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Mass Effect 3's Creative Challenges

March 2, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Here's something for you: Spaceships, space marines, guns that shoot lasers, aliens, aliens with laser guns, aliens with sinister universe-crushing ambition, foreign worlds, ugly space aliens, sexy space aliens, sexy space marines with valiant universe-saving ambition, and, finally, hyper-light speed travel.

Plenty of sci-fi properties have those elements, but not all of them have been able to captivate and engage an audience in the same way BioWare's Mass Effect role-playing games have. Mass Effect 3, due next week for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, looks to expand on the critical and commercial success of the first two entries.

It's BioWare's careful attention to storytelling, character development, and setting integrity that has propelled the series to the upper echelon of sci-fi video games. And although the Mass Effect series does incorporate many standard sci-fi elements, BioWare manages to create relationships and meaning for each of those ingredients, whether it's protagonist Commander Shepard's ugly and agitated alien crew member, or the spacecraft itself.

Casey Hudson, based at BioWare's headquarters in Edmonton, has been at the helm since the beginning of the franchise, which debuted in 2007. BioWare is known for incorporating feedback from a wide variety of outside sources in order to improve the Mass Effect games, and squeeze out another Metacritic point or two.

But as each game in the franchise closes in on the 100 percent mark, the team has found it needs to rely on its talent and instinct to give fans something they had no idea they wanted.

So let's get caught up with Mass Effect 3. Did the development of the game begin right after Mass Effect 2, or was Mass Effect 3 already in development to some degree?

Casey Hudson: Development really began as soon as we finished Mass Effect 2, which for us was still a couple months before Mass Effect 2 even came out. So we finished it and then it went off to manufacturing for a month or two, and in that time we were already kind of planning for Mass Effect 3. But [Mass Effect 3 development] didn't really start until we started getting feedback on Mass Effect 2 once it actually shipped, and then we could start integrating the feedback that we were getting.

As Mass Effect 2 was better reviewed than the first one, did feedback still play quite a large role in key choices in the making of Mass Effect 3?

CH: Yeah, absolutely. We think it's really important to listen to feedback. When we think something is a good idea and then we put it in the game and then millions of people play it, that's when you really find out about how people play your games or how they receive your ideas. And you get kind of a different take on how you're used to doing things, so we definitely want to incorporate feedback.

And the bar's always being raised, so we do need to constantly improve what we're doing. The best place to start is sort of an accommodation between our own goal for what we think we can be doing better, combined with the feedback that we get from players around the world, who are very forthcoming about what they love about the experience, what they want to preserve and what they want to see improved.

Can you be a little bit more specific about the process that BioWare goes through with the feedback?

CH: Yeah, we did something similar with Mass Effect 2 as we did with 3. But we ended up taking kind of a different format because Mass Effect 2 was so widely reviewed, so well-received. Mass Effect 1 was well-received as well -- it's a 91 Metacritic game -- but it was the kind of game that I think had a reputation of being a flawed masterpiece.

So with every bit of incredible acclaim that it would get, it also came with caveats about very specific things that people wanted to improve. And Mass Effect 2 was a little bit different, because there were so many positives about it. We had to take a different approach and design a different format that was meant to really, really align the positives that we wanted to preserve, and then really prioritize the few things that we wanted to change and improve.

It became more about [interpreting] qualitative things in the feedback, instead of [examining] a long list of things we had to improve. We then would fine-tune things. So it became a process of fine-tuning versus overhaul, which is kind of a different approach than we had to do for going from Mass Effect 1 to 2.


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Comments


John McMahon
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I surely hope that future ME games (from BioWare or not) do not try to canonize the trilogy and instead do what BioWare did for KOTOR have it set very far before or after the events so that the actions of this trilogy doesn't have to be worked around.

I am excited about the multiplayer, but a Horde Mode? Really? How can my character progress in the story if they have to die at the end of each game? At least for the lower level characters as they will not stand a chance of reaching pass wave 10.

I was really hoping for missions like taking on an installation or being about of a full-scale battlefield.

A Horde Mode? Didn't BioWare already do that for Mass Effect 1 and got burned for it?

I also hope my Shepard doesn't get reset like what occurred from ME to ME2. How does science revive someone that has no protection against falling into a planet?

Why not just have Shepard get sucked out into an empty void of space? That would have been better. And don't get me started on the whole Sol Survivor works for Cerberus thing.

I just want my stories to make sense...is that so hard? I love the studio, but I do get a headache thinking about this stuff and then I wind up not playing the games for about a year and a half later.

Ramon Carroll
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I was highly skeptical of the multplayer mode when it was announced. After playing the multiplayer demo, I ordered the game.

