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When Bioware brought its pausable action/RPG mechanic first seen in Knights of the Old Republic to their own original IP in Mass Effect, gamers were wowed. Bioware had made great games before, but this time there was no Star Wars or Dungeons & Dragons material in there: it was all them from the ground up in Mass Effect. The sequel will come out January 26th, so it was kind of Development Director Dorian Kieken to sit down and talk with me about the new game he's working on.
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Mass Effect 2: What to Expect
Dorian's speech at the Montreal International Games Summit, where I caught up with him, was about creating and maintaining plans that everyone working on a game can access and, depending on their role, edit or add to different areas. One point I was left with was that you should never be in love with a plan. I asked what points about Mass Effect 2 that, despite the fluid nature of a “Living Plan," were present from the start. First, Dorian explains the point from his lecture: “I was really referring to a plan in the sense of scenario management, on the multiple things that may happen, never be attached to a future which is an unknown." He then discusses the overarching goals for the game:
“What happened from a design point of view is: we had a strong vision of what we wanted to improve right from the beginning, that didn't change. The fact that we wanted to up the shooting aspect, for example; the way we wanted to totally refactor the inventory system; the fact that we wanted to have a dark story; all those elements have been always present in the beginning of the game. They haven't changed, and we have been tweaking to make them, just better."
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Mass Effect 2 GUI Refinements
During his seminar on “Living Plans" Dorian mentioned that Mass Effect 2 has been through seven major graphical user interface revisions. I asked about what kind of improvements this had lead to.
“One of the great things we do, in a sequel, is you have the feedback from everyone: players, critics, reviewers in general. So we just went through the forums and looked at all the major critiques of the game. We had a lot of very good feedback about where we should move our shooting part of the game. One thing I can say is the interface of Mass Effect 2 is a lot slicker than Mass Effect 1. There is actually, to some extent, less information; but better presented. A little like the type of interface you can see in the Call of Duty series: very slick, very simple. And I think that fits very well with a game that puts a lot more emphasis on the shooting aspect."
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GUIs and Ammo in Mass Effect 2
The original Mass Effect came with an excellent selection of special ammunition that would inflict all kinds of bonus damage or debuff. But, it was trapped behind a layer or two of inventory UI, and many players weren't too keen on having to suspend disbelief for that long. Just because you can pause combat doesn't mean you want to do it often. Gameplay videos of Mass Effect 2 have shown something that looked a lot like grabbing and switching ammo from the on screen hud. I asked about the UI improvements' related to the ammo.
“That was exactly the feedback we had on Mass Effect 1. Not only was the inventory system a little heavy once you had to go to it and it was not very intuitive, but the thing is it breaks the flow. You're just moving around, shooting different elements, and then 'Oh, okay. You're grabbing something: you're going to inventory, changing elements, and then coming back to the game,' and just general flow breaks. All the effort was put, actually, on Mass Effect 2, into having a very nice, slick, flow in general. More specifically referring to the ammo system, its exactly answering that question. You never have to go to a specific UI, for example to change your ammo like you had to do in Mass Effect 1."
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Next Page: Weapon Overheat and Exploration Changes; XBox 360 and PC platform differences.
Link to complete audio on page three.
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Overheating Weapons Are Hotter than Ever!
Fans of the first game will recall that ammo wasn't actually limited: weapons used an overheating mechanic and if shot too frequently, would overheat and no longer be able to shoot until given time to cool. Does the more shooter style ability to grab and change ammo on the fly also lead to shooter style ammo limits and desperate melee charges towards surviving enemies just to get clips off their dead comrades?
“From a narrative point of view, we still have a concept of overheating. It's just the systems that lie behind are just a little different, have been tweaked, to respect that flow. You still have the notion of reload and different heat elements, frequency of fire also. Actually we don't call those elements ammo, we call them heat sinks." So the overheat system has been refined? “Yeah, that system has been refined. Definitely."
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Deeper Side Quests and Exploration for Mass Effect Sequel
The first Mass Effect had plenty of side content, but not all of it had the polish of the main storyline. Checking planets for mineral deposits wasn't the most exciting part of Captain Shepard's day. Booting around in the Mako was so much fun that it took quite a while to notice a striking similarity between all of the planets of any given ecosystem: arctic, desert, etc. What will the side content be like this time around? Dorian emphasizes the end of the first sentence:
“We have changed a lot... For example: a fuel system where you can really explore, take risks and explore beyond. Which is very interesting, where you're controlling your ship. The other element is: Mass Effect 1 had large explorations; but they were always feeling a little generic. Like we were using a similar pre-fab structure... The unique element of Mass Effect 2 is every of those different planets you're exploring feels a lot more unique. There's a lot more effort to actually make them feel more original."
