BioWare and Mythic boss Ray Muzyka is a pleasure to interview. Undoubtedly one of the most professional and ambitious execs in the global games trade, Muzyka heads up some of the world’s biggest core games projects in Mass Effect, Warhammer Online, Dragon Age and upcoming MMO behemoth, Star Wars: The Old Republic. He consistently uses words like “humble” and “honour”: not usual in games-boss-ego-land.
We caught up with the Canadian in Cologne last week. Hit the link for the full thing.
VG247: Let’s start off with Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Ray Muzyka: Yeah, sure.
It’s the only announced game you’re working on now that doesn’t have a solid release date. Is that correct?
Ray Muzyka: We haven’t dated mass Effect 2 yet either. We’ve said it’s early 2010.
There was a lot of talk recently about the Old Republic coming out in late 2010. Is there any truth in that?
Ray Muzyka: We have a target date in mind that we’re developing towards, but we haven’t announced what it is yet.
You focused mainly in the press conference on Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age. How are you feeling about Dragon Age’s prospects in general?
Ray Muzyka: Great. I love the game. Personally I think it’s one of the best games we’ve ever made. We always try to make our games better than the last. I’m confident the fans are going to be excited about it. I’m really excited by the feedback we’re getting from the press, and also the fan reaction. We’re doing hands-on [here], so it’s great to see that and hear feedback on the game, and also see what’s being posted on the different sites and forums across the internet.
What about the general buzz around Mass Effect 2? How are you feeling about that?
Ray Muzyka: Awesome. A lot of people have told me that Mass Effect 1 was one of their favourite games ever, and it’s a great honour to hear that. But I can tell them that if they liked Mass Effect 1, they’re going to love Mass Effect 2. We’ve got so many improvements across the board. The intensity of the experience has been amped up, there’s precise shooter controls, tactical deployment of your troops on the field, smart AI, cover mechanics… And there’s a whole range of technical improvements too: the frame-rate’s real fast, faster loading, the elevators are faster, smooth texture loading…
One of the things that always comes over when I talk to you is just how hands-on you are with the games. You do appear to have a lot of knowledge about the games themselves. How do you balance having that sort of input with managing what’s now a 500-plus developer?
Ray Muzyka: It’s more than that. There’s three locations with BioWare – Edmonton, Austin and Montreal – and Mythic, of course, is the fourth location.
I mean, I have great trust in the teams, so I’m really not that hands-on in terms of the day-to-day development. There’s too many things going on. But I have great EPs, I have great project directors, I have great development directors and GMs at all the locations. I have a lot of trust in all of them.
For me, I’m involved in the early vision phase, in the ideation. Who’s the target consumer? What are we building? Why’s it going to be fun? What’s exciting? And then the teams build the games and I get regular updates from the managers, and then at the end I play them. My knowledge of the games really comes from me playing the games. To me that’s a really important thing. It’s a key. I have to play the games. I have to know them. And many other people at BioWare take that really seriously too. It’s not just me; I’m just one voice among many. We take it very seriously. You should always have an experience, personally, with the product you’re going to launch. I believe in that strongly.
If you’re going to say Dragon Age is one of the best games you’ve ever played… I’ve finished Dragon Age. I’ve played it extensively on PC and console. I can really stand behind it. I’ve played it a lot. On one of the play-throughs I spent 120 hours. Two hours a day for 60 days, 90 percent of the game, according to the telemetry. And I loved it. Every minute of it. I couldn’t wait to come home. After about ten hours of gameplay, every day I was talking about coming home and I played it for two or three hours, or whatever time I had free, and play it to the early hours. Luckily I don’t sleep as much as my wife. I’d stay up till after midnight and play it after she was asleep.
I take all the games seriously. I want a hands-on experience on all the platforms. You know, to varying degrees: sometimes I’ll focus on one platform more than the other, but I love the games we make. I really have a passion for them. To me, it’s work but it’s also a lot of fun too. I can describe the areas in Dragon Age, and it’s not because I’ve seen them from afar, it’s because I was there. I went there, and I fought this creature, and I had the best party ever. I just love games.
Let’s talk about Mythic for a second. It came as a bit of a shock for a lot of people. It was a hot internet potato for a little minute. Mark Jacobs was a very strong character, and a very passionate man. Can you explain to us what happened? Why did Mark leave? Why are you now in charge of Mythic? Are these questions you can answer, or are you going to be diplomatic?
Ray Muzyka: I think you’d have to ask the folks at EA about the details of his departure. I wasn’t involved in any of that. I’m the manager of Mythic studio now, but that all happened after [Mark] left. I have tremendous respect for the work the entire team have done over the years. They’ve built an amazing studio and it’s a great honour for me to work with those people.
So you’re now managing Mythic’s output, essentially?
Ray Muzyka: Yeah. Well, there’s a GM in place there, Rob Denton, who’s been there a long time along with other senior managers.
How does managing something like Warhammer Online impact what you’re doing with BioWare? Does it impact it at all?
Ray Muzyka: Not really. I’m involved with the Mythic projects in the same way I’m involved with the BioWare projects. I give feedback, I play the games. I love them; I think they’re fun to play and I’m excited to be working with the team there. Mythic’s retaining its strong brand and it’s a real cultural identity that’s distinct from BioWare, and I’m not planning to change that.
The way I like to manage people is to manage very collaboratively. I like to build relationships between the people that I work with, and I like to have things grow organically in terms of technology-sharing, best practices and that. Mythic isn’t working directly on BioWare titles and BioWare isn’t working directly on Mythic titles, but there is cross-pollenation of best ideas and practices. I’m trying to enable that, but I’m not trying to force it.
BioWare’s now a significant part of EA’s core output. How are you planning to expand your IP base? Obviously Dragon Age is a big part of it, but are you planning on introducing new IP in the next few years, or is it going to be Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, and so on?
Ray Muzyka: Well, we like building sequels, and we like building new IP, and we like working with licenses. We have examples of all of those right now in the ones we’ve mentioned. Dragon Age is a new IP, and there’ll probably be future installments, DLC and expansion packs, building out that franchise. But right now it’s first generation IP. Mass Effect 2 is one of the IPs we’ve already built, and we’re building a sequel which I’m really excited about. I can guarantee that people are going to say that Mass Effect 2 is a higher quality than Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 1 is a great game, but Mass Effect 2 is that much better.
And there’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, in which we’re working in the Star Wars universe. That’s a license, and we’re passionate about that license. We have a great partner in LucasArts, and we’re really excited. We’re building something in an IP we love as much as Dragon Age and Mass Effect. So they’re all good in different ways. Recently we did a DS title in the Sonic universe, one of my favourite IPs. It was aimed at the younger audience, at kids. It’s done really well. All these are good in different ways.
I like having a diverse portfolio, because I know it’s good for our employees. It provides diversity of experience for them about working on different things. We try to enable that. You know, Warhammer Online is an IP Mythic’s working on. There’s Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online: they’ve got good stuff, and there’s new stuff in the pipe as well.
Both Mythic and BioWare have a ton of new things in development. Some are existing IP, some of them are new IP, some of them are future-looking IP.
Are you planning to bring any more triple-A IP out in the next few years? You seem to be incredibly busy, frankly.
Ray Muzyka: Well yeah, we are. We actually have some stuff that hasn’t been announced yet too, that I’m really excited about.
When do you think it’s going to be announced?
Ray Muzyka: [Laughs] Well, it hasn’t been announced when it’s going to be announced. I know when it’s going to be announced, but we haven’t said. We’ll announce it when we feel it’s right and when it’s ready to show.