The doctors from Bioware discuss the Old Republic Launch, ending a trilogy, and a Mass Effect MMO
The founders of Bioware are collectively referred to within the industry as the doctors. Drs. Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka sat with me for in an interview in a nice hotel suite in Las Vegas, and they seemed completely content with the world and their place in it. The launch of Bioware’s Star Wars MMO The Old Republic went beautifully, with few technical hiccups and almost 2 million paying subscribers at the last official count. Mass Effect 3 is weeks away from completing one of the most successful trilogies in gaming. They have good reasons to be smiling. “We’re the fastest-growing MMO in history, and it’s really a credit to our fans,” Muzyka said. “The launch was fantastic.” Taking on World of WarCraft was considered a near impossibility in the world of online games, but Bioware has the strength of the Star Wars brand alongside the company’s ability to tell wonderful stories. It’s a hard game to say no to, even for MMO beginners like myself. They also had the advantage of a late December launch, which was more good luck than planning. “We didn’t want to launch until we were ready. Even coming up towards the fall, it was very hard to see how things would pan out,” Muzyka said. “It’s almost like we could exclude dates, but we couldn’t guarantee one. There were so many moving parts. It was like making the largest Xbox game ever while making Xbox Live at the same time. And they both had to work flawlessly when you launch them on the first day.” The final beta test was actually larger than the launch itself, and Zeshuk remembered watching the number of players logging into the game, while other MMO veterans remarked that the numbers had surpassed the launch of other titles they had worked on. “You just passed our launch,” someone would say. The numbers would continue to climb. “You just passed our launch,” another developer would point out. The numbers continued to climb. “Soon no one was saying that,” Muzyka said. Still, Zeschuk pointed out that many in the industry were skeptical about the launch window. “Everyone was like, ‘You don’t launch then!’ There’s a traditional adage that you can’t do that, but ironically we launched December 21, 1998 with Baldur’s Gate. And that went really well. That sold a few copies,” he said. The Christmas launch was due to the timing of the game finally being ready for mass consumption, but Bioware was able to gain a large amount of mindshare due to the lack of other big-name games launching in the same time period. It paid off. The average play session at launch was around six hours. By the time February rolled around players were still playing for an average of four hours per session. The game is a hit.
The success of The Old Republic was only part of the current Bioware story, however. Mass Effect 3 is on the way, and it has much to live up to after the first two games. Does the game have any chance of sticking the landing? Will it offer a conclusion that satisfies the fans? “I just finished an end to end playthrough, for me the ending was the most satisfying of any game I’ve ever played… the decisions you make in this game are epic,” Dr. Muzyka promised. “The team has been planning for this for years, since the beginning of the Mass Effect franchise. Largely the same team, most of the same leads have worked on this for years and years. They’ve thought about [the ending] for years and years. It’s not something they’ve had to solve in a week or a month even, but over the course of five or ten years.” He used all the expected buzzwords to describe the ending: visceral, powerful, and rewarding. We’re also promised the feeling of wanting more and, of course, after the credits… I brought up my favorite loose ends from the past games, such as the Genophage and the Rachni. Muzyka counted them off on his fingers, saying each one will come to a conclusion. “Pretty much everything that people want to see wrapped up, or to be given answers, will be,” he explained. He also pointed out that you should feel confident playing if this is your first Mass Effect title. “You don’t need that prior knowledge. We want this to be the most accessible entry point into the series. We wanted this to be the game that answered all their questions… if you’re wondering if three is a good place to enter, absolutely. Yes. It’s the most emotionally powerful entry point. It’s the most polished of the franchise.” I asked about the popular fan rumor of a Mass Effect MMO. “Now that we’ve learned MMOs are really easy to make, and simple to run after the fact, we’re on it!” Dr. Zeschuk said, laughing. “The interesting thing, the implication of a Mass Effect MMO has so many expectations. We already bit off a big thing to chew with a Star Wars MMO, and that’s not so small,” he said. It became clear they had given the idea at least some thought. “It’s daunting, but the neat thing is it would lend itself to a different type of game play. It’s fun to think about. I imagine people think it would be just like Mass Effect as it is… but there’s lots of people there. It’s really interesting, I don’t know. It’s a tough one.” “The possibility space, that’s a term that I heard Will Wright say about ten years ago, and it really struck me,” Muzyka continued, pointing out that most Bioware properties could work as MMOs. “When you deliver a game, and you deliver it for a player, you have to capture what they think is the possibility space. You need to let them do everything they think they should do, and you can’t block them from doing anything they think they should be able to do. You have to nail all the features and content that should be in that possibility space.“ He paused for a moment. “Mass Effect is a big possibility space.”