During our (other) visit to BioWare's studios in Edmonton, we got a chance to talk with Casey Hudson, the executive producer for Mass Effect 2. The following is a transcript of our interview with him - some of the questions were posed by another journalist who was sharing our interview time.
RPGFan: I'm just going to go ahead and get into the complicated stuff straight away: Download content. On the Xbox 360 it was paid content and on PC it was free. Are you looking for something that's more equivalent in this version?
Casey Hudson: Yeah, I think at the point when the PC version came out, the first download pack was already out, and so we offered it for free. This time over, we're simultaneously launching the title on Xbox 360 and PC, so they'll have equivalent levels of pricing.
Q: Do you plan on doing a more aggressive DLC deployment compared to the first game?
CH: Now, we did do twice as many downloads for Mass Effect than we did for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (laughs). We had the one station you could download, and that's when we were still learning about what we could do with downloadable content. Obviously, with the first [Mass Effect] we had a few things that we needed to improve on. One of them, really the main reason we couldn't do as much DLC as we wanted to, was that the game itself was not built in such a way that it could be extended. We didn't have the time to fit in extensions to everything. We could really only do one kind of expansion, which was a big, complete mission. We couldn't do things that you'd get, like new armor you could carry back or a lot of the systems weren't extendable. Now we can do that with Mass Effect 2, so now we can do the whole range from micro-downloads for armor all the way to a retail-size pack.
Q: Are you going to offer both of those styles of downloads?
CH: Yeah, we intend to do the whole spectrum of small to large.
RPGFan: Now, the download content for Dragon Age: Origins uses the BioWare Social Network as opposed to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network for keeping track of what type of content players own or have access to. Will Mass Effect 2 share this system?
CH: I think it's both - you sign in through EA and Xbox Live, and it will be similar for Mass Effect. There will be a few changes, but you will get a similar experience.
RPGFan: On our Mass Effect demo, we had a "Connect to Cerberus Network" option. Is that what it is?
CH: Yeah, once you have that it opens up a control panel, you get the bonus content and can read about upcoming updates.
RPGFan: The PC specs for the original Mass Effect were pretty steep - what are we looking at for base specs?
CH: The specs are almost identical to the first game. The game itself will run faster and look better at the same time - but the only difference is that we have a dual core requirement for this game.
Q: When Dragon Age launched, the social networking site pretty much melted into a puddle of goo. What are you planning to do to avoid that launch-day meltdown [with Mass Effect 2]?
CH: We've done exactly that - there were theories about how active people would be with DLC, and I think they turned out to be surprising. There was a huge response and interest for DLC in Dragon Age. The activity was alot more than we expected. That's an easy change for us to make in regards to expecting a different capacity.
Q: Are you going to make DLC [pre-order bonuses] for different retailers?
CH: Yeah, we've already announced one for GameStop, and there will be others.
RPGFan: With the DLC in Dragon Age, you can go and talk to an NPC and he'll say "this is a premium quest." Is it going to function that way in Mass Effect, or are you going to have to purchase it outside of the game?
CH: Yeah, you do it outside the game, we don't deliver the content through in-game characters, it's a different approach. I think both games are doing a much bigger effort in providing DLC, but we did go about it in slightly different ways. At some point in the future, we'll have learned from each other and provide a more similar experience.
Q: Is the intent to have a long-term Mass Effect Live team like you had with Neverwinter Nights?
CH: Uh, somewhat. We used to have a live team at BioWare, but the actual projects kept coming and going. So it didn't make sense to have a full live team. Also, the portability from one project to another. Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age are all fundamentally different in how you build content for them. So what we are doing is each team has a certain contingent that is working on ongoing DLC. That's what we want to do with Mass Effect, as well. We've got a main game team that will be small for a while when we star on Mass Effect 3 and then we'll have a lot people doing DLC. Then when we ramp up production on Mass Effect 3, we'll want a certain amount of team members left over to work on DLC. Even at all points between Mass Effect 2 to 3, we'll want a team working on that.
RPGFan: Mass Effect 2 has ten playable characters, and you can only have three at once. Remembering Baldur's Gate 2, you had thirteen or fourteen characters, but you couldn't get some; say if you were Chaotic Evil you couldn't get that Lawful Good character. Will it be possible to recruit all of the characters? And if so, how will it work with those characters that are kind of mis-aligned from each other?
CH: Yeah, you can recruit them all, but it is a game where loyalty plays a big role. Loyalty is where there are conflicts and you may get two characters loyal, but they may come into conflict with you or each other. Depending on how you resolve the situation, you may gain or lose the loyalty of the characters.
Q: Is that displayed to the player as a reminder?
