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Reflecting on the end of Mass Effect

- February 22nd, 2012

Mass Effect Executive Producer Casey Hudson and Lead Writer Mac Walters chat about crafting the finale to gaming’s most ambitious science fiction role-playing game series

Gamers are counting down to March 6. It’s not that Mass Effect 3 is one of the most anticipated games this year, I mean it is, but the anticipation of Mass Effect 3 stems from a promise BioWare made back in 2005.

With Mass Effect, BioWare was anxious to break the RPG mold by designing a non-linear narrative for players that would allow them to craft their own Commander Shepard and shape his or her own identity within a galactic conflict brewing in deep space. As Shepard, gamers realized the threat of the Reapers and, over the course of Mass Effect 2, began to unravel their mysteries.

In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers have arrived on Earth with destructive force and it’s survival at any cost. Catching up with Executive Producer Casey Hudson and lead writer Mac Walters on Valentine’s Day, I was anxious to learn if the team at BioWare Edmonton achieved the vision they set out for almost seven years ago.

Mass Effect 3 went Gold on Sunday. The game is out March 6. The demo came out today and a lot of people have already said they really liked what they played. How does it feel to be so close? Is the team recovering now that the main portion of development is finished?

Executive Producer Casey Hudson (CH): Well it’s an interesting time for us because we are actually done with Mass effect 3 and right now is a period where even though we’re done, it’s still not out yet. So they’re manufacturing millions of copies of discs and putting them on trucks and getting them to stores and stuff like that so it’s kind of interesting.

The good thing about where we are with Mass Effect 3 right now is we do have a demo. We’ve never done a demo like this before. It’s a huge demo and it’s got single-player and multiplayer, so it’s actually kind of cool because we’re not just in a vacuum in this period, we’re actually able to listen to how gamers are experiencing the game right now and getting a lot of great feedback so it’s a nice calm period and the fact that people are playing it makes it a lot more fun.

Can you tell me what development was like on Mass Effect 3? When BioWare first announced Mass Effect, you guys announced the trilogy as a game with a narrative that will be unique to everyone playing the series from beginning to end. Do you feel like you’ve achieved that vision?

CH: With Mass Effect. the first game we were establishing what this universe is all about and kind of figuring it out for ourselves as well. Once that game was out we had millions of people able to tell us what the thought it was all about and what they wanted to see with these characters. We’d always planned it as a trilogy, we knew where we were going.

We had this backbone, this architecture of where we thought things were going but we also had the ability to choose the kinds of things we wanted to improve and listen to feedback from the fans and stuff like that so we were able to incorporate all that kind of stuff into the series and with Mass Effect 3, because this is the full galactic war and it’s the end of this trilogy, we’re going to be able to give players an experience where they can change the biggest events in the Mass Effect universe and make the biggest decisions and then we can end it in a number of different ways for players so they can really see the effects of their choices.

Lead Writer Mac Walters (MW): Yeah, I think, A) we definitely achieved what we wanted to in that regard, as far as carrying consequences from the first game to this one and have them make a significant impact into the game you play. I think B) though, If we had known how hard it was going to be to do it, I wonder if we would have held back a bit more. It’s kind of nice to. Sometimes ignorance is bliss because this was by far the most complicated game of the series and the most complicated game I’ve ever worked on just due to that fact.

When you consider that you’re trying to wrap up a series, you’re trying to tell a story and the most epic and grand story in this series, and yet right from the get-go you have all these decisions and choices that someone may or may not have made that you have to account for. You hate to say that it handcuffs you but it definitely prescribes a lot of the way you plan for that story and what you’re going to do with it.

CH: I think we’ve done a bunch of things that are very rare in this business. One of them is we were able to say back in 2005 when we launched the game that this was going to be a trilogy. It was going to be something that as a player, you could get invested in because we were going to invest in it a lot. We weren’t just going to do one game, we were going to do three huge games.

