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gdc 2010

Consulting The Doctors, Part I

by Matt Bertz on Mar 12, 2010 at 09:05 PM

BioWare heads Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk discuss the trials, tribulations, and successes born from their transition from independent developer to Electronic Arts employees in our first of three conversations with the illustrious developers.

It's been about three years since your acquisition by Electronic Arts. How have your job responsibilities evolved since BioWare was incorporated?

Ray: We have more studios now so there's about 800 folks in our group. And there's a couple new studios added – there's BioWare Montreal, and BioWare Mythic has been added to the group as well. They are all doing different things along with BioWare Edmonton and BioWare Austin, but they're all fulfilling the same vision ultimately of create, deliver and evolve the most emotionally engaging game experiences in the world – that's our group vision – and they are all doing different kinds of games that fulfill that. Lots of different products are in development at the the different studios. In some ways that's different; in some ways being a part of a larger company is different, because now we're interacting with the marketing, the sales orgs, the central groups, the executives, and taking part in some executive-level meetings as well as a part of a larger company. There's also more of a focus on the group strategy, but also at the end of the day we're just playing the games, giving feedback to the teams, helping them refine what they are building at the start of the process. We're playing a lot of the game along with a whole bunch of other people in the end and entering the bugs and giving high level feedback. We just have more games to play now I guess.

Do you guys feel a little more removed from the creative process than you were before?

Greg: Not necessarily. I think it's different, I mean we're not making content anymore. It's been years and years since we've done that anyways. So we started there and moved producing the projects and working very closely with other members of the team and we did eventually get to this executive producer job for a number of years where the teams did their stuff and we at a certain level would direct it. But I think what's happened now which is great is that the executive producing and product production jobs are now a part of the team – guys like Casey [Hudson] and Mark [Darrah] from Dragon Age – so we've kinda popped back up to a higher level. What we do now, as Ray said, we play the games a lot. We sit down, they start a project, and we all agree on the goals, and then we go off and kind of check in, play it, provide feedback. It's funny, the creative process for us it's in some ways creative on the company, creative on the way we make games, creative on how teams work, and portfolios.

So it's more broad strokes.

Greg: Yeah.

Ray: Churning out portfolios, kind of covering the map with the different games you want to make, trying to understand what our consumers want to buy. We're seeing how it all fits together at a pretty high level, and at the end of the day you're still playing the games, too. We play our games, we finish them before we ship them, and try and understand the player experience so we can talk about it and give feedback on it. But at the end of the day we're a part of a much larger team, and that's really been the case for the last 10 years arguably, and certainly the last five to an increasingly greater degree as well. And that was well before EA.

At your GDC panel the other day, you mentioned BioWare's evolving business model. Can you expound upon the thought process as to why you're moving the direction you are?

Ray: When we launch a game, it's a platform for further, continuous expansion and delivery of a service. You can monetize it a variety of ways. Whatever the fans want, how they want to play it, how they want to consume it – paid DLC, or episodic delivery, or micro transactions, or subscriptions. They are all valid and they can even work together sometimes. But we see our games as a franchise with a service orientation long term and we're investing in that. So it's got to be really high value, really high quality, and then if the fans buy it, we can make more and use telemetry and feedback to help guide what we make in the future. You have a vision for it, but you're also flexibly adjusting your plan based on what the fans say. I guess if you want to sum it up in one word it's a service orientation. That's really what we're building toward now with all of our games across all of the studios.

Greg: What I think is interesting is that we've that perspective for a while now and that goes all the way back to the Neverwinter games with the modules and user-created content tools. Now it's becoming even more of a bigger focus for us in that the industry's in a sense almost caught up and the ways to release content have advanced to the point were, with the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live it's very easy to get stuff out and put it in front of fans to make them aware of it. So it's great for us because we already are oriented in that way so there's really not any significant transition. A traditional game developer would focus on, you know, throw it in a box and you're done. This mentality that we have now of the service business and that platform is great.

When you guys were acquired by EA, the company was in a very different financial environment. Since then we've seen the stock struggle, the layoffs, and people questioning the leadership. Do you still feel like BioWare is sort of compartmentalized and protected from these company sea changes?

