Manager Aaryn Flynn and Creative Director Mac Walters dish (a bit) on new adventure( Read more...Collapse )
Electronic Arts’ E3 press conference kicked off with something that fans were hoping to see: a teaser-trailer for the new Mass Effect title, Mass Effect: Andromeda, set to the wavering baritone of Johnny Cash’s "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky." At about the same time as the EA event, BioWare posted a blog entry with a few new details on the game: you can play a male or female character, it’s set in a galaxy far, far away—literally, hence "Andromeda"—and the expected release date is near the end of 2016.
But we’re hungry for more details on the new game, which BioWare has teased for more than a year now. We got a chance to sit down with BioWare Montreal studio manager Aaryn Flynn and Creative Director Mac Walters over some hotel bar snacks and pump them—politely but insistently—for anything they’d be willing to tell us. We didn’t glean any Reaper-sized scoops, but we did get some additional confirmations and details about how the next game in the Mass Effect series will look and play.Two guys from Andromeda
The new game is set in a new galaxy, with a new set of characters. This much we mostly knew, and the first and foremost deviation from the Mass Effect formula is that this new adventure definitely doesn’t involve Commander Shepard and his (or her) crew. The obvious fear is that the Mass Effect "magic" won’t be there if Commander Shepard isn’t the game’s nucleus—after all, throughout the first three games, Shepard is not only the player’s avatar, but the pivot around which the entire galaxy turns.
But BioWare games have always been like video game takes on The Seven Samurai—assembling an interesting bunch of people to go do a difficult or impossible task and watching the interpersonal developments between those people. (The most interesting bits of Mass Effect 3, for example, weren’t the explosive set pieces or big firefights, but the quiet moments with the crew in between missions.) So will the new game attempt to stick with the BioWare formula of giving you an interesting bunch of comrades to bond with?
"One hundred percent," said Mac Walters. "I think it’s fair to say that’s a hallmark of BioWare, and it’s a hallmark certainly of the Mass Effect franchise and something we’d never stray away from. I think one of the most interesting things for us when we started looking at what we were going to do with Andromeda, was knowing this was going to be a whole new set of characters and a new adventure, and all the great stories we were going to be able to tell because of that and what their journey is going to be like."
"One thing I’d like to get across," said Flynn, "is just all of the excitement the studio has—both Edmonton and Montreal—to finally begin to talk about Mass Effect. Because, again, it’s been in development for a few years now."Face off
The switch to the Frostbite engine has been seen by the team as a positive change, with both Flynn and Walters praising the new engine and the flexibility granted by using an internal engine rather than a licensed one. The ability to piggyback on improvements to Frostbite that are being made by all of EA’s other Frostbite-using studios gives a lot of advantages.
Walters cited the face-scanning tech demonstrated on stage today in EA’s latest NBA franchise title as a great Frostbite feature that they might potentially have access to if they needed it—though both he and Flynn quickly waved off my question about whether or not players would be able to scan in their faces as part of the Mass Effect: Andromeda character creation process.
"We can’t talk about that yet or ruin any of that yet!" laughed Flynn. "But what’s becoming a model of development for these games—to speak more generally—is that a really clever innovation like that gets created and gets polished and actually gets working, and then gets standardized to work with the engine and the technology, so it becomes much easier to then adopt those things and say, ‘I wonder if we could use that?’"Driving Miss Shepard
Shifting gears a bit to talk about vehicles, we asked about the presence of the revised, rebuilt Mako in the promotional material so far. People tend to have very strong feelings about BioWare games and vehicles, and we were curious how the new game would handle an old and contentious topic.
"Oh, we definitely learned," from the first iteration of the Mako in the original Mass Effect, said Flynn. "The driving mechanics on the Mako in the first game I think could be greatly improved, and we’ve always wanted to get back and improve that. The Hammerhead was one attempt to do that." Flynn pointed out that BioWare is part of a global network of developers now, and that expertise gained in other EA games might trickle into Mass Effect. "If you saw the Need for Speed stuff today," he said, referring to EA’s gameplay demo of the new Need for Speed reboot, "they’ve done fantastic, amazing driving mechanics, and that’s fun to play. As much as we can, we will work with those guys, we will learn from them to get those kinds of mechanics and that kind of polish into the game."Stick ’em with the pointy end
If vehicles are one side of the contention coin, combat is the other. Mass Effect’s combat and skills management have evolved significantly from the first game, starting out in a stats-based place like a traditional western RPG and ending up with a much more focused core shooter experience. Where, on this spectrum, will the new game fall?
