetime of gaming. For years, my husband was trying to get me play it, like, "You need to play these games." I'm like, "No, it's a space ... I like Star Wars, but space shooter things are not my thing." Actually, my gateway drug was Dragon Age: Origins. Love that one. I'm like, "Alright, fine, I'll try it."
So I was sick the weekend I picked up ME1. Played it in about two days. Picked up one disc, put in ME2 and just kept going. So it very quickly consumed me, the fascination with it and it really changed the way I viewed games also, as a player being like, "Oh, I'll try something new," and then realizing, "Wow, this is an experience in games I'd never previously engaged with." And it was like, "Wow, I was missing a lot," and in terms of ME2, still to this day is one of my favorite games ever.
So especially for me to be able to, with the Tempest and working with all the writers to create all the characters which are the core of what Mass Effect is, to be part of that whole experience from beginning to end and watch them develop, it really is the dream job, and I'm building part of it.
As a fan, did you ever worry about seeing behind the magician's curtain?
Oh, we knew. We knew it was over as soon as we took the job here. At the same time though, it's a really special thing to see. And I think, for having loved the trilogy so much, there's something even more special now to see how the whole process is done. I will, unfortunately, never be able to experience it like the fans, which kind of hurts still a little bit, to not be totally wowed, but even so, having been a major part of the main hub of the game which connects to everything … When I'm testing some levels, I will run into Concept like, "Holy crap, I had no idea, this is great!" So I mean, even for me, there's gonna be so much to see I have no idea even exists. And even just the different storylines, characters, it's ... there's gonna be a lot in there that is gonna be really exciting.
You talked about how daunting it was creating a new ship for people to call home with the Tempest, so you're kind of keenly aware of what that one slice of the game means, but did you ever step back and think about what the experience overall means to different people? You're not just making a new ship for people, you're making a new Mass Effect, a new galaxy, a new entire universe for people.
Oh, absolutely. The responsibility of living up to what was already previously defined and established was tremendous. And every decision we made was like, "Okay is this at least meeting par of what we did before? And what can we do to make it special and new and inviting for the player?" 'Cause it was a very fine balance between reaching part of what was already established. We have a wonderful IP and lore, and it would have been silly for us to be like, "Nope, we're rewriting everything as we move to Andromeda."
No, there's a core foundation for a reason. We're gonna take it, build upon it, and also be aware of, as a fan, what I really want to see this thing, and it really drove us to make a lot of the decisions in what we were doing. And always, we were so careful with every aspect of what we were doing, in terms of the way the levels function, the user experience and how they engage with things, and just overall the pacing of the game and the content we were giving them and always look for fun little bits that are like, the little one-off banters that you're like, "What? What did they just say?" It's always surprising.
What was it like actually going from being a fan to being in that studio working on the new Mass Effect.
I think when we were offered the opportunity to come work with BioWare on Mass Effect, there was, I think- I say "we" because my husband is the lead level designer, so this is both of us coming here, dream jobs, moving and being part of this team. There was this moment like, "Yes! We're going! We're gonna do this! Oh my god, what have we done?" It's really incredible to be part of it, and daily, it's just living up to the expectations of what it is as a company. I mean, we look at this team, many of them were even around for ME1, so we have incredible talent that has been part of everything for such a long time, to be able to, as newcomers, being welcomed into all of it, getting up to speed on all of the things we didn't even realize was going on, the decision-making process.
Often, it was very overwhelming and intimidating, but at the same time, I think the way this team has built the leadership structure, they were there to help us get through it. And at the same time, through their vision, they have ideas of what they want to do. But at the same time, with the talent we have, it's letting the team also take the reins and go. Now, there was course-correcting involved, but it's overall, they let us not only become part of the team, but help recreate even what we're doing right now.
So Mass Effect, the series overall, is a series about strong characters. And it's easy for people to fall in love with Wrex or Liara or Tali or whoever it may be. The Normandy was this space you never actively think about loving until you're away from it. How do you approach creating a new version of that, and how do you build a new Normandy for a new age knowing that, eventually, it could mean a great deal to people?
