BioWare's Design Docs
It's rare to find game developers as down-to-earth as BioWare founders Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk.
Consider that the pair has shipped entire fleets of games; been responsible for an unprecedented string of RPG category-redefining hits (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Star Wars: KOTOR, etc.) dating back more than a decade; and recently sold their pride and joy to Electronic Arts alongside fellow studio Pandemic for nearly $800 million -- and all this after having already shifted the company once before, to venture capital firm Elevation Partners, which includes the likes of U2's Bono amongst its backers.
During the course of compiling this story, on no less than three separate occasions and at several events ranging from the 2008 Game Developers Conference to Toronto's GameOn Finance tradeshows, current and former employees regaled us with tales of the the now-multimillionaire pair's generosity and humble beginnings. Once upon a time, the dynamic duo actively practiced medicine several days a week just to keep the lights on at the once-fledgling development house.
As Hollywood as the industry becomes, they're the kind of developers who will remember you by name and always spare five minutes to discuss what's cooking up north at their headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta -- which, between an impending MMO, a long-awaited new fantasy outing Dragon Age, recent media controversy over Mass Effect (which Fox News erroneously tried to pass off as pornographic based on comments by an author who admitted on-air she'd never tried the game), and development of a new Sonic the Hedgehog role-playing title, is, as you'll see, quite a lot?
Crispy Gamer: Let's start at the beginning? You both are accredited medical professionals who went from treating laceration wounds to focusing on game design -- how in Hades did that come about, and how much did you disappoint your parents on that one?
Ray Muzyka: Greg and I both love medicine, but videogames have always been the main hobby for us both. We worked on [our initial title] Shattered Steel while we were both still practicing medicine, and one day at a lunch in late 1994, we both just decided to form BioWare and change careers from medical doctors to entrepreneurs. Our decision to do that actually only took about an hour!
Greg Zeschuk: Our families have always been very supportive of us, and a lot of BioWare's success would not have been possible without them.
Crispy Gamer: Since you opened the door, we'll ask: Shattered Steel isn't a game that's exactly in keeping with the rest of your creative works. Why, of all things, did you choose to kick things off with that title, and how did it lay the foundations for what was to come?
Zeschuk: Actually, Shattered Steel included a lot of elements that you'll see repeated in later BioWare titles -- things like a storyline and strong, iconic character designs. We had partnered with a strong group of contractors for Shattered Steel and they had a very cool prototype that we helped bring to market.
Crispy Gamer: How long have you been interested in role-playing, and how in god's name did you manage to produce Baldur's Gate, a title so far ahead of the competition at the time of its release that it instantly made your company the reigning regent of RPGs?
Muzyka: We've both always been huge fans of role-playing games -- we played them all while growing up and all through medical school. Baldur's Gate actually came out of an idea for a game that was originally called Battleground: Infinity -- it was an idea developed at BioWare.
We pitched the concept for Battleground: Infinity to a bunch of publishers, including Interplay, and they liked our demo so much that they suggested we consider the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) license and make the first D&D RPG in quite a few years. Since we were big fans of the license and thought it would be successful as a foundation for a game, we jumped at the chance, and Baldur's Gate was the result.
We named the engine for Baldur's Gate the BioWare Infinity Engine, after Battleground: Infinity. Like all of our games, the reason we were able to develop it and have it become successful was that we had such great employees at BioWare (and this continues today) -- smart, creative and passionate -- they really care about crafting amazing story-driven, emotionally powerful experiences.
Crispy Gamer: From Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to Jade Empire and now Mass Effect for Xbox 360 and its upcoming PC version, how do you continue to produce such consistently superior results?
Muzyka: BioWare is based on the core values of quality in the workplace, quality in our products and entrepreneurship, in a context of humility and integrity. We really believe that our best assets are the people who work on our games and at our company, so we strive to make BioWare the best place in the world to work.
Zeschuk: Everyone at BioWare is really passionate about games, and they have truly high standards of quality for our games, which is what our fans deserve. It's a lot of hard work, but the games speak for themselves, and both Ray and I feel very honored to be working with such a dedicated team.
Crispy Gamer: What is it that BioWare seems to get about fantasy, sci-fi and role-playing titles that other companies seem to miss?
Muzyka: There are a lot of terrific games out there, but we approach our own games with a priority on great stories and memorable characters. What we want to do is make the best story-driven games in the world, which have a powerful emotional impact on our players, so our focus is on crafting an amazing adventure that makes players feel like they really are the star of an epic movie full of interesting places to explore, exciting creatures to fight, and strong emotional moments. We try to give them the ability to create and customize their character as much as they want, so it really does become their personal story with as much freedom of choice as possible.
Crispy Gamer: Why (apart from a juicy check) did you choose to merge with Pandemic, and what sort of benefits has it brought to the overall organization? What kind of challenges? How exactly are the company that made Mercenaries and Full Spectrum Warrior and the company that made Neverwinter Nights a good fit?
Zeschuk: We were already huge fans of Pandemic and their games, so we were excited at the opportunity to partner with such a respected leader in action/adventure titles. The cash infusion from Elevation Partners, the private equity firm that created BioWare/Pandemic Studios, allowed us to focus on taking our games to reach their maximum potential. We believe videogames are an art form, so the new resources gained from the creation of BioWare/Pandemic gave us the freedom and creative discretion to make the right decisions for our products.
