Mass Effect 2 Interview
17th Dec 2009 | 16:00
When it releases next month, Mass Effect 2 will be the first major blockbuster of 2010 - and in its own words, BioWare's best game ever. We're excited - and so is producer Adrien Cho, who recently sat down with us for a chat. Here's what he had to say...
How complete is Mass Effect 2 now? You must be pretty close...
Cho: Pretty close. What you're playing today is a few weeks old. We probably have a few weeks of development left. The team is putting the final polish on the game.
This interview is being published on December 17. Will you be complete by then?
Cho: I hope so. I want to send everyone home for Christmas! We would've hopefully started the manufacturing process by then.
Q1 2010 is pretty packed with releases now...
Cho: It's actually still Q4 for EA. There's a whole bunch of titles but I'm not worried about it because it's a great game. It didn't really matter when we were going to put it out, I think it's going to blow people out of the water. You've seen the beginning - it doesn't actually let go once you start, it hits the ground running.
We're so proud of the game that I'm not worried at all. I feel like this is actually the best game that has come out of our studio in the history of BioWare. Ray was talking to me about this; of all the games we've made so far this was able to encapsulate everything we've been trying to do in games and present it in such a digestible form.
Each game we've put out has been great, each game has flaws, where as this one represents the pinnacle BioWare experience. If you're going to play one BioWare game ever in your life, this is the one to try.
What would you say other BioWare series can learn from Mass Effect 2?
Cho: The joy of doing a sequel is improving upon the things you set forth, keeping all of the important elements there but refining the areas where it could be stronger.
All BioWare games focus on good storytelling, that goes without saying. Mass Effect the series leans more towards combat. In the first one we delivered something and we really felt we could improve the combat with the experience in this one, without removing any of the elements that made the first one great.
We knew we had a limited amount of resources, a set time limit and we wanted to hit all the areas that we had criticisms for and make sure that we answered them. People said, 'Mass Effect is a great game but it had long load elevators'. We wanted to address every single thing so... I'm not going to say shut up our critics, but it'd leave no room to deny that this is an amazing game.
What would you say was the most successful element of the first game; the combat, or the role-playing elements?
Cho: I think the story, the setting, the universe to explore... that was the big challenge; setting up this new IP and getting people really interested in it. The second one really just continues that and of course we can make focused improvements on combat and inventory. All those small changes add up to hopefully one of the best BioWare games ever.
What's the biggest difference between the first and second game that means the sequel has to ship on two discs?
Cho: Everything is... better (laughs). Therefore we actually squeezed a lot of content in. The first game was actually huge and I was surprised we managed to fit it on one disc. This time everything's bigger, better, more detailed, the worlds are more expansive, the story's richer, the fidelity... everything takes up more space.
We made an early decision to put it on two discs. It's a small inconvenience to disc swap but the value you get from it... man, if you loved Mass Effect on one disc just think about the experience you can get on two discs!
You're in a similar situation to Splinter Cell: Conviction in the respect that you're on Xbox 360 and you're on PC. Ubisoft has said that being able to focus on just the one console has allowed it to squeeze every bit of power from the Xbox 360... would you agree?
Cho: Yes and no, that's a tricky question. Yes for this game, we've squeezed even more out of the Xbox 360. Mass Effect 1 when it came out I think represented this watershed moment; it was a benchmark, it was really innovative in many ways. But we knew at that time there were many ways in which we could improve, it's just time limitations. So given two more years of development our artists, engineers and programmers have learnt how to extract more out of the engine.
Have we actually peaked? No. I was the technical artist on the first game and what we do is build things a lot smarter to avoid some of those issues like texture pop-in in the sequel. But I don't think we've reached that ceiling yet; there's actually a lot more power that we can get out of the 360.
So in that the lifespan of the 360 is at least a few more years and this game will represent I think hopefully one of the first games of the second generation; the second coming of developers who are now even more familiar with this technology and I'm really looking forward to seeing some incredible games coming out in the next few years.
Mass Effect 2 isn't coming out on PlayStation 3. Is that a marketing decision, or a technical ability decision?
Cho: Neither. We started Mass Effect on Xbox 360 - it was our lead development platform. It made sense for us, we built all of our tools around that and again we're leveraging all of that experience working with the 360 and Unreal technology... it just made sense to continue working on that for the sequel.
Does the fact that the original never came out on PS3 make it more difficult to bring the series to Sony's platform?
Cho: I don't think so. Obviously Unreal technology is cross-platform so it opens up that possibility but at the same time - and not in a negative way - we're looking for the path of least resistance. Mass Effect 1 was a huge investment of time, effort and money on developing this brand new IP and making a sequel is all about hopefully learning from all of your mistakes and leveraging that. What we can do is take all of our time hopefully improving the quality of the title.
If we had a few more years then yeah, maybe we'd move to different technologies to make the second one but it just seemed to make sense. We'd just got used to UE3 and we've modified the engine so much...
So working on just Xbox 360 left you free to focus on design?
Cho: Yeah and making a better game. I don't think anyone can really fault us for that because we are our own harshest critics and we wanted to improve upon all of the things we thought we could do better. Then if you bring in technology at that point you run the risk of reinventing the wheel.
As a bonus have you had any benefits from Microsoft in being platform exclusive?
Cho: Yeah, even though our publisher is EA, Microsoft's always been a very supportive partner. We've had a really good working relationship with Microsoft since the Knights of the Old Republic days. It hasn't really changed too much but working with EA has been fantastic as well, they've opened up more markets to us. Maybe that's the one big difference I've noticed this time around; the teams of people worldwide helping us launch simultaneously is unprecedented.
As I'm going through the UK doing press events I'm actually seeing all the operations and on a development side, it's really encouraging to know there are people I've never met before and I finally get to say thank you. Meeting people who are working so hard to get it out in all these different regions just blows my mind.
How essential are the DLC packs going to be to the Mass Effect 2 experience?
Cho: Very. I can't talk about our detailed plans because for whatever reason we haven't lifted the embargo yet. This goes back to the whole sequel part: during development process of the first game we had so many things to worry about, but for Mass Effect 2 we'd gone through that before and we were like, 'we could've done that better'.
Downloadable content was always on our radar from day one. The team's actually been transitioning some members into creating DLC content already. What I can say is that we're going to be offering a lot more range of content from maybe a weapon, a new gun to new armours, new helmets, side quests up to full expansion packs. So a lot more variety to keep players engaged. For someone who wants a new weapon, they can have one, but I'd want more hours for the Mass Effect universe and those are going to be in the pack.
Is the GTA IV, full expansion pack approach something you'd consider?
Cho: I think so. It depends on the scale. The price range I think is really important so that we can give players good value for their money, I think that's really important. I think we see publishers and developers on one side unfairly price things.
It's about keeping players engaged in that world and not necessarily to always make a good profit. You've got to make some profit off that, but you don't have to do it off the backs of the consumers because I think gamers are not dumb and they'll support us with their wallets or not.
The readers on our forum keep asking if you're launching on Steam?
Cho: We do have plans for digital distribution but I'm not the one that says which service. There will definitely be a download service for Mass Effect 2.
Are you optimistic about review scores?
Cho: Yeah. Not in an egotistical way but from the sheer joy of craftsman knowing that the hard work that we put into it really shows through. We're just so sure that we've made a solid, good product...
So it goes without saying you think you'll do better than the first game?