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The Force is Strong in This One: Talking to Greg Zeschuk

The Vice President of EA's Bioware Label Greg Zeschuk sits down with us to talk Bioware's new label status, The Old Republic, MMOs on console and more.

One half of the legendary 'Bioware Doctors', Greg Zeschuk is one of the most respected men in the world of video games today, and it's not hard to see why - after founding Bioware in 1995 with Ray Muzyka fresh out of medical school, he helped to build such RPG classics as Baldurs Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect, and now finds himself firmly entrenched in the world of Star Wars building the big-budget MMORPG The Old Republic.

Greg took some time out from the hustle and bustle of meeting fans and presenting stage shows at gamescom 2011 to meet up with VG247 in the quietest corner of EA's massive business booth to talk Bioware's promotion to label, The Old Republic, MMOs on consoles and the future of the RPG genre.

VG247: You’re coming into GamesCom off the back of the EA restructure which saw Bioware break out into a label of its own – can you shed any light on the why it happened and how it’ll effect Bioware?
Greg Zeschuk: Well, I think part of it is maybe a reflection of our track record – it’s gonna be four years, actually, at the end of this year – so we’ll have done four years with EA – in the video game business that’s a long stint.

I think it’s a function of the fact that we’ve delivered products successfully. We’ve also built a really strong digital business with downloadable content and everything we’ve done – and for whatever reason they keep giving us more stuff to do. Poor Ray keeps getting new studios every month or two – I’m primarily focused on Star Wars these days – making sure that gets done while Ray is looking after the entire group and has lots of responsibilities.

Also, I think it’s a function of capacity, what we can handle at the same time. It’s wonderful. We’re incredibly flattered and honoured for that to happen. It doesn’t change much of what our mandate is – that’s still to make great games, to be successful – that’s pretty much the same, but it gives us a little more flexibility in how we do that, I think.

Do you see Bioware as ‘the’ RPG studio for EA now, or do you see yourselves as being broader than that?
I think broader. I mean – it’s funny – RPGs are and always have been our bread and butter, our heart is there, but at the same time I think – well, we had the RPG panel breakfast at GDC yesterday – and what was interesting about that was that we had the conversation about ‘what is an RPG’ and it’s a blend. The genres are blending right now, you’re getting lots and lots of progression and RPG elements in shooters – online persistence and so on.

It’s funny because the RPG in the context of the current world is – well, it’s not specifically irrelevant, but it’s becoming less relevant in and of itself. It’s more a function of ‘hey, this game has a great story’. For us having that emotion but also having other great features like combat and persistence of character progression and stuff.

It’s kind of what we are, but more importantly we’re just about great games.

Watch on YouTube

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Join the Fight.

My take is that RPGs are becoming omnipresent as opposed to disappearing, features that were in RPGs appearing in shooters and the reverse.
Yeah, I agree – absolutely.

So, Star Wars – there’s a heck of a lot riding on this game.
Apparently, yeah – I read that somewhere online!

How do you feel about the fan pressure? There’s a ton of anticipation not only in terms of what the Bioware fans but even more so what the Star Wars fans expect-
Actually, there’s a whole other element of MMO fans too. One of the things that has been interesting about the show this week for me is that I’ve been doing more focus on Star Wars and speaking to the real MMO enthusiasts as well, and they’re really expecting us to do something special – they want something to play too. So it’s like pressure from all fronts. We’ve been living in that world for a long time, though – ever since we did well with Baldur’s Gate the pressure has been on for us to perform, so that’s nothing really new for us.

With Cataclysm Blizzard has struggled with user retention for the first time in World of Warcraft’s history. Do you look at that and think the MMO genre is changing and that could be a worry for you too, or do you think it’s an isolated incident relating to that game’s age?
I think you never know. The market clearly has changed a certain amount – WOW’s been out a long time, it’s seven years old – it’s a very different situation now to when they launched it. That said there’s another dimension which is that millions upon millions of people have played WOW – when you count other MMOs it’s probably tens of millions. That means there’s a huge potential market for new MMOs – it’s really up to us to create a game that’s compelling and retentive.

