Understanding Video Games

Over the last several months, BioWare has been working with the University of Alberta to help create a massive open online course. Covering topics ranging from mechanics and story to sex and culture, Understanding Video Games explores the impact of games on society.

The 11-lesson course is available online and is free to anyone (there is an associated fee if you want to write exams and receive credit from your institution). The course features interviews and discussions with several BioWare developers, including Senior Creative Director Preston Watamaniuk, Editor Karin Weekes, and Artist Matt Rhodes.

Each lesson is broken up into a series of short interactive video modules, accompanied by readings and quiz components. No background is required; the course teaches the terminology and theoretical framework necessary for discussing and interpreting games.
Understanding Video Games launches September 3, 2014.

We’re proud to have been a part of this course, and to continue working with UAlberta to foster learning and understanding around video games.

Casey Hudson’s Departure from BioWare/EA

CaseyFrom Aaryn Flynn, BioWare Studio General Manager

After nearly 16 years of game development at BioWare, Executive Producer Casey Hudson has made the decision to move on from BioWare and enter a new stage of his career. We thank Casey for his hard work and dedication as we look back on his time with BioWare.

Starting as a Technical Artist on Neverwinter Nights and MDK2, Casey moved into the Project Director role with 2003’s Game of the Year Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. He then led the team in the development of the Mass Effect trilogy, an award-winning series that I and many others consider to be one of the most important science-fiction universes of our generation. Casey’s focus on production quality, digital acting technology, and emotionally engaging narrative has made a substantial impact on BioWare and the video game industry as a whole.

Casey shared his thoughts with his colleagues in a letter earlier today:

After what already feels like a lifetime of extraordinary experiences, I have decided to hit the reset button and move on from BioWare. I’ll take a much needed break, get perspective on what I really want to do with the next phase of my life, and eventually, take on a new set of challenges.

Though there’s never an easy time to make a change like this, I believe this is the best time for it. The foundation of our new IP in Edmonton is complete, and the team is ready to move forward into pre-production on a title that I think will redefine interactive entertainment. Development for the next Mass Effect game is well underway, with stunning assets and playable builds that prove the team is ready to deliver the best Mass Effect experience to date. And the Dragon Age: Inquisition team is putting the final touches on a truly ambitious title with some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve seen in a game.

But while I feel that the time has come, this is without a doubt the most difficult decision of my career. BioWare is as magical a place today as it was when I started. The projects we are working on are some of the most exciting and prestigious in the world. The talent in our teams is second to none. And the people here are some of my closest friends. I’ve spent more time with many of you than my own family, and I have enjoyed every day of it.”

Casey also had a message of appreciation for BioWare fans:

“Long before I worked in games, I was fascinated by their ability to transport me to places where amazing and memorable experiences awaited. When I made my very first asset that I knew would actually make it into a game (the laser bolt in MDK2!) I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to contribute in some small way to the process of creating interactive entertainment.

Now, having led the development of four major titles, I’m profoundly appreciative of the role I’ve been able to play in creating these games. The very idea that so many of you have enjoyed spending time in the worlds we’ve created is the defining achievement of my career, and it’s your support over the years that made it all possible.

Thank you.

I know that I leave our projects in great hands, and I join you in looking forward to playing them.”

As we say a fond farewell, I know I speak on behalf of the entire studio when I say that we will be forever grateful for Casey’s hard work, passion, and everything he has taught us over the years – a methodical dedication to quality, a spirit of teamwork and camaraderie, and putting fans above everything else. But most of all, Casey has challenged every one of us in the studio to be better tomorrow than we were today. It is in that spirit that as we finish Dragon Age: Inquisition, we will continue working on the next Mass Effect game and our new IP project, confident in our goals and progress.

Thank you Casey. This is not an ending, but a new beginning.

Dragon Age: Inquisition Update

From Mark Darrah, Executive Producer of Dragon Age: Inquisition

As you may have heard, we’re holding back the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition until November 18, 2014. We appreciate the enormous support we’ve received from all of you to get to this point, and while this extra few weeks may not seem like a lot, I know the game you’ll play will be all the better for it.

Since we began working on Dragon Age: Inquisition almost four years ago, our goal was to create the best Dragon Age experience ever. It was that goal that motivated many of our decisions: moving to Frostbite, bringing race choice and customization back, improving tactical camera, building a team of characters whose relationships evolve based on your actions, and most importantly, crafting an epic, nation-spanning story that both draws upon past games and takes you to many new places in the realm of Thedas.

