BioWare's Greg Zeschuk - Prima Games

BioWare’s Greg Zeschuk

by Prima Games Staff

Bonnie and Clyde. Morecambe and Wise. Zeschuk and Muzyka. Only two of them sound like words made up by someone trying to cheat at Scrabble, but all of them are known for being highly successful partnerships. Whether you’re all about murderous crime sprees, dancing with Angela Rippon or setting up Canadian development studios focused on producing globally successful role-playing videogames in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, it takes two to make an impact.

But only one of BioWare’s co-founders was able to make it to E3 this year. Doctor Ray Muzyka stayed at home, apparently nursing an illness (you’d think he’d be able to write himself a prescription). Luckily, Doctor Greg Zeschuk did turn up. He sat down for a chat with Eurogamer about BioWare’s forthcoming MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and what he thinks of the latest gaming hardware developments.

Eurogamer: Hello, Dr Greg. What brings you to E3?

Greg Zeschuk: The primary thing we’re talking about is Star Wars: The Old Republic. We’re also touching on some of the follow-ons for Dragon Age and Mass Effect. But really the big thing we’re focused on is Star Wars.

Eurogamer: How is SWTOR coming along?

Greg Zeschuk: It’s going really well, actually. We’ve been very busy getting it ready for more people playing it, so it’s largely about polishing the experience, and getting it to feel like how it’ll feel when you play the finished game.

People are playing it on the E3 show floor and they’re really impressed. It’s really starting to feel like a BioWare game merged into an MMO.

Eurogamer: Have you had any negative feedback?

Greg Zeschuk: Not really. The interesting thing is there’s a surprise factor. One thing I heard was that up till now people never really got a taste for this whole story thing we’ve talked about. We’ve talked, talked, talked about it, and made it a big deal, but you couldn’t actually experience it.

The feedback I’m getting is that now people have finally been able to play it, they get it completely. For us, that’s very much a win condition because being able to experience and understand how the story is interwoven with the multiplayer experience is the whole point of the game. Just from playing for 30 minutes, it’s evident that’s really powerful.

Eurogamer: Has George Lucas had a go?

Greg Zeschuk: He did initially. He played it a while back. It’s interesting in that he’s primarily a film-maker, that’s his focus, and we work primarily with the people at LucasArts. But you know, I think he’s certainly interested in what we can do with the franchise.

Eurogamer: Quite a few MMOs have been released in the last few years, but none of them have toppled the mighty World of Warcraft. Why do you think that is?

Greg Zeschuk: I think MMOs are actually very hard to build. They’re technically challenging. It’s a challenge just to build enough content to satisfy players. Secondarily, you can’t just come with the same game reskinned and tweaked a little bit. You have to come with something different, a different experience.

We don’t think so much about the competition as much as making a great game fans will love. You don’t have to go beat WOW. If we can capture even a part of that level of success, we’d be extremely happy. It really comes down to flawless execution.

People always say, ‘Aren’t you scared of competing?’ Well, we always compete, with everyone, all the time. We spent the last 15 years competing with ourselves after Baldur’s Gate. Everyone always compared our games with that first one, and now they’re comparing Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

Eurogamer: Do you wish they’d compare Mass Effect with, say, Cooking Mama instead?

Greg Zeschuk: Yes, that’s more fair! We get reviews that are hilarious, that are like, ‘It’s not nearly as good as Baldur’s Gate!’ Well, it’s totally different – it’s not the same game.

If we feel we can really deliver the design we have, SWTOR can be quite successful. It is differentiated, it is fun and the prospect of being a hero or villain in Star Wars Universe is super-exciting for people. If we can deliver that fantasy we don’t really have anything to worry about.

Eurogamer: There’s a lot of buzz around APB at the moment. How concerned are you about that MMO as a rival?

Greg Zeschuk: It’s a different experience. Dave Jones and his team are very talented, they’re very clever in what they’re delivering in terms of execution.

The fun thing with the online space is that millions of people still play hardcore games and millions play free Flash games, yet there are probably 20 to 25 million people out there who haven’t played an MMO. If we can deliver something exciting so people dust off their PC and get their mouse back out – that’s our focus. If we deliver the game, the audience will come.

Eurogamer: I know Dr Ray is unwell today, so get well soon, Dr Ray. But I had wanted to ask him about a live Q&A he did with Eurogamer readers back in January, when he promised us some E3 reveals… With an exclamation mark and everything…

Greg Zeschuk: We revealed the PvP zone for Star Wars, and the player ships… So those are two reveals… So technically he was accurate.

Eurogamer: It’s not that you were planning on a bigger reveal, but then decided you weren’t ready?

Greg Zeschuk: Oh no, this is pretty much what we expected. Players going hands-on with the game is pretty big for us, and for gamers as well. There was no mysterious gigantic reveal that didn’t happen.

Eurogamer: Did you go to any of the platform holder conferences?