So at first, it was really interesting because at the time, we still had the level artist who had created the Normandy and the level designer who did the Normandy as well. So having them to walk through things they did, there were key things we wanted to maintain in the Tempest. Some features, whether it was the player experience with handling, we knew we wanted the Galaxy Map. Maybe change how it was gonna work. We wanted to keep some core visual elements to keep it familiar. Not entirely new, but it needed to be different. This was definitely a different ship.
I remember the first time we opened up the level of the actual Normandy, I think I got goosebumps. It was just like, "It's real and I can fly around it and look at it." It was such a surreal moment of like, "Wow, this is really happening." So for us, being able to actually look at what the Normandy was as a level and then now start to build the Tempest ... it was something where we had an idea of the elements we wanted to recreate and then change to make the new experience. 'Cause to us, the Tempest and the Normandy, they are characters. They're not NPCs, but they are, unto itself, its own character.
And I think with what we did with the Tempest, very much unlike the Normandy, we have windows and you can see outside to space. And for that, alone, it was like, "This is something so different." And I can walk around, go up to the meeting room and you have a 360 panoramic view of space and you can fly to an asteroid belt, park in front of a sun and outside is this new thing to see. I really get a kick out of the fact that the ship feels so much bigger than the Normandy because we have windows. We didn't have the streaming restrictions we had where we had the elevators to load. It is seamless. You can run from the bridge, the cargo bay, the pathfinder's quarters back up to the bridge and you don't have to wait. So it's just so different, and yet this thing is so much smaller than the Normandy. But it feels like a really amazing experience to run around.
I thought for ages that I was just not seeing all of it. The ship felt really, really tight and kind of enclosed at a point, and I was initially like, "There's not a lot of space here for me to explore." But then realized that it was also bringing a lot of the characters closer together. Was that something that you did intentionally?
Yeah, part of the whole idea was being the Pathfinder, we are on a small scout ship. We're no longer on a military vessel. So as part of that, we wanted to shrink it down to make sense where we now have a small, intimate crew. Where previously, the Normandy housed, I think it was like, 70, 80-odd crew members, granted they were just the NPCs in the background or eventually on the death wall once they all died. So there was this whole ensemble cast that was part of the Normandy. And we knew from the get-go, this is a small ship and it would probably typically only have a crew of 8.
So we have a small ship, very specific things for it to do, and then we're gonna cram a couple extra squad mates in there too. So it was really about building, "We're explorers, we have our new family with the squad mates, but then everything's a little crowded, and everyone should have a bunk, but we don't have bunks for everyone, so Liam's dragging a couch into this ship and okay, that's your spot." So we're still maintaining the identity of rooms associated with the squad mates, and you can see it evolve over time of the things they're collecting as you're exploring and progression with the relationships.
And something we really wanted to push, because we didn't have the ensemble cast, was, so what are they doing when they're not standing in the rooms waiting for you to talk to them? And we've really pushed bringing them together and establishing relationships with each other. It's not just about you as Ryder and them. So they're also walking around and talking to each other, and over the course of the game you can start hearing what starts as an argument slowly transition to conversations and these threads playing out through the whole game.
I think I caught PeeBee arguing with Lexi about doctor patient confidentiality at one point and it made me stop for a minute and observe the surroundings, because she was moving about as well. And playing the original games, I'm so used to just bolting from one room to the other because I know Wrex is here or Tali's here, I need to speak to this person, this person, this person, so ...
Yep, it was the Normandy tour. There's virtue to having it, but at the same time, we wanted to get away from that to let the player feel more like it's a living world, that people aren't just scripted to stand in their room and wait for you. They're doing things. Because we have such a small crew, they need to be doing their jobs, otherwise the ship isn't going to function. It was an interesting challenge to do, and I think it's gonna pay off. I'm really excited about it. It was something that I really, really wanted to do, and it took an incredible team with the writers, the cinematic designers to be able to get this to actually work and function.
What's it like, going from a fan to someone working on the game, not being allowed to talk about it for four or five years, to finally being able to open up about it?
It's about as intimidating as working on the project itself, because it's like, "Oh, there's so much cool stuff." And especially with the BioWare community. The fans have this amazing way to reach out to us. There's so many different letters and conversation with them of what the games mean to them, and it's just like, "I want to feed you all this stuff. You're gonna be so excited. I'm so excited to share it with you but I can't yet. Just not yet." So I'm really looking forward to the game coming out and just being able to respond and see did everyone enjoy the thing. I really hope they did. What didn't they like? Just being able to react and like, "Okay, next time around, I'm gonna get this thing and make sure that conversation or reaction happens."
