The lights are on
In the missions of Mass Effect 3 that I played, I noticed lots of ships flying overhead and space battles going on around you. The whole space battle element has never been a huge part of Mass Effect before. It almost felt very Star Wars-esque. Is that something you wanted to blow out for this one, bringing home that sci-fi and really pointing to the actual spaceships in the war?
We did that toward the end of Mass Effect 1. It kind of has to do with the scale of the conflict. Shepard by himself is almost more of a Star Trek story, where you’ve got your ship, and no one outside of the ship really knows that there’s a problem. You’re trying to solve this, but it’s really just you. In the second one, you’re almost more isolated. The threat is larger, and there’s more people involved, and they’re abducting humans, so it’s a much bigger thing, but it’s still kind of secret. You’re working with a secret group, so again there’s not a lot of other people fighting battles.
That’s what’s different with Mass Effect 3. It’s now an open war across the galaxy. We try to show that to give you the scale of the war. It’s also the thing that finally made sense with why we’d have multiplayer and why it’s interesting to be someone else other than Shepard. As Shepard, you go to these places where there’s ships overhead and troops coming through. On the multiplayer side, you get to be one of those special ops that’s constantly fighting to hold these locations around the galaxy. The more you do that, the easier it’s going to be for Shepard. The less of that you do, the less help you’re getting essentially.
Do you view the multiplayer as something where – if somebody goes into the game and is just focused on the single-player experience and isn’t interested in the multiplayer – is that going to negatively impact, for example, their ending?
It’s more about an option. Some people will want to get to the end as fast as possible, but they’ll play multiplayer whenever, indefinitely. That’s one way to play it – to play the single-player story, go straight to the end, and not do any of the character stuff or side plots, but you play a little multiplayer now and then. Alternately, if you’re really focused on the single-player, you can do a more completionist playthrough and end up with the same results.
When you start Mass Effect 3, you have to choose between three new game modes – action, roleplaying, and story. How early into development did you come up with the idea of splitting it up into the different types of players who are likely to be checking this game out?
That’s actually another thing that we wanted to do in previous games. It’s simpler than it seems. It looks like we’ve done something really crazy, but all it’s doing is – first of all, we realized that it’s not ideal that when someone starts the game, they don’t know that much about it and we dump a huge options screen on them. Automatic squad powers and this and that – you’re asking them to make too many decisions about stuff they haven’t even played yet. That wasn’t ideal. We also have a lot of feedback from people who say, "Your games look really cool, and I love the idea of the story and the characters. It looks awesome when I watch it on YouTube, but I’m just not that coordinated with a shooter. I would play it if I could figure out how to do combat." So we always thought we should have a mode where combat isn’t going to kill you. You still go around and fight, but you’re playing it for the story experience. We thought we should be able to do that relatively easy, but there’s still work involved in that.
You have to make a game with a certain design before you realize that there are different player types. One of the surprising pieces of feedback was for some players, it’s not that they don’t like the story. They love story. In fact, the story is so important to them that they feel the story choices are intimidating. They’re worried that they’re going to make a wrong decision. We never build our games that way, but they find it stressful that they have to make all these decisions. They want to see what happens, but they want to see what they would perceive as the best outcome.
So all these settings do is that they set some of the options on the option screen before you’ve played it and know what those options mean. Once you get in and start playing, you can change things. The story mode is actually just a difficulty setting. The action mode is actually just about choosing "automatic dialogue."
So if you’re playing in story mode, you actually don’t die at all?
It’s not that you don’t die at all.
It’s just really difficult to lose?
Yeah, it’s easy enough that combat happens a lot faster. You get through it faster. You can mow through enemies. Generally, if you’re trying, you’re not going to die.
For the action mode, do you have it set up so that it’s choosing specifically a paragon or a renegade path, or is it a mix of the two?
It’s a mix. It’s not canon. We have a rule in our franchise that there is no canon. You as a player decide what your story is. But we choose a default path that gives you access to a lot of cool things. It’s like how a character like Jack Bauer has to make some decisions where he feels empathy in one moment or feels particularly brutal in another moment. We weave you through a default path that switches between those.
You’ve said very clearly that this is the end of this story arc and the end of Shepard’s story. Obviously Mass Effect as a franchise is popular at this point and very likely to continue from here. Would your expectation be more games with new player-created characters or side stories with established characters in the universe? Where do you envision the franchise moving from here?
On the one hand, it’s too early to say in the sense that we’ve got to finish Mass Effect 3, but it’s also more online than ever before. We’ve got multiplayer stuff, we’ve got DLC, we’ve got the larger galaxy at war stuff. We’ll be supporting that. We’ve got some really awesome DLC stuff that we’re doing. Our heads are still in that space.
One of the reasons that I wanted to do Mass Effect as a trilogy is that it seemed to make sense if we’ve been at this for however many years – it will have been eight years – at the end of that, people will want some kind of reimagination of what the experience will be for new systems and new tastes. To some degree, we need to see how people respond to Mass Effect 3 and what they’re hoping to see in the future.
Sort of the idea that if Mass Effect 2 and 3 were iterations on the formula, you could envision a future Mass Effect game being more greatly different or changed in some way?
There’s certainly a lot of things we could do with it. Even with our DLC, we look at what people are talking about, what people do fan art of, what people say they wish they could do. It gives us ideas about what some of the opportunities are that people would respond to. There’s all kinds of possibilities, whether it’s new control stuff that’s out now and will be out, new business models for how people make and distribute games, games that stream – there’s all kinds of new stuff that we’d want to take into account when we build a game for several years from now from the ground up to capture all that stuff.
With Mass Effect 2, you had a lot of well-done downloadable content that really tied in to the story and helped build toward the next game. With Mass Effect 3 being an end of the story arc, is your approach to DLC more multiplayer focused or more side stories? How do you see it fitting into the game?
There’s some multiplayer stuff, but we’re also planning some DLC on the single-player side, because it did really good in Mass Effect 2. There’s a reason why we can add stories to what’s there. The adventure-type DLC will happen in the time frame of Mass Effect 3, within your Mass Effect 3 storyline. It’s similar to how with Mass Effect 2, if you had a saved game from anywhere inside the game, you could go on to the DLC. We have a pretty neat concept for how it’s going to work.
You just mentioned that you’ve been working on the Mass Effect series for eight years, which is crazy.
Can you even imagine doing an undertaking this epic or insane again? Is that what you want to do next? Or would your heart be more set on, "Hey, I’ve spent eight years working on one franchise. Now let’s do a one-off game or something"?
Once we’ve had some time to reflect and rest, I think we’ll be up for making something bigger and better. The amazing thing is that we set out with pretty ambitious goals to make a trilogy of games and to use this character feature where you move all your decisions across and to launch a science fiction universe that millions of people enjoy and look forward to. All of those things are pretty ambitious goal, and I think we’re going to get there. We’re just really happy about that. I think it will all be worth it in the end.