Ray: One of our core values is entrepreneurship, and at the end of the day we have to be successful as a business in an ongoing, sustainable way. We also think about the quality of our products for our consumers and fans, and the quality of the workplace for our employees. The employees, customers, and investors – those are three core stakeholders we always have had, with the knowledge that we have to satisfy all three. This is no different as a part of EA. We're just now a pat of a public company so it's been illuminating to me in the three years we've been a part of this to really understand what it's like to be a publisher. We are a publisher now – the development division of a publisher but in the business unit I manage there's marketing, there's sales integration, there's development – there are all kinds of interesting things that are intersecting in the company and you really understand the economics of the publisher. A lot of things we didn't collectively understand very well as an independent developer, now we totally get them because we see it. We're managed on a profit and loss, we have an annual budget and it goes out next year and the year beyond. We have a five and ten year plan for the development division as well, but the budgeting is kind of in a three year cycle. We have to manage within that. Really, it's no different than what we had as an independent developer. In that sense it's not different, but it's also different in the sense that you're a part of the larger collective, and the share price is driven by our efforts but also the efforts of all of our peers, the guy that DICE, in LA, and Redwood Shores, and Tiburon and all the other great studios that are at EA.

That's the relationship I was wondering about, because you almost always formerly seemed in control of your own destiny, and now if the other side of the ship starts sinking, that's your ship too.

Ray: We've always been partnered with publishers, and frankly we've run into challenges at times with some of those partners. You know, Interplay is not really in the same form as it was when we were partnered with them, and Atari's gone through some transitions and Infogrames into Atari as well. We're partnered with LucasArts still, and they're still doing really good, and we're very happy to work with them on Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Greg: We still are actually quite in control of our own destiny. That's the interesting thing about this. There's no doubt there tends to kind of be this kind of, maybe a sense of misconception that EA tells us to do things and we do it at times, but that's just not the case. The onus is on us to be the best place for EA to invest its dollars in the sense that if the parent company is the investor, where am I going to get my best return? So us and everyone else is striving for the same thing – to be the place that's profitable, that's making great games that has a foot in the present doing something really good but also in the future. So we really do feel like we are in control of our own destiny. That's one of the really interesting things about being a part of EA. It's probably a little bit different than how other places work within the business. Our SKU plan is our SKU plan; we're the ones who decide what we're going to publish and when. We're the ones that decide how we're going to take this pot of money and make the best possible result with it. And that's an exciting privilege. We don't have someone pass us a sheet that says deliver these games on these times with these criteria. We drive all that.

Ray: The key to all of it is we have to be successful and that's no different than from being an independent. We have a budget that we have to operate within and we have a revenue goal and a profit goal. It's up to us to decide how that's allocated. 

Greg: It's like a really big puzzle game, and we're the ones playing it. I think the other thing that's really been interesting for us too is that, going back to Ray's comment about being a publisher, that's probably one of the biggest transitions mentally we had to make when joining EA because historically we always had a publisher in the background. We drove a lot of those decisions even though we worked with the publishing groups, but if there's anything kind of extra or something fell through the cracks they were kind of there to catch. Sometimes they caught it and sometimes they didn't catch it, but there was always someone there. The big transition for us was that's us now. Suddenly, there's no safety net.

Ray: It's not without its challenges, but there are opportunities as well, and that's ultimately why we joined EA. It wasn't because we were looking to exit or cash out, but because we saw there was opportunities and this accelerated us toward where we wanted to go. First we were invested in by Elevation Partners in BioWare Pandemic, the company we were in before EA, and this actually took us further along the road map that we wanted to get to as a company. We pursued the investment with Elevation because we wanted to accelerate building an MMO in our Austin studio, we wanted to do more digital distribution, we wanted to do more self-funding,we wanted to drive toward publishing and so on and so forth. Being a part of EA allows us to do a lot of those things and be a part of a large company with a lot of stability and a lot of cash in the bank. There have been challenges in the last year as well, but a lot of really positive things too. We feel very supported. In the beginning you asked if we were safe from all the layoffs and so forth, and in the end, are you ever? The only way to really be safe is to continually deliver a great performance critically and commercially. We're only as good as our next game, and that's always true.

Click here to read part two of our chat with the BioWare heads, where we discuss their view of where story stands in the gaming industry and what games they've recently played.