I’m privileged to be a part of a team that has been working very hard to surpass every measure they’ve set for themselves. That has meant completing huge amounts of game content, fixing bugs both big and small, and improving the overall experience. This last bit of time is about polishing the experience we want you to see. Ensuring that our open spaces are as engaging as possible. Strengthening the emotional impact of the Hero’s choices. And ensuring the experience you get is the best it can be in the platform you choose to play on.

Thank you again for your patience and support!

Mark

Mark Darrah: An Update on Dragon Age: Inquisition

The Xbox One and PS4 are out, and the dust is starting to settle at the start of a new console cycle. As a result, now is a good time for us to start talking to you, our fans, more about where Dragon Age: Inquisition is at.

What have we been working on? Dragon Age: Inquisition has come a long way in the last three months. Today, I’m going to share with you some of what we have been up to since PAX. That way, when we dig in deeper a little later on, you will be up to speed.

You may have heard some talk about a “Holiday Build” for Dragon Age: Inquisition. So, what is this? These types of builds go way back in BioWare’s history. Effectively, they are builds we create around the holiday break that are packaged in a way that allows the team, and other parts of BioWare, to play the game in as complete of a state as we can get it.

In this case, our Holiday build is focused on these areas:

1. The main storyline completely playable from beginning to end: This allows the story to be experienced in an interactive state, and lets us get pacing and spacing right.

2. All of the gameplay systems working together: This means that you can experience the game as it is intended to be experienced, with each feature feeding into another.

3. Starting VO recording for large parts of the game (More on this later).

4. Getting music in (More on this later).

5. Making sure that each class has a distinctive feel: Making sure that the party is a necessary and exciting part of combat (More on this later).

6. Getting our tech locked down: For example, here is a tarnish shader going in.

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7. Getting a lot more content a lot further along: Things like Trees:

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Dead things:

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Outfits:

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Faces:

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And, of course, areas:

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Areas form a huge part of the content in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It is very important to me that the game cover a large variety of locations. Not only does it expand the possibilities of our storytelling, it also gives us an opportunity to show a lot of different things. In a game that places a lot of emphasis on discovery, this is very crucial.

Part of this process is about getting the areas into a state where they can be fully critiqued. Let me show you an area shot going through this process (can you guess the area?):

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As you can see, an initial screenshot is critiqued and altered to show the goal for the area. This gives the level artist the specific direction needed to take the area to the next level (so to speak).

I’m skiffing off of a lot of topics here today, and I promise we will be back to talk in more detail about some of these topics. For now, though, I wanted to restart the conversation.

Hopefully you like this format. If you have any specific topics you would like us to cover in greater detail, let us know.

Thanks, and happy holidays!

Mark

MarkDarrah

The Effect on Us

Femshep (1024x1024)When he began working on the ending of Mass Effect 2, lead cinematic animator Parrish Ley felt like a fraud.  There were so many issues to sort out, he didn’t know where to begin.

By the start of the Suicide Mission, there were hundreds of player choices to account for that resulted in thousands of possible scenarios. As work on the mission progressed, it was like trying to unspool a spider web.

“It was the kind of thing where you think, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Ley said. “It was a complex piece of branching narrative. We wanted to make sure it felt right for the players who did it, but at the same time, under the hood there were a lot of things running.”

Because they couldn’t say for certain which characters the player would have in their party, how many of them had completed loyalty missions, or which ones might die, even the most basic questions like who would deliver what lines became a nightmare.

Unfortunately, in situations like this, there’s no real Eureka moment or a silver bullet to take the beast down. In reality, there’s a group of people in a room who’ve missed a couple showers and skipped a few meals, working on the problem over and over and over until it’s solved.

“It started out utterly broken to the point where it was totally unplayable and we looked at each other and thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. We’re not going to be able to ship this game. This is crazy,’” Ley says. “And we would play it and go back to our desks and work on it. And every day it would get a little bit better, and a little bit better.”

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While players remember the emotional moments and intimate scenes, it’s often the hours that went into crafting them that stick with developers. Creating games is an intensely personal experience, says lead level designer Rick Knowles. You help a game develop over months and years, forging it into something you’re proud of.

