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A Meeting Of Minds: BioWare & Pandemic's Story So Far

March 29, 2006
 

Introduction

In November of 2005, major independent game developers Pandemic (Destroy All Humans!, Full Spectrum Warrior) and BioWare (Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: KOTOR) joined forces thanks to funding from controlling entity Elevation Partners, a group which claims ex-EA president John Riccitiello among its members.

Though the two developers are not merging, they share common revenue, and a common executive committee. It’s still early on in the process, so not a whole lot has been officially mentioned in the way of collaboration or crossover, but their position as a new superdeveloper is vitally interesting, none the less.

At last week's GDC Gamasutra had a chance to meet with Pandemic CEO Josh Resnick, and BioWare joint CEOs Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk (though the latter two were only present for a short time), about the futures of the respective companies, and the organization as a whole.


Pandemic's Josh Resnick


GS: So how’s the joint venture been going so far?

Josh Resnick: It’s going great! When we first entered this arrangement we never really baked into the deal that there would be all these synergies and connections and benefits of working together. Obviously we both have a robust different set of brands, but we’re finding that there’s really a lot of good crossover here.

We were just up at BioWare checking out their new slate of products, and it’s just incredible, and we were able to check out their games and give suggestions, and they were able to do the same for us. They also have a lot of best practices at BioWare that we’re able to bring over to Pandemic and vice versa. We’re actually having a big creative summit between both companies tomorrow. So there’s a lot of things that are coming together pretty nicely. So far so good!

GS: Have you been doing a lot of technology sharing yet?

JR: We’re starting to, actually. So there are some things BioWare has, like their character dialogue systems and things like that for their RPGs which we’re taking a look at, and they’re taking a look at some of our stuff too. Nothing’s been implemented yet though, because it’s very early, it’s only a few months after the announcement, but we’re seeing the potential of what’s going to be coming down the line, and it’s pretty neat.

GS: Have you considered anything like a dedicated shared tools team or anything?

JR: We’ve been discussing a lot of things, but that hasn’t been part of it. Because basically they have a very robust tools group over there, we have our own as well, and right now just getting eyeballs in each others technology, and how we do things has been so beneficial that we haven’t really talked about creating a joint team yet.

GS: Are you thinking that you’re going to both continue down your own respective paths of expertise?

JR: Like action for Pandemic and RPG for BioWare? The short answer is yes. BioWare’s going to continue to be known for great character and story-based games, and Pandemic is going to continue to focus on our open-world action games. But already, even before we came together, there was starting to be some bleeding over.

So we’re looking at bleeding over some more character development and story elements in our games, and they’ve always been looking at bringing more action elements into their games, so that kind of crossover was already started before we got together. But Pandemic, I can go on record as saying is not looking to move over into RPGs and BioWare isn’t looking to cross over into action.


Pandemic's Destroy All Humans!

GS: So what about being a superdeveloper made sense to you?

JR: I’m actually hoping that our coming together will at least open the door, or challenge other developers to start thinking along similar lines as well. The big thing that we did here is we capitalized the business. And by capitalizing the business, that has allowed us to have a much longer time horizon for our products.

We’re hoping it’s going to give us more creative control over our products, and less encumbrances for our original IPs we’re developing. And it’s allowed us to come to the table with our publishing partners truly as partners with them. And I think we’re going to be able to add a lot of value to those relationships where we can actually take on some of that development risk ourselves, it doesn’t all have to be on the publishing side. We can come to them and say “look, here’s all these different ways that we can structure a deal with you. Let’s pick a way that’s best for us and that’s a best fit for the product.”

It just gives us a lot more flexibility, a lot more stability, and a lot more freedom to do what’s right by the product. So I hope other developers take a look at this, and can find ways to start thinking this way as well.

GS: Yeah, I was actually going to ask if this would change your relationship with publishers, and in fact if you’d want to sever your relationship with publishers entirely.

JR: Oh god no! Our business model is very much based on having a robust relationship with our publishers. We want to be a pure-play developer, we want to focus on making great games – they have their own part to play in partnering with us. I think it means we can just talk about a lot more than before, and we have a lot more in our toolbox. Now instead of just the straight dev/pub relationship, there are a lot of other things we can talk about there.