Muzyka: There was a bit of a transition period in the beginning as we were getting used to working under this new partnership, especially since nothing like this had ever been done before. We were lucky enough to be working with some great people for whom we had a tremendous amount of respect, people like Andrew Goldman, Josh Resnick and Greg Borrud at Pandemic, and John Riccitiello as the founding CEO of BioWare/Pandemic Studios. It was essentially a partnership of some of the best minds in the gaming industry, each with a passion for making great games, and that's always a great fit when you can find it.
Crispy Gamer: What about the recent sale to Electronic Arts -- apart from trying to make the world's richest people list, what was the impetus for permanently hopping in bed with this kind of corporate goliath, especially when you were already keeping company independently with the likes of LucasArts and Microsoft?
Muzyka: We've always had a friendly relationship with Electronic Arts, but a big part of our decision to join them was actually John Riccitiello himself. We worked closely with him during his time as our boss (John was the founding CEO at BioWare/Pandemic Studios) and developed a terrific relationship with him. He shares our vision and values for our studio and our games, so there was a natural desire to explore this opportunity under his leadership at EA.
In the past few months of integration, we've had an opportunity to meet a range of people from Electronic Arts and without exception we've been incredibly impressed with how smart, passionate and talented they are. We're really excited about working for Frank Gibeau, the president of the EA Games Label, and the rest of the team that John and Frank have assembled at EA.
Crispy Gamer: Since you've effectively switched sides now to the evil empire, it begs the question: Can independent game studios still survive in this day and age, and do they still stand any reasonable chance of competing with the big boys, let alone producing a breakout hit?
Muzyka: There are a lot of interesting opportunities available for smaller independent studios, in areas as diverse as handheld or mobile development, post-release downloadable content, expansions, outsourcing, porting to new platforms, developing new titles using engines or toolsets released with other games (along the lines of what fans did for BioWare's Neverwinter Nights or Valve's Half-Life 2) or Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network or WiiWare downloadable content. The key is to understand your core competencies and focus on delivering something that stands out against your competitors.
Crispy Gamer: Word on the street has it you've got an MMO in development -- why choose to go the massively multiplayer route in terms of future development?
Zeschuk: We love playing MMOs ourselves and we'd been thinking about getting into that space for a while now. We've reached a point in our growth and experience where we feel ready to take on the MMO space, and we're planning on bringing a lot of the great qualities for which BioWare is known (great stories and characters) into that genre in a way that's never been seen before. We can't say too much about it right now, but we're very excited and we think the fans will love what we've got in store for them?
Crispy Gamer: What's the latest scoop on fantasy title Dragon Age and why have you decided to pursue launching an original IP when you've had so much success in the past with licensed content?
Muzyka: The Dragon Age team is hard at work on the title and it's looking amazing. We've been very fortunate to have worked with some terrific licenses in the past (like AD&D and Star Wars), but we're excited to roll out some original work that's never been seen before. We're striving to innovate at BioWare, so the opportunity to create a brand new fantasy world is very appealing to us.
Crispy Gamer: Just how many titles do you have in development at the moment, and how does someone juggle managing so many projects, not to mention ensuring they're all of top-notch quality?
Zeschuk: At our Edmonton studio, we're currently working on the Mass Effect sequel, Dragon Age, a new Sonic title for the DS and a few other unannounced projects. BioWare Austin is working on the MMO. As we mentioned earlier, it's all about surrounding yourself with top-notch talent; we've got some amazing teams hard at work on these projects, and although we do have quite a few of them on-the-go, they're in good hands.
Crispy Gamer: Ah yes, Mass Effect? Given your experience getting burned by the mass media, does it make you more reticent to take chances with these titles?
Muzyka: [Laughs] It's an interesting question? We view games as an art form. Mass Effect is an example of that. The team clearly poured their hearts and souls into making the game, so everything we have in the game is something of which we're really proud. We have romance scenes in the game, and they're optional, and they really help the flow of the narrative and the story. I think it's a complex answer, but in the end, the public really wants to feel emotion and if we're evoking an emotional response like this from them, hey? It's just a sign of games being an art form, as we believe they are, albeit a commercial one.
Crispy Gamer: Fine, and not to burst your bubble and all, but the last time Sonic the Hedgehog was cool was, oh? 1993 or thereabouts. Why choose to make a role-playing game starring the blue bomber one of your next major projects?
Muzyka: Sonic has always been one of our favorite characters, so we jumped at the chance to bring a fresh perspective to the franchise. We've also wanted to get into the handheld space for a while now, and the time felt just right to take a great platform like the Nintendo DS and to do some really cool things on it with the Sonic license. You can expect a very original and truly amazing new experience within the Sonic universe from BioWare.
Crispy Gamer: Role-playing was once declared a "dead" genre overall, though -- what do you have to say about that, let alone the reported demise of other categories like adventures and simulations?
Zeschuk: The RPG genre has certainly come a long way, and in fact I think you can see a lot of games in other genres starting to adopt some of the features that make RPGs great. A lot of games these days are starting to put more emphasis on stories, characters, customization, dialogue and all those things that have traditionally been staples of the RPG genre. So we're glad to see that the genre hasn't died, and is in fact starting to gain more and more prominence.