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BioWare Austin Talks About Upcoming MMO
Being on South Park, building the right end game for an MMO and more.
By Shawn Elliott, 11/27/2006
As you've likely heard, the December 2006 issue of Games for Windows magazine (in stores now) features a massive cover story on BioWare's upcoming RPG Dragon Age (check out some first details on the game here). But as part of the cover story, the guys at GFW also spoke with BioWare's Austin studio to get the scoop on its upcoming MMORPG. While the team isn't ready to talk details or world settings, they did go into a lot of the philosophy behind the game. As one of the best RPG developers in the business, the sheer prospect of an MMORPG from the studio is exciting, so read on for some intriguing comments.
Games for Windows: The Official Magazine: How long has your new MMORPG been in development?
Gordon Walton, co-studio director, BioWare Austin: We announced the game around March, but we'd really started on it in the beginning of December 2005.
James Ohlen, creative director, BioWare Austin: We've got a lot designed -- we've got the GDD [game design document] done, we've finished more than three quarters of the detail design documents. We've got a couple prototypes up.
We've licensed [Simultronics'] HeroEngine. It's a very good engine, and we're very impressed with it so far.
And we can talk about the high-level goals: We basically want to bring what BioWare's famous for to the online space, and one of the things BioWare's famous for is storytelling ... and it's something that pretty well doesn't exist in the online space right now. Most "storytelling" in MMORPGs is just FedEx quests -- you know, you have to go get some eggs -- and it's presented in a format that's just a bunch of text thrown at you in paragraph for ... and that's not so exciting. We want to bring a level of storytelling that's equal to the single-player box games that BioWare has done. I think we can do that. One of the big challenges will be making our storytelling work in an environment that has multiple players.
GFW: It seems that one of the big challenges in a big multiplayer universe is that you can't really have the player shape the world like you can in a single-player game ... .
JO: Here's the thing -- you can't have a story that involves saving the world from the dark lord Sauron -- not that we're making a Lord of the Rings game, but I'll use LOTR as a good example. You can't stop the world from being destroyed by [Sauron], but you can do a lot of things that are personal to your character. You change how your character evolves over the game, the player's personal story -- and a player's personal story can be quite epic. It can involve parts of the world that, while they're epic, exciting, and interesting, don't change the landscape of the entire world for everyone else.
Smaug [from The Hobbit] is a good example. You can have a personal quest to kill an ancient red dragon; you can have a story that goes all the way through, and you can meet all these interesting characters, and eventually you end up killing the ancient red dragon. Other characters in the online world will know you killed a red dragon, but you haven't changed the world for them. And they can still -- especially when you use things like instances -- go on a quest that involves killing an ancient huge red dragon. We can change the player's personal story, and that gives players the sense they're having an impact on the game world.
Rich Vogel, co-studio director of product development: One thing we don't want to do is NPC Pez dispensers, as I call them -- go over there, dispense a quest, and then go "vacuum-clean" a zone. We want to make sure you listen to NPCs, because choices matter. And that's really important.
JO: There are lots of quests in a classic BioWare game that would work in an online world. You'd be surprised how few wouldn't.
GFW: One of the big problems with MMO gameplay is repeating the same content, or same instance if you're specifically talking about WoW, over and over again ... .
JO: That's something we don't want to encourage. We want to encourage players to continue to make progress in their story, to do new quests, consume new content, constantly move forward. The grind is not attractive in any way. Going and killing the same dragon over and over again is not something I want to do. There are lots of different ways to encourage players to move forward. Simply putting more weight on storytelling experience points is a good way to do that. In WOW, you get XP when you finish a quest, but the weighting on that is pretty low; there's not much benefit to doing that over finding the perfect monster to grind and kill. If those quest experience points were a little higher, it would make a lot more sense to go along with the story. Now, that's a very mechanical way to ensure players go along with your story -- the other way is to make sure your story is good, that the presentation is exciting, it's personal to the player, that the player has a lot of motivation to move forward in their story. That's not to say that experience and treasure aren't still important, though.
GFW: Are there things in the other MMOs -- whether yours or another developer's -- that you've worked on that you can see working here? Any "lessons learned"?
RV: I think the big thing is that making a quality polished product with good gameplay is key. WoW proved that. WoW didn't really innovate all that much -- it just did a very good job of polishing what was out there. [Blizzard] took the best and put it in their game. But we want to develop an experience that's a BioWare experience first and foremost. And for that, it's very important to have directed content ... especially if you want to get to a mainstream audience.
JO: And by directed, we don't mean linear -- we mean that you know where you have to go to have fun.
GFW: How many of your key staffers migrated from SOE [which also has a studio in Austin]?
GW: I don't know that we have a count. Some from SOE, some from BioWare Edmonton, some from other companies completely. It's not like we had to go knocking. Experienced people want to work on a product that can be successful.
GFW: Can you talk about where the game takes place? Is it fantasy? Sci-fi?
JO: We can't talk about the setting of the game yet.
