Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka talk BioWare
After successfully dodging having to deliver industry interviews throughout the inaugural Gamescom trade fair in Cologne - instead focusing on behind-closed-doors presentations and feverish note taking - I have been well and truly scuppered this year. Moreover, a certain Mr. Guttridge has me slogging through five interviews in two days, the first of which just so happens to be a general chat with renowned BioWare doctors Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka. No pressure then.
So, Dr. Ray, Dr. Greg, thanks for agreeing to be my very first Gamescom interview. Let's crack on with frage nummer eins, we are in Germany after all... Can we get an update on Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Dr. Ray: It's coming along really, really well. The team is pulling together all the environments and the combat, the story and the progression, and all the social aspects of multiplayer. It's got this heroic aspect to it that I'm really excited about, it really feels like we're nursing one of the movies. It's just amazing to play it. We're playing it every week and we're also doing public testing. The game is really starting to take shape now.
I'll be brutally honest and admit that I've never played an MMO. While the 'Star Wars' aspect may appeal to my dark side, what does BioWare's MMO offer that no other MMO does?
Dr. Greg: Fundamentally it's story elements. In many ways it's a merger of a BioWare game, you know, a very deep and engaging personal story where you get to be a hero or villain in the Star Wars universe delivered in the way that games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age deliver.
Dr. Ray: It's really neat because the story's not an afterthought. It's not tacked on or added on at all, it's integrated into the experience. It's got the best of the features of games such as World of WarCraft, like the progression and the customisation, along with that unique heroic or villainous identity that you're able to get from the Star Wars universe.
There's the exploration of beautiful worlds and the amazing choreographed combat with lightsabers clashing, sparks flying off and effects - it's got all that, in spades. But it's also got a story that weaves it all together, where you get to make choices and face consequences. And there are full voice overs for every character in the game too, all the NPCs, all the PCs, everyone. It's an immense undertaking but the ambition is starting to really pay off.
As a studio renowned for writing tight, self-contained stories, has it been challenging to make the transition into a persistent world?
Dr. Greg: Oh, it has. There are all kinds of things you have to do. But using BioWare Austin provided a combination of people with BioWare design sensibilities but also a team of very talented and experienced MMO developers. So we had the benefit of having that leg up in terms of technical know-how and also understanding some of the intricacies of building a persistent world.
The thing to remember too is that it's also an open world. This is another thing you can sometimes forget about an MMO. It's not only persistent, it's also open. You can go anywhere at any time, and do anything. So, you know, weaving the BioWare story throughout that is also quite complicated.
Dr. Ray: We've done it before, you know, arguably with a game like Neverwinter Nights, where we had some experience doing this on a more limited scale with similar multiplayer-enabled storylines.
Dr. Greg: Yeah.
Dr. Ray: And that was like 10 years ago. We've had great experience since then as well with all the other games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, partnering with BioWare Mythic, and a lot of new blood from other MMO teams has been added in too. So really, the team is incredibly experienced. Put it all together, you know, it's pretty magical.
With expectation building for DC Universe Online, do you see that as perhaps the main marketplace rival or alternative to The Old Republic?
Dr. Greg: Not really. We're aware of competition but we don't really worry about it. It's like everything else, it's something we'll play and take a really good look at (pauses). I think if I remember correctly, DC's also interesting in that it has a PlayStation 3 version as well, which is actually a unique thing. I mean, there haven't been a lot of MMOs on consoles. It'll just be interesting to see what they tackle there.
But we don't really worry too much about the competition, we're out there making the best possible game and we really believe in the features, design and quality [of The Old Republic] and we think it'll carry really well.
Dr. Ray: Star Wars: The Old Republic stands on its own.
Is there any chance we'll be seeing The Old Republic on home consoles or is it strictly PC only?
Dr. Ray: We've only ever talked about a PC version.
Switching focus, the Dragon Age II strap line is 'Rise to Power, By Any Means Necessary'. Does the sequel have a darker edge than the original game?
Dr. Ray: I would say so, yeah. This story [of Hawk] is a narrative that really explains how the rise to power of one individual has a dramatic effect on the entire universe of Dragon Age. You'll see in the [Gamescom] demo that it's an interesting storyline. There's definitely a darker aspect... and it's got a much more 'seize the day' action feel to it. It's still got the same level of tactical depth and strategy, we kind of describe it as 'think like a general, fight like a Spartan'.
It's got a lot more action orientation in the way the combat flows but there's still a lot of tactical depth and choices moment to moment and the story arc is, you know, really emotionally impactful and powerful. But yeah, I'd say the whole thing is tinged with a bit more darkness.
Some people found the action in Dragon Age to be a little hack heavy. Has the battle system changed for the sequel?
Dr. Greg: It's very different. People may assume that Ray and I play nothing but RPGs all day, but we are actually very serious action gamers (laughter). [With the new combat mechanic] we've really gone for something that, when you press a button, you feel that something really awesome has to happen.
Dr. Ray: It needs to feel like you did that, you created that, you enabled that. The team has really brought that together.
Dr. Greg: Yeah, it's very interesting. It's a bit of a different combat system, it's actually I think a unique one that I haven's seen in an action game before, one that gives you that little technical depth. There's flipping between powers very similarly to the way you would previously, but way more seamless, way more visceral interaction.
And what other major improvements or enhancements can Dragon Age fans expect to find in the sequel?
Dr. Ray: There are so many. We're taking everything that worked in Dragon Age and keeping it, and everything that didn't work, everything we have feedback on, we're trying our best to evolve it, improve it, change it if necessary. Man, there are just a lot of different areas where we're improving.
Like the way the story flows, I think it's gonna be really impactful on the player. The choices and consequence, the fact that you have full voice over for your character, Hawk. The dialogue wheel, which is integrated in a Dragon Age themed kind of way and really feels like it's tuned and appropriate for a Dragon Age game.
The action combat, the way that flows, it's much like an action RPG... it's how it plays basically. When you look at those systems and, you know, the graphics and visuals are much improved from the original game too. They look sweet and awesome on all the systems. Pretty much across the board, every major system has been touched to some level - and it's all based on player feedback, that's the best part.
When asked to pick their current 'Game of the Year' shouts for 2010 (Mass Effect 2 notwithstanding) both doctors opt for Read Dead Redemption, with Dr. Ray eager to talk about how much he loved the game's oddly affecting wind down finale. However, this prompts Dr. Greg, who's only around a third of the way through Rockstar's cowboy adventure, to clasp his hands to his ears and rush from the comfy corner couch we're chatting on in EA's business centre.
So, with camera crews and other interviewers hovering in wait, idle chitchat is shelved, hands are cordially shook, business cards and VIP passes to the Star Wars: The Old Republic demo experience are gifted, and the good doctors resume their positions to begin anew.
Look out for our preview coverage of BioWare's MMO in the coming days.