Interview: The BioWare Doctors
We take a look back at an old interview with BioWare founders, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, who discuss the company’s many successes.
You think you’re just having a nice old jabber with the twin heads of one of the world’s greatest videogame studios, when out comes the doctor joke. It’s distinctly un-hilarious and takes you right back to that point in your childhood when you were sitting in a white room with a taciturn, bespectacled man administering a painful Hepatitis-B shot – jarring, and not exactly conducive to the flow of conversation.
The joke is dusted off when we suggest that Neverwinter Nights’ single-player campaign was regarded by some as inferior to those BioWare presented in previous games – anaemic, even. “I would disagree,” Ray Muzyka counters, “from triple-A
Alberta beef to tons of spinach salad, Neverwinter Nights was given plenty of ‘iron’ throughout its creation.” Yeah.
And then you remember: these guys are doctors. It’s the kick-off for pretty much every interview with Muzyka and his partner, Greg Zeschuk, so you really should know better by now, but it takes some time to adjust. Sure, neither Muzyka nor Zeschuk have had the time to go all Hawkeye on the infirm recently, but the dual-identity slips out sometimes.
It’s not surprising, then, that pretty much everything about BioWare comes in twos: the two founders; the partnership with Pandemic; the fact that for every good story path there’s an evil one; the corresponding double endings; or even the two companions who are allowed to leave the ship/tavern/safe house with you at any time, as has been the convention since Neverwinter Nights: Hordes Of The Underdark.
This year is a major turning point for the studio, still located in its original home in Alberta, Canada. No, Zeschuk and Muzyka aren’t returning to test their allegiance to Hippocrates, rather, BioWare is releasing Dragon Age: Origins, its first RPG to reportedly abandon the dualistic model. Oh, you’ll be confronted with the moral dilemmas and achingly difficult decisions that typify BioWare’s interactive narratives, but they’re more varied this time, and as in 2007’s hidden gem The Witcher, you’ll likely be picking from the lesser of several evils. You’ll get to take three companions with you, too.
“Every game we do we’re always striving to make better than the previous ones,” Muzyka explains, “and Dragon Age is one where the morality and alignment, the way the world looks at you, and the way you look at the world… There’s a lot more nuance to it. And your companions really are the lenses through which you see the rest of the world. Each of them has their own opinion of you. There’s no black-and-white system of good and evil here – that’s up to you to determine. You’re going to have to do some things that are kinda grey. Your companion characters can like your actions – they might even become your best friend or even a romantic interest – or they may hate them and become your enemy. The system in Dragon Age is one of the more interesting ones we have.”
As well as a major conceptual step forward for BioWare, Dragon Age can be seen as a return to past successes, most notably its first major hit, Baldur’s Gate. Dragon Age has been designed with Baldur die-hards in mind – although Zeschuk is keen to stress it still feels “fresh” – and marks a return to the medieval fantasy setting largely abandoned since the Neverwinter reins were handed over to Obsidian Entertainment. It’s a fitting tribute, not only to BioWare’s roots, but also the fantasy RPGs that inspired Muzyka and Zeschuk to form the company in the first place.
“Ray and I met during medical school,” Zeschuk recalls, “and it was actually our mutual love of games that made us think, ‘Hey, let’s have a crack at this’. We’d just finished our training as medical doctors and we were both ready to start practising, but we had this opportunity to start the company with these talented people, and we said, ‘Hey, let’s do both at the same time’. So we formed the company and worked as doctors for a while, and it’s pretty surprising where it ended up, I think.”
BioWare’s first game was Shattered Steel in 1996, a post-apocalyptic action game in the vein of MechWarrior. Aside from being the first game of its ilk to feature deformable terrain, the most noteworthy thing about it, according to Muzyka, was the depth of its back story. “Shattered Steel had a lot of interesting story for a game about cars, you could argue,” he says. “It was a different game to the ones we’ve done since, but we learned a lot from the experience.”
The game was published through Interplay, which had recently wrested control of Tactical Studies Rules’ Dungeons & Dragons licence from Gold Box developer SSI. Interplay’s first few licensed releases ranged from the forgettable (Blood & Magic) to the terrible (Descent To Undermountain), but the California-based developer was confident it had enough quality D&D material in the pipeline to keep the franchise going. So, when BioWare offered its services, the publisher turned them down. “We thought, ‘Okay, well, we didn’t really want to do a D&D game anyway’,” Zeschuk laughs.