GS: Are you going to do anything weird like have a wacky new name?

JR: Nothing like that. So far we’ve used the temporary name Pandemic/BioWare studios just because we needed to call it something while we think of what the name’s going to be. The Pandemic brand will still be Pandemic, same thing for BioWare. We are going to have a parent company umbrella name, but that’s not what we’re going to be putting in front of gamers. It’s all about Pandemic, it’s all about BioWare.

GS: So the people in that upper infrastructure will be kind of like a board of directors?

JR: Well actually we take the founders from both studios and we’ve layered in some senior executive support, for example John Riccitiello, John Richardson, and a few other key execs at our parent company level, and we have an executive committee. And it does what you’d imagine it would do. It talks about the slate for both companies, what investments to make, and things like that, and then we have a board of directors that many of these people are on also.

But our intent is not to layer on this whole new parent company thing, and change our culture. The reason why Elevation did this is to strengthen us. I mean first off, they bought into two very strong independent developers, and their goal is just to further strengthen us and further accelerate our growth and our plans for the future, but not to layer in bureaucracy, or anything else. And so far it’s been great.

GS: Have you noticed any of the staff being concerned about that happening?

JR: I anticipated them being more fearful of it than they actually were. So I was very afraid of that. We have a great thing going at Pandemic and at BioWare, and when you start thinking about bringing two companies together, even though we have very similar cultures and similar values, you worry about what it means. Andrew Goldman and I came from Activision, from a publisher environment, which is different from a developer environment, so it was definitely a worry of ours.

But John Riccitiello was very up front about saying “I want to build upon the great cultures you’ve created, I don’t want to take it apart, I don’t want to change it, I don’t want to turn you guys into something that you’re not.” And he’s certainly been true to his word, and we have to our employees as well, and that’s very important to us, because at the end of the day, our talent is where we get all these great ideas, and how we make great games.

GS: Is either company making a Revolution game right now?

JR: We’re enthralled with the platform just as much as we are with the 360 and PS3. Each of them have very different strengths that our games are going to play to. But we haven’t announced any commitments yet.

GS: Do you perceive difficulties with the Revolution, as far as making games multi-platform?

JR: Well the Revolution is a very different platform, and we’ve actually just seen some things behind closed doors that are just mind-blowing. Very very exciting. They’re doing something that’s very different and unique. I agree that it’s going to challenge the notion of just doing a port.

I don’t think it’s going to be as easy to take a product from one console to the Revolution, and so I think we are going to be looking to see how we can tailor our products to that platform. But we do that also with other platforms as well, it’s just that the Revolution may challenge us even more.

(BioWare CEOS walk in)


BioWare's Star Wars: KOTOR

GS: What are your plans for the new MMO studio, BioWare Austin?

Ray Muzyka: Well we haven’t announced any details for what IP is yet, but on the high level, what we’ve got is some massively multiplayer online veterans, Rick Vogel and Gordon Walton who have 15-20 years experience each in the massively multiplayer space, and we have James Ohlen, who’s the creative director for the studio in Edmonton, who’s gone down to be lead designer at BioWare Austin.

So what we’re trying to don on a high level is build a really polished, high quality massively multiplayer experience by fusing together the knowledge of these guys who have lots of experience in the massively multiplayer space, and some guys who have some RPG experience from BioWare Edmonton.

GS: Do you feel there’s room for much more in the MMO space? It keeps seeming like the market will get saturated in the future.

Greg Zeschuk: Well, an interesting point to make is that there are over 2,000 games released in a year. So there’s already thousands of games in the offline space that are competing successfully against each other. So in the massively multiplayer online space, yes they take a lot of time and they take a lot of attention, but depending on the type of player and the type of product you create, if you make something that people just have to see, they’ll take a look at it, and if they look at the game, they’re going to play it.

And also the space is growing, it’s probably the fastest-growing part of the business, so it’s broadening, there are more and more people that are into it, and we think we’re pretty well set up to compete there with our 3 million member community, and all the stuff that we do in the RPG space.

RM: We actually have about a 70% interest from people who play MMOs in our forums from surveys we’ve done, so we know there’s a lot of receptiveness in our communities.