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For Which Platform Should I Buy Mass Effect 2
Obviously someone working on a multiplatform title isn't about to answer that question unless they want to spend the next twenty years in a secret prison having their toenails torn off. Given that the PC port of Mass Effect 1 was released after the Xbox 360 version, and that subsequently it was generally agreed that the later PC port was the better one, platforms did bear mentioning though. I asked if, other than taking advantage of the superior graphics hardware in a PC and optimizing UI for controller or mouse and keyboard, there would be differences between ports.
“Here is a magic word that you just said. You said the word: ports. That was what Mass Effect 1 was. It was a 360 game, that was then ported to PC, with a lot of specifics, but it was a port. Here, we actually started Mass Effect 2 as a true multiplatform. Even eight months ago, I was able to play the game, both on PC, and Xbox 360.
“So we're actually having a sort of development going all together, and then we're applying some specific elements for the PC and some specific elements for the 360. But it changed entirely the point of view. We're used to playing the PC [and 360] version... a long time already, so we've being doing design choices that fit both platforms, so it feels a lot slicker."
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Any DLC for Mass Effect 2?
I asked if there was something interesting that had to get cut from the game. Dorian explained that so many ideas get trashed that a good example didn't come to mind. I asked if there was content we might see recycled into DLC:
“It's true there is a lot of content being generated. We improved a lot of processes in Mass Effect 2. We have several layers of approval: narrative, playable, white box... we're always answering some questions. We always try to optimize and to not cut any content, so we can just focus, and we did a lot better in Mass Effect 2 than Mass Effect 1 on that. That being said: definitely. Some really good ideas that haven't been able to make it in, those are very good candidates for DLC.
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Next Page: Sexy Characters and ESRB ratings; Electronic Arts and BioWare; Mods and Future of the series; link to complete interview Audio
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Nudity in Video Games a la Mass Effect
When someone takes their clothes of in a game, much as in real life, it attracts attention. Context decides if that attention is approval or condemnation. Some people will automatically condemn nudity in a video game, as their understanding of video games is that they are toys for children, not entertainment media that is rated for consumption by different age groups. What drives decisions on this touchy subject?
“It's really all about balance. One extent we need to really respect: we have the ESRB rating and if we're gonna push beyond and become an 'A' Adults Only game, we wont, we'll just have problems selling that game, so there are some rules. On the opposite [end] there is also the game we want to make; there is the experience we want to convey to the player. And Mass Effect 1... it was really, sort of a romantic experience. It was really to put emphasis into actual emotions in the player. And this is something that BioWare really strongly believes in, and this is not something that we're planning to give up, or to just abandon, just because of different people's perception on it.
“So it's a fine balance between still being respectful of what we have, while actually still trying to push the boundaries of narrative and storytelling."
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On the EA BioWare Beast
Publishers and developers (difference explained here) don't always get along, and when a publisher buys a developer, things don't always work out. There can be difficulties, especially in a bad economy, as witnessed by EA acquisitions Mythic and Pandemic. As far as EA BioWare though, it looks like it's so far so good. Dorian explains his take on the relationship:
“In general, and that's something that is coming from BioWare, it's normal to be just smarter about how we're doing things. When you're slipping a deadline it's not pleasant for everyone. BioWare put a lot of emphasis into production... The big goal is to prevent, actually, 'cause these things shouldn't happen. I'm not saying the won't happen anymore in the future, and quality still remains BioWare's priority, if you remember the triangle (from Dorian's presentation, the slide is on the right) between Deadline, Quality, and Cost/Resources. But, in general we're just trying to be a lot more balanced on that and a little more smart."
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Does Mass Effect 2 Come with Modding Tools?
The first Mass Effect popular, and a lot of people absolutely love it. Many in that group also belong to the group that thinks BioWare can do no wrong, an attitude that is easy to defend by pointing to Baldur's Gate, Knights of The Old Republic, and so on. With Mass Effect representing BioWare's first original IP, the desire to mod the game has been high, but the tools required have been sparse.
BioWare's latest game, Dragon Age: Origins, features a highly fleshed out set of modding tools, so are we going to see some love for the Mass Effect modders come launch date? “No, there hasn't been a plan for that. The reason why is, the game is still very different than Dragon Age. It's pretty difficult to create a modding environment specifically on the shooter type of game."
“Now, that being said, one of the core reasons also is we had a lot of work to do on Mass Effect 2 – a lot of things to correct compared to Mass Effect 1. Maybe this is something we could investigate in the future, but our real priority on Mass Effect 2 was to give a very slick and good experience. And when we have that right, then we can start to actually add a little around."
So no modding tools this time around, but it isn't ruled out for the future. The future? While not an official announcement of Mass Effect 3, it does encourage one to infer that the rule of sequels will be applied: as long as people are buying them, they will keep making them.
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Mass Effect 2 Interview Audio
All images in this article from official game site media save the last one, from Dorian Kieken's MIGS 2009 presentation.