Another thing that we did that’s never been done is that you can take your saved game from the end of Mass Effect 1 forward into Mass Effect 2 and keep playing with the same character. Then, all through the series, you are having one continuous experience but unlike almost every other game out there. You’re choices change the course of events in the storyline and for us to come through on that promise, we also felt like we had to bring those story decisions through with your character. So it’s not just your character, it’s all the decisions that you’ve made and whether or not certain characters lived or died.

When you play Mass Effect 3, if you are a player who’s played the previous games, you’ll start where you left off. Your universe will be a little bit different than someone else and you’ll actually see that this is the world that you’ve lived in and you’ve changed it.

Having just played the opening, I have to say wow, that packs a punch. When designing the opening narrative, how did you want the player to feel stepping back into the Mass Effect universe?

MW: One of the things that we learned from Mass Effect 2 is that we really wanted to get the player into that game experience and sort of into thrilling gameplay as soon as possible and while there’s always some big story moments you want to get across, you don’t know if you have new players coming in and you don’t know what entry point people are coming from so there’s story and there’s things that you have to tell.

But we knew we wanted to get straight to the heart of the matter as soon as possible. So one of the big things we do in Mass Effect 3 is sort of fulfill the promise that we set out at Mass Effect 1. The Reapers are coming, the reapers are coming and you’ve played it, you’ve seen it.

The other thing we wanted to do is that we sort of preserved Earth as a place that you get to go to in the series until Mass Effect 3. I think it was actually Casey who was really specific on that, he wanted us top be able to see Earth before the Reapers hit. You see that opening, it’s very brief but you do get that sense, although brief, of ‘Hey, this is what Earth looks like before they get there.’ It’s this sort of futuristic, almost utopian, version of Earth. So that was on of the keys we wanted to do there.

CH: When we created this universe, the idea of Earth is kind of this big question mark. Because we live on the earth, we know there’s so many different countries and people. There are so many questions that Earth raises in a science fiction universe and either you really focus on those things or in our case, we felt like we didn’t want to go to Earth until the story was about Earth and that’s why in previous games we haven’t brought Earth into it.

But it’s also why in Mass Effect 3, you start on the earth and really the story is in fact about the fact that Earth has been taken and you’re trying to take it back and it is kind of the fulcrum for the whole story. And that’s why we thought it was a good idea to return to the Earth and see what it’s like in the Mass Effect universe.

MW: As far as the emotion too. A lot of who Shepard is, is this soldier who’s been fighting, fighting, has literally died and come back again fighting for this cause and there is a sense of, not ‘I told you so’ but just him getting a bit weary of being the soldier and wanting this fight to just be done. So we wanted to put Shepard in a position where the player could express some of that in the sense of ‘We should have done more, we should have prepared for this more’ and it’s not complaining. We didn’t want it to come across as Shepard whining about stuff but it is sort of ‘we should have been more prepared and now we’re in for it.’

There’s a lot of emotion in the invasion of Earth. Shepard tries to save a boy hiding in the vent and my choice was to see if I could try and help him but he vanishes, saying ‘You can’t help me.’ With the player trying to preserve the galaxy the way it is, how did you craft emotional moments like that one to emotionally invest the player?

MW: The thing for me is that even though we’ve been promising this war on Earth with the Reapers, it also has to end up meaning something so to me, the child represents a lot of what Shepard and therefore the player, is fighting for. Innocence, people who through no fault of their own are involved in this war and will die if Shepard doesn’t intervene or do something.

And he does! The boy get’s killed off! You guys are tugging at the heartstrings.

MW: [Laughs] But that’s a part of it. It’s survival at any cost. In  a PG-13, action hero movie, yeah, maybe Shepard saves the boy and the boy doesn’t die but this is more serious than that. And it’s not that it’s grim but it’s weighty. This is going to be a brutal, brutal fight and I think that’s one of the things we’re saying right at the start is there are sacrifices that are going to have to be made and a lot of that, as you’ll say later in the game, weighs on the characters, Shepard included.