So really, it is for me, kind of the lifeblood of giving me the energy to be able to continue to build this level. It was no easy thing. We had some really interesting tech challenges that we introduced with how we were doing space, but at the same time, it was like, we can nail this whole experience. I think it's really gonna be something very different that we're bringing with the Tempest.
It must be exciting to know that people really care about that kind of stuff. Because in most games, there's something like a world map and people don't pay too much attention to it. Whereas your community is one where they will really think about the distance between two planets and think about the atmosphere of each planet. And those kind of really little details that, in most games are just kind of incidental and no one cares about.
It was a really big challenge for us, 'cause a lot of it is, we want to make the experience for the player to see space and be able to move to the [uncharted planets] or the missions as easy and ... Hmm. There's probably a better word than "quick", but it's just making it accessible and very simple, intuitive for them to do.
But at the same time, initial designs we were doing was much more using the pathfinder and same as the AI, like maybe it's just like you're swiping through and you're looking through things. And then we realized, well we're losing what space is. It's space. It's vast. It's humongous. But we're in a brand-new galaxy, and you are the explorer. If we take that away from you, the player is not engaging with that moment when you're coming out of FTL and voom, we're right in the middle of an asteroid belt, or you see this really weird thing in the distance. If we didn't have that, it'd be like, "Yeah, okay. Just click, load, next level, let's go."
So really, being able to craft that experience, it was very different. And for us, we still wanted to be able to fly around the system so you could see the movement and take the couple seconds to just look and appreciate and experience what you were seeing before you're like, "Alright, we're now diving into the mission banter and let's go." And it gives us the opportunity also during the flight sequences to have the squad mates chime in, even them reacting to like, "Whoa, look at this thing. I don't understand what this is." It just makes the experience feel more succinct and alive.
BioWare has said it's been able to do things that were maybe thought of in Mass Effect 1, but due to tech restriction, couldn't do until now. What's it like finally being able to take these really old dreams and bring them to life?
I think the legacy of what ME1 was trying to do and move forward was something coming back to the exploration, returning to the UNCs was kind of that dream. We're like, "Okay, I think we can do this now." So that experience, I kind of have a weird relationship with it, 'cause I was part of how we get from Tempest to planet. So for that, being able to go start the transition, actually see us transitioning through the atmosphere and all the cinematics, talking about the story, what was there and then the moment of reveal, the UNC. It was like, "Oh, this thing's really big, and there are a lot of things to do here."
So that was a fun thing that we were actually able to really get across 'cause there's a very weird thing that happens where it's an alien planet and we want to explore it. So there's this really weird difference where we want to give the player stuff to do, but we need to make it feel barren, and it's a planet, so if we give them too much content, it doesn't feel alien and strange. But at the same time, if there's not enough for them to do, it's boring.
So it was a very interesting balance of how that minute-to-minute, second-to-second gameplay to keep the player moving through the level and especially using the Nomad to get there ... you can still go through moments of nothing, but because you're moving quite fast, then you can be hitting that content as you're going, to always keep engaging and seeing, "There's something peeking around that rock, I want to go see what it is," and really visually leading the player to all the different locations to find and explore all the different content.
You obviously played the original trilogy, so you probably feel a lot like fans felt in regards to the Mako and that kind of stuff, and you were just talking about Nomad there. How does it feel to be part of the team trying to make that work?
I actually always loved the Mako, and I think I used it in ways it was never supposed to be used. It was the, "I'm gonna drive into the combat, hop out, hide behind it." It would be smoking on fire, more than one occasion I would jump into and die immediately 'cause it was too far gone. So for us to be able to bring that back and then just spend so much time iterating, improving on the whole overall driving experience, it's really great to see what was before and what we were able to do with it now. It's funny, even with us, my cat is named Mako. It's more the shark, but now I'm like, "Yes, he's named after the car." Just even coming home the other day, my husband walks in and he's like, "Where's Nomad? I mean Mako ... " Work is so part of our life that we're like, "Alright, we'll just drive the cat around now."
