Building Bridges: Casey Hudson Talks Mass Effect 2

BioWare's Xbox 360 and Windows interactive space opera Mass Effect 2 is still half a year away, but for lead producer Casey Hudson it's happening right now. Busy as he is, I managed to grab him away from dotting i's and crossing t's as his team moves into the sequel's final feature beats to make its planned early 2010 debut.

In part one (part two, part three, part four) we cover Mass Effect 2's development cycle, lessons learned about narrative pacing, and what's tucked away in your original Mass Effect save game.

Game On: How would you describe the Mass Effect series to someone who's never played it?

Casey Hudson: To me, it's a huge science fiction universe in the style of the big science fiction properties like Star Trek and Star Wars, though more targeted at an adult experience. We're trying to create something that's an entire universe people can immerse themselves in, but also something for the mature demographic that wants an adult story. That's why we've take a Jack Bauer approach to Commander Shepard [the series protagonist]. We've tried to present you with agonizing choices as you navigate your way through the sequel and built that into a bigger, much darker story.

GO: Mass Effect hit for Xbox 360 and Windows in late 2007 and early 2008. How long has Mass Effect 2 been in development?

CH: We started at the end of working on Mass Effect, so slightly before Mass Effect hit shelves. When all's said and done, we'll have roughly two years invested in Mass Effect 2 total, so right now we're about a year and a half into it. We had a terrific starting point to build from, by which I mean all the work that went into Mass Effect's world building, and now after a year and a half of designing tons of new content and perfecting new features we have a pretty complete next game in the series.

GO: Did things ramp up faster as you turned to Mass Effect 2 given what you've been able to carry over in lessons learned and shared technology?

CH: Yeah, it did, though I think one thing people are going to be surprised about is that we didn't take the easy way out. We didn't just make a sequel where the same features and the same characters and environments move around differently to tell a different story. Mass Effect 2 is a game that's absolutely packed with new ideas and places. In fact I actually can't think of an aspect of the game that we haven't overhauled and made 100% better. I think it's going to surprise people how much we've improved things. In fact I think it'll be a game that gets talked about simply on the basis of how much we've gone in and touched, including things that already worked well in the first one.

GO: I'm currently replaying Mass Effect, and it's taken me almost 10 hours to get off the Citadel [the starter space station] and out exploring the universe. It feels slow, story-wise, in part because I'm rolling through all the optional stuff to avoid missing anything. Can you get out and about earlier in Mass Effect 2?

CH: I think it has more to do with tuning the pacing and how the rewards are structured throughout the game, because the inverse of what you're describing is also true. Some people find the main story so compelling that even though they want to wander off the beaten path, they end up clawing as fast as they can through the core story. Then they'll say the game was only 12 hours or 15 hours and that it was shorter than they wanted.

So it's kind of interesting, because in your case, your play style, you want to look around, you want to find everything, and the Citadel at the beginning feels too long. In the alternate case, they're trying to get through the story as fast as possible and so it feels too short. I think that actually highlights the way choice is supported in the first game. You can play around the periphery and try to see everything or you can play through the story quickly. It's all down to choice.

On the other hand, in your case, the reward and pacing in the Citadel probably shouldn't have made you feel like the real story hadn't gotten started yet, or that it hadn't opened up as much as you wanted. I think those kinds of things, like how fast do you get a ship that lets you travel where you want, or broader things like do you feel the story's offering you freedom and enticing rewards and that things are progressing fast enough...those are all things we're addressing significantly in Mass Effect 2.

GO: So I'm probably inadvertently paying the game a compliment?

CH: That's why I think it comes down to pacing. It's like in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where even though Star Wars was an established universe, in our game we still had a patch of real estate inside that property that required a certain amount of explanation. Similarly with Mass Effect, we had a new universe to get people acclimated to before we blew the whole thing wide open.

Looking at those two games and the way people played them, it was a major component of what we did before we started working on Mass Effect 2. We looked at the way people play some of very things you're talking about. That, and we gauged whether people felt their choice to either play in a very detailed way or get through things quickly was being rewarded.

