Exclusive Mass Effect 3 interview
SFX talks with the director of BioWare’s sci-fi videogame series about his influences, creative decisions and new gameplay tweaks
Videogames have long been a wonderful source of science fiction storytelling and one of SFX‘s favourite series is Mass Effect, the huge role-playing game from the makers of Dragon Age and Knights Of The Old Republic.
In SFX 214 (on sale from Wednesday) we interview Casey Hudson, the director and executive producer of Mass Effect 3, about continuing the series in 2012. Chilling out in San Diego during Comic-Con, we spoke for longer than there was room for in the magazine – so here for free are the rest of the questions and answers:
SFX: What are the biggest influences on the Mass Effect team?
Casey Hudson: We try to go back to first principles. People might say, when we created the Rachni for example, that they read a book that described similar creatures; they say, “Wow, that was obviously inspired by that!” But often we’ve never even read that book! We are inspired, in terms of elements, by the energy and dialogue of something like 24. The situations Jack Bower gets into. In terms of sci-fi again it’s a more elemental approach, but we like cinematography you might see in something like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. Because our series has been around for a while we think we might be seeing now the Mass Effect influence out there in the world! But that’s part of the fun too.
SFX: The third game in the trilogy is going to bring to a head the story we’ve been following for years – what’s at stake here? This is a big deal for you guys, rounding everything off.
Casey Hudson: It is. We wanted to make a whole trilogy, we wanted to build the biggest thing we possibly could. What we worked on with the Star Wars games – we loved the scale of that. We wanted to do something that was at least as big and exciting in scale. It was almost too much to put into one game! We also wanted our fans to know that they could become invested in it because there would be more. We’re now on the other end of that where we’ve built everything we’ve wanted to build and we just really need to bring it home and finish it in a way that is going to be satisfying to our fans and to us.
SFX: Is Mass Effect 3 going to be a game that appeals even to those who haven’t played Mass Effect 1 and 2?
Hudson: We are definitely designing it in such a way that it is really a great entry point – if you haven’t played yet, we’d love you to start here. There’s obviously a great backstory in the games (and there is more beyond that in the novels and the comics!) but you don’t have to know that stuff to jump in. We have designed it so it can be that story where Commander Shepard is starting on he Earth and you find out that there are these ancient machines that want to harvest all life in the galaxy… and then it happens! You’ve escaped the Earth and it blossoms from there; you barely survive and now you’re trying to figure out how to take it back to the Reapers.
SFX: We saw the trailer! Is the whole game coming back down to Earth? What about familiar locations from previous games like the Citadel?
Hudson: Earth is kind of the anchor of the beginning. It’s showing what you are fighting for! But it still very much a Mass Effect experience – you’re commanding the Normandy in deep space; you’re going around using the galaxy map; you’re going to the Citadel and all kinds of planets; you’re choosing where you want to go in the galaxy. You’re also figuring out what you need to do to advance your plan forward, it really is a war story – about the galactic war.
SFX: In Mass Effect 2 you have an ensemble team, that you build up. A lot of people’s games ended with most of them dying! Are those players going to be at a disadvantage with Mass Effect 3?
Hudson: It’s definitely beneficial to have more of your squad members survive! We also try to strive for differences versus penalties or bonuses, so the choices that you’ve made previously don’t necessarily make a worse or better Mass Effect 3 experience; they make it different in ways that are equally satisfying. But with people it’s the more the merrier; but we do try to find a way to give a pay off that’s different because the fun then is to say “I’ll play my play-through when everybody is there” or “this time I’ll play my other play-through where everybody died” so that it is different and fans appreciate and enjoy those differences so that is an equally enjoyable place.
SFX: Is there anything you can tell us about the new character we’re going to see?
Hudson: The story of Mass Effect 3 is a lot more authentic to a war story. So people are wrong to think, “Who are the permanent squad members?” Permanent friends in a war story betrays the concept! So we will be adding people and taking people away. All your friends from previous Mass Effect games will be there somewhere – if they’re alive! And James Vega is one of the new guys you pick up with you as you’re escaping from Earth. He’s interesting because we haven’t had somebody like this before – he is not as worldly as some of the other characters we’ve met. He’s an Alliance Marine, maybe like a younger version of Shepard.
SFX: Dragon Age seem to learn a lot from Mass Effect. Has Mass Effect 3 benefited from anything else your company is producing? Is there much change in how the game is designed?
Hudson: We share a lot of people between the teams. We definitely have a productive rivalry! We’ll try things out – the Mass Effect dialogue, for instance; originally Dragon Age didn’t use the “dialogue wheel”. Then they saw some of the benefits. We look at each other’s games and try and integrate new things. With Mass Effect 3, if we are doing anything different it’s because there is a resounding energy and feedback from the fans that are playing it. We’ve made a lot of changes to the visual engine over the years. People saw a lot of changes in Mass Effect 2 and you’ll see that sort of difference again in Mass Effect 3. At some stages there is only so much you can do to improve! But the graphics and frame rate will be better and that means we can put more enemies on screen. There are things that are a little more fluid.
SFX: What do you see as your biggest rivals in the computer game space, at the moment?
Hudson: What’s interesting, and weird, is that I don’t think people are doing quite what we’re doing. A trilogy is very hard to pull off. In our case, it had to span lots of changes in the videogame industry. We went through being bought twice – now we’re part of EA – and also a recession. So we had to weather that sort of stuff which is extremely rare. What we do look at is elements. We see everything from games like Battle Field 3 in terms of moment-to-moment shooter gameplay and smaller games like Plants Vs Zombies or Peggle to try and understand these moment-to-moment fun factors. We look at the grains from lots of contemporary games and consider those as ways to solve problems to evolve Mass Effect 3.
SFX: Thanks Casey!
You can read more of this interview in the news section of SFX issue 214, on sale this week. The magazine covers games as well as TV, film, books and comics every month, and it’s cheaper to subscribe, so join us!