Casey Hudson On Finishing Mass Effect 3, DLC Plans
Last month, I journeyed north to Canada to take an early look at three lengthy missions from BioWare’s upcoming epic sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 3. You can read an in-depth report on my experience with the game in the February 2012 issue of Game Informer, but while I was there I also had a chance to sit down with BioWare executive producer Casey Hudson. We discussed the monumental task of finishing such a complex, interconnected series, new game mode options being introduced in Mass Effect 3, and what he sees in BioWare’s future.
Game Informer: What struck me immediately with the stuff I just played in Mass Effect 3 – I’ve actually been replaying Mass Effect 2 on insanity difficulty the last couple of weeks, so it’s very fresh in my mind what the gameplay and missions are like in that. The missions I played in Mass Effect 3 have a little more variety. Things get switched up more. In Mass Effect 2, the missions get into this very recognizable cycle. It’s a cycle I enjoyed, but it was very much, "talk to somebody, go down a hallway, enter a room with some cover, fight some guys, and then repeat." In 3, it seems like you’re mixing things up a lot.
Casey Hudson: It starts with the high level of Mass Effect 2 being a kind of dirty dozen story, so it’s kind of a collection story. That applied a certain structure to the way Mass Effect 2 worked. In Mass Effect 3, it’s more of a narrative weaving through a war story. It’s about campaigns and twists and turns versus knowing where you’re going and getting ready for it in Mass Effect 2.
But then also, once you’re inside the actual gameplay, we wanted to be able to break up the idea of coming into an area and knowing that it’s an area made for combat or an area made for talking or whatever. Part of the idea of that was to give Shepard more things he can do to explore the environment. You’re going to climb up ladders and fall down things and leap across gaps. Shepard reacts to all kinds of things in the environment that makes these little mini-cutscenes that you’re still in control of. Once we added all those tools to the toolbox, we challenged the designers to figure out ways to make the missions and the story unpredictable.
One of the things we wanted to address, for example, was in Mass Effect 2 often you would see where you’re going down at the end of the hallway and know, that’s settled, that’s where I’m going. In Mass Effect 3, we constantly try to change your perception of what you need to do. You’ll be at point A, and you’ll look over at point B and think that’s where you have to go, but halfway there something changes – there’s a redirect, or people come in from a different direction, or you fall through to a lower level.
Or a Reaper cuts through with a laser. [laugh]
That’s right. So now you have a different objective. Things change, and the characters react to that.
You mentioned that mission structure of Mass Effect 2 – you’re collecting these crew members by going around and recruiting. Does Mass Effect 3 have an identifiable mission structure like that? The feeling that I started getting from the bit of the story that I got to play was that you’ll be recruiting the different races in this one and getting them to come help you, but does it play out in that identifiable way?
No, it’s different, because it’s unclear to Shepard and the player what you have to do to win the war against the Reapers. Part of what you’re trying to do is to explore the story and the galaxy and the experience so that you can understand what has to be done. Some missions start to shed light on what you need to do. As things progress in the high-level storyline, we’re constantly trying to do redirects. You think you win the war by doing one thing, and then you realize it’s something else.
There is a progression mechanic to the story, however, which is that it is in a way almost a World War II story. Since everyone is involved, you want the war to go well so that you have high morale and you have people that are going to fight. You want to conquer territories so that you have lots of assets at your disposal. That’s part of what you’re doing as Commander Shepard is the war to obtain all these assets. Some of those come through in the high-level story – large campaigns that involve entire civilizations. What you do in those missions to resolve those storylines will give you some really big assets, like the Quarian fleet, massive armies, and stuff like that.
Then there are other things, going all the way down to individual characters that you’ll talk to. That’s where we can fill the entire experience with very granular stuff that contributes in some way. It’s kind of a more sophisticated version of the loyalty system in Mass Effect 2, where instead of figuring out if each character you have is loyal, now you’re still building something, but you’re building something as big as an entire fleet of spacecraft or something as small as an individual you talk to on the Citadel and convince to join your army.
With the ending in Mass Effect 2, there were so many different variables and possibilities for the outcome and what could happen. As players reached the end, they started comparing notes and trying to figure out how it worked. A few months after it came out, we ran a chart in the magazine that showed the layout of how to get the different endings and how things happened. Is that same type of complexity built into the ending of Mass Effect 3?
Yeah, and I’d say much more so, because we have the ability to build the endings out in a way that we don’t have to worry about eventually tying them back together somewhere. This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.
It’s more like there are some really obvious things that are different and then lots and lots of smaller things, lots of things about who lives and who dies, civilizations that rose and fell, all the way down to individual characters. That becomes the state of where you left your galaxy. The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them. It would be interesting to see if somebody could put together a chart for that. Even with Mass Effect 2’s...
