Producer Fabrice Condominas' discusses reasons for exploration, the RPG mechanics of the original Mass Effect, and having no best or worst choices.
When I get a chance to chat to Mass Effect Producer Fabrice Condominas, he's in the middle of a long, grueling press tour. We're already his third country in a week, but as we sit down to chat and I confess I 100 percent completed each of the previous games in the ME series, he displays an equally proud grin: Mass Effect is clearly his baby, and he very clearly gives a damn.
"That'll take a long time in this one," he laughs to me. He wishes me luck. When I say this interview and hands-on has been a long time coming, he simply grins and shrugs. "Imagine how long it's been for me!"
After five years Mass Effect Andromeda is almost upon us and now, extremely late in the game, EA has let us play it. That hands-on time has eased some fears and made me quite a bit more excited than I was. Halfway through my play-through I grabbed Fabrice for a quick chat. Here's what we talked about.
VG247: So, I want to start with size. Earlier on you said that the size of a single planet zone in this game can be as much as the size of the whole of Inquisition...
Fabrice Condominas: Yeah. But again, remember the context - motorised vehicles, so you're going across them faster, but that stat still gives you an idea.
"We heard the players specifically over the recent years saying that meaningless quests don't really interest them any more. We wanted to make sure that even a very minor quest has at least - at the very least - a narrative touchstone. You will learn something."
How did you guys come to the decision to follow that path instead of something more akin to Mass Effect's procedurally generated side worlds or something more like ME2 and ME3, where there were more worlds, but they were smaller?
Well, we tried. That's how. We decided to try several things, and that's definitely a question we asked ourselves at the beginning. We actually built a number of possible tools for example what we're now using to accelerate the fabrication of content, but at the origin we built them to say... okay, what if we want thousands of planets you can explore and all that?
We managed to build those tools, but when we played the content that we'd built, it didn't feel right. It didn't feel right not in absolute, but it just didn't feel right for the type of game that we were making. As I mentioned, we realised that really quality over quantity remained our motto even if we want to go more open. So then we have to find a balance because we don't have teams of five-thousand people [laughs].
But really, it's just by play - that's how we went back - we spent time building those, but each time we had a controller, going through those planets. At the beginning you're excited. "I can see anything, I can land on anything," for example. Then you go there, but after two or three you're like, okay, there's nothing I remember. Even if you put content in. But there's nothing memorable. That term is important - memorable. I want to be able to tell you something, like "floating rocks", and you're like "that's that planet". But building that means you have to craft it.
We heard the players specifically over the recent years saying that meaningless quests don't really interest them any more. We all come from, at Bioware, classic RPGs a long time ago, and doing those quests where you go fetch things in order to craft better stuff. It's a part of it, but the player doesn't really want that any more, and again for the type of game we're making it didn't feel right either.
We wanted to make sure that even a very minor quest has at least - at the very least - a narrative touchstone. You will learn something. A character name, the existence of something.
So you have these larger worlds, but how many? The original Mass Effect had, what, three, four major mission worlds, while 2 and 3 had a lot more but they were shorter and more restricted affairs. Where do you fall in the series?
Hmmm... let's say in between. We don't give exact numbers, but as I mentioned, a lot of those big story planets hold critical path missions. As I mentioned, it's fewer, bigger, but it will be more than two or three, for example. Then there are also other types of planet where you can actually land and explore things that are smaller. In total, it makes for quite a lot of content.
Again, we also don't give exact numbers because there's a gating mechanism that's put in place. So depending on what you do, you'll find different things. But there's several of them.
Quality over quantity, but we're not talking about two!
Character choice is obviously a big part of the game, and you've made some changes. You've got rid of the Paragon and Renegade system, for one, but I'm also really curious about if there'll still be ways to weasel your way out of most negative consequences as there was in the trilogy.
"One of the reasons we went away from the binary system of Paragon and Renegade is because although we didn't see it that way it was often interpreted that there is a better way, a better story than another, better choices than another. Or the finale where everybody survives is better than the one where somebody tragically dies."
One of the reasons we went away from the binary system like Paragon and Renegade is also because although we didn't see it that way it was often interpreted that way in the trilogy - that there is a better way, a better story than another, better choices than another. Or the finale where everybody survives is better than the one where somebody tragically dies.
We wanted to remove that notion of better, because the idea since the beginning was that none of the choices you make or relationships you create are... we don't judge them. There is no notion of best or worse. I think that by going out of the binary system, you kind of fade that out, right? Suddenly, you put the shades of grey into all the relationships and it becomes a bit more subtle. You win things, you lose things.
You won't end up in a scenario where a player will tell you "oh, it's way better to do it this way" because we've cut the binary. The combinations are way more important. That was the idea. Get away from the judgmental way of making choices.
Talking of character relationships - there's the squad, but how deep are you going on periphery characters? Will we see non-squad romance characters, for instance?
Oh, yes, absolutely. It's not only about your squad, you have absolutely key NPCs and you will be able to romance other people than your squad. For example, in the Tempest there's your crew. Those characters will be extremely present because you spend a lot of time in the Tempest, and so you'll be able to build relationships with them. There are a number of key characters across the game - on the nexus, on the hubs or on the planets that you visit, on the settlements that you build, so yes - the relationships can be way broader.
One thing that struck me in the opening is how it's almost like a new IP in its introduction. It says Andromeda first, then Mass Effect. It really feels like an even cleaner break than I imagined. Was that a conscious decision?
So, five years have passed since Mass Effect 3. There's been a lot of change in the industry, and I think the key with this game is also to attract people who haven't played the trilogy necessarily. There's a new generation of gamer out there and I think that the game can actually fit them but the problem is when you put the emphasis on the past, people start being anxious about having not played the old ones.
"With RPG mechanics, we're definitely looking towards Mass Effect 1."
It was important for us to turn the page on that. That being said, in terms of having the marketing touch for veterans, it was all about keeping the DNA of both Mass Effect and Bioware was absolutely key.
Not only in terms of mechanics - we still have very deep RPG systems in the game, the progression, all of that - but also in terms of the visuals. It's important for us - even though it's a new galaxy, new races, it's important that when anybody sees a screenshot they say... "Oh, that's Mass Effect". If you know Mass Effect - but if you don't, it doesn't matter, but if you do you'll notice a Mass Effect touch. This is a balance where we just want to make sure we don't close the door before the new gamers out there can try it.
On the topic of RPG mechanics, where in the series do you think you sit on that? Mass Effect was a deeper RPG, the other games streamlined that to varying degrees, and some RPG fans are worried in that regard...
Oh, it's more towards Mass Effect 1, definitely. What we did when we started working on this game was to actually try to take the best of the three. We had an incredible experience building the trilogy, and we know that Mass Effect 1 was really strong on exploration and RPG mechanics. Mass Effect 2 was really strong on character relationships. Mass Effect 3 was the strongest in terms of combat. Obviously we said, "okay, let's take everything we've learned from each and put it in the game".
As a result, it took five years to make the game, because trying to balance all that was a challenge. [laughs] But that was still the idea. With RPG mechanics, we're definitely looking towards Mass Effect 1.