It also comes down to us building the social structures and building strong structures for people to be a part of. I don’t worry too much about that – everything we can control we control to make a great product.

Watch on YouTube

Star Wars: The Old Republic - E3 2011 trailer.

How important is it to you guys to make a large connect between the movies and the game? The visual imagery is all there in the weapons and such but with this taking place thousands of years before some of the most iconic characters and locations will be absent.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting. We’re doing something similar to what we did with the first Knights of the Old Republic game – you don’t use the movies or the movie material directly, but you’re certainly very inspired by it.

If you look at what we have in the game it’s almost like a list of all the cool stuff about Star Wars – you can use the force, there are space battles and so on – there may be no Obi Wan, but it’ll all feel familiar even though in places it’s very different.

What do you feel is next for the team? I imagine there’ll be post-launch support in a big way, but will you also be looking at expansions?
I think the answer is both, for a while. What’s interesting is we don’t know what or how much support we’re gonna have to give. We assume that there’ll be something, so without a doubt our expectations are that we’ll have to do some post release support and we’ll probably be working on the software for a long time – you never stop optimizing a game like this. We’ll always be trying to increase the capacity of our servers, make the client run faster – that’ll go on forever.

However, you touch on a very important point which is post-release content. It’s essential - going back to what we were saying about retention – one of the ways you retain people is to be very, very clear that you’re going to modify and add to the game over time. That’s something we’re actually doing – we’re already thinking about and planning for it.

In there you mentioned servers. Do you think you’re prepared for the potentially huge onslaught of people?
I think we’re pretty ready – that’s one of the things we’ve planned these beta test weekends that are coming this Fall for – that’s a lot about verifying that point. We think we’re in a pretty good position structurally and on moderate-scale testing it’s been all going well from a capacity perspective and everything, but there’s nothing like putting hundreds of thousands of people into the game and seeing what happens.

"You can work on the game all you like, but if you don’t do the same thing with your service it can sink the game."

I think we’re pretty ready. That’s another exceptionally important thing – you can work on the game all you like, make the game great, but if you don’t do the same thing with your service – make it available and reliable and set a very high bar for your quality of service it can sink the game. Because of that we’re being very careful and thoughtful and working very hard to get it right.

From the way you talk, this seems like something of a dream project.
Yeah, kinda. I like working on big things – and this is pretty big – almost too big!

What level of staff are you talking here?
Well we’ve never talked specifics, but let me talk about it in a different way. On a project like this, it’s actually the breadth of the work. You have the core game, but you don’t just have the core game. You have the platform – a service so you can log in and stuff – and then you have the actual infrastructure – hosts, servers. Then we’re partnered with Lucas, and then there’s the EA structure – there’s all these dimensions to it and you have to get all of those right. I think that’s one of the interesting things about a project like this – it’s just large.

Then we have operations – customer service, our new customer service centre in Ireland, network operations people all over the world... wow. Y’know, it makes regular games look very narrow. That’s not to say they’re easy – making a game is never easy – but just the range of things we have to do on a project like this compared to most other projects is really, really kinda crazy.

So, MMO – the heart of those games is on the PC. Do you feel like console versions of MMOs is a worthy endeavour?
Yeah, I think there are new technical challenges you just have to consider. There’s no reason you can’t do it – there’s nothing that prevents it, but there’s challenges. One challenge is the console business model – on the PC you don’t have to give anyone else a cut of anything. That’s significant.

Another thing that’s really nice on the PC is updates whenever we want. We want to put a patch up? Done in five minutes. On console there’s a lot more structure and such – certification. But, y’know, you can work around all those things. If we wanted to, it’s something I think we could challenge ourselves to do and accomplish.

For us, though, we’re focused right now on getting this live, targeting this holiday, and we’ll worry about other platforms later – just the PC platform on this is challenging enough for us right now.

"At Bioware we’ve always built games for PC and console, and we’ll explore it."

