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Exclusive BioWare RPG interview

In the latest issue of SFX (on the shelves today) we consider the SFX Hot 50, our authoritative list of the movers and shakers in sci-fi. Not just TV and film; we also celebrate the creators working in books, comics and games.

In the latter category, BioWare top dogs Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk are prominently on the list, so SFX caught up with them to chat about their projects. Some of their comments appear in SFX 185 but there wasn't room for everything they had to say about role-playing games, so we present here for your pleasure the rest of our exclusive BioWare interview:

SFX: What do you think the future holds for RPGs?
Ray:
"That's always a tough question. 'Always in motion the future is', as Yoda says. There are a lot of developments in the role-playing genre - advancing technologies and the growing mass appeal of science-fiction and fantasy are creating opportunities that were never there before."

"One of the major developments that we've been following is the trend toward a far more immersive role-playing experience – the emergence of genuinely emotionally engaging narrative. With games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and The Old Republic, we're finding that adding detailed cinematic conversations makes the experience really gripping, and really gets the player far more immersed in the story. It makes the characters feel truly 'real'. We actually call them digital actors now, and with new technology there is so much that we can do with these characters that almost anything is possible, including conveying genuine emotion! When you take that and add professional voice-acting, the effect is just magical. The new story experience in BioWare games creates an incredible level of emotional engagement with the characters and the story. This is an aspect of the experience that we've really invested a lot of time and attention to and our mastery of it is only improving. We think you'll see that – and 'feel' that in our games!"

SFX: What will your online Star Wars game The Old Republic do that's new, that we haven't seen in MMORPGs before?
Ray:
"We're adding emotionally engaging narrative. In addition to a strong foundation of exploration, progression and customization, and combat, The Old Republic is a story-driven game, and that's an approach that no other developer has yet taken online. When you look back at the origins of early pen-and-paper games, at Dungeons And Dragons for instance, what made playing fun was that you got together with friends and you played through an interactive story. We think that's still at the heart of what makes a great RPG, and something that hasn't been given enough attention in the massively multiplayer online genre."

"The truth is, even when you're playing an MMO, you're generally playing with a small group, and it has the potential to have that same great dynamic. The greatest experiences we've had in role-playing games were the ones in which we got caught up in the story, got emotionally invested in the characters, and then when there was a twist or a major development in the story, there was really a cathartic impact. It's that impact that we want to deliver to the MMO play experience. We do offer a number of true firsts for the genre as well: the first true multiplayer conversation, first true sense of choice with consequence, the first cover-system in an MMO and last, but not least, the first fully-voiced MMO experience. We believe Star Wars: The Old Republic will have a significant impact on the MMO space because of the new things we'll be bringing to it."

SFX: What makes a LucasArts and BioWare collaboration perfect to do something new with online games?
Greg:
"We've worked hard to maintain a reputation as good storytellers. All the role-playing games we've developed have had strong compelling stories and interesting morally challenging choices with consequences, in which the players are actually able to decide the course of the narrative. Our partners at LucasArts have an amazing tradition of epic stories, with Star Wars being one of our very favourites."

"When you think about the best story moments in history, the moment where Darth Vader told Luke 'I am your father' has to be near the top. LucasArts brings that amazing heritage and that expertise to the table. The elements of Star Wars are the ingredients of what makes great story: a classic conflict between good and evil, a mysterious magical Force, and several great character archetypes who must confront their demons both without and within. As a team, BioWare and LucasArts have already established a strong track record with the original Knights Of The Old Republic, and what we're doing here is taking what we started there and expanding on it. Not only are we translating this to a massively-multiplayer experience, but we're also creating more story content than we've ever created in any other game."

SFX: What do you think lies at the heart of a good MMORPG?
Ray:
"Many of the same things that lie at the heart of a good MMORPG are things which have been at the heart of good RPGs all along. We often talk in terms of four major elements to a good RPG: Story (emotionally engaging narrative), Achievement (progression and customization), Exploration, and Combat. We think of these as BioWare's gameplay pillars."