So we've done a lot to adjust the tuning, especially in the opening. Getting you into the action faster, getting you making decisions and really moving through the story faster, so that as the world opens up around you, you feel like you're still quickly advancing the high-level story.

GO: Just to be clear, you can either start from scratch with a brand new character in Mass Effect 2, or import your character from your Mass Effect save game, right?

CH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean firstly, Mass Effect 2 is just a much better game than Mass Effect in virtually every way. We've made a lot of improvements, such that I think it'll have a broader audience and broader appeal. The combat plays better, the graphics are better, it has a better tutorial, all the things that make a game like this more accessible.

To support that, obviously we needed to make sure it's a game people can jump into knowing nothing about the Mass Effect universe, or even that there was a first game. At the same time, one of the really big things we're trying to do that I think has never been done in this way before is tie together a trilogy of huge games where the entire story is one thread that's told by the player. All of your decisions and choices really start to snowball over the course of the trilogy because it's picking up the entire record of how you've played, from the first moments of the first game all the way through to the ending of the third game. In that instance, we want to make sure we're really rewarding people who've played the first Mass Effect.

Likewise, if Mass Effect 2 is your entry point and you're really getting into the story, you can still back up, pop in Mass Effect, play through, get your end save game, and come back to the trilogy from that angle.

GO: How significant are the variables being indexed in the save games, and how threaded throughout the Mass Effect 2 experience are they?

CH: It's completely different from anything you've played before, because it's literally, potentially threaded into everything that happens. When you're playing the first game, everything that you do is setting a variable so that as the story progresses we know that you did a certain thing on a certain planet, and then internal to the game, we can reference those things. Your Mass Effect save game contains all of that information.

When you import it into Mass Effect 2, now we can continue mining all that information. And it's not just what your ending was, or a couple of the big choices, you know, where we could have stuck a conversation at the beginning and asked you what you did and moved on. This is literally hundreds of things.

Anytime we have a plot or a character or situation in Mass Effect 2, we think about what you did, potentially, in the first game that might affect said plot or character or situation in the second. We can look at each variable and dynamically change what happens in the moment. It ranges from small things like, by way of example, Conrad Verner was a fan of Commander Shepard's that you met in the first game, and it's like you meet this guy in an alley and you can be nice to him or you can be a jerk to him, and at the time you might have been thinking of it as just a trite role-playing convention, good-guy bad-guy, and that's that.

Jump forward two years. Now you're playing Mass Effect 2, and oh my god, who's this, it's Conrad Verner! And based on what you've done, you realize that while the moment in the first game maybe seemed throwaway, now Conrad's back and involved in another plot in a game you're playing two years later...and what you did two years ago is meaningfully affecting what's happening. That's a small example.

[SPOILER]

The larger examples are things like...take the way you navigate through the ending of Mass Effect, how you left the galaxy in a certain state with humans, whether they were in control of the Galactic Council or not, things like that. In Mass Effect 2, when you walk around, you'll see all the areas affected by your decisions, including large scale stuff like the Citadel. You'll see signs all over the place that either humans are in control or that they're working more with the aliens and the Citadel is more like it was in the first game.

[/SPOILER]

It's also part of dialogues, part of signs that you see, even reflected in PA announcements that you'll hear. So it's woven through the entire experience, from beginning to end.

GO: You've had that level of continuous granularity planned from the beginning then?

CH: Yeah, it was always the plan to be able to import your character, therefore we included all those variables in the save game. We try and work the trilogy story from both the high level and the detail level. We've always known where the trilogy was going on the highest level, thematically speaking, through all three stories. But then as we get into developing each game, that's when we get down to the mid-level, like what are the actual workings of the plot and major characters and such.

The save game has every variable that you've set as a player, and as we delve into the detail levels of things like actual words that are spoken, art that appears in levels, sounds and music and subtle things as such...those can all be looked at, and how they comprise the world of each sequel can be affected by your choices in the prior ones.

Continued in Part Two. Check out twitter.com/game_on for even more game-related news and opinion.

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