Privately, BioWare had been busy working on its own fantasy RPG Battlegrounds. “What we didn’t realise at the time,” he continues, “was that we were actually making an MMO. But we didn’t know that, or have the resources for that at the time. We started pitching this idea around, and a number of people were interested. And we casually commented to Interplay ‘Oh, yeah, we’re doing this game’, and they were really interested. And then, at the end of the day, they said ‘Why don’t you take the concept of what you’re doing and apply it to the D&D licence?’”
Rejects no more, Baldur’s Gate was born.
It’s a tribute to the art, music, writing, technology, and sheer vision behind Baldur’s Gate that the game has lost none of its original impact. The characters still intrigue, the environments still captivate, and the game plays as well as any similar RPG released in recent times – yes, the follower AI is annoying, but when is follower AI not annoying?
Set in the then-uncharted Sword Coast territory of Tactical Studies Rules’ Forgotten Realms setting, Baldur allowed Muzyka and Zeschuk to channel all their previous RPG experiences into a personal project. The problem? At the time, the RPG genre was dead, at least commercially speaking. The Gold Box games were the last major success in the genre, and with that franchise over, the future looked bleak. Blizzard’s Diablo had paved the way for a much leaner, action-based, dialogue-averse role-playing game model, so something as unashamedly hardcore as Baldur’s Gate seemed destined to sink.
“The RPG was in trouble,” Muzyka concurs. “People would tell us it was dead, but the thing is, we just didn’t believe them. We always felt that a great story, great characters, great world, profession systems… there was always a place for that. A lot of it was based on the confidence we had, having played a lot of those games in the past. We felt, ‘Hey, we can add something to that mix. We can bring back what people loved about RPGs in the Eighties’. And we’re always trying to keep doing that. Things change and we’re always adding new things, but the core goals remain unchanged.”
Baldur’s Gate put the doctors BioWare to the test: they had to resuscitate an ailing genre, stitching together pieces of past classics – Wizardry, Wasteland, Ultima, Pool Of Radiance – as they went along. The result was one of the most original games of the decade, one that set the stage for more or less every Western RPG made since, where the themes of choice, morality, and love were made paramount, and expressed through open-ended gameplay. “This was the first time we had a chance to really see our vision,” Zeschuk explains, “which is to create an emotionally compelling narrative where people really felt that they were part of the story. It was a great start.”
The game sold slowly at first but built up momentum at a surprising pace, eventually becoming one of the highest-selling RPGs of the Nineties. “It was a very slow burn,” Zeschuk adds. “It was one of those unusual games. It sold more each month. Right at the end of December, it turned out by February, we were selling more than January, then March, April… it was a few months in, and it looked like it was going to be a huge commercial success.”
The Infinity Engine behind the game later powered a number of stellar RPGs developed in Baldur’s Gate’s wake, including Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. “We fundamentally built a game engine that could support the type of game we were making,” Zeschuk says. “Around that time there had been a couple of shooter engines that had been coming out, but we had a goal of trying to pick the complexity of the D&D system, but also try to capture a world that’s worth exploring, great combat, and the sort of story we were delivering via the conversations and stuff. The engine had to cover all bases.”
Infinity was used to masterful effect in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows Of Amn, released alongside BioWare’s other project, the sequel to Shiny’s surrealist shooter MDK. Shadows Of Amn presented a darker world and deeper storyline than its predecessors, and was even better than the original. Along with Planescape: Torment and Fallout, it is often considered one of the three prime contenders for the best role-playing game of all time.
“The goals were pretty straightforward with Baldur’s Gate II,” Zeschuk says. “Just ‘more, better’, basically. We took the lessons we learned, and when you get the opportunity to create a sequel, you can apply it to the next game. That’s what we’re doing with Mass Effect 2 now, and Baldur’s Gate II benefited from that. Baldur’s Gate was a big success, but Baldur’s Gate II was a success right out of the gate. We made a list of 100 things we wanted to improve, and we got all the way down that list.”
Shadows’ depth and non-linearity continues to put most contemporary RPGs to shame. Lead designer James Ohlen describes the game as the one where management allowed him to go “a little crazy” in terms of the content on offer.
It may well be because of Ohlen’s content-madness that BioWare took an altogether different approach with its next RPG, 2002’s Neverwinter Nights. Although it included a fairly robust – and apparently iron-rich – single-player component, the real star of the show was BioWare’s Aurora Toolset, a masterpiece of power, versatility, and accessibility. Using the Toolset, players could create their own RPG adventures, with all the mod cons BioWare implemented into its own. In addition to that, they could also build their own content and assets to plug into the Toolset to further extend its capabilities. The result was a game and a community that still thrive seven years on.