James Cooley
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Did "fans" ask for a requirement for Origin, an MMO mode that may impact the game outcomes, or Day One DLC that adds what most of us would consider an essential companion option? Nope.

Jose Resines
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It's EA. They don't give a shit about what fans ask or want. That doesn't make them stop saying that they do what they do because fans asked them to.

And yeah, I'm not buying this one. Sad to see that 5 years ago Origin meant great memories and know it means a poor copy of Steam that looks where it shouldn't in your HD and basically means that I won't buy any game that requires it.

Colm McAndrews
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it's a sad thing that Mass Effect is a succesful game for its storytelling and general writing. Because ME has nothing remotely remarkable or interesting about the gameplay itself. As we know it's a hybrid shoot/character dev., and weak in both aspects, by the way. If a game sells for aspects that come from cinema, well, it harms videogaming because the essence of it is sheer interaction. And until proven clearly and evidently otherwise, the gameplay is not designed in a way that lets you fully interact with the story. If it were so, writing would help videogaming.

Mass Effect reminds us how the actual playing of a videogame tends to be way less important than feeling for the characters in a cinema way and it's right to do that because success will come anyway... Mass Effect shows how gameplay is in grave crisis, if not terribly ill. We should mourn ME success, not be happy. Which reminds me of Dragon Age 2 writer's declaration, of hating to play the actual game , how it interrupted her fruition of beautiful story-telling, dialogues and stuff.

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Dan Felder
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It's always good to be reminded that a game being loved because it takes its gamers into an incredible story with fascinating characters is a problem.Thanks Colm for reminding us all that making a game that shows just how far great writing can take a game and how games can feel deep and meaningful - not just cheep thrills with deep voices shouting 'double-kill' - is harmful to the industry.

Remember developers, if you want to create a meaningful narrative experience beyond a simple smooth buttonmasher, this isn't the industry for you. It might be a commercial success, fans may love your game, you may set a new standard for science fiction and you may move your audience as art does... But this is all bad for the industry.

I know this may seem hard to believe, considering the incredible size and diversity of the game industry. It may seem odd to think that an industry so large and diverse has no room for stories, but it doesn't.

After all, Colm got three thumbs up. And that's enough to prove anyone's point.

Colm McAndrews
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mh. no. see first of all you said it yourself. "writing takes the game". Hello, it should be the game that takes writing some place, dammit, it's GAME's domain, where is writing "taking the poor girl", how does it dare do stuff at her home? IF you say that writing "takes" or even "drags" something boring and stale as "a game", as you called it with a faint trace of disrespect, if i may jokingly lecture you, you, yourself are declaring that games are dying if hollywood doesn't help em.

Second of all, c'mon, if you really think that there's only buttonmashing without cinematic writing, you have a very very low conception of the beauty of interaction, the depth of challenge, the wonder of facing obstacles and choices, of solving problems. That might be cause you're not a fan of puzzle adventure games of old, i suppose?

If there's good interaction, and only then, there can be good narrative, because the way you interact will affect story writing, and create something new.For videogaming to be healthy, it has to transform classic writing. If writing, like in Mass Effect, remains completely detached from interactivity(namely and simply said: the good parts of Mass Effect occur RIGHT when the player isn't playing), then games are declaring that interaction itself is a weak and old thing, it needs help from other media to survive. It's like a poor nation that needs to be governed by another nation. That nation will soon die. Instead a strong nation while still in need of communication with others, is able to assimilate "invasions".

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Colm McAndrews
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oh you gotta be joking, with these phrases void of argumentations, with this empty trolling.

It's me the one who's pushing for evolution, and mass effect is preventing it.

It's always ugly to say this but before you post such sententious judgements, you should try to understand people. :)

Brandon Van Every
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I don't understand Colm's complaint. I just played the demo of ME3. I do not consider the storytelling to be any kind of pinnacle or great success. The pace and cinematics are good, I'll grant them that, but the dialogue is only mid-grade, neither terrible nor memorable. It reminds me of a lot of basically competent Hollywood entertainment products that may make some money at the box office, but have nothing special about them and will be forgotten within a year. Now ME3 may be remembered longer for its "great" story simply because there are relatively few game products trying to deliver the cinematics, compared to say the legions of films that hit the retail shelves every year. But really the game industry is pretty far behind the film industry as to how to tell stories compellingly. So I don't see why Colm is bent out of shape about ME3 being regarded as "the best" or some new model of how games should be, because some of us simply don't think it is anyways.