Greg Zeschuk: I did not. I had a press event and then I was just too weak the next morning, so I decided to watch football matches instead. But I’m pretty familiar – one of the benefits of being with EA is you tend to see a lot of things well in advance, so when stuff gets revealed it’s not usually a big surprise.

Eurogamer: Obviously the big story is the three technologies going head to head – Move, Kinect and 3DS. As a developer, which of those technologies are you most excited about?

Greg Zeschuk: That’s a tough one. I love the no controller element but it’s going to come down to execution, how precise and how good it is.

With regard to all these things, I worry about price points. Ray and I work on both the development and the business side, so we’re excited from a game design perspective but we also look at the practical reality of making these technologies successful. If the price is too high, they won’t take off.

We tend to be very conservative as a company, we don’t jump right into these things. Our games are expansive, and they’re expensive. They’re complicated. We want to see how things are shaping up before we commit.

Both motion controllers will expand the audience. The 3DS is really interesting, I am always amazed at the cleverness of Nintendo. Just when everyone’s going this way… There’s always a sense they’re kind of redoing what Nintendo already did five years ago. Their 3DS technology is very significant.

On the consumer side, 3D with glasses challenges. Are you suddenly going to spend all this money on glasses for everyone in the room, after you’ve bought an expensive new television? I think games are going to be the killer app pushing it, because really well augmented games are spectacular in 3D.

Eurogamer: But it’s down to the likes of you to make those games… Does looking at these new technologies immediately generate ideas for you?

Greg Zeschuk: Absolutely. Not so much the motion controller options, but let’s say something to do with digital acting. So I play the shooter part of Mass Effect with a controller, then I have to do a dialogue with my hands.

Eurogamer: Or a love scene…

Greg Zeschuk: You never know! What excites me most is the high level of immersion that’s going to be available. The same goes for 3D – the level of immersion is going to increase – and we have ideas for that. From a developer’s perspective, you want to lead, but you don’t want to lead too far out in front and take a giant risk.

Eurogamer: Going back to the price point issue, what would you say is ideal? Sony has said they wanted to keep the cost of Move below the price of a game…

Greg Zeschuk: That would be fabulous. It’s almost subjective. The price you don’t want is something that gives people pause, that makes them think, ‘Oh, I can’t spend that much money and feel good about myself.’

Eurogamer: One source told us the Kinect will cost $189.

Greg Zeschuk: That’s a very high price but I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not. Who knows? I think that would be challenging. Unless that’s for a bundle, say the Kinect and the slim Xbox 360.

Eurogamer: For that money I’d want a Kinect, a console and a Microsoft executive to come round and hook it all up to the telly.

Greg Zeschuk: I have doubts about that price. We’ll see what happens but I think that sounds pretty unlikely.

Eurogamer: What did you think about Gabe Newell’s comments during the Sony conference, when he said the PS3 version of Portal 2 will be the best one on any console?

Greg Zeschuk: I have no idea… Maybe it’s a trick, maybe it won’t be on any other consoles? Gabe’s a clever guy and I think it comes down to effort. You can make anything great on any platform if you put the effort in, and Valve puts the effort in.

Eurogamer: Are you planning to take sides?

Greg Zeschuk: A platform’s a platform, right? EA’s an interesting company and we’re rascals within it. In the sense we’re actually quite platform agnostic. The fact we worked a lot with Microsoft and the Xbox initially doesn’t mean we’re not big fans of PS3. We’ll put our game on as many platforms as make sense for it. We’re not too concerned about which is better, there are pluses and minuses to everything.

Eurogamer: BioWare’s well-established now and your games are hugely successful. But when you look at up and coming developers, or new games coming out, what do you worry about? Who keeps you awake at night?

Greg Zeschuk: We don’t worry that much about the competition. I have respect for people like Valve, id, Epic, Blizzard, Insomniac, Naughty Dog… You can go down this list of all these great developers and worry yourself silly about what they’re going to do. We focus on what we can control, and that is our work. Not that we don’t worry in the sense that we’re arrogant, but we don’t let things worry us.

Eurogamer: Just to finish up, a quick personal request. When you’ve finished Star Wars, would you mind doing a Babylon 5 MMO please? All you’d have to do is swap the heads around.

Greg Zeschuk: Babylon 5 is funny because there’s a whole bunch of people at BioWare who are massive, massive fans.

Eurogamer: I bet.

Greg Zeschuk: It’s one of those universes that is very rich and has great potential. I only watched it a bit, but some of the people at BioWare were crazy about it, so I can relate. It’s almost like they need to make sure they’ve got a good update, because if they could get Babylon 5 reignited there’s a good opportunity there.

Eurogamer: Well, like I say. If you get the chance.

Greg Zeschuk is vice president of BioWare Corporation. Ellie Gibson would totally play as Ivanova and get off with Marcus Cole.