What has the mood been like in the studio? Obviously you have this contingent of veterans and now you have this contingent of new developers forging a future for the franchise. Is there kind of like a old school-new school split? Is it a teacher-pupil relationship?
So I think in the early stages of development, the original Mass Effect team was part of some of the creative force, and eventually they all started shifting off because for them, a lot of them had been making Mass Effect for ten years and were ready for something new. So they were very much there to help us establish the vision of what Mass Effect was and making new steps to what would become Andromeda. So it was very much a passing of the torch experience. They imparted a lot of wisdom. I have a list from my predecessor of "Make sure you don't do this, don't do this. Do this, not that." Probably didn't listen to most of that. But a lot of it, I wish I did. It was like, "Oh, we could do this. We could do it better. We're fine." It was like, "Oh, he was right in so many ways.
But overall, it's a new team, more or less, building Mass Effect. And I think for us, actually, one of the greatest challenges, we were building it over three studios in three time zones. So trying to work with everyone, find times to have meetings and work out problems, we became very agile and very good at communicating very quick, because it's a lot of questions and really, when you break it down, that's two hours in a workday where everyone is actually in the office at the same time not on lunch.
It was definitely a project that people loved and they wanted to get it right. It meant a lot to not just the fans, but us as well. It's a legacy we're carrying on, and we really wanted to do it right. So the last few months, it's been ... we've come so far, we've been working so hard and we're just gonna fine tune this puppy as much as we possibly can. Now that everyone's kind of like, "Okay, we're almost there," just being able to watch the fan reactions as all the media's coming out over it, there's a lot of excitement about everyone actually getting to play it for the first time.
When you got to the studio and you realized that you're working on Mass Effect, did you understand the vision straight away or was it a thing that slowly clicked into place?
I mean, I think when we walked in, they already knew it was gonna be not Shepard. It's a new PC character and we're moving to Andromeda, it's not staying. And we're clearly making a break and it will be different, which I actually think was a very, very wise choice to not try to carry over all the legacy of what was there and like, "No, we're gonna start fresh." So I think right then, it was like, "Okay, I think this is a good choice," and it felt good. So there was ... I think things generally worked out in terms of just moving forward and never really feeling like we were kind of failing in that.
One of the things that you helped bring to Andromeda in a big, new way is the whole space stuff. Can you talk a bit about how you came to the decision to do that, the challenges you faced in doing that, and why you decided to do it?
Yeah, so looking at space previously, over the course of the galaxy map over the three games, it changed. The core of it was there. You would look at the different layers of the system and you would fly the little Normandy around to go places, and we knew inherently we still wanted to keep that concept to remember this is large and we're constantly looking down, seeing the different levels of it because it is big, even though the Mass Relay has shortened how much of that travel time was. Knowing immediately we don't have Mass Relay tech, how were we going to move around something so large? It was kind of paired with that experience of, we don't want the player just to look at a UI screen because it's not engaging. It doesn't fulfil the desire to explore space.
So we went through lots of different iterations of how we were gonna move around space. Some of it was too fast in terms of a HUD, moving around, and eventually we played around with, "Do we just let the player snap around to the different views?" More or less, we got to the point where we decided we wanted that experience to move through the systems. It was more than the technical challenge of how do we make it as smooth and easy for that experience to happen, not make it too boring 'cause we don't want to sit there for five minutes as we're flying from one side of the solar system to the other. And especially for us, it was how we transitioned into the missions, in terms of we had this great, new tech to show us moving through space. How were we gonna show us transitioning to a new location? So we were really conscious in terms of how we built the experience and how we were able to technically do it and now make it boring or repetitive. 'Cause a lot of the UNCs, you're gonna go back to time and time again. The narrative, the stories, they drive you to return to places to see what changed, so it was very much fluidity issue of not making everybody too bored as they went back. So it's pretty quick, it's engaging, but each time it's visually a really nice thing to look at.
It's really interesting the way, I think, of introducing intimacy to this thing that's vast and cold. In the previous games, the most intimate you got with a planet while in space was when you were probing it. And that's partially only because it's EDI shouting, "Launching probe" or whatever.