"We've been talking a lot about the importance of story in 'The Old Republic', and that is something we've spent a lot of time and energy on. The other three elements are extremely important to us as well, and we've been fortunate to have attracted some really smart MMO veterans to our Austin studio. These guys are doing some amazing work toward really nailing the other three key elements of what makes a great MMO – progression and customization, exploration, and combat. We have a large team of world builders and environmental artists who are constructing the Old Republic galaxy, from creating really rich environments on the planets to capturing that essential 'Star Wars' feel in space stations and other places you'll visit. We're also combining the talents of some of our systems designers from previous BioWare games with the talents of MMO design veterans. This synergy is really giving rise to great ideas for new game features and systems which highlight the best aspects of character customization, companion characters, and character progression."

"We're also giving a lot of attention to combat, making lightsaber duels feel elegant and choreographed and cinematic, and making ranged combat visceral and dynamic. There's a lot along these lines that we haven't revealed yet, but we're confident that you'll be just as excited about these other aspects of the game as we are."

SFX: Do you feel a weight of responsibility to the fans, as you write new chapters in Star Wars history?
Greg:
"Writing a chapter in Star Wars is a great responsibility and a great honour. We've always been Star Wars fans and the opportunity to create The Old Republic is really the opportunity to not just 'write a chapter' but more 'to plant a seed'. Getting a good dialogue going with Star Wars fans was something we really wanted to start early, and that's why we've been putting so much time and energy into the community and the website. We're putting up new content every week on www.starwarstheoldrepublic.com , and the fans have really appreciated that. We've already got a strong community there and the large majority of those are folks who visit the site regularly and participate in the forums and such. Star Wars fans are very active and vocal bunch—we know because we're among them. Establishing a strong relationship with the Star Wars community is something we'll continue to be invested in throughout the process."

SFX: You're working on other projects too like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age. What different challenges are inherent in working in your own universes?
Greg:
"Working on both Mass Effect and Dragon Age has been extremely gratifying. Who doesn't get excited about the prospect of creating their own science-fiction or fantasy settings and then watching those get realized and then evolve? Developing a new franchise offers a great deal of freedom, but it has its challenges. The greatest is homing in on what makes these universes attractive, what makes people want to experience these alternate realities? With something like Star Wars, these questions have been answered and are already firmly established. We've had to ask the right kinds of questions as we create these worlds, and we've had to make a lot of adjustments. There's been some trial-and-error, but the dedication to creating a really compelling universe has paid off."

SFX: Are you pleased with the reception Mass Effect received? How much would you like to see a Mass Effect film?
Ray:
"Absolutely. Without a doubt, Mass Effect has more than exceeded our hopes for it. The game was extremely highly rated and it sold very well, and recently it even made some waves with its surprising popularity in Japan , where it managed to be one of the best-selling games (number three in the all-format charts in its first week of sales!) even though the Xbox360 doesn't have as much penetration in Japan as it does in the rest of the world. We're really proud of the team and their success, and even more excited about the sequel, which continues Shepherd's epic story, introduces some awesome new characters and an ominous menace to all organic life in the galaxy, and a ton of amazing new game features. I believe Mass Effect 2 is frankly going to blow our fans away with its intensity in action and combat, its fluid frame rate and fast loads, the incredibly powerful emotionally engaging narrative, and beautiful graphics throughout."

"As to a Mass Effect film, you say? That sounds like a very interesting idea…"

SFX: Even just a few years ago, computer and videogaming wasn't the cultural phenomenon it is today - what caused the major shift?
Greg:
"You have to keep in mind that the video game industry is still really new in the grand scheme of things. We're talking like thirty years old since games first started in the late '70s and early '80s. When the film industry was at this stage in its development, they were just adding sound! Colour was still several years away. One could make the case that the games industry has finally built a consistent 'camera' to portray our stories and we're now all starting to take advantage of it."

"So with that in mind, it's easy to see that the video game industry is still evolving rapidly, and as it becomes more advanced, like the movies, more and more people are going to be attracted to it. On top of that, and it's been said by people who have really spent time studying these trends, we're seeing the kids who used to play arcade games in the '70s and Atari in the '80s, we're seeing them grow up. They're growing up, having kids of their own, but they're still playing, and it's proving that video games are not just toys. So while these adults keep playing, their kids are coming onto the scene and they're playing too. This has to be one of the largest factors in video games becoming a cultural phenomenon."

SFX: Thanks guys!

Find out where the BioWare guv'nors place in the SFX Hot 50 list in issue 185 of the magazine. Find out more about their work by visiting the official BioWare site here or the official LucasArts site here .

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