Yeah, I remember looking at the Mass Effect 2 chart and thinking that it still seems like there are so many variables that it’s difficult to set things up for trying to get a very specific outcome. I loved that about Mass Effect 2. In fact, every time I think of those tons of choices you’re building on from the previous two games – it seems to me that there’s never been anything this narratively complex in games previous. How do you balance that? How do you handle all of these different possibilities and choices from back to the first game?
It’s narratively complex, but the other part of what’s really neat about it is it’s not just a system. It’d be a lot easier to develop something like this if it were built more as a system, and you saw characters that technically did things and responded to different situations, but what’s really cool is when you see that a character remembers something that you did, and their feelings are hurt. It’s really high fidelity digital acting. All these things play out with extremely high production values for where we’re at in the game industry. That’s something that I think is really cool. That’s a lot of what we’re doing right now, just getting in as many of these last little magical moments for characters.
That’s exactly what I mean. I can’t think of a series where I’ve had this experience where one of the reasons I’m most excited to go into the third game is just to see these characters who I’ve been building a relationship with for so long and to see how that finally plays out.
And it’s amazing how passionate people are about these characters and how much they worry about whether they’ll get to see certain characters and get to spend enough time with them.
To me it kind of speaks to – there’s always this debate going on in the game industry about narrative versus focusing on just gameplay. Some people say it’s the gameplay that’s most important and narrative always comes second. Certainly gameplay in Mass Effect is great, but I think the whole arc of the series – assuming that everything plays out in Mass Effect 3 – is something you can point to as proof that narrative in games can be really meaningful and important. This is not an experience you could have had in any other medium, in any other way and felt this connected.
I think gameplay is certainly key, but the way I would look at it is that the reason you care about gameplay – whether it’s the inventory system or combat or exploration or whatever – the reason you care about it is the narrative. Arguably, you don’t need a great narrative. Great gameplay can still make for a fun experience. But what we see in Mass Effect and the way people respond to it is that – for example, when you’re modding weapons, you think differently when you’re giving that weapon to a squad member that is your love interest, that you just had a conversation with and you think she likes you. That makes giving her that weapon have a little bit of a different meaning versus putting it all on the stats and numbers.
Another thing that stuck out to me in what I’ve played of Mass Effect 3 so far is the tone. The Mass Effect series has always had a sort of darker, sci-fi, gritty feeling, but this game strikes me as not just dark but sad and very somber.
I guess one caveat is that the stuff that we show typically at this point is not the stuff that people remember our games for. It’s not what people will remember Mass Effect 3 for. We’ve got missions for people to play, but I think afterward what people will remember it for is the emotional experience and the fun that they had with exploring their own ship and walking around it and coming across conversations with unique characters – these little things that you get to do. There’s also the emotional journey of the story. Those are the things that I’m most excited for people to try out.
Yeah, when we got to the Citadel during my demo just now, we loaded up a different save. I was a little bit disappointed. I kind of just wanted to walk around the Citadel and talk to people and see what was going on there.
The Citadel is really big in this game. It’s bigger than it’s ever been, in terms of stuff to do. But yeah, it’s those moments where there’s fun and silly, neat stuff to explore. Once you get out into the missions, it returns to seeing the face of the galactic war. What we’re doing with Mass Effect 3 that’s a little bit different than what we’ve done before is exploring the idea of getting the player to understand and feel what Commander Shepard is experiencing versus just reacting to other characters.
We end up exploring some spaces that maybe have never been done before. Because interactive storytelling is still kind of new, there are neat things to try. One of the things we’re trying in Mass Effect 3 is the idea that we can let you feel something that is part of that character’s experience versus strictly getting you to react to things that you see and experience. We’re trying to tell a little bit of the story Shepard would feel and seeing if the player feels that as well. You saw that on the Earth mission, and you see it throughout the game. It’s insight into how Shepard feels. I think that’s going to be one of the things people remember.
One of the few criticisms that I saw thrown around for Mass Effect 2 – and I should note that I did not view this as a problem, but I know that some people did – was the lack of a distinct bad guy or a real face to the enemy the way you had in Mass Effect 1. The final boss fight in Mass Effect 2 kind of comes out of nowhere. Is that something that you’ll be changing in Mass Effect 3? Is there a more specific villain or is it still just kind of the general threat of the Reapers?
In the first one we had Saren. In the second one, we wanted to introduce some mystery into who’s doing what, and that was supposed to be the Illusive Man. In the third game, yeah, I think we’re introducing a clearer target for Shepard, a clearer foil.
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.