Furthermore as far as interaction goes, ME3 is on rails. None of my dialogue choices actually mattered as far as I could tell; it was just flavor text. If there is actually any consequence to player dialogue choices, the game demo does a poor job of letting me know what those are. I believe there simply aren't any, in any tactically or strategically meaningful sense for completing the game. Cynically, I believe the player is given a chance to "do" something in the middle of a cutscene, so that the player won't object to custcenes being quite so long and painful to sit through. Except that I noticed I didn't really do anything, and that the length of such cutscenes could not be justified in better quality filmmaking circles. There's more to filmmaking than mere competent delivery of well-worn genre tropes. One needs to do something unusual that will stick in the audience's mind.

Dennis Groenewoud
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Nice article, always love to hear more about one of my favorite franchises out there

Jesse Tucker
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Mass Effect 2 in particular was one of the few games I've played where I was able to truly extend my personality into the main character. The guys at Bioware are incredibly talented at interactive storytelling, and I'm looking forward to their next game.

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Dan Felder
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“mh. no. see first of all you said it yourself. "writing takes the game". Hello, it should be the game that takes writing some place, dammit, it's GAME's domain, where is writing "taking the poor girl", how does it dare do stuff at her home? IF you say that writing "takes" or even "drags" something boring and stale as "a game", as you called it with a faint trace of disrespect, if i may jokingly lecture you, you, yourself are declaring that games are dying if hollywood doesn't help em."

You sound just like those people who declared that talking pictures would be the end of hollywood and that they were bad for the artform in general. Also, remind me at what meeting gameplay called 'dibs' on the game industry. Personally, one might think that in that the largest entertainment industry on the planet - which is rocketing up even further every day - there'd be room for varying consumer tastes... Almost like in hollywood there's room for different genres of movies. The incredible success of highly different titles would seem to support this.

"yourself are declaring that games are dying if hollywood doesn't help em."

No. That's ridiculous. The medium of interactive media that spans over dozens of hours is completely different than the medium of a static movie. Additionally, you seem to have this incredibly narrow view of the world. In your vision, the game industry called 'dibs' on gameplay and writing belongs to Hollywood. You must realize how ridiculous this is when written plainly.

"If there's good interaction, and only then, there can be good narrative, because the way you interact will affect story writing, and create something new."

No. Laughably wrong. Secret of Monkey Island has a great narrative, despite gameplay so unwieldy that one of the designers had trouble getting through the special edition years later. Gameplay can serve narrative and narrative can serve gameplay - but one is NOT required for the other. These are just textbook definitions and the industry is full of examples.

"If writing, like in Mass Effect, remains completely detached from interactivity(namely and simply said: the good parts of Mass Effect occur RIGHT when the player isn't playing), then games are declaring that interaction itself is a weak and old thing, it needs help from other media to survive. "

Setting your narrow definitions of interactivity (Bertolt Brecht would be rolling in his grave), this is still complete BS. A game succeeding with compelling narrative and environments despite poor gameplay doesn't declare that interaction is a weak thing anymore than a movie succeeding without a good soundtrack declares the MUSIC is a weak and old thing. Especially when we have so frickin' many examples of games that are great fun without a classic narrative in sight!

"Instead a strong nation while still in need of communication with others, is able to assimilate "invasions""

Again, you reveal this bizarre 'turf-war' mentality in which games are somehow defending their territory from the evil invasion of narrative. Dan Eisenhower is completely justified in calling you close-minded. Your language is the same as every person in history who resisted change.

Colm, what is it you're afraid of? You have this strange ideological objection to stories being the driving force of SOME games, claiming it's dangerous for the industry. HOW? Games clearly can succeed without classic narrative, many do. A game's success with narrative doesn't invalidate successes without it. Bioware is *expanding* the market, not invading it. And it's not like their gameplay is even bad in most of their games. Besides, games have been successful without good gameplay for decades (Secret of Monkey Island is a loved classic from 1990, not to mention the phenomenon of Myst) and the sky still hasn't fallen.

"It's me the one who's pushing for evolution, and mass effect is preventing it."

No. You're a pure guardian of gridlock, a sentinel of the status quo. You're obsessed with a turf-war mentality that lives in fear of anything different than what you're used to. You have no concept of an industry as large and diverse of the game industry having 'different kinds of games for different preferences in people'. This is the foundation of a free market economy, but you seem absolutely unable to grasp it.

Hopefully you'll open your mind some day. Until then, good luck - and I hope you make a fun game based on purely gameplay. I love Super Smash Bros. nearly as much as I love Mass Effect - and I'm always looking for another game I love, no matter what the genre. If you make a great game, I'll happily buy it - no matter what elements it uses.

Enjoy your day,

Dan Felder

Dan Felder
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*Finally, I can edit. Accidental double-post*

Dan Felder
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Note: Something went wrong in the commenting, it wouldn't let me reply or edit/delete at first... And the submit comment button didn't seem to do anything, and now it still won't let me delete the duplicate post. Would a moderator or something mind taking down the duplicate post? And this one too when that's happened?


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