A couple weeks back Lev and I interviewed Dr. Gary Zeschuk and Casey Hudson from BioWare. The interview was pegged around Mass Effect 2, but Lev took it in a different direction and the following is what resulted from such disobedience.
*Big ups to Allie for having transcribed more than you see below.
Lev Grossman: What’s the future of the ME franchise? When is the ME movie?
Casey Hudson: Where is the ME movie? Well, we have a lot of interest. Typically if you have a property that’s interesting, people want to make a movie out of it. We don’t want to just make a movie, we want to make sure that if we’re going to do it, that it’s going to be special. We have to know that it’s going to be special because of the people involved and the treatment that’s going to be done with it. We’ve been talking with people in Hollywood, but we’re really trying to line things up so that if it happens it’s going to be something special.
LG: Yeah, it seems like a big prize. It’s a really flushed out, fictional universe with a huge audience that comes with it. You’d think somebody would want to take a bite out of that.
CH: Yeah, they’re doing movies about lots of things where you’d think, wow it doesn’t seem like it has a lot of fiction behind it but definitely ME is really rich with things you’d want to make a movie with. You can slice it many different ways, too. A lot of movies get made about video games that don’t work out and that’s no use to us. Especially Bio Ware – we always take a really long time to view the quality of our product. That’s why our games don’t come out until they’re great.
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LG: Well there’s research put into it. If you were to have a flop, there would be a lot of years and money behind it.
CH: Yeah, for a lot of people, it will be the first introduction into the ME universe and you don’t want it to be that bad movie, whatever it ends up being.
Peter Ha: What about the comic books?
CH: Well, we’ve got the Dark Horse series. The first episode is out and the second is coming up soon, I think. All of these things, like the movie, we want to make sure that they’re good before we do them and think of a reason that they should exist in this universe. To sort of try finding a nice piece of real estate to live in. The cool thing about the way that story works for ME2 is both a prequel and yet a story that’s inside the time frame of ME2. The neat thing about that is that obviously the first issue is out, and the game isn’t. So it kind of alludes to what happens in the beginning and that’s kind of cool, but pretty soon people will have played the game, but the comic series won’t be done, and yet they’ll still know where the comic series fits. So, there’s a really neat interplay in terms of the time line. It’s not before it, but it also makes sense when it’s afterwards. So when you die, your body somehow ends up at Cerberus and they rebuild you. How you go from falling to your death and then your body ending up at Cerberus – that’s the story that the Dark Horse comics. So if you play the game, then you kind of play retroactively.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: It’s not really a prelude, but there are a couple of bits that fill the gap.
PH: Is this series a limited run, or will it be on going?
CH: I think it’s six issues and then there will be a graphic novel compilation. There will probably be other series, but this one, it tells a certain story arch.
(More on Techland: Read the review of Mass Effect Redemption here)
LG: Can you talk in a general way about how the development experience for ME2 was different than the first? Was there more pressure?
CH: I think there was less pressure. There was more pressure in terms of knowing that millions of people had played the first one and they had opinions on how it should be and we want to live up to that, but I think that’s a good pressure that we feel because we know that that’s out there anyway. We’re trying to make a game that millions of people are going to play but the challenge of ME and most of the other games we’ve developed at Bio Ware is that it’s something very new and that we don’t know for sure what people are going to think about it. So with the first ME, for example, we were creating an entirely new galaxy of fiction: new aliens, new ships, a whole aesthetic, a story. And there’s no reason why we can guarantee that people will like any of that stuff. So this whole package that we’re putting together, I think that’s where a lot of the stress was. It was the technology challenge of figuring out all of this technology and the game play and figuring out how it’s supposed to play, that was a lot of pressure and a lot of problems to solve. Fortunately, ME1 was really successful and highly rated. People really liked it. So we had that to build on. And we also had lots of feedback. If you look at the feedback as important, then it’s all there. Everything you need to make the experience better and to really perfect it is really there and so we had that to work from as well.