GS: I looked at one of your surveys today, and it asked about people’s favorite drinks, and included orc blood.

RM: Well those are just for fun on the front of the webpage, we actually do more formal ones that we run, with 5,000 people at a time randomly picked from the forums. But I think the biggest thing we’re trying to do is just create a really high quality culture and experience, and I think that’s the key differentiator. We’re trying to make sure we take the time and have a long-term view.

There’s only been one MMO that had a MetaCritic rating of over 90, and it’s the most successful one as well [in the U.S.], so we’re trying to learn from all the great things the good MMOs have done, and innovate in the space at the same time, and do some really new, neat things.

GS: How did that [official Neverwinter Nights] writing contest go?

RM: Good! We got a lot of applicants, so it’s been going really really well.

GZ: The challenge has actually been judging it, because there are so many applicants, and they’ve really exceeded our expectations by a lot. It turned out really, really well, and it got a lot of attention.

GS: What do you plan to do with the winners and the runner-ups?

RM: Well we’re actively hiring so that’s the first thing! So the runners-up, if they’re good, we’re willing to hire them too!

GZ: Some people just want to do it themselves, and so we’ll have that option as well. We’ve sold modules to independent developers in the past, and it’d be great to get a second module at BioWare with the independent guys. So we could work with them externally too, but if they want to check out getting into the real game development world, they can do that too.

(BioWare guys exit.)

GS: Are you interested in handhelds at all?

JR: Absolutely, I mean Pandemic put out Star Wars Battlefront 2 on the PSP and we’ve done enormously well on that platform, we love the PSP. And we’ve very interested in developing for the DS as well, so we’re looking at all that for our slate. Where it makes sense, we’re going to be on handheld.

GS: I’m curious to know how you’re going to address having so many more people to worry about now, as a superdeveloper.

JR: Well it’s always a challenge, but we’ve always focused very heavily on our transitions between teams, because we’ve never had a layoff, and we don’t plan on having layoffs. We’ve very careful and selective when hiring people, same with BioWare.

GS: How are you feeling about next-gen and increasing team sizes?

JR: Pandemic has always been, fortunately for us – even on the PS2 where you see team sizes well over a hundred, at Pandemic – and I can only comment on Pandemic here unfortunately – we’ve never [had trouble with quality of life]. We’ve always been highly efficient. When everyone else had 200 person teams, we had 40 person teams. Even now, when everyone’s going into the hundreds for next-gen, we’re maybe 70, around there.

So we’ve always made sure that we’re very careful about who we bring onboard, we’re very clear what their responsibilities are, they have a strong stake and ownership of the product, the roles are clearly defined, we have all the support in place for them, they’re always in touch with their leads, we’ve spent a lot of money and time investing in our tool chain too. So everything that they use in putting the game together is very efficient and easy to use, and it’s also portable so that other teams can pick them up.

GS: Companies like Epic have said tools are a way to mitigate some of the risk for next-gen.

JR: Absolutely. We’ve invested very heavily in Pandemic’s proprietary tools, and so has BioWare. I know we both do use some third party tools, but the grand majority is in-house, and that’s made a big difference for us.

GS: If this superdeveloper thing doesn’t work out, do you have a contingency plan?

JR: I have to phrase this carefully, but there isn’t something to not work out. Pandemic is still Pandemic, and BioWare is still BioWare. We aren’t building any dependencies on each other right now. Pandemic was successful before, and we’re continuing on that path. So all we’ve done now is added in additional smart people to the room. We’ve added in capital, so we can do better products, and a great partner in BioWare. So no, we haven’t planned on failure, because I don’t think we’re taking the kinds of risks that would easily lead to failure. We’re building off of strengths and growing on our respective paths, as opposed to going out on a ledge somewhere.

So we’re certainly trying new things, as a result of the combination of the two studios, but I don’t think we’re hanging it all out there and betting the farm. This isn’t hubris, but it’s hard to see obvious ways that we would fail. I’ll tell you something we have to be careful of though, and that’s to not get arrogant, to be humble, to stay hungry, stay focused. Those are our risks, but those were our risks even before we came together with BioWare, and that’s something we take very seriously.

 

_____________________________________________________


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