CH: For us, we’ve always really focused on character. When we build these characters and try and find ways to connect with these characters, it pays really amazing dividends because it’s what causes you to care about some of the other systems in the game.

When you’re looking at your weapon and customizing it at a bench, plugging different things in and out, you might know that particular weapon you’re customizing is for a squad member that’s going to use it and you like that squad member because she’s really cool and you’re developing a relationship with her. You like the way she fights and certain powers and stuff.

When you engage in that system, which is a video game system that lets you customize your weapon, you’re thinking about other things and you’re thinking about the fact that you like that character and this weapon is going to be carried by them. In just kind of gets you more invested in why you’re doing all of these things in a game and why you care about them.

As this is the finale, are you guys wrapping up all the plot threads from Mass Effect?

MW: We spent probably the first six months of development on Mass Effect 3 as writers just planning that out. Deciding how we are going to take all these possibilities and variations at the very start and weave them in all together so they feel natural. Every single one feels as amazing as the other one and every possible play-through feels just as epic and emotional and then craft that into a single story that ends with multiple endings.

Ooooooh, how many endings are we looking at?

MW: There are about six sort of key endings that you could… quantify. But beyond that, there’s even more because who’s alive at the end? Who survived in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3? There’s a lot of people who could die, and even though it’s Shepard’s story they all tie into that ending. When you start getting into that, there’s literally thousands of endings.

It’ll be interesting to see what people think of them because one of the things I like to say, and people often ask me, is there an optimal ending? Is there a best ending? How do I get that? And I say Well, It’s a Mass Effect game which means your choices matter which means Yes, I hope that you will find the best ending to your game but it may not be what I think my best ending is. I think that’s the beauty of an interactive narrative, you get to decide how it ends.”

The game opens with Shepard no longer a part of Cerberus, are we going to get a clearer picture of what their goals are and what the Illusive Man is all about?

MW: Just as this is the end of Shepard’s story, so is it the end of all the stories around him. Of course, Cerberus was a key story and a big part of Mass Effect 2 and the Illusive Man so we purposely set out to pull back the curtain a bit on the Illusive Man. I was conscious of not wanting to give away everything. i think people will come away after playing Mass Effect 3 with probably some questions still about who the Illusive Man is and maybe what he was up to but by-and-large we answer a lot of the big questions for people. Why they did it and the path that the Illusive Man specifically went down to get to where he is and why he’s opposing Shepard in Mass Effect 3.

Those are important questions for us to answer along with a lot of the other questions we have to answer. We created, in this universe as far back as Mass Effect 1, the genophage decision and what you’re doing about that. The conflict between the Quarians and the Geth and even some decisions you thought were behind you like what you do with the Rachni Queen may come back and have an impact. [Grinning]

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Mass Effect 3 is easily the best looking and best playing game in the series. With all the talk of next-gen consoles, did the team dig deep to get that extra performance? Was everyone just working as hard as they could to make Mass Effect 3 into the best finale possible?

CH: When you make a game in a new console generation or you have new technology whether that be on the PC or Xbox or whatever, it takes a few iterations to see where all the extra bits of performance are and optimizations and so on. Once we had shipped Mass Effect 1, it was kind of a balancing act and you figure out how much performance you’re going to put towards animation versus rendering and this and that.

You choose a balance and then later you find other optimizations that give you a better balance. That’s what we did with Mass Effect 2 and it’s why you can end up shipping a game on the same hardware that looks better but also runs faster and does more. We were able to do that again with Mass Effect 3. Just looking at some of the things I found on Mass Effect 2, and even doing the PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 2 gave us an opportunity to revisit some of the systems before we went into them on Mass Effect 3.

Wasn’t the PS3 version running on the Mass Effect 3 engine?

Right, and every time you go to a different platform, you kind of have to dig a little deeper to find different optimizations. And so there were things in there that came back to the other platforms in terms of little places we found to kind of speed things up or make things look better. That’s why I think Mass Effect 3 generally is the better looking of all three games but it does that while doing a lot more.

