Greg Zeschuk thinks triple-A console development is a “bad idea right now”. He thinks creativity is being forced out of the top end of games creation by financial pressure. He doesn’t want a new console hardware round, because the world’s developers have only just got their “legs” with this one.
He says the right things. Greg Zeschuk is a sound person. He’s also the co-head of BioWare, the world’s greatest RPG studio. We met him at Develop in Brighton today – following his keynote this morning – to talk about the Great Dragon Age 2 Not Being Able to Choose Your Race controversy, the pressures of working on a project like Star Wars: The Old Republic and tons more.
And did you hear that E3 rumour about Ray quitting BioWare?
Interview by Joe Anderson.
VG247: You said this morning that creativity in the triple-A space is being squeezed out by financial necessity. How does BioWare stay creative at the top end of the market?
Greg Zeschuk: At this point we’re working from a strong foundation in the sense that all of our technology, both on the Mass Effect and Dragon Age side, is largely built.
We get to iterate. One of the ways to get good creative results is to have a good platform to work from; you get to try new things.
The other direction I was talking about earlier is where we’re trying lots of little, smaller projects that are kind of different and unique. We actually sometimes pull ideas from those back out into the main games.
Those are the two ways that we would do that, and it’s still hard. I mean you can’t do anything crazy, because when you’re selling your ideas within the company they have to be within a comprehensible space. I mean it’s probably smart anyway, but it’s a lot harder to sell an [off-beat idea], especially in a big triple-A console game.
But for something small, you can pull it off. But for the big stuff, you gotta make sure you’re not iterating everywhere. Maybe small improvements all over the place and one big feature.
You’ve made the decision to only have a human lead character in Dragon Age II, and not allow people to choose their race. Can you explain why?
Greg Zeschuk: With all our games, we don’t always want to create a true sequel in the sense that it’s more of the same. You can see it from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2 that you’ve changed up quite a bit of stuff.
We decided to sort of change and create a different type of game at least on the surface. And the interesting thing is that in the case of Dragon Age II, we’ve only shown a little slice of it so far. And everyone’s very excited, right? If you’ll remember with Dragon Age 1, we had the Marilyn Manson trailer and everyone freaked out and we said, “Don’t worry: we’re just showing you a different perspective.”
Over time, I think people will kind of understand what we’re doing and probably really like it.
We like to challenge our players on a sequel. It’s still a Dragon Age game, that hasn’t changed. But it’s going to be challenging and interesting in many ways. We think it’s ultimately going to be a better game, so I think ultimately the fans will agree when they get to play it. That’s the fundamental thing.
Dragon Age has been a more successful product for you than Mass Effect. Why do you think that is?
Greg Zeschuk: Well, Mass Effect 1 is probably at a similar level, maybe even higher, than Dragon Age. It got a head start. I think it was a Christmas game versus a non-Christmas game. Second would be that there’s one platform short on Mass Effect.
It’s interesting when you look at it now. For example, Mass Effect 2 is still a top ten seller in North America. It’s still doing really, really well from the beginning of the year to now. I think over time, you’ll see it’ll probably even out. I don’t worry too much about the sales numbers of what’s more or less successful as much as the idea that each game keeps getting higher and higher quality.
I think they’ll find their fans. Mass continues to sell really well, so it’ll probably catch up and pass. You never know.
You came under a fair amount of fire over the console versions of Dragon Age: Origins, especially over the PS3 version. Will Dragon Age 2 be the same experience across all platforms?
Greg Zeschuk: I would, in a sense, defend our Dragon Age 1 work, in that I actually like the console limitations, but I think that in Dragon Age 2 we’ve had the opportunity to work from a final platform and kind of design the gameplay to really cater for them. Again, there’ll be differences between the PC version and the console versions, by the simple nature of the input system and the experience. I think when people start seeing it in action they’re going to be really impressed with how it looks on all platforms.
Is the Mass Effect team fully focused on Mass Effect 3 now, or are we going to see more Mass Effect 2 content?
Greg Zeschuk: We still have more DLC in the plan for Mass 2. The last ones were really well received. People were really, really impressed with the Overlord Pack, and the Kasumi one did really well too. It’s something we’re going to continue to do. It’s at the point where it’ll probably diminish a little bit, but there are still some pretty big plans for DLC. It’s doing really well. Overall it’s something we’ll definitely continue doing.
We heard rumours over E3 that Ray may be thinking of leaving BioWare. Is there any truth in that, or do you think that was just poker-related?
Greg Zeschuk: [Laughs] No, Ray’s still very dedicated to BioWare, but he also loves poker. It’s his hobby, right? Ironically, he’s now at the World Series of Poker. He was supposed to do the talk jointly, but actually he went to Vegas. And if he won, if he started doing well, he was going to have to stay as he’s still in the tournament. And he is. So no, no: I think that’s probably a tongue in cheek question, as he’s still very into it. He’s on a bit of a sabbatical right now, which is a good thing because he’s got the whole group level management – he’s got GM at every studio. But he still thinks about BioWare every day.
How far along are you with plans for next gen hardware yet? We’ve been told that Microsoft has already started talking to select developers about its next box: does that include BioWare?
Greg Zeschuk: I don’t know anything about that.
