Interview: The Bioware Doctors

(Originally published October 2011)

Of all the things I expected to be doing at Eurogamer Expo, meeting and chatting to Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, behind closed doors and before their Old Republic presentation, was not one of them. Together forming the professional partnering unofficially known as The BioWare Doctors, Muzyka and Zeschuk are responsible — alongside their teams at BioWare’s various studios across the world — for some of the best RPGs seen in the past two decades, including Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

So imagine how I felt sitting down with them for half an hour to chat; not about BioWare, not about the games, but about them, what drives and inspires them and how exactly games like those mentioned above come about.

Stick around; this is a real treat.

Doctor, Doctor, I Want To Make Video Games

Muzyka, Zeschuk and fellow doctor Augustine Yip founded BioWare in 1995. The three graduated together from the University of Alberta’s medical school and, united by a love of games, decided to form a company. For Muzyka and Zeschuk, a life-changing role reversal took place as the hobby became the job, and vice-versa; Yip returned to the world of medicine full-time within the next couple of years.

“We used to play games all the time when we were growing up as kids,” Muzyka, the CEO of BioWare and now senior vice-president at EA, said. “Our hobby became our career, and [as for] our trained careers as medical doctors, we still practised after we graduated. We did less and less of that as BioWare got busier … our career became our hobby.”

“We had an opportunity, it was interesting,” Zeschuk, General Manager of BioWare’s Austin studios (working on The Old Republic), said. “We had our hobby. We’d take games apart, put them together … and then we had some guys who were actually working on games and some really great technology and we thought, ‘Oh, let’s give this a shot, why not.’”

Leaving a prestigious and high-paying career path such as that of medicine in favour of making games seems like the most bizarre decision to make, but both Muzyka and Zeschuk talked the decision as if choosing what to have for dinner.

“Patients don’t generally celebrate creativity in medical decisions,” Muzyka joked. “It’s a fulfilling profession and I enjoy it … but I love video games. [They are] about the innovation and the creativity and doing different things whereas [in] medicine, patients don’t generally celebrate you making creative choices in their treatment.”

Zeschuk was firmer about the new career choice.

“It was very systematic, and for us, for both of us, whether we like it or not, [we] are both very creative and like creating, building … that’s not really what you do in the medical sphere naturally.”

But did either of them worry when taking the leap?

“We didn’t really worry about it, we just did it,” he remarked. “Ray was talking earlier about how…it was [done with] some degree of foolishness but I always joked that we had this backup plan of going back to practicing medicine,” Zeschuk said.

The two didn’t stop practicing immediately. During BioWare’s initial baby steps, and for the next four years, the two continued with the profession, if only to bring home the bacon. They didn’t even pay themselves a salary during this initial take-off.

The Rebirth of the RPG

BioWare’s history lies entirely in the realm of RPGs, from traditional efforts such as Baldur’s Gate to modern, action-oriented titles such as Dragon Age. The desire to evolve and improve the RPG as we know it has always been a prime directive of the two doctors, as Zeschuk explained of their first title, robot combat title Shattered Steel:

“Our real starting point was the fact that RPG games seemed to be dying and [we thought] there was this real need for a top-down RPG, kind of like the old-school Ultima-ish games. That was, weirdly enough, our driving passion.”

“We added story, we added some choice, and missions and they were kind of unusual for action games,” Muzyka continued, later expanding on the point further. “There are all these attributes [of RPGs] you can combine with other genres that have since evolved and … you’re seeing a lot more of that now where you have progression systems and story and exploration, even in a game that is primarily a shooter or a driving game. They can have those concepts woven in.”

“Actually, it makes the experience better. It’s fun, right? Those are fun activities.”

Creating a universe as deep as, say, Mass Effect’s might sound like a huge challenge. For the BioWare doctors, it was simply a case of knuckling down and brainstorming. It’s how their bigger franchises have been created: basic, cool-sounding ideas expanded into something more.

“The way [creating a game] would typically start is that we’d say, ‘Hey, we want to make a fantasy game’, or, ‘We want to make a science fiction game.’ What happens is it does start as a very general direction,” Zeschuk explained.

“Casey [Hudson, long-term BioWare employee and Executive Producer on Mass Effect 3] was in charge of Knights of the Old Republic and we had lunch at this creepy place down the street from our office and we said, ‘hey, we wanna make this game: big space opera, not totally hard sci-fi…’”

“Two lunches,” Muzyka said, “and we basically had the whole framework.”

With a basic framework in place, Muzyka and Zeschuk would have Hudson work with the rest of the BioWare leads – the lead designer, art leads, and so on – and begin to explore what would make a great game but also, crucially, a great universe to set it in.

“A lot of the time is spent on the world ideas: creating the IP, and creating the setting and the characters and all the history and timeline … this big world map that we’ve only explored a certain portion of,” Muzyka revealed. “All the other areas actually have definition and history and timelines and characters and a lot of interesting things that are just sort of, ‘Yeah! Let’s go there, because all this cool stuff is there.’”