But it is of an interest to you to look at that stuff in the future?
Well, yeah – at Bioware we’ve always built games for PC and console, and we’ll explore it. I can understand why there haven’t been a lot of them, but they have existed. The funnest one is – way back – Everquest Online Adventures on PS2. Astonishing! I remember downloading and playing it and thinking that it was unbelievable.

Final Fantasy XI is still going strong on 360 and PS2.
Yeah, I was gonna say – more recently they’ve shown that it’s not impossible. But first things first - let’s launch it, make it real successful... we’ll think about and worry about those things later. It’s something we’re not against for the future, though.

Can you tell us a little about how much LucasArts have been involved in the day to day production of the game, and how your relationship with them has been?
We’ve been working together for years, of course – we’ve had a ten year on and off relationship on various products right back to the original Knights of the Old Republic, so we work great together. They’re actually responsible for chunks of the content, too.

It’s not just feedback on the canon and the story and the look, but for example they’ve been responsible for creating a lot of the audio – we implement it into the game, but you can’t go wrong with Skywalker Sound helping you out, so they’ve certainly been great partners. It’s their baby, right? Star Wars is huge, and they know how to best maximise it – it’s great working with them on it.

Have you had any feedback from George himself?
Um – I don’t know if we get it direct, but I’m sure his folks there get some, but not direct to us.

Can you talk a little about the connection between the world of the KOTOR games and the world of The Old Republic?
It’s actually really nice. I’ve recently been playing through some of the Old Republic and around the third planet you visit or so is Taris, which was in the original and was destroyed. It’s cool because you go back there and it’s a destroyed city and you look at it and the art and such is totally reminiscent of the original.

There’s other stuff on the planet as well – there’s quests that kind of link back up and there’s elements that discuss Revan in the game and his role in the universe. It’s kind of cool, like, KOTOR fans – they get grumpy but we tell them over and over again, and they’ll believe it when they play it – it really is like KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 literally in this one game.

"It really is like KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 literally in this one game."

For the real avid fans, there’s these really neat connections back to the original games that are in this.

How long did it take to get these story beats and dialogue trees and elements people traditionally associate with single player RPGs to work in an MMO?
Oh, it took years – literally years. We were working on this for a long time. What’s interesting is that it really does work. It was challenging to make it smooth – we went through multiple iterations – there were points when we weren’t sure if we were going to do the voice thing – we were saying well, we’ll see how it goes – but at a point we committed to it and pushed it. Beyond doing it solo there’s also the multiplayer conversations where collectively you’ll be talking to someone. It took a long time.

When was it that you guys put pen to paper with Lucas and said we’re gonna do this?
I don’t really remember that... it’s been quite a few years now. We were actually working on the technology for a while before that – we knew what we were doing before that. We didn’t say ‘Hey, let’s make a Star Wars MMO’ – we actually just said we were going to look at making an MMO and started looking at how to make that happen – it was after we started when we actually partnered with Lucas and started working on it as Star Wars.

Being with EA is a very different experience to being your own company. After a few years, how do you think it went integrating yourself and the rest of the company into their infrastructure?
It’s been interesting – the first year was really just a lot of learning. I think that both Ray and myself and a lot of people at Bioware – not a lot of us had worked with big companies before. Bioware of course was independent, our own company – so it was the head spinning, meeting everyone, learning all about how the big company worked...

"Our ability to integrate and adapt is one of the reasons that we’re able to be a label – you’ve gotta work within the framework."

After that, it was very much about building relationships; like that’s actually one of the ways that you succeed in a big company like EA – build really strong relationships with the people that are relevant – so that’s what we did and it worked out really well.

To go back to an earlier answer, our ability to integrate and adapt is one of the reasons that we’re able to be a label – you’ve gotta work within the framework.

Okay, finishing up – as the man for The Old Republic, what is it you want to say to all the people who have been waiting for it, or even those who are sceptical about it?
Trust us. Trust us with your hopes and dreams!

No, I mean – I think – well, first off, thanks for being patient. I think it’s a mutually beneficial thing – they were patient but because we’ve had the time we can deliver a great game and a great service which they’ll really enjoy and that’ll make them happy, so... yeah. That’s it.


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