In a rare chance to talk to one of the men behind the massive Dragon Age and Knights of the Old Republic series, Prima games got to have a have a chin wag with Dr. Greg Zeschuk, one of the co-founders of BioWare, fresh from the podium at the Develop Conference in Sussex.
Having been there as a co-founder at the company’s garage based inception, and currently acting as the general manager of BioWare Austin, Dr. Greg is the perfect one to ask about the upcoming The Old Republic, Dragon Age II, and their move towards smaller scale games after their previous epics.
Prima: Why are you turning your attention to more small-scale games when you’re so successful doing what you’re doing?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: It’s not to the exclusion of the other. It’s the opportunity to be broader. The triple-A consoles are one slice of the market. It would be really smart to be in these other places. We tried our hand at iPhone and learned the hard way. We have to be more focused on gameplay. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah.’ That’s how you learn.
The concept of gaming is blown out. If we stay focused in this narrow slice you eventually become a dinosaur. You know what happened to the dinosaurs. It’s like movies. There will always be the triple-A blockbuster movie, with the Hollywood summer movie. But there is so much cool opportunity in independent films and documentary films. Gaming is just starting to get to the point where those things are becoming viable.
The business model for Flash gaming is starting to come online with advertising. You talk to some of the guys doing browser games in Germany and other places, they’re doing really well. It’s crazy how many different things are out there right now.
Prima: You mentioned during your presentation you are working on a small-scale MMO, iPhone and browser games. What of that will we see over the next year?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: We’ll see what sees the light of day. We were making a browser game at one point, but we put that on ice. We did one iPhone game. We did this Christmas game on Facebook called Gift of the Yeti. We’ll probably come back to that. Not just ourselves but within EA, Dragon Age had Dragon Age Journeys, the Flash version of Dragon Age. That was made by the EA2D guys, who are good friends of ours.
It’s almost everything. What gets to the surface will be hard to say. One of the luxuries of that space is the cost to development these things is the tiniest fraction. It’s not like it’s cheap, but relative to the giant projects. You can explore and experiment more successfully.
Louis Castle said yesterday there are $20 million plus budgets on everything. When you’re dealing with that kind of money, tens of millions of dollars, you don’t want to be doing R&D and crazy research stuff. That’s when you have a sure thing. But if you’re talking about a $200,000 budget, then you can look at crazy stuff and do different things. That’s why a lot of the creativity is being driven by that space. We don’t want to miss that boat.
I touched on the small teams. We’ve had a few people from inside BioWare who said, ‘I don’t want to work on giant stuff anymore’. They’re really talented. ‘What do you want to work on?’ ‘We want to work on something smaller.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ A lot of the people who are doing our iPhone and other stuff are super-experienced developers, but they’re done with the big giant productions, or are taking a break from them. It’s a neat opportunity as well.
Prima: How does this smaller-scale MMO fit the values that make BioWare games what they are?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: When you look at that space the traditional stuff doesn’t work the same. Not meaning to disparage the guys in that space, but the folks that are doing browser games, smaller-scale MMO stuff, it’s not super-rich content, super-detailed, incredibly heavy duty. It has to be specifically really light. Your download speed is more important than graphics. It’s a paradigm shift. That’s why you need to have these little mini teams that have a different perspective than the overall ones.
Just to reaffirm, we’re still going to do the giant stuff. We’re fortunate we can compete in that giant game category. The number of giant games any company should be doing, you have to be really careful. Everyone has to have a chance to be a top 10 title, or else.
Prima: Is the 3DS something you’re thinking of making a game for?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: We could because we’ve done a DS game before. So imagining it, it’s pretty similar. It will depend. The thing I’m curious about on 3DS is, what else does it bring to the table? Is it going to be wireless? What kind of backend connectivity are they going to do? That is what excites me.
I loved it. I saw it at E3 and I was blown away. I’m not sure if it’ll bring that much more to the table. But that’s going to be enough to reinvigorate the DS market. For us to want to jump in, you largely have to have a lot more online stuff going on there. You’re clearly limited in how flexible you can be on the backend.
We always joked about a DS MMO at some point.
Prima: That would be brilliant.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: It would be brilliant. But the problem is it’s not patchable. That’s the thing I’ve learned working on MMO stuff. You have to be able to update. But it would be a pretty cool concept.
Prima: Nintendo is talking about the 3DS being more integrated in terms of online.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: Yeah. And that opens up those kinds of windows. And suddenly, even just imagine that.
Prima: You revealed Dragon Age 2 recently. The art style has changed and you now play a pre-determined hero. Why have you decided to make those changes?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: It’s a weird way to say it, but part of it’s the passion of the team. The art style example is an interesting one. We changed art directors. The art director on Dragon Age 2 is the same guy who was the art director on Jade Empire. He worked somewhere else for a while then he came back. He’s a fan of our stuff, but he also has his own ideas on how to take it.