RV: The key points that we're gonna do that no one's done before in an MMOG are bring story, character, and emotion to it. Decisions matter, and NPCs aren't pez dispensers, and you're not in a grind. You're really compelled to get on and play what's happening to day ... kind of like watching a series like Lost on TV ... putting page-turning in an MMO. It's going to be extremely challenging thing to do, believe me.
GFW: Another BioWare strength, aside from story, is character customization. For lots of reasons, most MMORPGs lock you into classes without a ton of flexibility, which conflicts with customization. What's your philosophy?
RV: It's really important to have roles in an MMORPG. If you understand your role in the world, and others understand your role in the world with you, then you can get group dynamics and social behavior. [Developers] can set up interdependencies, which promote social dynamics in a game. If you don't have that, then you end up with loners ... and the world breaks down a little bit. Now, you'll be able to solo if you like in our game, that's for sure -- it's one thing that WoW proved can work. But it'll be a choice whether or not you want to group or not. You run into problems when people feel they're forced to group up or raid to get somewhere in the game.
JO: And while roles are important for gameplay, the visual aspect of your character is an area where we can let player differentiate themselves. We are gonna have a good selection of visual customization. We're probably gonna have more visual customization than you've seen in a BioWare game before.
GFW: Repetition of the same instances and raid dungeons is a huge part on what constitutes "end-game content" when you reach a level cap in an MMO. What's your plan for end-game content?
JO: We have big plans for end-game content that we can't talk about because it's a major part of our design. We think it's a very important aspect of the game, and we don't want players to be stuck grinding through the same content over and over again -- I know when I hit level 60 in WoW, I pretty much quit. So whatever end-game model we have, it's not going to be that.
GFW: And what of player-created content? Player-built cities, player-run businesses, that sort of thing?
RV: There'll definitely be an economy in our game, like WoW. But is our game going to be a simulation? No. Our game is an entertainment experience.
JO: If we're going to create immersive, epic stories that are believable, that really goes against having a simulation-type world. Those two things don't go together well.
GW: And putting the onus on players to create all the fun is ... a challenge.
GFW: How big is your writing team? Can you explain your writing process?
JO: One of the things we want to do is create more story content than in any other BioWare game before, and we started a writing team earlier than in any other BioWare project -- more than twice as big, nine total, and they'll be on the project twice as long. The reason is that the world is huge and has tons of paths and options.
GFW: How do you select your writers?
JO: It seems you can't get a writer from the same place twice -- we've got one from Hollywood, one straight out of school, one who was a designer and programmer before he decided he wanted to be a writer. They send submissions created in the Neverwinter Nights toolset, and cull out the ones we don't like. Senior writers give feedback to the ones that make the initial cut, and the potential writers make changes and turn it back in. It's some of the harshest testing for any position at BioWare, really.
GFW: What are you all playing right now?
JO: I'm playing in a World of WarCraft group with a few of the writers. We're in a Horde group.
RV: WoW, and I've started playing a bit of Eve Online. It's extremely ... niche.
GW: I still play Ultima Online every month, and play World of WarCraft right now. But mostly console games.
GFW: World of WarCraft all around. What's that game doing best right now? What keeps you playing?
RV: It's a very polished experience.
GW: It's got the best interface of any MMO by a longshot. It has craploads of content. You're always being directed from quest to quest.
GFW: Are you worried about taking on the World of WarCraft monster?
GW: There hasn't really been anything that's been built to beat it yet -- but we just want to be competitive. We're not looking to kill WOW. Will some people who play WOW play our game? Of course. But we'd be better off if we got new customers, too. It's not a zero-sum game out there.
JO: Aside from BioWare, Blizzard is the company I respect the most -- and yes, WOW is an amazing game. But there's still so much room for growth, and WOW still has tons of room for improvement. It's not a genre that's going to slow down any time soon. MMORPGs are going to be taking huge steps in so many place I can see.
GFW: What's the biggest improvement you want to see happen in MMOs?
JO: I'm a huge story guy. I want to play in a world where I feel like I'm reading a good book, where I feel like I'm there. I have lots of fun with World of WarCraft, but it's not because of the story or characters. So if we made characters you could care about and believe in ... that would be huge.
GFW: So when will we be playing the "BioWare MMORPG"?
GW: Anything worth doing well is worth taking the time. It's hard to predict when it'll be right. It's important for use to wait and make sure it's right. That's gonna take some time. Everyone who's tried to cram one into a ship date has had issues -- been there and done that a couple times.
JO: We're gonna make the best game we can.
RV: "When it's ready."
GW: The fan base of BioWare would love to see a Bioware MMO. And this was part of the genesis of this -- it's the natural progression for an RPG company to try this medium. We're happy to work with world-class game designers who aren't just copying what's come before. We have a really good studio. We probably have the most experienced team in the business, as far as building MMORPGs. We're excited about we're doing. The moment we talk about what we're going, expectations fly through the roof -- then you have to be the second coming. It's very difficult to live up to expectations; they keep escalating while you're trying to finish what you started.
GFW: And what are your personal goals in all this?
GW: I just want to entertain a lot of people. We are story-telling creatures. Story really helps make entertainment experiences more accessible.
RV: I just want to be on South Park.