“As developers, we’re also gamers, and I feel privileged to make games we want to play,” Knowles says. “I think we’d feel we failed if we built a game that we didn’t want to play.”

How you end up can often be miles from where you start out, he says. This was the case with ME3’s multiplayer. The original idea was to have a co-op mode. But the more they tried to hammer out the dents, the worse it felt.

“It took a very long time to settle on a model that we felt worked well. We tried out different layouts, different creatures, different settings,” Knowles says. “We were very conscious from the beginning to not just make a straight-up multiplayer experience. It had to have some narrative context.”

They addressed this by creating objectives, which gave weight and purpose to each mission. And though the stories are smaller and more contained, Knowles and his team built internal narratives into each map that would later inform design decisions. This is why the hazard version of Firebase Dagger features a sandstorm, for instance. It doesn’t just make the map more difficult; it makes sense in the context of downed satellite dishes.

Earth DLC BannerBut while you could put a lifetime of hours into developing a game, eventually it has to ship, and developers then must sit back and watch as players take over and experience it.

The day ME2 launched, Kris Schoneberg and her fellow level designers crowded around a computer screen, watching a live stream of an early playthrough. They were eager to see how the player would react to certain plot points, and how they would handle the challenges the team had so lovingly devised.

“They got to the Warden Kuril boss fight in the Jack mission,” Schoneberg says, laughing. “And I watched the guy just die over and over again, and I thought, ‘I’m sorry. I hope you’re having fun.’”

Patrick Weekes, a writer on all three games, had a similar experience on ME2. “I was watching a playthrough of a super-renegade player doing Tali’s loyalty mission. He was about to finish the trial, and after all his renegade decisions, I really didn’t want to watch him break Tali’s heart. Then he pauses the playthrough, goes to the chat box, and says, ‘I don’t know what to do, guys. I don’t wanna hurt Tali.’ Seeing that something I was part of connected with a fan deeply enough to affect his decisions made me realize how special this series really was.”

As time goes on, the series becomes more and more the property of fans, and they begin to develop their own ideas about what makes and defines Mass Effect, says executive producer Casey Hudson. And while this can at times cause resistance toward new ideas, ultimately it’s a sign that the characters and stories the developers created are resonating.

“You can have characters in a story, but that’s kind of different from building memorable characters that transcend the story,” Hudson says. “These characters that we have in the Mass Effect series, people want to takes these characters further out of the story and see them in comics and books and they want to know more about these characters.”

SquadDLC is among the many good ways to tell new stories, says producer Mike Gamble. Here in these smaller, more contained adventures, the team can take more risks and explore ideas that just couldn’t fit into the main game.

It also gives members of the ME team a chance to get back together with old friends, Gamble says—a big part of what made the series great in the first place.

“When we first start to make games, we have everyone from different departments each with an idea of what the game looks like,” he says. “Being able to work together for a long time, you start to develop trust, and those walls go away and you can drive toward a singular purpose.”

While the Citadel DLC was a farewell to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy for fans, inside the studio, the developers said their own goodbyes.

“We were sad when Shepard’s story was over. There was definitely a solemnness in the room,” Schoneberg says. “The last thing I worked on was the party in Citadel, and the party ends with a group photo. I manipulated my save file to show the guests I’d have on my game at home. When that last screen came up with that group photo, I got a little choked up and a little teary eyed, because I realized, ‘Well, this is it.’”

Weekes has a different memory of the party. “I’d always told fans that the one thing we’d never do was a cocktail party, because how could you handle that much conversation? How do you let the players feel like they’re chatting with people and moving around in a natural way with so many possible permutations? And then on Citadel, our lead, Mac Walters, said, ‘I think we need to do a party,’ and sure enough, he and Kris and some of the other writers actually came up with a structure that made it work. It’s just one more time that people on the team proved me wrong and did the impossible to make something really special.”

Though that party in Citadel may mark the end of Shepard’s story, it’s far from the end of Mass Effect. As the fourth title in the ME universe begins its development, the team is carrying forward all the things that made the Shepard’s trilogy so memorable.

“It’s the idea of exploring a vast universe: going out and seeing amazing new things. It’s scale: seeing new planets, new species, and having choices that matter. Because it’s a story, and one that you care about,” Hudson says. “It’s going to continue on, and the things people love about Mass Effect they’ll see even better in the next generation of games.”