The Neverwinter Nights community has created hundreds of adventures, creatures, characters, and worlds. Indeed, if BioWare hadn’t vastly improved the story content with two expansion packs – Shadows Of Undrentide and the magnificent Hordes Of The Underdark – you could have argued the players had beaten the developers, quite literally, at their own game.
“Credit to the team and the fans for being such visionaries,” Muzyka says. “We certainly enabled it and facilitated a lot of communication. We really worked with the community, and we’re going to do that with Dragon Age, too, but they really became co-creators of the Neverwinter experience.”
The engine technology behind Neverwinter Nights has seen a similar level of influence in the RPG sphere. Obsidian licensed and adapted it for a sequel and its subsequent expansions, CD Projekt vastly reworked it for The Witcher, and BioWare itself updated the technology – now called the Odyssey Engine – for its first console-orientated RPG, 2003’s Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic.
Faced with the prospect of not only having to produce a deep, non-linear RPG for a format once considered anathema to that sort of thing, but also to revive and refresh the ailing Star Wars franchise, BioWare spent some time discussing how it could work. It was decided that the game would be set several millennia before the events of George Lucas’s films, thereby avoiding any association with some of the lacklustre games released recently under the Star Wars banner. This also gave the company plenty of scope with which to carve out its own, unique storyline. The result was BioWare’s best game since Baldur’s Gate II, and it sold over a million units in its Xbox incarnation alone.
Following its success with Knights, BioWare partnered with Pandemic Studios – probably best known for its Destroy All Humans! and Mercenaries series – and released Jade Empire, the second in the company’s triptych of Xbox exclusives. As an attempt to combine an Eastern setting and flavour with Western RPG sensibilities, Jade Empire was largely successful, and further demonstrated BioWare’s ability to translate its PC background to the console environment. If there was any great fault in the game, it was probably in the transparency of its moral choices. This worked in Star Wars, where the Light Side/Dark Side axis was part of the core mythology; and Dungeons & Dragons, where Gary Gygax had already outlined the alignment system; but Jade Empire attempted something more refined. Unfortunately, the opposing philosophical schools of Open Palm and Closed Fist, despite all their detailed back story, were never represented as anything more than your basic nice-guy-versus-evil-sociopath paradigm – give mooncakes to children, or give mooncakes dipped in arsenic to children, basically.
One of the greatest aspects of Jade Empire’s development, Zeschuk decides, was its original setting. “Jade Empire is a beautiful game,” he says, “and we were so excited to conceptualise our own world and the characters within it. We greatly enjoyed making Knights Of The Old Republic – how could you not love being a part of the Star Wars universe? But we also love the creative freedom of making our own titles.”
Buoyed by this new freedom, BioWare shed its two most successful franchises – Neverwinter Nights and Knights Of The Old Republic – and licensed them both to Black Isle Studios offshoot Obsidian Entertainment. It then set to work on creating what could well have been a follow-up to Baldur’s Gate II, at least in terms of content on offer. Mass Effect, the company’s first role-playing game for Xbox 360, was firmly entrenched in the space-opera genre BioWare first explored with Knights Of The Old Republic, but this time the setting, world, and story were entirely the company’s own.
With driving sections and a much more immediate approach to combat and dialogue, Mass Effect was also BioWare’s most action-based videogame to date, so when it came to finding the right technology to represent this, Muzyka and Zeschuk knew they had to look to third-party sources. “The game had a lot of shooting,” Muzyka explains, “so we needed an engine that could accommodate that.” In the end, they chose the Unreal Engine 3, much like a lot of the industry at the time. Luckily, BioWare managed to forge its own look and recognisable atmosphere for the game.
“Much of the inspiration for Mass Effect is based on creating the ultimate science-fiction experience,” Zeschuk explains, grandiloquently. “A space adventure that fulfils one’s fantasies of exploring the galaxy as part of an intensely exciting story. So we’ve drawn inspiration from a number of places, mostly from the classic sci-fi movies like Alien, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The tangible atmosphere and cinematic tone of these movies serves as a great reference for creating a more immersive experience than we’ve been able to achieve before.”
Naturally, they’re attempting to go further with Mass Effect 2. Thus far, it reportedly ticks all the role-playing game sequel boxes – darker, more streamlined, more varied – and time will tell whether the hype it’s generating will give it as much of an impact as the original. If Dragon Age represents a look back to BioWare’s complex and arcane formative years, then Mass Effect 2 clearly symbolises the powerful, multi million-dollar company BioWare has become. Fear not though, they still love their Alberta beef and doctor jokes.
This article was taken from games™ issue 84. Read our review of Dragon Age: Inquisition here.