LG: Tell me about the feedback. What kind of responses did you get?
CH: I think our most passionate fans, many of them are on our community site, but they’re also the most critical. So that’s a good place to look for things that you should improve because they love the experience, but they’re therefore that much more passionate. We looked at everything we could find and we literally printed it all out into a huge document – every comment: good comment, bad comment. And then we categorized it based on the enthusiasm of the feedback, prioritized it and there were basically 40 categories of things that we wanted to improve or reserve for the next game. And that became part blueprint for how we designed the game.
LG: I’m curious about the ME aesthetic and where it comes from, where you guys are coming from.
CH: I think a lot of that the art director, David Watts, and myself, we’re really big fans of a type of science fiction that we don’t really see that much anymore, which is a Stanley Kubrick-type atmosphere and pacing, the future aesthetic like in 2001 and then also movies that have a lot of atmosphere like Alien vs. Aliens where it became more high action and less about the atmosphere and high aesthetics. It’s still a great movie. Or, even Star Trek: The Wrath of Con, where it still had an idyllic sense to it, there’s a darkness and a seriousness to it. We thought it wasn’t really being done that much anymore in movies, and certainly not in games. In games, it’s usually the dark, gritty industrial futuristic metal and stuff like that. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to create that kind of larger than life idyllic future that you see in a John Berkey painting or something. When you see these novels that have an incredible painting on them, it makes you want to live in that painting. It’s that kind of stuff that we want to try and build because weren’t seeing it in fiction.
(More on Techland: The Five Underrated Sci-Fi Movie Masterpieces)
LG: That’s very interesting. What about writers? Are there writers?
GZ: Drew Karpyshyn was the writer on the original. He helped on ME2 and then passed the baton onto Mac Walters. Drew wrote the books (something I can’t understand) New York Times Bestsellers and then passed the baton to the new guy Mac who wrote comics.
CH: It’s sort of a tradition at Bio Ware. One of the things we really like to do, especially if we’re spinning things off is have internal writers do it so we can be involved in the initial project and get that consistency. It’s probably fair to say that some of the bad experiences of all of those ‘Something’ novels is totally separate thing.
GZ: There are a number of writers we’ve had probably 15 years. Some of the old, back to the good old days are some of the writers and there’s a consistency of tone. I think we’ve learned a lot. ME was a great example, ME2 particularly, of changing and evolving our writing style. At the end of ME, when you’ve finished it, you know how to use the tools and you know how to get it out of the digital actors, but you don’t know how to use the content, so don’t realize that if you adjust your arms, your facial expression can replace the “I’m Angry” line. Quite literally. Instead of saying “I’m Angry at you” he can just go ahead and say his next line. That’s when ME2 took off. Knowing what you can get out of the initial acting and then taking it further. Again, it’s funny, we (can’t understand) internal training for the non-linear stories that we describe. Some writers can do and some can’t. For those who are gamers, it’s pretty easy to get into, but we’ve tried to convert some of the more traditional linear gamers and sometimes it just doesn’t work so well.
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LG: It must be just a huge amount of text that gets generated.
CH: It’s actually something that is quite proprietary in the way that we have developed games over the years. I think there’s a real barrier for other companies who try to do what we’re doing because it’s taken us, 10, 12 years of doing specifically that. The tool itself has evolved over that time so we couldn’t have built it all in one game, so anyone who would want to do this kind of stuff would have to learn about how you build a tool for interactive dialogue and how writers can get that down creatively and yet it’s this incredibly complex piece of content.
GZ: And this is a great example, but each year the Writer’s Guild is now awarding video game awards for writing. The first year they did this was two years ago. They said, Hey we want the ME script. We want to review it for the writer’s guild. And we were like, what do you mean, script? And they said, we want to see the 60-page story of ME.
But there is no script. It’s inside a digital tool and we cannot actually generate a script. There are millions of scripts that are possible.