CH: Yeah, on the squad status screen it'll have a little glowing ring around the character. That's like your collection, where your team is. I have all of these characters, I'm missing that one, but these are loyal, and things like that. So you know that if you're going to head off to the final mission, you'll know if you have a sparse crew or if they're kind of disloyal.
RPGFan: In Mass Effect 1, each character had a pretty solid list of skills, like ten or twelve each. It seems to have slimmed down - six for Shepard and then four for the other characters. Does that make the game less deep, or what was the choice behind slimming down the skill list?
CH: Well, I think part of it is that the classes are more specialized, and the depth comes into applying the different characters. Each character actually comes with a different set of powers. So you'll get a certain character because they'll do certain things. So whereas Mass Effect 1 had more generic systems, Mass Effect 2 is more specialized - so I think that the same amount of choices are still there. Before, you would have a character with a list of powers, and a character of the same class with the same list of powers; now you are able to look at two different characters with different powers. You can then specialize this character this way and that character that way, and you can decide who you want to take with you.
RPGFan: Mass Effect was a very short title if you didn't go exploring - my personal best is around seven hours. Are you looking to have a longer story, or are you going to leave it up to the player again where you say, "Okay, if you want to explore, you'll have a long game, but if you don't, the story is short."?
CH: Our goal was to provide at least as much content if you did everything. Everyone does things differently, so it's really hard to tell, but it should be around 30 to 40 hours. That's about the maximum for Mass Effect 1. The difference with the maximum is that the entire galaxy had a lot of things that were the same in the first game, whereas in this one, a lot of more mundane stuff is part of a galaxy map exploration minigame, but the missions you find are richer and they're meant to be special and unique. So the larger galaxy is richer, and it's about the same in total. The other part of the goal for the length is that the shortest critical path is longer, and that's certainly the case. I don't think you could do it in less than... I think that at the end of Mass Effect, we had our QA Lead and Lead Designer kind of racing to get the best time, and they were getting it down to like five hours. But that's clicking everything when it comes into range. Realisticially, the story in the first game felt enough like a race against time that people were interested in things off the beaten path, but they felt like they couldn't go into them because they had to get to the end of the story. For those people, the game was twelve to fifteen hours. I think that kind of experience in Mass Effect 2 is a few hours longer than that.
Q: Are there any plans for modding support at all?
RPGFan: Obviously, Mass Effect is a more serious type of RPG than a lot of BioWare's previous lineup. Look at stuff like Baldur's Gate and, you know, MDK, and they're more humorous. Are you looking to have any kind of comedic character? As an RPG fan like myself, Minsc, Boo and HK-47 were favorites, and you've got Joker as the pilot, but are any of the playable characters going to be comedic?
CH: Well, one thing that we wanted to do with Mass Effect 2 and exploring the darker middle act was to add more humor. So we can go darker with the story and palate, but we can add that and it doesn't become oppressive, because you've got that light there. There's definitely more humor in ME2. I think there are characters like Grunt that become more humorous and there are things like that. Joker has an expanded role and there are more opportunities for humor that we've put into the game. I think the way a production goes - and I've heard this for movies, too - you can feel that personality coming in the end product. So I remember George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were kind of angry and stressed when they made the Temple of Doom and it ends up being kind of a dark and relentless feeling in the movie. I think with this one, we were able to have a lot more fun in production and we were able to say "Hey, you know what would be really funny? If we could do this." And we weren't just so crushed with trying to get things done that we couldn't think about it. So that's why there are things around your quarters that you can click on and things like that.
RPGFan: So, Mass Effect, originally on Xbox 360, ported to PC. With Dragon Age, you guys have gone fully multiplatform. Is there any plans to see Mass Effect on PS3?
CH: Mass Effect 2 is just on Xbox 360 and PC. People find that to be a surprising answer. We have exclusivity with Microsoft.
RPGFan: You guys changed the health system in this game. As opposed to having a health bar and a shield bar, you've gone to Call of Duty-style "I need to go find cover" health. Was that an attempt to be more accessable to a shooter fan?
CH: I think what actually happened was we had that in the first game, and it worked the same way, but it was very gradual. The screen would become tinted red, the sound would be muffled, and then you'd die. It's very subtle and many people didn't notice it. That's part of the difference now; it's very encroaching and you know that you are dying. Then you start heading for cover. It's mainly a difference in how it looks, since it functions the same. You'll get to the end of your health and you get into the red and you know the next shot could kill you. We had that in the first game, but it was too subtle.
RPGFan: Last question, are we going to see Wrex again in any form? I know he was a fan favorite and could be killed in the first game. Will we see him for players who did not kill him?
CH: For players who did not kill him, he's in the story and all of the characters from the first game are in Mass Effect 2, as long as they survived the story.
RPGFan: Thank you very much!
We'd like to thank Casey Hudson for taking the time to talk to us and BioWare for their hospitality during our stay.