This fleshing out of the universe results in narrative-rich worlds like those seen in recent BioWare titles. They’re notable not just because of the detail and the passion that goes into them, but also because they remain distinct and unique from other comparable fictions.

“We pick something we think will has a broad enough appeal,” Muzyka explained. “Usually there’s fantasy or science fiction as the broadest extension, then we kind of narrow it in. With Dragon Age … [it’s] dark, heroic fantasy. It’s a little different, it’s like it’s a variation. Not quite Tolkien-esque, not quite D&D, not horror fantasy, it’s somewhere different from all those. It’ll stand out, it’ll be different, it’s got elements to appeal to fans who like broad fantasy as well.

“You get amazing things resulting when you get an alignment between what the fans want, and what they might want, and what the teams want to build, and what passion is involved.”

Using the Force Wisely

Handling their own unique worlds is one thing, but BioWare also happens to be known for creating some games based around a little franchise called Star Wars. You would think that for two hugely creative and independent people, being surrounded by the constraints of a AAA license would be maddening; it was, in fact, a chance to try something different.

“I think we’re really happy we’re able to [work with Star Wars],” Zeschuk, who is currently managing the team working on The Old Republic, exlained. “It’s an incredible experience, and I think ‘honoured’ is probably the best [word]. I think if you look [at BioWare] we were also very, very specific with what we work in terms of licenses and properties … if the team loves it, and we love it it’s got a great chance we’ll do it justice.”

“Another way to answer it,” Muzyka continued, “Is that the difference between a new IP and a license is just … creating an impression on fans.

“Star Wars has 30+ years of venerable tradition and tons of movies and games and books and all kinds of extensions. We have to develop really thoughtfully with care and attention and space to make sure it feels right … that it’s the right adaptation for our fans who may be coming to it fresh, they may be coming to it after seeing the movies or after playing tons of games or after doing everything – they’d be really core fans of the IP.

“And they’re all our fans now too, so we have to make sure we exceed their expectations, so that’s our goal.”

“I think it’s funny to admit that sometimes you hear people talking about exploiting properties,” Zeschuk said, jumping in. “I just wanna wince when they say, ‘We’re gonna exploit this to the maximum so let’s go destroy it.’”

“We don’t say that,” Muzyka added.

Where Next for BioWare?

As mild masters of the genre, Muzyka and Zeschuk are optimistic about RPGs of the future. Between their titles and others, such as Diablo and Fallout, the RPG made something of a comeback in the late Nineties and has gone from strength to strength since. It’s a trend they see continuing, especially with regards to the integration of RPG elements into titles of other genres.

“The vision for us is a broadening of the genre,” Muzyka said. “We see a lot of other genres incorporating features of RPGs and in turn RPGs are incorporating features of other genres. There are more action elements, there’s different ways to tell a story, there’s different ways to have characters interact for adventure games, action games, shooters, and that’s exciting to us.

“It’s actually making a lot of other games more engaging in the same way we could make RPGs more engaging and successful … by incorporating features that are popular in different genres. But we want to bring our core fans along with us on that journey too, so it’s not always easy to get a balance that does both, but we’re striving to do that.”

Narrative is another aspect of games the Doctors see hopefully advancing and maturing as well, something they’ve been behind since BioWare’s inception. That said, they’re not afraid to admit that they’ve been learning about storytelling as they’ve worked on game after game.

“[Narrative is] conveyed in a more subtle way now so there’s less need to have weighty dialogue lines that are just pure text and there’s more ability to convey things more subtly,” Muzyka said.

Improving narrative in Bioware titles was a constant learning process, especially during game development. The first Mass Effect saw chunks of lines cut where facial animations could be used instead of obvious lines a la Jade Empire, and technology is ever-improving.

“The technology gives us a lot of tools,” Zeschuk said. “It’s really funny, going back not that long [ago] looking at Jade Empire again. We started doing facial emotion and a little bit of acting, and it’s hilarious.” He dramatically frowned and pointed his finger at nobody in particular. “It’s like, ‘I’M VERY ANGRY WITH YOU!,’” he laughed, “but at the time it was like, state of the art, and now we’re looking at it like … oh my God! But it’s not long ago.”

Between their own natural learning curves and improvements in graphics and system performance, there have been a number of clear markers of evolution in BioWare titles, and this is something both Muzyka and Zeschuk hopefully see continuing. That said, they know they’re not immune to criticism and getting things wrong, and it’s something they’re clear about whenever they mention their working processes.

“There’s been clear steps towards everything over the years, and we’ve been going two decades now but … but there was never an endpoint,” Muzyka said. “It was more just directional: make each game better than the last, always try to innovate. Quality was a core value for our employees, for our fans, for our investors … make each thing better than the prior ones.

“We innovate sometimes in new directions that work really well and other times maybe not as well but we’re always open to the feedback and I think that’s the key: be humble and open and truthful with yourself in what things are working. [You have to] recognise that you’re only as good as your next game.”

Zeschuk echoed the sentiment at end of the interview: “You’re only as good as your next game.”