When do you think we’ll see the next hardware transition?
Greg Zeschuk: I honestly don’t actually know. That’s a huge mystery for me. I would be ecstatic if it was as long as possible. The longer the better, because we need a chance to take advantage of this hardware. The first couple of years of this cycle were pretty tough, as [the consoles] were more complex than ever before. Now we’re all starting to get our legs under us. I think the fact they’re all doing the new input devices in indicative that they want to extend it.
I don’t have any idea what the year might be, but my hope is that it’s as long as possible. The longer we can go the better.
With the current generation of consoles, it seems that developers are moving away from the fantasy side and seem to be moving more toward shooters. Why do you think that’s the case?
Greg Zeschuk: Well, I think the success of Dragon Age is kind of a counter to that. I mean, I think with shooters, a lot of what’s working with those is the bigger stuff, but there is still a lot of opportunity in the fantasy side and elsewhere.
Do you think maybe people are shying away from it because when you think ‘fantasy” you automatically think ‘big budget’ game?
Greg Zeschuk: I don’t know; maybe it’s just preference. When you think about it, there’s a lot less of them, but it’s just what people happen to be making. I think people see the success on the shooter side and so they chase that. I would never say that shooters are necessarily easier or harder to make, but just that its where a lot of money’s being made in the market, so people make more of them and they kind of create this virtuous cycle of making more and more.
Do you think that people are getting a bit bored? I mean, they see all these games, and maybe think they are lacking some originality?
Greg Zeschuk: Well, I think that’s true, and that’s one of the things that’s nice about fantasy or science fiction; you can actually be very creative because there’s a lot of opportunity to do different stuff there. That’s actually one reason why we like doing what we’re doing. We’re happy with the games we are making, and it’s a great way to work.
Speaking of Dragon Age, it seems like it could be a great title for something like PlayStation Move, what with all the sword-play. Is that something you would consider?
Greg Zeschuk: I think so. I mean we’re going to examine all that stuff pretty carefully. It’s hard to know which way the market’s going to go in terms of the various movement controls like Kinect and Move, so we’re going to move very slowly in that space and not jump in front of the line.
The first generation of games for it are partially intuitive and predictable, with a lot of exercise and party games, and all those other things. I think we’ll probably wait a generation or so to see where things are going, but I think it’s something we’d definitely look at.
How do you find a balance in the studio between creating games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect and SWTOR? Is it easy, or does the team find it difficult?
Greg Zeschuk: What’s interesting is they’re all different, and like I said in my talk, I think what’s kind of cool is people can select what they would like to work on, but sometimes they’re still helping out on the other games.
We have a really nice balance of experience in the studio where someone can work on all three of them in some capacity or work across them. It’s actually a healthy and positive competition as well, so, it’s all good stuff.
STWOR is said to be one of the highest budget titles ever made by EA, and, obviously it’s a Star Wars game too. Are you feeling pressure from both EA and the fans to get it right?
Greg Zeschuk: We have always worked under a lot of pressure.
We made games such as Baldur’s Gate early in our career, which is still one of our biggest-sellers having sold 5 million copies, maybe more than that. When you have made a title like that you’re judged on every subsequent release based on that one. Now, we always felt Dragon Age was the one people were pointing at as the next generation version, and we were like, “It’s good, isn’t it?”
We don’t really worry about the pressure; we want to be successful and we do the things we need to be successful but we don’t worry about fear of failure. We may fail at times, but hopefully on a small scale, and never utterly.
Are there any plans to bring STWOR to consoles at any point?
Greg Zeschuk: We haven’t really talked about that. I think we are more focused on the PC version. I mean one thing I’ve learned about working on MMOs is that they’re super gigantic and complicated, so the prospect of adding a console version like that… A PC version is plenty.
We heard Dragon Age is coming to handhelds. Is that right?
Greg Zeschuk: I don’t think so, Dragon Age is on Flash, but I don’t think we said Dragon Age handhelds. Unless they started a new thing while I was away, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure we’re not right now.
Will Dragon Age continue after part two is released?
Greg Zeschuk: Oh yeah, I think as a franchise its started so well and is so well received that it’s something we want to continue working on. The fun thing about it is Dragon Age II is a different story within the Dragon Age Universe, it’s not a continuation of the same story, and the fact we have made this gigantic universe has given us plenty of flexibility to do this. It’s actually really cool.
One last question. Have you got anything controversial to say?
Greg Zeschuk: [Laughs] This morning I did tell developers that he goal of doing triple-A for consoles is a bad idea right now. I think that was my semi-controversial statement of the day right there.
I think it’s true. I think having been in this sspace for like 15 or 17 years, that’s always been the ultimate goal but it’s become kind of tarnished in my mind. It’s like, they’re not as creative, they’re not as interesting and when I look at some of the stuff the Flash guys and some of the independents are doing, it’s like this crazy and exciting stuff. I think as long as there’s a good business model in those spaces, it could be a fun place to work.
I think that bigger isn’t always better and like these big giant games and these big giant budgets – while they have the biggest chance of mainstream success, it’s still very, very hard to do them and I think our market’s getting more and more difficult. If someone is starting out or relatively new, you just really have to question that as a focus.