"What I can say," said Flynn, "is that I really like where the combat is going when I play it and that it’s an absolute focus… I think it would be fair to say that Mass Effect 3 represents a starting point from where we want to go with this combat experience."
"But that said," he continued, "I think we’ve learned a few lessons around ensuring that combat experience has really nice role-playing elements to it, things you can do that offer progression and offer choice in how you play the experience."What beautiful music they make
BioWare is known for keeping a good stable of voice actors they like to work with on various projects, so we next asked if it was possible we might hear some old familiars among the new Mass Effect cast.
"I don’t think you’ve cast any single character—" started Flynn, and Walters interrupted him to confirm.
"No casting yet," he said. "We often, when we develop character in any of our games, will use existing actors in movies to kind of say, ‘This is how this person talks,’ and we’ve certainly had those discussions, we know those characters and some actors we’d love to have—but we haven’t gotten into the casting yet. So, news to come—stay tuned!"
"Same thing for any actual characters coming back from old games?" I asked.
"Yeah, nothing announced," said Flynn. "Again, the real idea here is that because it’s a…a real big new adventure and it’s very far away."
On the subject of Mass Effect and the signature sounds of the series, Walters said that they were very interested in maintaining continuity with the earlier games. "It’s definitely too soon to start talking about who, specifically," said Walters in reference to specific composers on the new game. "But I think that ‘sonic identity’ that we’ve had is something we want to maintain."Reaper sleeper?
The idea of having the slate wiped clean, so to speak, is very attractive to both Flynn and Walters; Flynn mentioned that it’s long been a regret of Walters that they spread the Mass Effect story far out over the entire Milky Way galaxy, with the game’s galactic map showing a civilization that appears to stretch from arm to arm without too many unexplored nooks and crannies.
"With Andromeda," said Walters, "our goal is to start that at a much smaller scale—though the scales are still massive—and give you a sense that there is much more to explore, rather than saying ‘here’s the whole galaxy.’"
We asked whether there were the series’ signature mass relays in the new galaxy—after all, how else would players cross the millions of light years between the Milky Way and Andromeda? "I don’t think we can get into that," said Flynn, "but you saw in the trailer today that the Omni-blade is there—you saw a couple of nice evolutions of that—and we get to push things and evolve things, but also keep them consistent so that if you’re a fan, you’re going to see them and hopefully love them again."
"Even when the ‘N7’ comes on in the trailer," he continued, "it’s just a big reminder that ‘N7’ and everything that stands for is consistent across the games, and still means things—means camaraderie and support from the other characters. It means being part of a team. Hopefully, it’s coming to mean really great gameplay in the combat experience and everywhere."Keep digging
Shortly before Dragon Age: Inquisition launched, players were given the opportunity to log into the Dragon Age Keep, an online service where they could import and manage their progression from past Dragon Age games. It was a neat way to allow players new to the series—or players like me who no longer had their older saved games—to be able to start out the new game with choices other than the defaults. Fans have been wondering for some time whether the new Mass Effect game would use a similar type of meta-game (the Citadel Archives, maybe?) to track the player’s past choices.
"We can’t comment on that yet," said Flynn, "But the Keep was really successful and people really liked it. It’s cool that we’re a part of games that people want to bring experiences they had in previous games... and we want to honor that as much as we can."
What about our past choices, then? This has always been one of the series’ biggest selling points (regardless of how everything played out in Mass Effect 3)—so will any of the player’s past choices matter in Mass Effect: Andromeda?
"Yeah… we can’t get into that yet," said Flynn. "But more on that will be revealed in the coming months."
I commented how much I enjoyed the idea of progress mattering—and how characters would occasionally remark on past events and make me as the main character feel like I’d accomplished something. Flynn and Walters both agreed that was a core component of the Mass Effect experience. "It’s really tough to reward players for level investment, because you have to think all the time—it’s a devilishly complex development challenge, but we keep trying to do it and we keep loving it and we’ll do as much as we can, even as we create a new adventure and give people a chance to go in many ways in a very different direction with the story itself."The fans
As we wrapped, Walters and Flynn both expressed awe and no small amount of reverence at the Mass Effect fans’ dedication to the games, be they with musical compositions or the fan art communities on sites like Deviantart (so, yes, it’s likely that the BioWare team has seen and in fact really likes your Garrus drawings!).
"That’s a great example," Flynn said when I asked about Deviantart in particular. "You’re like, how did somebody understand what we were trying to go for with this relationship or with these characters and then just do their own cool take on it? That’s very humbling to see people do that."
"We’re very lucky that there’s something about Mass Effect which does pull people in a unique way," said Flynn. "It’s a bunch of things that just come together really well, and we have a big responsibility to keep that going for fans."