CH: And what we used to eventually create VO ended up being a couple crates of binders. And an actor will also say, yeah I’m pretty interested. Can you send over the script? So literally, we couldn’t apply for the writer’s guild writing award, and actually we couldn’t apply for dragon age either because we cannot deliver our game content in a way that they can actually review. So that sucks, but that’s the way it is. You just can’t read it. You have to play it. It’s over 35,000 words.
LG: That’s amazing. What about the creature design? I noticed that while the aliens do not look like each other, there’s a certain feel that they have.
CH: I think one thing we really try to make use of is the fact that we don’t have to put an actor in a suit, and since we don’t have to do that we try to do things that we can’t do otherwise. Well if you want a science fiction show on TV, they’ll put bumps on an actor’s nose. Different kinds of bumps make different kinds of variants. I guess one thing that we do is we’ll look at animal anatomy and try to draw reference and then we’ll allow that character to be humanoid but still have a really great look that makes sense for them.
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We spend a lot of time on our designs for characters, it’s one of the hardest things that we do. Like in the new species in ME2, the guy’s name is Thane and he’s a Drell. The goal for Thane was that he had to be a potential love interest for female characters. So coming up with the idea for an alien is hard. And coming up with an alien who is attractive as a potential love interest for women is 10 times harder.
With ME1, one of the things I wanted to make sure we did was to generally make sure we had cosmopolitan locations where there would be a reason that there would be a fair amount of humans there because we had no reason to believe that our aliens would be successful at being able to portray human emotion. So if you have something powerful happening and cinematically, everyone’s an alien, well we didn’t know that that would work. That was one of the surprise victories of ME1. Not only did it work, but I thought the aliens as well were not only able to express a real human emotion as our human characters. And our proof of that is that two of our characters that we didn’t plan on having as a romance interest, partly because of this uncertainty… two of them were Tali who has chicken feet and Garrus who has kind of a boney bird-like exoskeleton. Both of those characters are the number one requested characters for romance interests in ME2. And it’s on the basis strictly of the way that character is performed. Even Garrus, on paper, he’s a relative dry kind of guy. He’s a by-the-book character, so there’s no reason why he should be a break out appeal for people.
LG: Did you feel any pressure to rash up or rash down the sexual content this time around?
CH: No because the only complaints we had were from people who had made up stuff about what they thought was in the game, not from people who had actually played it. The people who actually played it got exactly what we intended, which was it was a really nice development of an actual development. The reason we do that is because we think about it in the same line of what you get in a PG-13 action movie where you’ve got a good story and witty dialogue but there’s also a love interest because it gives you a view of why there’s explosions going on and why you’re running around trying to save somebody. There’s a human aspect to it. There’s love and compassion for people. And that actually really changes things if you develop a relationship and you’re kind of flirting with a character on one hand and you get into a battle and you send them up ahead and you see them battling it out from behind cover you do think differently about the character and the fight. Than you would if it was someone you didn’t really care about. So that’s why we do it and I think it works very well. So in ME2 there are more chances for love interests and because of that if changes the interactions and the way relationships develop. So you’re developing a relationship with one character and another character and they know about each other and it’s a potential source of conflict and it’s just more sophisticated on the romance aspect.
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LG: Wow, I write novels. There’s only one option and I can barely do that. I can barely do linear. Non-linear…
CH: It’s one of the interesting reasons we have an ensemble of writers. If you do a movie with a dirty dozen-type story, everyone in the audience has to like everyone in the team for some reason. But we know there are different types of players. People like different things. We actually try to design characters that some people love and some people hate. Because then if there are 3 or 4 characters and because they’re love/hate type of characters then you love those characters and the others there are a few that you can’t stand, that’s perfect. Because you will play through the whole story and when they have a conflict with the characters that you don’t like, you love to see them fighting it out with those characters and for other people it’ll be different characters. But, if we make a character where everyone says, “Yep, we like them.” Then that’s not good, either.