There was some commentary that Dragon Age could have been more visually unique. We said, ‘Okay! You want visually unique? Here’s visually unique.’ It’s usually a combination of things that drives our decision-making. It’s not like we’re designed by committee. Nor are we beholden to fan and press feedback. But we really do look at all that stuff.
We like changing it up. We like challenging the players. We’re not the kind of group that wants to deliver the same thing over and over. What tends to happen on that is you get two or three iterations and then you’re dead. The interest is lost. In some ways it’s keeping it fresh and challenging the player.
We had a lot of commentary on Mass 1 to Mass 2. Mass 1 to Mass 2 is a radical shift. We just felt it would make a better game. That’s largely what we’re thinking in terms of the Dragon Age 2 stuff. And then we’ll see what people think of it and then do something different again probably.
It’s almost like a twist on what Square does. Square keeps the gameplay largely the same but everything else changes. We, in a sense, are going to keep the world the same, but we’ll change the gameplay around. But in a smart, careful way. People will be pretty happy with what we’re doing with gameplay, largely.
You can’t please everyone. But we’re largely trying to make sure we’ve got something that stands out and is competitive. The team is really excited about it. They’re the biggest fans of the game that there are. Some of the fans out there are pretty huge, but they’re big fans as well.
Eurogamer: People are saying, ‘I loved Dragon Age. Why are you changing it?’ It must be a difficult balancing act to keep the fans happy while implementing the changes you want to.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: Yeah. We’re careful about it. Sometimes we’ll do stuff for effect. You go back to Dragon Age 1, everybody was freaked out about that one trailer with the Marilyn Manson music. They were like, ‘ah!’ It was another facet of the game.
The interesting thing about doing PR is there is no way at this essentially early moment we can reveal everything. We can’t show all the facets. Say we show one facet, and everyone freaks out. Then we show another piece, and they say, ‘Oh, well, I’m okay now.’ When you play it, you get a sense of what the gameplay is like. You go, ‘oh, okay, it all fits together’.
From a PR perspective, just people talking about something is a good thing. They’ll give it a look regardless. You’ll see when we show all the elements, people will go, ‘oh, okay’. They’ll probably be less freaked out.
Eurogamer: Some people are saying you’re turning Dragon Age into Mass Effect.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: It’s different. It’s not quite going that way. You could make that case based on what we’ve shown. It’s like looking at the game through a keyhole. You go, ‘oh, well that’s all there is’. Well, there’s a lot more than that. But that’s what we’re showing right now.
Eurogamer: Where is BioWare at with the development of Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: We announced recently that we started doing external testing with real fans. That started a few weeks ago. We have these forums fans can talk on and do stuff. It’s really cool seeing their responses. We can track what they do. You get a sense of what people are thinking. In general people like it.
There’s a fair amount of work left to do on some of the features. But the whole core concept of the game is there. If you played it at E3 or at a showcase you can see what the game is. Like with Dragon Age, there are still more levels we need to release. More levels of information and more concepts.
The scale of an MMO development is so long that you can’t totally open and go ‘ta-da!’ There are quite a few little things that we’re going to show over time. But the foundation of gameplay is there. People are pretty happy with it. I get a strong sense of the iconic nature of the characters. If people play different characters they get a very different experience. That was one of the most important things we strove for. We could have gone for a scenario where you have 30 character classes. But if they’re all plays on the same… That’s why we went for a moderate amount of characters.
The feedback is good. It’s fleshing out their remaining features. The core is done. A lot of testing and iteration. You spend a lot of time running more fans through more and more content and getting their feedback. Then there’s a lot of tuning. Because we have that ability for fans to try it, you can iterate on it in real time and make it based on feedback, and be much more dynamic than you normally would. Typically, the only iteration we do on a BioWare game is our own internal testing.
Eurogamer: But there are more features planned for reveal we’re not aware of?
Dr. Greg Zeschuk: Oh yeah. You’re never going to please everyone. There’s no such thing as ‘the everyone game’. As long as you get a nice bunch of folks who like to play it and want to be part of the long term, we’ll be happy.
There’s some fun stuff we’re still to reveal. There’s still time to talk about more feature. But then you want to keep some secrets. We always run this balancing act of how much we reveal and how much we don’t, how do you time it out? It’s all private. The NDA is all behind the scenes. People probably will tell their friends. You’re not allowed to online. But if you’re talking to your friend in the bar at night…
In a sense it’s more restrictive than a typical BioWare game of what you can talk about publicly. But while there’s an NDA in place you have to respect it. Someday when that’s off they’ll be able to talk about all of their experiences. But that’s way down the line.