Yeah, we played with a lot of different ways of engaging in the gameplay. Much like my love for the Mako, I also really loved ME2 where I was gonna mine the crap out of that planet till it was run dry, and I know there's many different opinions, so it's like, all right, how do we strike that balance where we want the player to engage with searching for debris. We have that anomaly, something's out there. How are we gonna find this thing? And the experience of tracking down where it is and then flying to it and it's a ghost ship type of thing, or maybe it's a distress signal and now we have quest content there. So we knew the elements we wanted to maintain from what the trilogy was introducing, but now we had a different way of experiencing it and moving around with it.
So it was a lot of trials. A lot of time to experiment with that experience, to make sure for people who are testing and building it everyday to the point if we're like, "Oh, this is really cumbersome," that is not what we want. So when we finally found that right mix of flight times and interacting with something and actually feeling rewarded for finding things, we were like, "Okay, we have a really good balance now." And then it was just polishing.
We had a really great, small multidisciplinary team which was two programmers, myself, one of the tech designers, and a VFX/level artist who basically built that whole experience. So it was a massive undertaking. And it's really interesting how large and intricate it is, and it's the way you go from the Tempest to everywhere else. But it's just something that if the player doesn't think, "Wow, this is ... I'm really thinking about it," the experience itself, then we've done our job. We're giving you the experience you're reacting to and not the clunkiness of actually using it.
When Mass Effect 1 came out, it was always clear from the get-go it was the first part of a trilogy. If Andromeda is also a first chapter, where would you like to see Mass Effect go?
With the game, we've introduced a new galaxy, so there's a lot of new possibilities of what's there, and specifically we're in a section of a galaxy. We're not even experiencing everything, so there's going to be much more to explore and we very much feel like there are other things out there. And as for the player with this experience, everyone you're encountering in the game is, they have come to this new place, left everything behind in attempts to start a new life. So this is very much almost like a coming-of-age story, it's, "We're coming here, this is new, nobody knows what they're doing, there are many mistakes to be made," and it's going to be this really interesting evolution of, it's not just humanity encountering the aliens for the first time. We are the aliens coming to this place where people live.
Granted, we're coming with our own alien friends to this location, but I think there's a really interesting ... just different things that we can introduce and expand upon and show as the growth of us coming to this place, realizing who we are as we're interacting with them. And even on a smaller scale with the player character, just how they are growing and changing, whether or not they are the main character if we do a sequel, but like, where they are and just seeing how they're growing also into this brand new role.
What does Mass Effect Andromeda mean to you?
I guess being part of the Space experience, Mass Effect Andromeda is the wonder of finding new things. That there is hope. You're with your friends and you're experiencing brand new things for the first time. It's just the discovery. The wonder of it. Embracing new things. I think especially for myself with this game, it really pairs to where, at least, I am in my life of picking up and moving to Canada, joining my dream job. It's all about this is brand new, it's awe-inspiring, it's intimidating, but we're gonna embrace it and what you make of it is what you're gonna get out of it. It's a personal. The story of my life is, part of this game is like, we're just gonna make this thing amazing and do everything we possibly can.
It's also the story of your BioWare studio, isn't it? A group of new people trying to find a new home for the franchise. Do you ever see shades of that in the game and be like, "This is us. We're seeing ourselves in it"?
Yeah, it really is. For the studio in Montreal, especially, we were given this massive thing. So seeing it come to fruition and feeling like we are this new family, even, as a team building this thing, it's new challenges of meeting new people, new team coming into it whether they're old school BioWare, brand new to BioWare, part of EA. I think it's really brought us together us a family unit, as a team. So it really pairs well, I think, with the overarching of narrative of what the overall story is.
There's a lot of fans out there that are looking at this franchise trying to change its identity. You've gone from someone who's a fan of the original identity into someone trying to find the new identity so can perhaps understand the worries and anxiety some fans have right now. What would you tell them to assuage their fears?
I think they will be pleasantly surprised at how much of the core of what Mass Effect is, is there, and the new things that are brought to it. So it is, I think, a really, a homage to what the series is. Our fans who were part of the trilogy grew up with it and can embrace it, they're gonna find the core things that they love. That hasn't gone away, and I think it's a really great introduction for fans who have never experienced, to now walk into this and experience it all for the first time. So I think we can really deliver to both sides and everyone is going to experience this together as this brand new, very different thing. I think it's gonna work out well.