I noticed there wasn’t a lot of hacking in Mass Effect 3, or at least the part on Mars that I played, compared to Mass Effect 2. Why did you guys take that out? Or does it still come back later in the game?

CH: I think with each game we revisit the idea of mini-games and why we have them and what they add. Considering the games as different acts in the story. The first game really is the first act and it feels like a place where you want to explore and take your time and learn about the world. So there was lots of casual exploration stuff and mini-games. In mass Effect 2, it really had lots of interesting side-missions and stuff, it was a little more driven.

In this one, everything we did we had to put in the context of a full-scale war, a galactic war that is universal. There are certain things that just didn;t work with that, like scanning planets to get minerals and really random exploration things. With those mini-games, it just didn’t feel like it matched the pacing or the themes of a universal war story.

However there are other kinds of mini-games we have put in like the idea of doing search and rescue missions when you’re trying to figure out where some of these key war aspects are. It might be a downed pilot that’s really important to the war effort or you’re trying to extract a ship that’s crashed. There’s things like this all over the galaxy that is part of a mini-game system that works with the theme of the game.

Like the multiplayer!  It’s new to the Mass Effect franchise, why will we be interested in Galaxy at War system?

CH: We always try and integrate any of the new things we’re trying to do into a simple concept so it makes sense and it holds together. We don’t like to do lots of peace-meal things just for the sake of having a longer list of bullet points. We’ve wanted to have a way for players to play with their friends in the Mass effect universe for a long time. And it just didn’t make sense and a lot of the ideas didn’t come together with the theme of the game but when we were starting Mass Effect 3, we were able to realize that Commander Shepard, unlike previous games, Commander Shepard is a part of a war that everyone’s fighting and so there are soldiers all over on different planets in the war and different species and things like that.

That would be the opportunity for players to be those characters and fight in those locations so by kind of bringing it together under the concept of Galaxy at War, that’s how we can integrate that with your single-player game.

Now that BioWare has wrapped up Commander Shepard’s story, what’s going to happen to the Mass Effect universe? How do you want players to remember Mass Effect?

CH: We’re very much in an online world now so even when you finish your game you still have hundreds of hours of multiplayer fun there and we’re going to continue supporting that in terms of new things you can do in the multiplayer world and we also have the single-player downloadable content we’re planning to do much like we did with Mass Effect 2, we’re going to be supporting the game a lot over the coming year and so there will be a lot of that kind of stuff inside the Mass Effect 3 time-frame. And then we’ll have to see what the future holds for Mass Effect after that.

MW: Honestly, I hope that everyone find their favourite characters again and their wildest dreams are fulfilled as far as what those Characters do and how their arc progresses. I’m very hopeful that we’ve given more depth to Shepard as a character as well and people are going to explore that option if they want. They don’t have to. Really finding out what it is that makes Shepard tick and be bale to express that as a player. A lot of the time, Shepard is there to ask questions and act on it. We don’t often get to hear what Shepard is thinking and feeling, so we’ve added that in as well in Mass Effect 3 and I think it adds a nice dimension to it.

I think between the very tough, morally ambiguous decisions that you have to make in Mass Effect 3 and the experience you have with the characters, I have a feeling that people are going to be remembering their experience in mass Effect 3 for a long time. Much like when you read your favorite novel or book series and it ends, all you wanna do is get back in that world. You want to go see those characters again and I truly believe that’s where we’ll be with Mass Effect.

People will just say ‘I wanna do it again.’ I gotta go back in and see all my favorite friends again. Where are they? And the beauty of interactive narrative, is that you can go in and not only see them again but actually change the fate of everyone.

But you’ll always remember your first time! [Laughing]

Mass Effect releases March 6 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

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1 comment

  1. dietre | February 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    do you really think it had enough story or drama to be missed? :/

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