On the final day of GDC 2010, BioWare designer Christina Norman outlined the dramatic change of combat in Mass Effect 2, explaining how and why these changes took place.
Mass Effect 2 put a lot of emphasis on real-time gun combat and cover which, while mostly praised by enthusiast media, was at times controversial for fans of the traditional RPG aspects of the original game.
At the end of the original Mass Effect's development cycle, Norman "knew we could make a better Mass Effect. We knew we hadn't achieved everything we wanted."
The process of redesigning the game began just after the original shipped, with Norman and her design team analyzing press reviews and determining what the strengths and weaknesses of the game were.
"The goal [of the exercise] wasn't to decide what to change," Norman clarified, "as much as it was to change our perspective," given that the design team was too close to the game to analyze it objectively.
In the end, it was agreed that Mass Effect 2 needed more satisfying combat (among other tweaks, such as inventory management). The design team began tackling the challenge with a design document approach, because "all of the programemrs were on vacation, or doing weird programmer things." The doc had a list of thirty features in the end to fix the game and "make it awesome," but in the end none of the features shipped.
After the design doc approach, the design team started prototyping new features using the Mass Effect engine, simply turning off the RPG elements to focus the team on the gun combat.
"We knew it was the biggest risk area for us," said Norman, explaining that BioWare is not traditionally a shooter company. "I didn't want to say that Mass Effect 2 was fun despite the shooter combat, I wanted it to be fun because of the shooter combat."
BioWare formed a specific gameplay team for the task, something that wasn't used for the original game. This helped the game have a much more cohesive gameplay vision, according to Norman.
After a three-month process of tweaking the combat, the team was able to switch the RPG elements back on and fill out the rest of the experience. The end result was a much more consistent game that followed a gameplay vision, according to Norman.